By Foday Samateh
Now that the amateur wrestler from Kanilai is booted out of the State House, the fight for democracy in The Gambia takes a new meaning. It’s no longer a glorious struggle against autocracy. Rather, it morphs into the mundane task of establishing a culture of good governance based on the rule of law. Since there is no unanimity on what the problems and the solutions for the nation are as in the case of confronting the tyranny, we have entered a new era of clashing visions for our dear land.
The different groups that formed and allied with Coalition 2016 for democratic change are bound to go their separate ways. This is only natural, and necessary even. Conflicting views about the Constitution and the institutions established under it, about the role of government in general, and about democracy itself will permit no other course of action. Hence, a new realignment in politics is in the making. Some groups will seek their political fortunes in the new administration. Some will organize into the new opposition. And others will find their niche in civic advocacy and activism. Everyone will propound their respective ideas of a free nation — their ideal Gambia.
That process in and of itself will solidify the democratic dispensation that needs to exist. All things considered in a functioning democracy, the perpetual competition to win policy disagreements or elections may not be smooth sailing for any stakeholder. Given the separation of powers and their attendant duties and responsibilities at the state level weighed against the rights, freedoms and liberties citizens must be guaranteed, it’s inconceivable to conceive any other outcome. However, political brawls, which are so indispensable to gaining power in a democracy, will create polarization far more than cooperation.
Amid all the jockeying for control over the nation’s affairs, the new administration, like in all democracies, will always stand behind its electoral legitimacy to justify policy decisions. The constant refrain will be that it’s acting on a democratic mandate for the national interest. Its partisans, who had perceived in the previous regime’s every move Machiavellian machinations, assigned wild conspiracy theories to the despot’s declarations, and denounced his apologists as unconscientious mouthpieces, will now find themselves in the strange position of putting up ramparts against incoming criticisms of the new administration. It will be interesting to see them take swings and swipes at their former allies in the opposition as unreasonable or unrealistic. They may even go further in some instances to accuse their estranged friends of harboring ill intentions, being career nonconformists or worse.
Those same former allies, too, emboldened by the new democratic freedoms, will throw back slings and arrows of outrageous recriminations at these partisans of the administration as dishonest, hypocritical and unprincipled. There will be some who would want to appeal for cooler heads to prevail. They shouldn’t bother trying, lest they shout themselves hoarse with little to show for it. With every major policy proposal open to acrimonious debate, decorum will be among the initial body count of casualties. More gratuitousness and less gratitude will set the tone across the political divide. And pandemonium will almost always be assured the pride of place for the winners.
Most confederates of the former regime will also choose to enter the fray. If they criticize the new administration after having defended the egregious actions of the previous one, they will be called every name in the book. If they switch sides to affiliate themselves with the new administration, they will more likely be branded shape-shifting opportunists. Either way, they will be given grief galore. For them, the past will be the ghost that never stops lurking and haunting.
In the cacophony of overlapping pitched voices, there will be those who will persist on pressing the new administration to act on the business of the nation with speed, by insisting on the urgency of now. And the surrogates of the administration will keep counseling patience, by pointing out the enormity of the challenges. These are all quite conventional politicking that make concessions and compromises inherent in a democracy. But democracy also gives the same freedom of expression to an orator as to a blowhard. And just as it confers on the state the power to prosecute, it grants a cold-blooded murderer, too, the right to a fair trial. The truism still holds — With democracy come its discontents.
So in the new order of freedoms and rights, the know-nothings will demand to be heard as much as those who possess a sage’s mind. Self-serving politicos will employ every demagoguery to pander for the cheapest popularity. Self-dealing elites will chant “Power to the People!” in public but, behind closed doors, they will push for only reforms that preserve their privileges and prestige over the proles. Arrogant intellectuals will pout and spout bombast about being experts in this and that at the slightest hint of their ideas getting questioned by those with no fancy academic credentials. Rabble rousers will be at liberty to mobilize madding mobs against a great legislator. Sleazy lawyers defending society’s most unsavory characters will equate their significance to the service of military generals entrusted with national security. Sensationalist reporters hiding behind press freedom will indulge in yellow journalism to ruin the reputation of good women. And so on and so forth.
The reader may wonder: Why would a devout democrat cast such unromantic view on democracy? To give a simple response, when we move from theory to applied democracy, Churchill is more correct than Lincoln. In the midst of the American Civil War, the16th President gave his famous Gettysburg Address to put the costly sacrifice in human lives in perspective. The Union soldiers gave their lives, he remarked, so that a nation conceived in liberty may live, have a rebirth of freedom based on “the proposition that all men are created equal,” and be devoted to the cause of a “government of the people, for the people, by the people.” In a speech to the British House of Commons, the former and future Prime Minister philosophized his observations in Churchillian witticism, thus: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
I will be the first to acknowledge that I will never get a mention in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. So allow me all the humility I ask for to note that I argued in a 2009 article Laws of Democracy that, “Yes, from time to time, democracy can be messy, noisy, and inconvenient.” Four months later, the 44th President of the United States, in his first State of the Union Address, told the Joint Session of Congress: “Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated.”
Even in a nation of only two million, it can still be. So as we embrace all the things that we aspired for in this hard-won democracy, we must bid farewell to all the things that we will miss and will never miss from the past.