Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: Whoever came up with the wise saying that Gambian politics is dirty deserves an award for perspicacity. The spirit of scholarship shows that a surprising number of Gambians dislike how messy democracy is and how toxic politics reveals a political system that is remarkably resilient but fundamentally flawed.
Nevertheless, I am keenly aware and have followed and touched the flames of Gambian politics how messy, dirtied, muddled up, confused, uncertain, unpredictable zone of Gambian life and society with truckloads of stories to tell a compelling narrative for the future in stimulate reality and reinventing enough impressions in my mind to last me another lifetime turning imagination into narrative power.
However, I can confidently tell that the primary lesson I have observed and learned during the past decades is a severe difference between theory and practice in Gambian politics. The reality of Gambian politics puts a lie to what they teach us in university, in all those seminars for Civic and Political Engagement we attend across the world, and what we experience in political science and has a passion for politics. Gambian politics does not follow the rule book, the theories, or what the book-makers say. This thing we call democracy, which the Gambia returned to in 2016, after mass protest and frustration with a malevolent dictatorship of more than two decades, is not precisely the same democracy they have in either the United Kingdom or the United States. Professional scholars may need to embark on a closer interrogation of a particular sub-set called Gambian democracy. Its features, post-2016 presidential elections, are unique. That is the paradox of this experience and of the future that is to come. In other words, the country is on a free-fall; the rock below will win the war. As Aristotle said, every person that thinks himself wise should be able to deliberate well about the things that are good and advantageous to himself. However, any open deliberation about the Gambia appears to be treason. Aristotle added that the wise should not find it impossible to identify “things conduce to health and to physical strength, and the things conduce to the good life in general.” Here, even when we recognize those needed to buoy our wellness, we stop and ask which soil grew them and what god they worship.
Decent and serious-minded persons will continue to avoid Gambian politics if we do not curb the menace to help save our nation from toxic polarization, identity and exclusion, ethnic chauvinism, and the political divide in the Gambia go beyond polarization and tribalism in addition to religious identity. Should respectable persons summon the courage to go into politics, they too may help deepen the culture of ethno-nationalistic populism and the mobilization of collective resentment, the culture of corruption, impunity, and violence to protect themselves. The first thing a Gambian politician considers is how to come out of the process of election get rich and influential. Politics costs money everywhere, but the link between cash and power is incredibly corrosive in the Gambia.
The Gambia is heading towards another presidential election again, even while many existential questions remain unanswered. How much help is the vulnerable going to get from the next President, whether young or old? Euripides, in Orestes, said, “when one with honeyed words but evil mind persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.” Every wounded Gambian would relate quickly with those wise words. The past and current leadership recruitment exercises are at a mob action. However, we debate how to give the bosses and their mobsters a renewal license to further mess with our lives. However, as Abraham Lincoln said, “elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” We are sitting on the blains from the 2016 presidential polls when Gambians have decided a regime change with a system change. We remain sorely painful. That is why many Gambians are tired of looking at December 4, 2021, presidential elections. They are insisting on a redefinition of the country called the Gambia.
Fatoumatta: The heat is on. However, those looking forward to the December 4 presidential polls, either to the re-electing of Adama Barrow for a second term or his successor, may amend or change the constitution conditions to the qualification to the executive. For instance, should the next President be literate in economics, law, political science, sociology, journalist or a person in business or nationalistic, cosmopolitan in outlook, and pan-Gambian in words and action? Excellent ideas; however, no employer would squirm at the prospect of such a spic-and-span candidate getting the job. However, the Gambia does not make its choices using the criteria of excellence. It was not created for such lofty heights.
“I’ve never fooled anyone. I’ve let people fool themselves. They didn’t bother to find out who and what I was. Instead they would invent a character for me. I wouldn’t argue with them. They were obviously loving somebody I wasn’t.” Hugely successful American actress, model, and singer Marilyn Monroe (born June 1, 1926) has continued to rule the world of American pop culture even after her death on August 4, 1962. She has many legacies, including quotable quotes that keep her memory green forever. The above is one of them, and it speaks directly to the Gambian people and their choices and how they make them. Every word Monroe used in that quote could as well belong to the Gambian leaders at all levels. Four years ago, I asked various publications and social media why getting the best for ourselves as political leaders were challenging.
