Dear Halifa Sallah,


By: Talib Gibran

I am Talibeh Hydara. In the media and a little beyond, I am known as Talib Gibran. I like the name. It was given to me by a friend who thought—falsely of course—that I was on the path to Khalil Gibran’s literary greatness. Maybe I don’t even know what he thought when giving me the name. I will ask him later. You know Khalil, Of course, the Lebanese wordsmith. How can you not? I like the name because it has engirdled me with an aura of anonymity. At least with that surname, no one, not even shopkeepers much more presidential candidates, will come to me for prayers. I get nervous straight away when someone calls me Sheriffo in public. I’d fear someone would want to forcibly become my client. In fact, I’ve received uncountable messages over the years inquiring if I am a Narr—which I am not far from—or simply asking which tribe I belong to, the answer to which has always been NONE.

Around October 2007, while I was in my 10th grade at Nusrat, I read an article you wrote on Foroyaa. I cannot remember it now because, subsequently, I read more important articles of yours that I forgot the first one. But what I haven’t forgotten is the clarity of thought, discipline, and mastery of the Queen’s language, all fittingly knocked into one article. Okay, maybe I exaggerated a little bit. I was starstruck. I stole the copy from the school and kept it for weeks re-reading it like a university acceptance letter.

Foroyaa was printing in black and white, a tri-weekly publication with limited copies costing D10. I will let you in on a secret: in 2007, I never went to school with more than D10 as ‘lunch’. I’ve never even understood why it’s called lunch. How about breakfast? How can anyone have breakfast and lunch on D10? Anyway, for the next months, I dedicated D10 to buying a Foroyaa copy every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And because, strangely, Nusrat’s Saturday was Friday—it still is—I would make sure I read that Friday edition, even if it meant standing at Kaw Junction for hours to wait for the vendor. I was not reading the paper for news. I craved actual education and enlightenment. You offered that in abundance. English Language and Literature, yes. Aside from the two, almost everything I learned in the rest of the subjects at high school is gone. It was a total waste of time. My situation would have been much different if I had acquired a skill instead of striving to go into an exploitative white-collar job market.

I was religiously following you. In fact, my dad used to mockingly call me a communist because I wouldn’t shut up about your views on governance. I still don’t know if that also means socialism. To be clear, I wasn’t affiliated with PDOIS. That is still the case. I almost didn’t care what went on at the party. I was a teenager. That’s the perfect stage for anyone to be engulfed in the ideas of a political party, especially if they keenly follow the leader like I did you. But I was only interested in Sallah, no one else. Why? Well, first of all, I didn’t understand why a great party like PDOIS would change the abbreviation of the party to an acronym, making the most important letter SILENT. Peoples Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism. I genuinely think the most important word in the name of any political party is the first word. That equally makes the first letter the most important letter—both in written and pronunciation—when abbreviating or acronym-ing. If that’s even a word, but you get the sense. So, PEOPLES and P, in PDOIS, are the most vital. Why it was discriminated, I don’t know. Besides, all the major political parties here are not in acronyms. Only the new ones—I guess because of lack of creativity—are going into acronyms. PAP, GAP, APP, CA, really? That sounds like someone being slapped. Even NUP, which is the closest to an acronym, I am certain, doesn’t like to pronounce it as NOOP. What even broke my heart was hearing people say PDOIS, or DOY in pronunciation means decline. I didn’t listen to it because I thought it was a bit derogatory.

