THE GAMBIA – THE NEED FOR A NEW LEADERSHIP
2021 is a critical year for The Gambia. It marks the end of a transition from the authoritarian rule of the Yahya Jammeh regime for 22 years from 1994-2016 into what was anticipated to be an era of peace, justice, progress and accountability.
2021 is also important, indeed critical, in that it will witness the election of the President whose party and government are expected to lead the nation from transition to a post transition phase of a permanent state of good governance for the country.
Are we as a nation well prepared to progress seamlessly into this new phase? Have solid foundations been laid for the transition from transitional governance to permanent governance? Are the current political actors well-suited to or equipped for the task ahead?
Let me say at once that in my personal view, given the record of the transition, the enormity of the tasks ahead and the caliber of the current political leaders, I believe the biggest challenge now is the inadequacy of those leaders—across the board—and hence the imperative of searching for an alternative and better political leadership of the country.
With the registration of several political parties, the holding of party congresses and launch of political parties amidst much pomp and ceremony and animation accompanied by important display of resources by various leaderships, the battlelines for the Presidential elections later this year seems now fairly clear and well-drawn at the moment. It appears for the moment to be a contest between President Barrow’s NPP and lawyer Ousainou Darboe’s UDP. Between them there is a plethora of small political parties each of which is unlikely to produce a winning candidate, but which may have the means to make or break a King or potential King.
Are the principal protagonists for the mantle of leadership from 2022 onwards – i.e. President Barrow of the NPP on one hand, and Ousainou Darboe and the UDP on the other hand – equipped for the task? Are they the best options for the country? I do not think so. Each of them has his strengths and good sides. But each of them has also, I believe, weaknesses which outweigh the strengths.
The election of President Adama Barrow in 2016 ushered in a new era of peace, respect for the rule of law and democracy. Gone are the authoritarian and oppressive days of the Jammeh era. Barrow deserves credit for this. But only partially. The population too deserves credit for their firm rejection of and opposition to the resurgence of any oppressive tendencies by government. You can also feel that Barrow is a good man at heart.
Nonetheless, there is a sense, a feeling country-wide, despite the initiation of clearly politically motivated projects that we are not yet “there”; that we are still left hanging and unsettled after the change of government in 2016; that as far as change and transition is concerned Barrow’s record is “mission unaccomplished”. Critics point, with justification, to the failure to adopt a new constitution – largely blamed on what is seen as machinations of Barrow’s government; they point to lack of progress in security sector reform; they point to the lack of accountability for past crimes despite the gruesome testimony of systematic killings and torture and disappearances coming from the TRRC; electoral reform, which was the rallying cry of the protests that eventually unseated Jammeh, lags behind. Critics point to how deeply embedded in the Barrow government are stalwarts of the past regime he came to replace. In the cabinet the four critical portfolios of Finance, Interior, of Defense and of Foreign Affairs are all held by former members of Yahya Jammeh’s close circle. Little wonder that there is little or no accountability for past crimes, with the lone exception of the prosecution of Yankuba Tourey, former AFPRC Junta member of the killing of Ousman Koro Ceesay former Finance minister and APRC co-member. That choice by former Attorney General Tambedou to prosecute Yanks is problematic for its omission to place in the dock with Yanks several others who confessed to taking part in the killing or against whom there is evidence of participation in the killing. Lack of transparency? Lack of accountability? Revenge? Retaliation? Politically motivated trial?
The unpreparedness of state institutions as we head towards Presidential elections this year is cause for concern among many. Voter registration is yet to be undertaken. Will a revised draft constitution be placed before and approved by the National Assembly? Will there be time, and indeed the capacity for the IEC to organize a referendum alongside voter registration and Presidential elections in the few months remaining this year?
All of these in the context of public perception of increased corruption in high places and lack of integrity in public life. It is alarming and a strong symptom of this state of affairs that the Transparency International worldwide corruption index ranks The Gambia number 102 out of 180 countries in 2020 and that this, low as it is, actually represents a slip from the 2019 ranking. So, the corruption level in The Gambia according to this reputable index is not getting better. It is getting worse. That is cause for alarm. Yet no word of fighting corruption is yet to cross the lips of Barrow or of his ministers.
Above all critics of Barrow point out, rightly in my view to his lack of inspiration and leadership. In a time of transition from dictatorship and oppression the role of the leader in guidance and leadership, and in being seen and heard to do so is critical. The populace looks forward to it. Barrow’s silence, except on his reelection to another term is deafening. He has failed to inspire the nation, to guide it through transition. A transition is not time for silence. It is time for thought, reflection, speech, and action by the political leadership. That has been noticeably lacking in Gambia’s transition. The scorecard for Barrow in my view, notwithstanding the huge public turnout at his meetings and at launch of his NPP, a feat which incumbency invariably makes possible – Barrow’s scorecard is this: good personality; well meaning; willing; but unable.
What of the other principal contender for the mantle of President of The Gambia, lawyer Ousainou Darboe? There is no doubt that Darboe like Barrow has rightfully earned a place in The Gambia’s history books. For his professional career as a lawyer in the course of which he has assisted freely many poor and oppressed persons. For his hard-earned reputation as an excellent constitutional lawyer. On the political front, he has earned accolades for building up from scratch the UDP undoubtedly a well-oiled political mammoth of its time.
