Yahya Jammeh: Gambia’s white-collar workers roused to action
For years, The Gambia's professional groups have avoided overtly political statements, in the hope of avoiding the wrath of Jammeh's regime.
Abubacarr Jah is an unlikely militant. A well-spoken Gambian surgeon with no history of political activism, he nonetheless refused to stay silent when his longtime president rejected election defeat.
"It had become something necessary for us to say," Jah said of the moment the medical association of which he is vice-president called on President Yahya Jammeh to step down.
For years, The Gambia’s professional groups — including Jah’s The Gambia Medical and Dental Association (GMDA) — have avoided overtly political statements, in the hope of avoiding the wrath of Jammeh’s regime.
But the spectacle of Jammeh refusing to make way for opposition candidate Adama Barrow has propelled white-collar professionals including medical workers, lawyers and accountants into the political arena — often for the first time.
After years of hardline rule following a coup in 1994, Jammeh reversed his televised acceptance of defeat and his Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party turned to the Supreme Court to have the result annulled.
For Jah, the breaking point was a growing sense that Jammeh’s actions increased the risk of widespread violence — despite having kept quite for a decade during which the regime was accused of using torture.
It was unethical for doctors to stay silent, he said.
"We know that the health system in The Gambia is not really equipped in a normal situation… so if there is unrest that would be a big disaster," the urologist said.
Until the GMDA’s recent statement, Jah said that the most vocal letter he had ever written was to his hospital’s management.
‘Obstruct the smooth transfer’
Muhammad Jagana is a chartered accountant and president of The Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry and, like many of his fellow professionals, had not previously taken a stand against Jammeh.
But as the main representative body for business owners in the country, the Chamber has watched the economy decline in recent years due to chronic mismanagement, he said.
"As a business community we can only prosper when there is stability and peace," said Jagana. "(The) Gambian people have decided to vote for a change and a new president."
Recently, government debt has soared and, according to one Banjul-based diplomat, The Gambia has just three months of foreign currency reserves left.
"The government’s policies in terms of national debt… have been a challenge, particularly making it difficult for small and medium sized businesses to raise capital," Jagana added.
The Chamber of Commerce was backed by a coalition of hotel associations, which rely on The Gambia’s image overseas as a safe and stable destination to keep visitors coming. Tourism accounts for 20 percent of gross domestic product.
Against the backdrop of a growing outcry, Barrow last Sunday addressed the very professionals he will need to help his "new Gambia" prosper.
He claimed that civil society associations had called on Jammeh not to "obstruct the smooth transfer" of power," adding that there was a "long list" of groups supporting him.
‘Times of uncertainty’
The country’s legal profession has been among the groups most critical of Jammeh, calling his attempt to overturn the December 1 election result at the Supreme Court "tantamount to treason".
"It felt like it was the right thing to do," said Aziz Bensouda, Secretary General of the Gambia Bar Association (GBA).
Amid international and domestic uproar, the court is due to convene on January 10.
The influential Bar Association said Jammeh’s challenge was like "one being a judge in his own cause".
Bensouda said that the association had failed to criticise Jammeh’s regime in the past on issues including human rights and the erosion of the courts.
But he believes that Jammeh’s actions this year, including the round-up of dozens of opposition activists as well as members of his own party, have shown Gambians that "no one is an innocent bystander anymore".
"There has been an entrenched belief in The Gambia that Jammeh was invincible. So when he lost at the polls there was a dynamic shift in the country’s perception," he said.
"Nothing can make the country crawl back to times of uncertainty and complete disregard of the law."