Back to my formative years in school. In 2009, there was a national crisis that was going to overtake HALF DIE. Sit-tight Jammeh was hunting perceived witches across the country. Tamba Jiro, who he hired from Guinea after the death of his beloved aunt, was marauding villages in the countryside fishing out perceived witches, making them look into a particular mirror, and forcing them to drink mind-altering concoctions to ‘confess’ to being witches. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I came from Foni Kansala like Jammeh and went to Sangajorr school for 9 years. It was ugly. Jammeh was superstitious and because we had a marabout in our village who, I believed, could turn his witch-hunter into a donkey, he told Tamba Jiro not to go there. That became a blessing for the nearby villages because, by dawn, all the elderly would sneak into our village to seek refuge. One fateful morning, I picked a Foroyaa edition and found an article where you started addressing Jammeh, directly, about his ungodly witch-hunting exercise and visiting places where the witch doctor wreaked havoc. I said to myself: my man! I didn’t think he would only arrest you. I thought he would neutralize you. In every dictator’s mind, there is always a little devil that tells him to neutralize threats. Your voice was a threat he never anticipated. It was loud because it was people’s voice, those maltreated and dehumanized in their own houses, in front of their families. That, Mr. Sallah, represented a brave man with a conscience who refused to keep quiet while innocent Gambians were stripped naked and their humanities violated.

A few years later, I attained voting age. I was excited that I would finally have the chance to drop my marble in your drum. I lined at the registration center to get my first disfigured voter card. Even though I hated how I looked at it, I couldn’t wait to go to the polls. There was a coalition that year too, 2011, but unfortunately, you didn’t lead and unfortunately, Hamat did. I still voted for the United Front only because the coalition sounded like Manchester United. What is United Front? It sounds like a separatist movement. I am sure Hamat was behind that name. I was disappointed. Jammeh won. The rest is history. In 2016, too, there was a coalition. This time, too, you didn’t lead. I wasn’t as pissed as in 2011 because 10 years ago, I probably didn’t understand the gravity on the ground. So this time, I was fine with Barrow leading. I didn’t know anything about him prior to his selection as UDP candidate. So, like you even once said about Gambians’ wishes in 2016, anyone was better than Jammeh. I voted for the coalition. The coalition won. During the political impasse, you became the most reliable source of information for even those in the remotest parts of the country. I was in the thick of things but even those who would take my word to the bank—when I relay any information to them—would suspiciously inquire: Is that from Halifa? That’s how important you were while PAB dined with Macky. To my shock, the new cabinet was announced and there was no Halifa Sallah or any PDOIS member for that matter. I couldn’t believe it. I understand you were offered a job in the early days of the junta but you turned it down. That was noble. You’re a democrat or a socialist. You cannot serve a government that used guns to take power. But I didn’t understand 2016 one. I never accepted any of your explanations. You pioneered the coalition. You campaigned with sleepless nights to ensure a change of government and you never fully took part in it. It felt like I gave you my marble to shape the country, you pick the marble and throw it back at me. I was hurt. And that, Mr. Sallah, changed everything for me. I still read your articles and listen to your interviews. But never with the same zeal as the teenage me.

Fast-forward to 2021. I keenly followed your campaign. I particularly like the house-to-house style and the fist-bumping. It was relatable. I read the party’s manifesto as well. Even though it was for sale in large parts of the campaign, I still managed to share some very tangible points to the few that followed me on social media as I did with other manifestos too. Besides, I can say this without fear of contradiction or reprisal, that it is the most compressive manifesto I read in Gambian politics. However, the election results were clear. The majority still enjoy the bus ride. That is fine and I am glad that PDOIS, the most meticulous party when it comes to attention to detail, said there was no ironclad evidence to dispute the outcome that will survive in court. Maybe PDOIS wasn’t looking deep enough into the cooking pots. To be clear, I didn’t vote for you this time. In fact, I am done voting. Controversial, yes but until another dictator emerges and my vote is needed to depose him or I see a woman’s face on a ballot drum, I would chill in my corner. Of course, I know what you’re thinking: “but…but…you’re surrendering your sovereign right to vote.” I am not. I am just saving it for the right time. But, as you bow out of representative politics, I want to tell you that you introduced me to politics, even without knowing. It is a pity that Gambians didn’t give you a chance but you will be fine. You’ve always been. Please, don’t stop writing. Maybe, just maybe, someday, my son or daughter (preferably) will read about you. I certainly will tell her about you.

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