A WIND of change or shall I say a hurricane or typhoon is blowing across Gambia whose epicenter are vendors, students, youths, the masses or lumped proletariat. In the absence of a fractured opposition and a paralyzed intelligentsia, they are now acting as the catalysts for change; the oppressed of the oppressed who have nothing to lose but their chains. Even some of the diehard and unflinching supporters of AFPC now admit that change is inevitable, and it is only a matter of time before it comes. This is so precisely because the pain of remaining the same now outweighs the pain of change.
The regular fall of the president in full view of the entire world is no longer a guarded secret; instead it is a portent that indicates the end of an old era is near. The sorcerers, witch doctors, magicians, spiritualists and pathologists alike may make their own predictions, but what is certain is that nature is going to take its own course, which blows out life like a candle at a predetermined time.
Even a meteor in the firmament will one day succumb to the force of gravity if it decomposes or loses its balance among other members of the solar system. This is the inescapable reality of life, and we must therefore work out how Gambia is going to function in the aftermath of change. It is absolutely necessary to plan now because, if we don’t, Gambia is likely to experience the same bad governance as the current one, and may even be plunged into a political cataclysm never before seen in our life time.
Myth of irreplaceability
The first thing-and I don’t want to beat about the bush by talking about constitutionalism or other “isms” that obfuscate the reality-is to start changing from the top. The myth that president Jammeh is indispensable needs to be unmasked. For a long time some people have come to believe, and of course through sustained propaganda, that Gambia cannot do without its current president. As a result, Gambia has become synonymous with Jammeh who, in turn, has metaphorically recreated Gambia in his own image. This has had a devastating effect on the image of the country which is seen globally as a rogue country ruled by what Winston Churchill used to call a “baptized tyrant” (Hitler).
The idea of an all-powerful president may have been intended for nation building; but as we all know, it is one of the major causes of Gambian’s woes which has destroyed the core value of unity in diversity. The result is that an omnipotent president has eroded the trust of the people as he is generally seen as an abusive, oppressive and divisive head of state. Here, one needs to note that the deification of the president has not only diminished the reverence of the people, but has also provoked their indignation over what they see as a systematic plundering of state resources by the president’s family, his retinue of relatives and by members of his inner circle. And to show their anger, many people frequently insult the president and are prepared to go to jail rather than acquiesce.
In the midst of all this, what is baffling is that in spite of his erudition, the president does not seem to have learned lessons from history that, Guinea under Sekou Toure, Egypt under Abdel Nasser, Malawi under Kamuzu Banda, Zaire under Joseph Mobutu, Libya under Muammar Gaddafi and China under Mao Tse Tung decayed under their megalomaniac leadership.
The same history lessons also tell us that those countries in Africa and elsewhere that have done away with the hero worshipping of leaders have fared better in their social, economic and political development. Good examples are Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, and now China, Ghana, Senegal and Mozambique which have been able to change their leaders smoothly, resulting in the attainment of greater peace and harmony.
In the case of Gambia, it is sickening to hear that Jammeh is the only person capable of running the country, even when he is killing his own citizens. It is well documented that Gambia has a highly educated citizenry with abundant skills in the social, economic, political, legal, educational, medical, scientific, technical and administrative fields. Why should Gambia fail to find a younger and more dynamic leader from its large intellectual reservoir?
The time has come for us to realize that it is better for the country to look forward to an attractive future than to cling on to the fading hope of the past. In fairness, and without running the risk of self-contradiction, the president may have done well in the initial stages but the weight of repression and ill-informed policies has skippered all efforts towards prosperity. And the tragedy of it all is that for a long time our fickle and gullible world has been dazzled and bamboozled by Jammeh’s bombast, rhetoric and heroics without scrutinizing the regressive nature of his theatrics.
And if we take a closer look at Jammeh’s ambition to be the “guardian” of African independence, we will see that it is just a façade: his pan-Africanist posturing is patently hollow, artificial and highly inflated because there is nothing to show for it. In his own country, he has destroyed the very essence of sovereignty by running down what used to be a flourishing country. As a result, many Gambians now see him as a turncoat whose noisy behavior has ruined their jewel.
The ripple effect of his insensitivity to the needs of the people is that the vast majority of Gambians are dangerously disillusioned because they are hungry, have no jobs and are without social security. Can one then proudly stand on a hill top and shout “Gambia is truly independent” when up to thousands of our citizens have fled the country to seek economic opportunity, self-fulfillment, freedom and liberty in other countries? Is this not worse than slavery? And does this not call for a change in the leadership to end the greatest betrayal of our people so that we can restore our dignity?
Establishment of democratic institutions
But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that having a new leader is going to bring about the desired change because transformation takes time, requires dedication and sacrifice. Yes we need a new leadership, but most importantly we need to effect structural changes in the body politic of the country so that we can give birth to genuine democracy.
