By Saul Saidykhan
A year ago, businessman Adama Barrow became The Gambia’s unluckiest man by taking over the presidency from a brutal tyrant and kleptocrat name Yahya Jammeh. Despite the incessant sensational brouhaha on online Gambian social media, Barrow’s stewardship thus far is better than average -all things considered. To understand this conclusion, it’s helpful to remember where the country was when Barrow took over. As an alert and interested Stakeholder, the following are the challenges I know Barrow faced on Day One (thus my tag of him as “The Gambia’s unluckiest man.”):
1. Lack of confidence in national institutions by a citizenry traumatized by two decades of brutal tyranny.
2. Infrastructural and Institutional decay and neglect.
3. Economic and Productivity underperformance from agriculture to tourism.
4. High level of poverty.
5. High level of illiteracy
6. A collapsed Public Education system where for close to 20 years, over 95% of public High schoolers routinely fail their Final exams. The effect of this is now apparent and particularly deleterious. See, while it’s sometimes difficult to communicate with a complete illiterate, it’s OFTEN IMPOSSIBLE to deal with a semi-literate. That is because such people don’t know, and don’t know that they don’t know! This partly explains why Gambian social media- be it Facebook, YouTube, or online radio stations are dominated by loud, ill-informed, and mis-educated characters who are more interested in the number of Views or audience they get than the quality or truthfulness of the information they disseminate. They don’t understand much, but are too proud to listen to counsel or labor in due diligence to get the facts about important national issues. In fact, woe betides anyone who dares try to educate them. Semi-literacy, in my view, is the BIGGEST problem of Gambians because it’s almost impossible to engage this large pool of “educated” people in any meaningful dialogue. They’re EXPERTS at EVERYTHING, therefore impervious to advice or reason.
7. An inadequate, inefficient, and unregulated Healthcare sector that not only left the citizenry without quality healthcare opportunities, it made Gambians vulnerable to quack medical practitioners and medicine vendors only interested in making money.
8. Economic mismanagement characterized by galloping inflation, unemployment, and a chronically unstable currency.
9. Widespread corruption now beyond speculation.
10. Low investor confidence resulting in genuine Gambian business people moving operations to other parts of Africa.
11. Unsustainable public debt – both domestic and foreign. Debt servicing was consuming greater than 50% of GDP.
12. General lawlessness, lack of due process, and impunity. “Security” in the Jammeh era was focused almost exclusively on ensuring the personal safety and comfort of the tyrant and his small clique, and the sustenance of the regime by any means however cruel. There was no Rule of Law, thus no security of life and or property for ordinary Gambian citizens.
13. A demoralized public-sector workforce perpetually in fear of job security, thus terrified of undertaking any initiatives however ingenuous, just so they don’t incur the wrath of the Know-it-all tyrant.
14. A non-existent professional public workforce because of the supplanting of the Jawara era Merit-based system with a capricious Ethno-Loyalty-based system where lack of credentials or competence is irrelevant. (Barrow is still stuck with many of these dead woods in both the Security and Civil services.)
15. A broken governance system at the Regional and local levels – while Gambians have historically directed much of their justified umbrage at the national leadership, few pay attention to the leaders closest to the people – Governors, mayors, Chiefs, Area Councilors. In the former Dictatorship, these public officials were generally as corrupt and morally degenerate as the tyrant was. Our municipalities and Area Councils were nothing more than dens of thieves and incompetent feudal lords.
This was the appalling status-quo Barrow met on assuming office last year. How can you not feel sorry for this guy? Which is precisely why I thought the whole hullabaloo months ago about the lack of a system change in the Gambia in less than a year is fueled by mischief, and was at best silly. The question is not whether we have already effected system change, the question is how could anyone expect the realization of such a change in so short a period especially as we insist that Barrow follow the Coalition MOU which specifically prohibits him from unilaterally making certain changes that might actually help speed up the desired system change. So, we kick him around for not changing the Jammeh system, but in order to effect such, he would -of necessity, have to ignore both the spirit of the MOU and the popular appeal for “national reconciliation.” What is the man supposed to do? It’s like tying his one hand to his legs, and whipping him for not running fast enough. I’m sure somebody will accuse me of “defending” or apologizing for Barrow. But I’ll be curious to know which of my 15 observations is inaccurate. Facts matter. The truth is, changing Jammeh’s legacy is a daunting challenge even for the most seasoned public administrator. To expect a Quick-fix is not only unreasonable, it betrays a certain ignorance about Gambian reality.
