Between Jammeh and Barrow who is crazy?

Adama Barrow’s supporters are a bit salty. Their man fumbled away the presidency due to a series of blunders, something one commentator in these pages aptly noted was “snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.”

Adama Barrow’s supporters are a bit salty. Their man fumbled away the presidency due to a series of blunders, something one commentator in these pages aptly noted was “snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.”

In managing the impossible, Barrow won the vote without winning the power. Unfortunate for him and his supporters, in politics there are no moral victories. You dust yourself off and look towards the prospects of the next electoral cycle.

 

But Barrow’s supporters think anyone but Barrow should take responsibility for the fumble. They are going for the soft underbelly: Jammeh is crazy, unpredictable, can’t be trusted, or synonyms of such.

 

In any case, when faced with the post-election actions of Barrow side by side those of Jammeh the answer as to whom between the two acted irrationally, and therefore crazy, would still vex Barrow’s supporters.

 

Saying that Jammeh is crazy is a copout. All that Barrow’s supporters can gain from it is solace because it shifts responsibility from their man to the “crazy” man. However, it can’t help them gain sympathy from fair-minded observers.

Characterising Jammeh as “crazy” offers no meaningful explanation for his actions. Moreover, they forget that by questioning his mental fitness they walk themselves in a trap because a crazy person need not account for his actions. In other words, only Jammeh benefits from his being branded a lunatic.

This is the trump card of incompetent leaders. Consider the Burundi crisis, for instance. Pierre Nkurunziza has eagerly embraced the personality of a crazy man and used it to hold everyone ransom with threats that should anyone try to touch him he will massacre a part of his population. And it has worked.

It is the secret for leaders who have failed to articulate a worthwhile national vision. Unfortunately, it is also the strategy for those keen on demeaning the entire African leadership as irrational, their actions inexplicable – with synonyms of dictator, autocrat, and the like.

Such a strategy serves as a pretext to justify an otherwise unwarranted interference because it provides the moral (superiority) basis that confers upon them the responsibility to “do something.”

The imperative of political maturity

Weak institutions make political behaviour unpredictable. Politics is reduced to the basic instincts of self-preservation. Serious actions of leaders are dictated by events, outcomes are unpredictable; every important decision becomes a consequence of the weakness of institutions.

Nothing is guaranteed. It is easy to call any of that “crazy” or say that so and so has “changed” since taking power. But that would not explain anything. At issue is what they’ve done while in power to create systems to moderate their own behaviour and that of those who will take over after them.

Jammeh was president for over 20 years. He, more than anyone else including Barrow, was better placed to judge the strength of institutions in the Gambia and the extent to which he could rely on them to protect him once he’d given up power.

Once he conceded, he’d placed his faith in them. His about-turn suggests that on second thought he realised that his was blind faith. The question is: what was the catalyst? On recollection that in fact he had not built such institutions, it became clear to him that his fate would rest with Barrow’s goodwill.

However, Barrow’s cavalier attitude towards him was enough proof that he (Jammeh) had made a grave error. Consequently, since he had yet to hand over the instruments of power, the only choice was to hold on for dear life.

Barrow’s disposition was crucial. Jammeh needed reassurance because he knew there would be nothing to stop a president Barrow from treating him the same way he (Jammeh) had treated the political opposition for 20 years – shabbily.

If reliable institutions were in place, both Jammeh and Barrow would have trusted that they’d offer the requisite protection regardless of the threats made by either side and to ensure a predictable outcome and transition; however, without such institutions and the reassurance they bring, this had to come from Barrow. His supporters don’t want to hear this.

Instead, they claim that Jammeh never intended to leave power in the first place – because he is crazy and unpredictable. This is a non-starter. If that was the case, Jammeh would never have subjected himself to the electoral loss in the first place.

Indeed, that he finds himself in the present quagmire suggests that he had conceded in the belief that goodwill was a sufficient substitute for strong institutions. His predicament is as self-inflicted as Barrow’s. It suggests political amateurism on his part; however, it is entirely rational rather than crazy.

Events took over. The only way Barrow could have moderate outcomes in his favour was through political maturity. Such wisdom would have acted as a firewall to mitigate against undesired interference – from inside or outside. Instead, he couldn’t help but pander – in premature jubilations of the defeat of the dictator – to international organisations that had Jammeh in their crosshairs for decades.

Obama’s declaration in Accra in 2009 that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions” was not entirely misguided. It’s his contemptuous undertone of self-righteous indignation motivated by the desire “do something” that failed to recognise that some strong men build institutions and others destroy them that was problematic.

The lesson is this. The political terrain in weak states places the onus upon those who seek political power to develop and exercise the requisite maturity to circumvent the traps set by those they seek to replace (internal) and those who purport to support their cause (external).

No amount of heckling from Barrow’s supporters will fix that.

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