Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: The era of ”identity politics in the Gambia,” where followership and loyalties are owed not to class, ethical conviction, ideas, logical principles, trust, or political party ideology but groups defined by ethnic chauvinism, religious zealotry, gender, or sexual orientation. This is a dangerous trend in a multicultural society. It hurts liberalism how the Gambia’s identity politics went from inclusion to politic of risk and socioeconomic exclusion. Actual, many minorities of other ethnic minorities for a long time have suffered discrimination, ethnic profiling and social, and political exclusion. They deserve to enjoy the rights that other dominant majority take for granted. However, the identity politics movement, and bestowed unrecognized honourary title “Manding Mansa” status in the Gambia, tells the party and those people that their experience as members of a particular ethnic group ultimately defines them and gives their lives meaning. This message destroys society’s broad sense of the common good, increasing antagonism and fragmentation in our community.
There is identity, and then there is identity politics. The difference between them may well be the crux of the December 4 presidential election. Identity is who we are, the sum of our sex, race, religion (or lack thereof), experiences, and heritage. Originality is essential to our sense of self, our relationship with others, and our place in society. Inherent in identity is the nearly universal need for respect, dignity, value, and, if not too much trouble, admiration.
Fatoumatta: Fatoumatta: When those “desirables” are imperiled, we turn to identity politics, drawing attention to toplights, problems, and issues unique to an ignored, marginalized, oppressed, disenfranchised, or otherwise nonintegrated segment of society. Unfortunately, we know too well the proclivities of certain political parties, particularly the Sosalaasso party of the United Democratic Party ( UDP), representing the nadir of identity politics. The party’s campaign is sealed by its early recognition of identity anxiety on the right and the perception that their dominant tribe is losing its place in the hierarchy of Gambian society.
Those involved in recent identity movements, such as the “Manding Mansa” posturing in The Gambia, may seem ludicrous. The beneficiaries of tribal privilege, after all, do not get to whine about injustice. However, as a dominant tribe, they see their numbers dwindling amid projections of their near-future minority status; they might well feel diminished or threatened. How one deals with those feelings is a function of many factors. However, a great leader inspires the angels of our better selves rather than the demons of our basest instincts.
Today, we have sunk to a level of tribalism that would seem to pre-date the modern era. Will we soon divide ourselves into fiefdoms led by tribal lords? Virtually speaking, we already have. By seeking like-ideological company around Internet news sites and political watering holes, we sate our need for identity affirmation, rarely questioning whether there might be another way.
Fatoumatta: Our dominant intellectual and political paradigm views the Gambians social order through the prisms of ethnicity and religion. All realities and facts supposedly make sense only when interpreted in tribal and religious idioms. Thus, complex socio-political and economic issues are reduced to their sectarian dimensions and transmitted to the center of public discourse. This is even more so during an election cycle. However, the Gambia will always confound those who subscribe to the bipolar reductionisms of majorities and minorities tribes or religions. Our politics has rarely been that simple.
What has been observed in the confessions and testimonies of witnesses at the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) that many victims of state torture under the Yahya Jammeh’s rule suffered at the hands of torturers; who “shared their faith, their class, their tribe, region or religion? Any presumed parochial fraternity disappeared in the confines of the torture chamber. The pain that Gambians underwent at the hands of state torturers was all-encompassing and all-consuming; it was a phenomenon that did not respect class, religion, tribe, or region. Many victims felt betrayed by their tormentors because they imagined that ethnic, religious, and regional solidarity would mitigate their sufferings. It did not. The perpetrators were unmoved by appeals to tribal conscience and said they were carrying out orders from above.
The victims’ tribulations demonstrate the finite and ultimately illusory nature of tribal solidarity where power is concerned. Their sordid experiences are dramatized in a small way the more huge ordeals of Gambians whom a delinquent state has long abused. Power presents its own logic and imperatives and dictates allegiances and affinities that trump allegedly omnipotent nativist sentiments. The calculus of self-interest, issues, and class interest often prove thicker and weightier than blood. The insistence on sectarian frames of political analysis simply blinds us to this reality.