Some Gambians indeed seem to have quickly forgotten the state of the Gambian nation that was bequeathed to Mr. Barrow on 19th January 2017. It is therefore important to break down the 15 problem areas Barrow faced into Bullet Points to highlight the major developmental and social challenges he inherited on being sworn in:
• Post-conflict nation characteristics; after twenty-two years of military cum pseudo-military rule, political tensions were high, the country was in an international pariah status, and worse, there was widespread inter-ethnic suspicion. The constant selective ethnic Hate Mongering by the former Chief Executive targeted at certain groups created a powder keg of mutual resentment and animus between Gambian ethnicities that had the potential to plunge the country into full-blown civil strife.
• High poverty levels: Officially, only 48% of the Gambian population was regarded as poor. But anyone who is familiar with Gambian reality knows this is part of the false statistics churn out by the former government to mask its dismal failure to improve the peoples’ livelihoods. In fact, over 80% of the 2 million Gambians living in the country live on less that US $1 per day – an average total annual consumption of less than D17,000! This translates to over 80% national poverty incidence and as high as 90%+ in some Regions.
• Economic and Productivity underperformance: consistently low investments in Education and Healthcare (both combined take less than 10% of the national budget on average) had led to lack of skilled and healthy human capital in the country. Many Gambian professionals left the country for greener pastures overseas -Europe, USA, the Middle East, the UN. The lack of skilled healthcare workers and health equipment was particularly acute resulting in the needless suffering and death of countless Gambians at shell hospitals around the country. This had negative concomitant effects on both agriculture and general economic activity. Unhealthy or unskilled workers have low productivity.
• Infrastructure Neglect: lack of investment in energy and its effects on the economy is obvious. Some major roads were built but there was no provision for ongoing maintenance. The result is, most roads built fell into serious disrepair within five years. Intra-communal roads were generally forgotten. Also, industrial capacity utilization was very low as most of the country was literally running on generators that are several decades old!
• Institutional Decay: The systematic de-professionalization (elimination of standards) in national institutions – Civil service, Judiciary, Legislature, and the Security services was the most pernicious consequence of our prolonged pseudo-military rule. The litmus test for both jobs and relevance was LOYALTY. Consequently, many -either out of desperation or weakness, did everything to show the Dictatorship loyalty. Not surprisingly, our traditional values – cultural, religious and family, were compromised beyond recognition. Behavior that used to be anathema to Gambians is now commonplace. This is because the informal systems of sanctions that impose some moral standards in communities were almost totally destroyed as the Dictatorship promoted unscrupulous people who praised the tyrant and attacked the good people who dared to criticize him. The list of victims is endless!
• Economic Mismanagement: High inflation, deteriorating exchange rates, incompetent debt management and criminally-capricious management of the domestic treasury and foreign reserves characterized the Dictatorship era. President Barrow inherited foreign reserves of approx. USD 87.6 million, and total debt that is 116% of GDP. Virtually every economic indicator was at its lowest level in the Gambia’s history!
• Corruption and Culture of Impunity: Corruption was so widespread, and the exercise of arbitrariness so common that the only certain rule in the conduct of government business was to know the tyrant or some “connected” person to him. The incentive structure was distorted – indeed made lopsided such that we now have a generation of Gambians who no longer believe hard work pays; that rent seeking behavior is what pays: that you can get rich overnight by not even being productive; that honesty is not the best policy; that corruption is rewarding, and that there are no sanctions for any misconduct. You can get away with anything so long as you know the “right” people. This is what they saw during the Dictatorship!
• Low Investor Confidence: Apart from Jammeh’s business partners who control the construction, fuel, mining, and import-export sectors, there was virtually no investment by genuine foreign or independent domestic entrepreneurs. Indeed, several foreign entities divested from Gambia because of the arbitrariness of our business climate. Capital flight was therefore rampant, indicative of low confidence of both Gambians and foreigners in our economy.
• Failing State, Nominal Institutions -Gambia in January 2017 was a country without a virile Public service. What we had was a rapacious, and mostly incompetent self-serving elite that had nearly destroyed all national institutions. This power elite had injected itself in the economy, politics and social psyche of our people. We had NO institution that functioned properly.
President Barrow’s overriding priority is to steward the fragile entity he inherited -without strong traditional and modern institutions, towards a new beginning of freedom, openness, justice, opportunity, and prosperity. This herculean challenge is complicated by the facts of Barrow’s emergence. Barrow represents a coalition of seven disparate parties whose ONLY common bond is the resolve to see the back of tyrant Yahya Jammeh. With that mission accomplished, some of the coalition partners no longer see any need to sign unto any agenda that might earn Barrow political capital. This attitude is being manifested not only in the PASSIVE AGGRESSION we’re seeing from some of the coalition leaders, but from the open and constant undermining of Barrow in the media by surrogates channeling their patrons.
Next, we’ll look at the Opportunities available to Barrow.