The cliche is there that the best should rule the rest. That is a cardinal order even in the animal world. However, the Gambia is sold to the rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation. It is not as if we do not know the difference between mediocre and excellent. We draw the line regularly at the personal level. We do due diligence on every ‘unknown’ person seeking the hand of our child in marriage. Without being told, everyone carefully chooses their cooks, their drivers, the doctors who treat them. No one takes bribes to subvert those personal decisions for oneself. We carefully select the mechanics who fix our old and new cars with our eyes and every other sense very well open. We do not accept counterfeit currencies, nor do we knowingly inject expired drugs. However, we crown counterfeit persons as kings and exhume the past to rule our present and dictate our future. Furthermore, we say we want to be well!
In the 2016 presidential election, we had an election dispute and a political impasse. The country became a hotbed of reprisal political vandalism. People fled to neighboring Senegal people suffered together from depression and hopelessness. Our common woundedness was recognized, and properties were destroyed. Furthermore, Alieu Momar Njai, the Chairman of IEC, could not say that he did a good job; the people were so scared disappointed. The international community was relieved that despite everything, the Gambia, West Africa’s most strategic country and the “Smiling Coast of Africa,” did not implode. I get the impression that Gambians themselves are calm because the worst that they expected did not happen. They are glad to have a country still in an emergent democracy.
Fatoumatta: I have also learned that Gambian politics is all about money. You can talk about the poverty index on television and in writing and quote those figures from the usual sources. Still, when you go onto the field of politics, you are bound to confront the reality of the poverty that has turned the Gambian electorate into an endless community of beggars and cynics. The tragedy of the Gambia is the impoverishment of the people and the total collapse of values and dignity. Everywhere even on social media, people begged for money. They were not interested in policy documents, or campaign leaflets, or gift items. They just wanted cash, raw cash. When you run into hordes of young men who earn a living by belonging to neighborhood gangs and cults, they are not interested in talking about development and progress. Many of them are college graduates; by the way, they want money to buy “drink and smoke.”
The Gambian political elite, the professional wing that is, has over the years destroyed this country. The political field is peopled by hypocrites who exploit the people’s poverty. The people themselves have become dangerously cynical. When they campaigned on the streets and gave exercise books to mothers and their children, they were told: “Halis Mba Duma Sani Carrta” – “no money, no vote.” Nobody was interested in exercise books! If people said as much as hello, they wanted you to pay for it. There were endless requests for mobilization fees, transformers, vehicles, and all kinds of things. Less than four months into the Presidential election, the situation became almost unmanageable. People asked for money to “enjoy the rest of the political season.” Others came with requests for money to pay hospital fees, take care of a newly born baby, bury a relative, or make a girlfriend happy. One political associate told me that every request was valid because only a thief goes into politics as far as the Gambian people are concerned. It is better to “take their own share” before the election.
The real problem with Gambian democracy must be the people themselves. I do not yet have the complete picture in other parts of the country, other than what I saw on social media and told people where they would vote according to their conscience. They taught former President Yahya Jammeh a lesson. They clarified that careless talk is not a virtue in politics and that arrogance has serious consequences. However, in some other parts of the country, particularly in the urban areas, money played a significant role. The people collected money. They may be voting according to the size of their greed. If you do not have money to throw away and close your eyes while doing so, maybe you should never venture into Gambian politics as it is today. I get the impression that the people do not trust their political leaders and politicians. There may be slight differences here and there in terms of this affective and cognitive immersion in the Gambian political process. Still, for the most part, the people believe that all politicians are the same. I was shocked by the level and size of cynicism that I saw on social media.
In the future, the Gambia must address the crisis of campaign funding and finance. How much money will politicians spend to impose their candidate of choice for President? We also need to worry more about the finance campaign funds on elections and the leadership recruitment process in the future. It must be possible for Gambian democracy to accommodate and promote the best, those who are willing to serve and who believe in the Gambia and higher causes.
Fatoumatta: I also learned many lessons about the psychology of Gambia politics. I re-discovered our people and environment. I got first-hand exposure to Gambian politics, not as an observer-analyst but as a direct participant. As a result, I am better prepared for the future, and I have more than enough stories to tell. Gambian politics can be upgraded and rescued if we all summon the courage to get involved in it. We did not lose. We won in losing.
Alagi Yorro Jallow