Our democracy stands to gain if we can see beyond the five-year factor
By Kawsu Ceesay
Mr. Adama Barrow was clearly the democratic choice of the majority of Gambian voters in the December 2016 Presidential elections. The electorate chose President Barrow over former President Yaya Jammeh thanks to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) reached by seven opposition parties. The 3-year term limit that the opposition Partners offered was appealing to the electorate because the electorate finally wanted to do away with self-perpetuating rule.
We are all fully aware that the constitutional term of an elected President in The Gambia is five years, yet no one queried the unconstitutionality of the three-year transition period agreed by the Coalition Partners for what they promised is permissible under our constitution. Given the way our politics had been evolving prior to the defeat of Yaya Jammeh, we cannot afford much time focusing too narrowly on the argument about the five-year term. I think we must be accommodating enough to see beyond the five-year factor.
Clearly, in healthy democracies across the globe, political leaders are elected based on specific manifestos sold to the electorate during the campaign season. Unless we claim to have forgotten, Mr. Barrow and his Coalition Partners sold to the voters a manifesto, which stated that if he (Barrow) won, he would hand back power to his successor in three years – there were no ifs and no buts to that promise. Although the constitutional term in different democracies may be four, five or six years, there is no hard and fast rule that the winning candidate must serve a full term, since no constitution would force any elected official to stay in office upon death, retirement or resignation. Indeed, having agreed to the terms of the Coalition MOU, there is absolutely no tragedy in our constitution for President Barrow to serve for a three-year term and during that transitional period, make preparations – as agreed- for fresh elections, which was artfully designed to help nurture our fledgling democracy. Regrettably, all signs show that President Barrow is determined to renege on the Coalition agreement. In my view, any objective observer will reach the conclusion that such a dishonest act may lead to ugly clashes between President Barrow’s supporters and honest Gambians who would like to ensure, at any cost, that the promise made to them is honoured; the people’s will is respected and restored; that there is an end to self-perpetuating rule and that our baby democracy is given a chance to thrive.
Some readers may be aware that in the UK, Mrs Theresa May of the Conservative party was mandated to form a government and deliver Brexit after the 2017 general elections. Interestingly, about two years into her term period of 5 years, Mrs May had to step down because she could not deliver Brexit. One may wish to advance the very weak and lousy argument that we cannot compare apples and oranges as the UK does not have a written Constitution and the Gambia does. Indeed the UK does not have a written constitution, yet the state functions; perhaps we should also seek to have an unwritten constitution so that our country functions too. Would we say that morality, dependability, and honesty (meaning and doing what you say) are not important hallmarks a Gambian leader must uphold or which we must never aspire in our leaders? We will succeed as a country if we abhor dishonesty, and do away with mediocrity.
In the run up to the December 2016 elections in The Gambia, the Coalition Party ran an extraordinary campaign, whose manifesto was defined by the Coalition MOU and the broader Coalition Manifesto. Unless we choose to forget, we know that the key elements of the Coalition MOU which were sold to the voters were among others 1) the three-year transition period and 2) the electoral and institutional reforms of the executive, legislature, judiciary, civil service and other oversight institutions. The electoral reforms, something that Mr. Solo Sandeng courageously campaigned and died for, were designed to create among other things a level playing field, in that 1) the Coalition Partners agreed that the Flag bearer will not seek re-election; 2) Flag bearer is not expected to support any Party during the three-year transition period. Essentially, without caveats/qualifications, the Flag bearer (President Barrow) is expected to act as a referee in the next elections, the ground work for which should have started a while back. However, what is extraordinary now is that President Barrow does not only want to renege on heading the transitional government for 3 years, he wants to serve for 5 years and also contest in the elections in 2021. Does this not cut across the grain of the self-perpetuating rule the Coalition Partners wanted to dismantle which was endearing enough to the electorate to vote for the Coalition; the democracy we fought and some died for which we would wish to protect and nurture; and the fundamentals of morality, integrity, and honesty we must need in a leader at all times?
