The Supreme Leader: Yahya Jammeh’s Obsession with Power Personality, Image Titles: Jammeh A Black Who Is A Deposed Exiled Dictator.
Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: Every power must expire – and this includes powers wielded by those with life-and-death influence over their cowed worlds. For if masquerades are benign ancestors, why would they beat the world around them? Unfortunately, every community has had a masquerade that was /is notorious for excessive wickedness. In its moment of strength, the hooded one will not remember that no ‘Jola Futampaf’ festival lasts forever. When the feast of Bunkayap ends – because it must end – the man behind a kumpo masquerade mask must account for all his profanities while inside the sacred costume. A fortunate leader should know the very limits of his luck, the logic of extreme ownership, and the dichotomy of leadership.
Almost everyone I know wonders why people in power change radically; why they become so utterly disconnected from reality that they suddenly become utterly unrecognizable to people who knew them before they got to power; why they get puffed-up, susceptible to flattery, and intolerant of even the mildest, best-intentioned censure; why they appear possessed by inexplicably malignant forces; and why they are notoriously insensitive and self-absorbed.
Everyone who has ever had a friend in a position of power, especially political power, can attest to the accuracy of the age-old truism that a friend in power is a lost friend. Of course, there are exceptions, but it is precisely the existence of exceptions that makes this reality poignant. As the saying goes, “the exception proves the rule.”
Fatoumatta: Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. president, once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Nevertheless, look at all the power brokers in the Gambia—from our leaders to your ward councilor—and you will discover that there is a vast disconnect between who they were before they got to power and who they are now.
When it was time for Yahya Jammeh to speak and address his loyal supporters in Kanilai, he left no one in doubt that his brittle ego had been badly bruised by the reference to him as “the Supreme Leader” and that the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) would pay the price for it.
First, it exemplifies the most vulgar show of what French theorist Pierre Bourdieu once referred to as symbolic violence. Symbolic violence occurs when people who wield symbolic, social, cultural, or political capital use the privilege of their capital to inferior people who are—or whom they perceive to be— subordinate to them to lengthen and perpetuate the power distance between them.
Many people have referred to Yahya Jammeh as “Supreme leader “because there can be only one “Supreme Leader” of the APRC in exile in Equatorial Guinea. Still, he chose to scapegoat an appointee of his party loyalists who cannot fight back, who are mere appendicular parts of his cronies’ administration. That is disreputably spineless. It is flat-out cowardly bullying of a social inferior.
It would, of course, befitting form to describe Yahya Jammeh as a “dethroned” or “deposed” leader. Still, it would also be respectful to indicate that Yahya Jammeh is no longer the “Supreme leader” of the APRC. Former President of the Gambia is the most neutral linguistic compromise anyone can deploy to navigate the strange cultural minefield that Jammeh’s situation has created since Mansa’s typically reigns until their death.
Everyone knows it is not usual for the “Supreme leaders” to be dethroned. It is even more unusual for ousted leaders to be gallivanting and preening all over the place after their dethronement. Yahya Jammeh’s manic megalomania and cowardly symbolic violence (he still wears his grand white boubous with idle courtiers in tow holding a prayer bead, holy Quran, and a spiritual stick in one hand wherever he goes and demands to be treated as an imperial overlord) in the aftermath of his dethronement are the clearest justifications for the practice of ostracizing and confining deposed leaders to gaunt villages for the rest of their lives, which Yahya Jammeh has escaped because of his friendship with of his host in Equatorial Guinea.
Fatoumatta: Should Yahya Jammeh be called as “Supreme Leader.” I like the rhythmic quality of the title. However, unfortunately, Jammeh is qualified to be a “Supreme Leader” by any definition of “Supreme Leader” The title “Supreme Leader” status has conferred the title used by dictators, authoritarian political leaders. Being dethroned is, by definition, a dishonorable discharge from duty. A Supreme Leader is a black cat who is the deposed and exiled dictator. The Supreme Leader is a self-appointed title of ultimate authority and, as such, the head of the First Order with undisputed command on its loyalists. The power of the Supreme Leader is considered absolute within the ranks of his subordinates.
That encounter lingers in my mind to this day because I have discovered that the more consequential people are, the less need they have for titles to make them noteworthy. In Africa, Yahya Jammeh and Idi Amin are the closest we have to Prince Charles regarding the length of official titles: Yahya Jammeh: “His Excellency, El Hadji, Doctor, Colonel. Shiekh Nasiruddin al Islam, Professor,Babili Mansa, Supreme leader Yahya Abdul Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh.