The biggest credit however, must go to Darboe and UDP for their determination, courage and persistence in challenging and opposing the Jammeh regime, and eventually contributing in no small measure to its demise.
Yet despite all these, Darboe’s candidacy and suitability for the Office of President remains problematic. The qualities of resistance leader and task of governance – good as they both are – do not necessarily dovetail. Indeed, they are different. Resistance leaders often make for poor governors for the skills and qualities are different. Critics are quick to point out that Darboe is not a good team player, that whilst he was around and involved in the negotiations it was impossible to forge a coalition of political parties due to his intransigence; that it took his absence from the scene, through his detention and imprisonment, to make possible the coalition that brought down dictator Jammeh, and that once out of jail and in a position of authority as member of Barrrow’s government – some labeled him a defacto president – he orchestrated the collapse and disintegration of the coalition. So, Darboe is not a builder, not a factor for unity, but of disunity; he is not a needle stitching together, but instead a pair of scissors rending things apart. That is not leadership quality, far from it.
While Barrow is often criticized for his inordinate focus on being re-elected to a second term, instead of focusing on governance, Darboe’s obsession with being President is frightening. He has contested for the Presidency several times already for a quarter century and is still determined to have another go at it. His obsession has led him to making startling statements such as that only “assassination or death” will prevent him from taking over that office. It all begins to sound as a personal agenda. The thought of giving way to another generation of leaders within the party he founded or in government never seems to cross his mind.
All these decades in the political wilderness, raise concerns that like many opposition figures in other African countries who assumed power eventually, Darboe may bring to his office anger, greed and vengeance. Let us remember also that Darboe has a record in government, however brief – as former Foreign Minister and former Vice President under President Barrow. That record too is problematic. Darboe displayed the height of nepotism in these roles – appointing or orchestrating the appointment of friends and political cronies totally unsuited square pegs in round holes within the diplomatic service, the civil service and the parastatals.
The most serious downside to Darboe’s candidacy and this is perhaps related to the criticism of him as a divider, is the widespread perception that Darboe and the UDP machine are tribalistic, favoring his Mandinka ethnic group. Diplomats based in Banjul have also voiced those concerns in messages reported in Wikileaks. This perception has inspired anxiety and distrust by other ethnic groups in The Gambia, which have as a result flocked to Barrow’s side. The politics of insults, intimidation and harassment by UDP militants, which Darboe is seen to have done little to condemn and deal with through party disciplinary measures has further eroded trust and confidence in him and his party by most non-Mandinkas. That is Darboe’s Achilles heel. The country will be taking a big gamble on its peace and stability with Darboe and his party at the helm of the state. To many re-electing Barrow would be a disaster; electing Darboe would be a catastrophe.
Minus the two principal contenders Barrow and Darboe what is left in the field? Only a conglomeration of small, new weaker political parties – CA, PDOIS, GPC, GMC, GFA, PPP, NRP, the last two have already been integrated into or expressed their support for Barrow’s NPP come the Presidential elections in December 2021. Can these other parties make a difference if they learn and act upon the lessons of 2016? First none of these parties can on its own win the Presidential elections for this year with weak organization and mostly unknown elements at their helm. The few known ones seem to be basking in past glory. Such as Bakary Banja Darboe, for many years a member of Jawara’s cabinet as Minister of Finance and subsequently as Vice President. His reputation has been severely tarnished by his desertion of the country at a critical moment when on 22nd July, 1994, he accompanied Sir Dawda to Dakar, Senegal in exile only to abandon the former President there a few days later to return to Banjul to join the military government as Minister of Finance at a time when his former colleagues in government were arrested and detained by the military government and subjected to all kinds of harassment and humiliation. As if that was not enough, for close two decades, he abandoned the country living and working abroad with scant interest in his political fortunes.
Their strength will lie in their unity. In a coming together in a coalition to challenge the two giant parties, the UDP and NPP and offer the nation an alternative that is more attractive. That was what made possible the revolutionary change of government in 2016.
Secondly, this new coalition should be prepared to look beyond its ranks for a candidate suitable for the job, for the country. The smaller political parties have the advantage of younger leadership in the main with good educational background and with integrity. But with little or no experience in government.
The PDOIS leadership has been loud at criticism but has consistently failed to take responsibility in actual governance, in running things. The GMC seems to be a one-man party, lacking any popular support and led by one who fell out with Barrow in murky circumstances. The GDC of Mama Kandeh seems to enjoy considerable support but with total lack of experience in government. The APRC – well – there is their record of 22 years, and of course their record as disclosed by what is going on in the TRRC, the Jammeh Commission, etc.
This is no time for experimenting with leadership learning on the job. Enough time has already been lost. We need a new coalition and a new candidate, one who is well educated, has proven integrity, experience in governance, vision and drive and is respected and accepted across the board by the various groups in the country. A candidate whose above qualities, married with the vigor, enthusiasm, education and drive of a younger generation will provide the nation with the leadership it requires and deserves for the next phase of governance. The nation does not lack such caliber of people. But they cannot be found in any of the existing leadership of the political parties. The challenge may be in finding one who is willing. Finding such a candidate will not be an easy task. But we must try, either in a new coalition or by one of the new political parties taking the bull by the horn. Let us start the search now. Together. Do you know any such personality?
A Concerned Gambian.