We have constitutions, but election manifestos, elected representatives and the electorate have always influenced the term of elected leaders in democracies, without violating the constitution of the country. In 2016, the Coalition stakeholders, well-wishers, and supporters campaigned throughout the country and outside with one voice, a voice was underpinned by a solid promise to hand power back to the people in three years. To say that the three-year transitional period was imposed on the Coalition Flag bearer (President Barrow) as stated by Mr. Omar Jallow of the PPP is completely untrue and it does not make any sense. I hope we will soon learn to stop listening and changing the way we walk to Mr. O. Jallow’s jazz. At least initially, Mr. Ousainou Darboe of the UDP also submits to the same view. I doubt if one can fail to observe that Mr. O. Darboe seems to be a master at uttering statements of convenience: before he was supportive of 5 years and the signs now are that he is in for 3 years. He says he has to agree with the position of the party even if he disagrees with it. Actually we should consider christening him a political chameleon or Mr. “y’know, amen, amen”; he is not articulate enough; does not inspire and lacks any clarity of values and vision/objectives for the UDP and or the country. I have never heard Mr. O. Darboe talk about any policy matters; and for a party with such a large following, I think that says quite a lot about the need for political education in the country.
If democracy is about choice, then President Barrow was chosen based on the reforms he and the Coalition Partners promised and a key appealing part of that promise, to the electorate, was the three-year plan they aggressively sold to us as part of their manifesto. We must be honest with ourselves and look at our democracy beyond the five-year factor, for sticking with the five-year factor would be old school! Most objectively-minded and informed individuals would be of the view that elections are more about manifestos and mandates than the narrow argument about the constitutional term and rights of an individual, elected to the highest office in the country, to renege on a promise. This is scandalous! Furthermore, delivering on manifestos must be central in our politics if we want to develop into a vibrant democracy. Unfortunately, President Barrow and his team have yet to demonstrate to us that they can deliver on the Coalition Manifesto. Is it not a concern to our poor country that we are now hearing reports that President Barrow spends over $50,000 (~D2.3M) per month on food? If this is true, one cannot help but wonder if President Barrow is feeding elephants and hippopotamuses that have developed a liking for Gambian dishes. Plus is it also not a concern to us that President Barrow is instructing the construction of a Police Station, paid for by Gambia Ports Authority? Clearly it seems to me that President Barrow’s bedfellows (Jammeh’s enablers) have now perfected training him (President Barrow) to use state institutions as though they are his own property. If this does not make a total mockery of the outrageously expensive Janneh Commission, I do not know what does. It seems quite certain that President Barrow may go down in history as a dishonest, corrupt and greedy leader who tried his hand at being the president of the Gambia, but failed. But his capacity to respect the key elements of the MOU, in particular remain true to the three-year plan that he and his Partners agreed and presented to the honest Gambian voters in the run up to the December 2016 elections which saw him beat Yaya Jammeh at the polls may place at least a feather in his hat. We cannot fail to notice that either President Barrow chooses to honour the three-year transitional period or he risks destroying what political legacy of his he may wish to protect. Worse, if President Barrow chooses to forget about the fight we fought to remove a brutal dictator- and all signs are that he has forgotten-, he risks a political confrontation with honest Gambian voters, in particular the three years jotna movement. There are reports that the Interior Minister, Mr. Ebrima Mballow is trying the tools at his disposal to enter into a dialogue with supporters of the three-year jotna movement. It is my hunch that he (Mr. E. Mballow) and on behalf of President Barrow would fail abysmally in his attempts to cosy-up to the representatives of the three-year jotna movement. You see, only a lousy and self-centred individual- which I do not think exists in the leadership of the three-year jotna movement- would enter into any negotiations with a dishonest leadership and expect that leadership to honour any agreements reached. Indeed, if the recent history has taught us anything, we would know that President Barrow has the unique disposition of being a very dishonest Partner in any agreement. But in the unlikely event that any agreement is reached between Mr. E. Mballow and representatives of the three-year jotna movement, the least we would hope and expect is for that agreement to be signed by the relevant players whose interests are being served, including President Barrow; and that the agreement is binding and therefore ENFORCEABLE by any means necessary– that it is witnessed by the legal teams on both sides! I hope that cool heads would prevail so that we would avoid the slippery slope towards a potential fireball which could destabilise the country.