By Momodou Sabally

During a chance encounter with a Gambian intellectual a year or so ago, we discussed the sad fact that most of the finest minds that this country has produced went M.I.A. during the twenty-two years of the Jammeh regime. This intellectual colleague of mine was himself resident in The Gambia throughout the Jammeh era, busy doing research and sharing his findings with students and the public. And certainly he was not a top member of the Jammeh administration so no body can label him with the dirtied word “enabler”-Lol!

My friend challenged me to do an essay on what he titled “The Great Retreat”.

He asked me “how can we explain the fact that the most prominent of Gambian intellectuals went silent or completely out of sight in all matters Gambian during the past two decades.”
I saw his point and I always wondered why so many professionals and intellectuals of international repute chose to focus on their career and their families and forget the nation. Even if they did not want to work under Jammeh, why didn’t they make their voices heard from their comfortable mansions abroad away from physical danger?

Certainly, I have the highest respect for those who were engaged in matters regarding the nation regardless of what side of the political divide they chose to operate on. Those who served under the Jammeh administration still command my respect for the great service they rendered to this country mostly under unfavourable circumstances and at great risk. It is to those people that we owe a lot of respect for the fact that, as I argued and continue to assert, the Barrow administration did not inherit a failed nation or a broken system. Regardless of what the spin masters want to make of the narrative, this government inherited a system in tact. Did they inherit a perfect system? By all means No. They inherited a flawed system but a system it is and that system still runs but for the wear and tear of a fractured coalition transitional administration.

And to those on the opposing side, I have the highest respect for all of them; the likes of Ousainu Darboe, Halifa Sallah, Omar Jallow, the late Deyda Hydara and their lieutenants. There are other personalities who fought on both sides of the ‘battle’, the likes of Dr Amadou Scattred Janneh and retired military commander Sam Sarr. These are all heroes worthy of the highest praise and honour, no matter how tough the situation was, they never turned their back on their country.

But how about the others who pretended that there was no country called The Gambia in the past two decades? What is their justification for that long dark retreat from everything Gambian?
Now what is really sad is that some of these people who chose to go on the “great retreat” are among the first to jump on the revamped ship called New Gambia and instead of heading for the centre of the stewardship of the ship where salaries are paid in dalasis, they have chosen to go on the fringes where the risks are lowest and the pay the highest, denominated in foreign currency! What a travesty of justice and fair play. And for God’s sake, I don’t want to hear anybody tell me again that these people who were under the so-called international appointment sacrificed their positions to come and help The Gambia because such statements are nothing but false.

One public servant brags that he decided to forego a huge salary at his international job to come help the country but actually if I were Barrow he would be the one to pay the state for his services and not the reverse because I know that he is going to earn a fortune in pecuniary rewards and the impact of his new portfolio is so huge that the dividend he is sure to earn from this, years from now, will far outweigh whatever time and effort he is now expending in the service of the nation.

And I just don’t get this obsession of Gambians with international appointment. I once made an analogy for a junior friend of mine when a Gambian who had been working for an international organisation was hired as head of an important institution in The Gambia. Since the young man is a driver I told him now can you make sense of this situation for me: You are a local driver and you know all about local transportation. Now how come they pick a driver from New York and appoint him Minister of Transportation instead of choosing you because the guy chosen is an ‘international driver’? Who knows our transport needs and problems better, you or the driver who was plying his trade in New York? The young man laughed.

No wonder we are going through such a rough ride in some sectors of our new administration. And now my concern is that with the current turbulence that the ship of state is going through, we are witnessing a lot of self-censorship even before the government starts wielding its inevitable big stick. From the media to private individuals we are witnessing a lot of self-censorship because people don’t want to miss opportunities for jobs and business which is becoming obvious for those seen to be critical of this government.

And this is why I am worried about the potential for another great retreat. We have seen people who participated keenly in the last presidential election and the impasse suddenly gone quiet again with some openly saying that they have quit politics completely. Are they waiting for another impasse to happen before they demonstrate interest and care about the governance of our country?

“Where were you?” has become the phrase of the year in New Gambia. Unfortunately, this question was asked about the wrong person. For truly we know where Dr Ismaila Ceesay was; the young don did not give up on his country no matter how tough the situation was. He was here on the ground imparting knowledge to the youth, the most valuable resource of this nation and he was being paid a paltry salary. At the advent of the new government many Gambian intellectuals expressed the desire to come back and serve. But most of them flew back to their comfortable offices in Europe and America when they found out what packages were available as pay; lots of them wanted to come and teach at the University of The Gambia but where are they today? Dr Ceesay was here and is still here serving his nation.

It was not easy being in the fray regardless of what side you operated on be it government or opposition during the Jammeh era. It is not going to be easy under our new dispensation as well. But what matters most is the interest and the commitment to the nation we all call home. We must never ever turn our back on our country because of one person or an administration. And that is why when I got into a tough battle of words regarding my criticism of a certain appointment at the TRRC recently, a friend called to advise me to avoid such controversial issues because, in his words “you are a statesman”; my response to him was tough: you will agree with me that nation building has never been a situation of milk and honey anywhere; in countries like the US, they had leaders like George Washington take up arms and fight battles in the process of building America. If I cannot fight for my country physically, then the least I can do is to use my pen and argue out my position regarding matters of national interest and that would never make me any less of a statesman.

The Gambia is here as a sovereign nation almost two years after our billion-year president left power unceremoniously. The Gambia remains and will remain our common heritage after President Barrow and his coalition government pack up and go. Regardless of our political leanings, we must never abdicate our duty as citizens of this country to engage ourselves in national affairs and to play our roles no matter how limited. What we must never do is to break away and go on such an unholy adventure as “the great retreat”. God forbid.

Momodou Sabally is a former secretary general and minister of presidential affairs. A trained economist, he is author of several books, many on inspirational and motivational themes.

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