Contrary to ill-informed opinion, most Gambians are not political monoliths but complex mosaics of ethnic and confessional identities. Since independence, presidential victors in the Gambia since Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara have mainly won with votes from ethnic communities other than their own. Those candidates who got the most votes from their states and ethnic communities lost.
Fatoumatta: The architects of our presidential system rightly created a majoritarian presidency. This office could only be claimed by winning at least with a simple majority percent of the vote. In other words, a president can only be elected by a broad and diverse national support base. In this regard, the Gambian electoral system has worked as designed. No regional party firmly rooted in the identity politics of a particular ethnic group, region or religion can win a national victory.
Historically, Gambia’s democratic politics has been dominated by all ethnic groupings behemoths with vast national networks. In contrast, periphery, the “Sosalaso – taf yengal” based parties often lacked the required political, ethnic equilibrium to win national leadership.
In recent months, there has been a remarkable reversal of this dynamic. Under President Adama Barrow, the National People’s Party (NPP) has expanded to a provincial party with its base in the North Bank Region, Upper River Region, Lower River Region and the Central River, and the Greater Banjul Area. However, it retains a convincing presence in the Greater Banjul Area. Thus, for the first time, owing as much to overall satisfaction with Adama Barrow as to its own smarts, the opposition has insufficient broad national networks to mount a viable challenge.
President Barrow s message of the second term bid favors the Gambia’s emergent demographic of independent young urbanites who simply want good governance and are tired of the ethnoreligious dog-whistling the currently in activated mode. Defined by a cosmopolitan broad-mindedness, this increasingly hyphenated, intermarrying, mobile, and socio-culturally hybrid generation holds the keys to the future of Gambian politics. Its emergence bodes well for the evolution of a more intelligent issues-oriented brand of politics at the expense of the primitive bigotry retailed by incompetent rent-seekers and kleptocrats. Of course, the revolution is still in its infancy. However, there have been some encouraging signs of progress in this election cycle.
Fatoumatta: An interrogation of the rhetoric emanating from both camps reveals an opposition party dangerously committed to promoting ethnic and sectarian prejudice and an opposition challenger who has struck nationalist and welfarist notes. As a result, the Sosalasso party may go down in history as the party that took a national party and reduced it to an ethnic-regionalist personality cult.
Apart from identity politics and smearing from so-called activists, Team Adama Barrow seems to have appealed to ethnoreligious solidarity as the primary basis of its campaign – and non-polarizing and grossly unlimited strategy. Thus, although identity politics does matter in the Gambia for a while, its role is often overstated.
However, an electoral coalition comprising the ethnic minority communities wrest power from what we saw as the hegemony of the “minority” at a different time—the concept of a nefarious made for a fashionable pantomime villain. President Adama Barrow, arguably in his first term, built an electoral support base specifications. However, in the short space of five years, he has taken a wrecking ball to that coalition of ethnic minorities and his party. There is a growing realization that the plagues assailing Gambians are indifferent to tribe, tongue, and theology. They will yield only to a post-sectarian politics of common purpose. As Bob Dylan once sang, “the times, they are a-changing.”Thus, we look toward the December 4 presidential elections, where the line of presidential aspirants is already long. One thing seems obvious: The next president of the Gambia will need to start a movement, not merely run a campaign. He will have to make a stand against our divisions and those who profit from them.
Fatoumatta: We citizens need to use our votes to conquer the dividers. It is time to set aside our differences and reimagine our Gambian identity as one nation, indivisible. This is how we earn those earlier mentioned desirables our worth, our national sense of self, dignity, self-respect, and others. Furthermore, yes, too, perhaps even the admiration of a world that prays we return to our senses.
Alagi Yorro Jallow