The leadership we need, unlike the current one which is too far removed from our people, is the one with a clear vision for the country, the one with an antennae to feel what ordinary people like, the one which bonds with the people, the one that feels the pulse, hears and plays the tunes of the people and the one that loves its people. It should be characterized by a deep sense of empathy, patriotism, destiny and the willpower to take our country to greater heights.
Unfortunately, the present leadership is merely obsessed with power and self-enrichment. It has little to offer to the people, except to dribble them and make empty promises that are never fulfilled. The failures are there for everyone to see: a crumbling economy, spiraling unemployment, bankruptcy, a critical shortage of electricity, a divided nation drained of hope and above all, an inept leadership that is seized with self-destruction. The question is: for how long shall Gambians continue to carry the cross for their crucifixion?
In seeking change, we need to caution ourselves that it would not be enough to simply make cosmetic changes without overhauling the institutions that make democracy more meaningful. If we change the head only, it would be like removing one masquerade and replacing it with another, which will maintain the status quo. We need to pay heed to the old saying that when the stem of a tree decays, it spreads its rot to the roots and branches. And so we need to make radical changes in order to remove the decay that has for so long afflicted our country.
Some of the most important institutions that need to be democratized are the army and police force whose barbarism and savagery has traumatized many of our who have lived to tell the horrors of state sponsored brutality). Although this matter has been raised before, one needs to reiterate the fact that the appointment of generals, commissioners of police and other senior positions in the armed forces should not be done by the head of state but by an independent commission that interviews and recommends their appointment.
Similarly, the chief justice and judges of the high court should be appointed by an independent judicial commission that sits openly with an input from the public to interview potential candidates. This will ensure that we will have an impartial judicial system that protects the rights of ordinary citizens and not simply those of a powerful clique.
From our past experience, we have seen that top civil servants such as permanent secretaries are appointed based on their political affiliation. This has been a monumental disaster. The unbridled corruption in many organs of the state and the dysfunctional quasi-government organizations such as GRA, Central Bank of the Gambia, state universities and many other state controlled institutions is a direct result of appointing political stooges.
To restore the dignity of our institutions, top government officers and all vice chancellors of state universities must be transparently appointed by adhering to the stipulated qualifications, rules and regulations. The public service commission must be transformed in order to restore its integrity. And universities and their councils must be led by visionary people who are prepared to make our institutions of higher learning the best in the region so that we can give innate hope and pride to our young people.
Protection of the people
To further deepen our democracy, we need to have a constitutional court that will adjudicate on matters relating to the infringement of citizens’ inalienable rights. It must be a watchdog that jealously guards against the victimization of our people by upholding their constitutional rights based on the principle of the right to be heard. Also, the constitutional court must unflinchingly uphold the principle of natural justice that says no person or institution may judge themselves on matters in which they are interested parties. This will remove the autocracy inherent in the current regime who see themselves as above the law.
In order to have credibility, the constitutional court must be presided over by a judge president who is above reproach. He or she must be an eminent judge, lawyer, barrister or advocate with a track record of being imbued with a sense of justice, fairness and impartiality. In a new dispensation, the head of state should never have the power to dismiss judges, the chief justice, and the president of the constitutional court, permanent secretaries or directors of state institutions. The power to hire or fire them should rest in independent bodies that are not manipulated by the president or members of the ruling party.
Civil society organizations
The level of democracy in any country is judged by the vibrancy of civil society organizations that act as the eye and soul of the people. In a post-APRC era, we need to open up the space so that civic organizations can operate freely without fear or favor. In particular, we need to allow private newspapers; radio and television stations to operate freely, including those that support different political parties, so that we can hear the multiple voices of our people.
But we are encouraged by the fact that throughout the tempestuous history of mankind, great events have occurred when prospects of change loom in the horizon and when the powerful force of freedom and liberty coalesces to sweep away the old order. In this regard, Gambia can no longer continue to dawdle and dodge, tinker or trifle natural justice. It can only do so at the risk of becoming a permanent junk state relegated to the bottom heap of human civilization. Surely this is not what we want to happen to our country!
Bearing in mind the melodramatic history of our turbulent past, the pertinent question that needs to be asked is: do we need to strengthen civil society organizations? Are they really necessary? Again, the lived experiences of our people show that the absence of strong and audacious civil organizations has allowed the state to get away with the murder of our people.
In wrapping up, we should be encouraged by the fact that our people’s voice for change is now echoing louder and louder. It is raising our hope that sooner or later we shall remove our shackles and walk to the Promised Land. There are many Gambians with an indomitable spirit which makes us unique optimists who are able to enrich the present, enhance the future and challenge the improbable. And like a butterfly, I know that you and I have the strength and hope to believe that in time we will emerge from our cocoon and fly high up in the sky to attain the impossible.
Written By Sulayman Leigh, UK