Fatoumatta: Karl Marx got his Ph.D. in his early 20s, but nobody addresses him as Dr. Karl Marx. Sigmund Freud had a doctorate in medicine, but no one calls him Dr. Sigmund Freud. Martin Luther King, Jnr. got his Ph.D. in his 20’s, too, but it is increasingly becoming passé to call him Dr. Martin Luther King. (It was necessary to call him by his full titles—The Reverend Dr.—when he was alive because Black men of his time were belittled as “boys” irrespective of their accomplishments). Nelson Mandela is now just known as Mandela. Noam Chomsky, the most cited living scholar globally, is hardly addressed as Professor Noam Chomsky or, as is the norm in America, Dr. Noam Chomsky. Furthermore, it is just Stephen Hawking, not Professor Stephen Hawking. Toyin Falola, the most accomplished Nigerian scholar in the humanities and social sciences, does not like the title “Professor” prefixed to his name.
If you need a title to feel respected, you are still not “there” yet. Some names are so far weightier than the titles they earned that prefixing the titles to their names belittles them. Wole Soyinka, for example, is far weightier than the title “professor.” The title weights because of people like Soyinka, Achebe, Falola, wa Thiong’o, etc.
Fatoumatta: Why won’t these lowbrows leave this man alone? Yahya Jammeh is a deeply flawed man, but he is not so flawed that he would be this ridiculously infantile and petty. Also, look at previously arrogant, narcissistic, power-drunk prigs who have been kicked out of the orbit of power for any number of reasons. You will discover that they are suddenly normal again. They share our pains, make pious noises, condemn the abuse of power, and identify with prevalent causes. The legendary amnesia of Gambians causes the past misdeeds of these previous monsters of power to be explained away, lessened, forgiven, and ultimately forgotten. However, when they get back to power again, they become the same insensitive beasts of power that they once were.
So, what is it about the power that makes people such obtuse, self-centered snobs? It turns out that psychologists have been grappling with this puzzle for years and have a clue. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California Berkeley, extensively studied the brains of people in power and found that people under the influence of power are neurologically similar to people who suffer a traumatic brain injury.
People who are victims of traumatic brain injury are “more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.” In other words, like victims of traumatic brain injury, power causes people to lose their capacity for empathy. This is a surprising scientific corroboration of American historian Henry Adams’ famous wisecrack about how power is “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.”
Fatoumatta: The findings of Sukhvinder Obhi, a professor of neuroscience at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, are even more revealing. Obhi also studies the workings of the human brain. “And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, ‘mirroring,’ that may be a cornerstone of empathy,” the Atlantic reports. “Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the ‘power paradox’: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.”
Researchers also found that excessive praise from subordinates, sycophantic drooling from people seeking favors, control over vast resources they once did not have, and all of the staid rituals and performances of power conspire to cause “functional” changes in the brains of people in power. On a social level, it also creates what Lord David Owen, a British neurologist-turned-politician, called the “hubris syndrome.”
In his 2008 book titled In Sickness and Power. Owen points out that some features of hubris syndrome are “manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence.” Sounds familiar? You cannot observe Yahya Jammeh’s governance—or, more correctly, in ungovernance—in the last 22 years and fail to see these features in him.
However, it is not all gloom and doom. Influential and powerful people can, and indeed do, extricate themselves from the psychological snares of power if they so desire. For example, professor Keltner said one of the most effective psychological strategies for people in power to reconnect with reality and reverse the brain damage of power is to periodically remember moments of powerlessness in their lives—such as when they were victims of natural disasters, accidents, poverty, etc.
They should also have what American journalist Louis McHenry Howe once called a “toe holder,” that is, someone who does not fear them, expects no favors from them, and can tell them uncomfortable truths without fear of consequences.
Winston Churchill’s toe holder was his wife, who once wrote a letter to him that read, in part, “I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; and you are not as kind as you used to be.” So was former First Lady Zenab Jammeh performing the role of a toe holder when she publicly upbraided her husband in the past? I doubt it. Her disagreements with her husband are often opportunistic and self-serving. They are triggered only when her husband’s puppeteers in Statehouse limit her powers to nominate her cronies for political positions and to dispense favors to friends and family.
Another potent way to reverse power-induced brain damage is to periodically get out of the protected silos of power and solitarily observe everyday folks’ quotidian interactions—their humor, laughter, fights, etc., without the familiar add-ons of power as aides, cameras, security, etc. This helps to stimulate the experiences of others and restore empathy. This is particularly important in the Gambia because power, at all levels, is almost absolute and unaccountable.
The one who drinks is the one who must get drunk. I do not want to think about it. We are what we are because of who we are. I listen to the voice of the ancient chant of the bard: My Jola neighbor made 200 heaps of millet and planted 200 heaps of cassava. Another made 200 heaps and planted 200 okra. The agent of death sweated to make 200 heaps but buried in their 200 skulls. At harvest, he complained that the skulls he planted yielded no beans. Tell him that you reap exactly what you sow.
Fatoumatt: Let the head hunter ask his ancestors what profit their murderous deeds in Orwellian 1984 brought to the table of regeneration. For leaders who endorse evil, when things get pretty bad, they will be alone and lonely. I had thought mothers were the best witnesses to the pains of childbirth. The one who has suffered legal or illegal detention should know how it feels. I was wrong.