BARROW, WEAH, BUHARI AND THE LEADERSHIP TEST

By Anthony Akaeze

As an opposition leader or someone seeking an opportunity to serve, it is normal to talk and raise questions about the competence of the ruling government and mesmerise the people with ideas of how to turn around a country, but how things don’t seem to work when offered the opportunity to serve, is a wonder.

A major tradition of many media houses across the world, as the year inches to a close, is to select, analyse or review the best news or stories they like or feel made the most impact in the year in question. The two stories that stand out for me, not in the manner of impact but the curiosity and wonder they aroused, emanated from Gambia and Liberia. Wonder because, they were, in my mind, unexpected; a jolt from the blue, given the initial promise the people and countries involved showed. The one from Gambia was an Aljazeera television report that was shared on a WhatsApp group I belong on December 17, 2019. The clip showed some Gambians marching on the streets and calling for an end to the leadership of Adama Barrow, the country’s president. One of the protesters, Fanta Mallow, speaking about life in the Gambia, said there’s shortage of electricity and water in the country, coupled with the high cost of goods. She summed up her remarks by saying that Yaya Jammeh, the former president of Gambia who lost out to Barrow in the presidential election of December 2016, was better than his successor. “Jammeh was better than him. We will prefer Jammeh than him. He’s worse than Jammeh,” declared Mallow.

Another member of the group, Yankuba Darboe, who was described as leader of the protesters, said the people were protesting because Barrow has reneged on a promise he made to Gambians not to contest the country’s next presidential election in 2021. In the video, Barrow was quoted as telling Aljazeera in 2016 that what earned him the presidency was the trust of the Gambian people and as a loyal party man who is “honest and hardworking”, he would keep his word to serve for only three years. Having now tasted power, Barrow is saying he wishes to contest the 2021 elections in line with the Gambian Constitution.

The Aljazeera report provoked discussion amongst us members of the WhatsApp group, which includes a Gambian. Justifying the protest march in his country, the Gambian said: “Every sector is crumbling. There’s no blood left in the system. Our exiled dictator’s men who brought the country to its knees and almost got everyone killed are Barrow’s men. Jammeh’s foreign, finance, interior and defence ministers are Barrow’s ministers today. Rampant corruption all over the place. He brought in his personal friends who were forklift drivers, supermarket salespersons etc as his official advisers. He’s dividing the country based on tribe.”

Days after that conversation, I contacted my friend, Sheriff Bojang Jnr, who’s the president of Gambia Press Union, for an update on the Gambian situation. He confirmed what Mallow said about poor amenities in the country and added that life in Gambia has deteriorated under Barrow’s watch. Shedding more light, Bojang said that in 2016, the country’s opposition members, seeking to dethrone Jammeh, backed Barrow, and in doing so, came out with a signed agreement that Barrow would only serve three years, which would expire on the 19th of this month.

Evidence of Barrow’s resolve was his decision to formally register his own political party, National Peoples Party (NPP) with the electoral commission a few days ago, after falling out with the United Democratic Party (UDP), under whose platform he emerged as a presidential flagbearer before the coalition backing.

But Barrow, Bojang said, doesn’t appear willing to heed the protesters’ demand, as his new year message to Gambians show. According to Bojang, Barrow, in the said message, made it clear that he’s going to serve five years, that a lot of people have confidence in him, and as such stepping down will amount to betraying them. Evidence of Barrow’s resolve was his decision to formally register his own political party, National Peoples Party (NPP) with the electoral commission a few days ago, after falling out with the United Democratic Party (UDP), under whose platform he emerged as a presidential flagbearer before the coalition backing.

This likely leaves the stage for more drama as the protesters, Bojang said, have threatened to return to the streets on the 19th of January, if Barrow doesn’t change his mind.

In all of these, it is Fanta Mallow’s words about Jammeh being better than Barrow that left me wondering. I recalled how Barrow came to power three years ago and the change he symbolised, the jubilation by Gambians and the hope of the better life they envisioned.

After losing the December 2016 election, Jammeh was forced against his will to vacate his seat and hand over to Barrow, after initiating refusing to do so. Having failed to win re-election, Jammeh came under intense attack from different quarters and his ‘multitude of sins’ came back in a torrent. He was accused of many crimes, which included gross human rights abuses and state sponsored murder, the looting of state resources and voodooism. For a man who reportedly once claimed he could rule Gambia forever, Jammeh’s defeat at the poll, despite his incumbency status, was a testament to the will of Gambians to end his rule. How then could such a man be missed so soon?

The Liberian story is similar. There’s disenchantment in the land owing to alleged government failings and a protest was planned to hold in Monrovia to draw attention to these. But unlike in the Gambia, the protest failed to hold. It was called off at the eleventh hour. Henry P. Costa, chairman of the Council of Patriots (COP), was the arrowhead of the planned protest in Liberia, but a Deutsche Welle (DW) report states that Costa, who came “under international pressure,” agreed to “reschedule the widely publicized December 30 protest over President George Weah’s handling of the economic crisis to January 6.” The report, and some others I read, revealed Liberians questioning Weah’s competence as a leader.

Weighing the Nigerian, Liberian and Gambian situations, a common thread runs through them: the quest for a better life by a long suffering people. More and more people across the African continent want to see real, tangible and verifiable change and progress; one they can feel, not phantom or wishful thinking or propaganda.

Seeking clarification on the Liberian situation, I asked Tony Stephens, a Liberian journalist, his view of Weah’s efforts as president, given that there was so much hope in the country when the former footballer assumed office as president in January 2018. He replied that the hope I talked about is fading: “I think Weah’s approval rating has dwindled in recent times, largely due to his failure to tackle corruption, run an open and transparent government, including publishing his assets, nominating/appointing qualified, competent and credible people/officials to government, and fixing the Liberian economy, which has experienced a rapid decline under his watch. Yes, hopes were high when he came to power. Many ordinary Liberians saw themselves in him. They felt one of their kind, who defied poverty and became president would transform their lives economically.”

 

The stories from Gambia and Liberia, in effect, show the desperation of many Africans for change and they remind me of Nigeria’s situation. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, assumed office five years ago with a high approval rating, but just one year into his administration, grumbling could be heard in private and public places about his performance. Among others, Buhari administration’s handling of the economy, from the early days, has not gone down well with many Nigerians. The situation regarding Buhari’s work perception hasn’t changed much, despite the man’s recent re-election. In fact, one may be wrong to suggest that Buhari’s victory at the poll last year was an endorsement of his work as president. For one, it was less clinical than his victory five years ago, and even some doubting fellows insist the results weren’t a reflection of the national mood – meaning something went wrong or was engineered somewhere to aid the voting process. Unimpressed with Buhari’s performance, Omoyele Sowore, publisher of the online medium, SaharaReporters, sought to mobilise an anti-government protest in Abuja some months ago but could not as security operatives arrested him ahead of the event. He ended up spending over four months in jail before being released by the government. Earlier court orders that he be released were ignored by the Nigerian authorities.

Weighing the Nigerian, Liberian and Gambian situations, a common thread runs through them: the quest for a better life by a long suffering people. More and more people across the African continent want to see real, tangible and verifiable change and progress; one they can feel, not phantom or wishful thinking or propaganda.

As an opposition leader or someone seeking an opportunity to serve, it is normal to talk and raise questions about the competence of the ruling government and mesmerise the people with ideas of how to turn around a country, but how things don’t seem to work when offered the opportunity to serve, is a wonder. The question to ponder is: How long should it take for people to feel real change in their lives after an election? It simply shouldn’t take eternity!

Anthony Akaeze is an award-winning freelance investigative journalist and author.

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