Editorial: Why President Barrow was ill advised to Respond to Halifa’s ‘system change comments’

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For two days now the airwaves and social media are filled with a purported statement from Gambia’s new President Adama Barrow responding to comments made by a law maker and one of the strongest coalition advisers to the President during the political impasse. The president’s office release a statement titled Rejoinder to the caption: “The next change must be a system change” – Halifa’s stirring London speech   

The President’s office described the statement as “distortion” of the reality of Barrow and the coalition government’s achievements since it took over power in a dramatic fashion nine months ago. The statement opened with “The richness of leadership is the ability to accommodate, listen and provide advice and guidance to the people who entrust you with the leadership”; it went straight and mentioned a reporter’s name who doubled as a PDOIS surrogate who characterized Hon Halifa Sallah’s speech as “incredible” in which he mentioned that Gambia has attained regime change but is yet to attain system change. Mr. Sallah who is also a law maker and whose party is a member of the coalition was responding to questions from audience who  asked questions on his opinion about the change in Gambia. Sallah indeed made several remarks narrating how the impasse was handled and what led to the successful removal of Jammeh from power and how he was forced to flee the country for exile. He highlighted the system change that many Gambians especially in the Diaspora are increasingly calling for.

The statement surprised many people because of it’s reactionary nature highlighting the achievements of the Barrow government since it took over power. In fact, some people including this network did not initially believe that the statement was from the Barrow government. The reason for the initial skepticism of the source of the statement was two fold: One, it was not sent to the media distribution list that the Director of press compiled and has been using to distribute all statements emanating from the President’s office. Second, the statement was read on GRTS before it’s distribution to the media. The only blog that published the statement for almost 24 hours was The Torchongambia a blog operated by a Gambian journalist who used to worked at the Standard newspaper. Few other networks lifted the story from torchgambia as the source of the story.

These sequence of events and timelines led to speculations that the statement may have been written by a party surrogate who wanted to get back to Halifa Sallah. Some social media commentators went further to allege that the statement may have been written by the Director General of GRTS and accused the National TV station of being used by the State. Clearly after a wild social media speculation, dividing the people into the usual supporters and opponents of the government going after each other, each spinning the narrative towards their end, it became clear that the statement is indeed from the President’s office. This network contacted the Director of Press and the minister of information to affirm the source of the statement and asked why it was not released to the media as usual? Both the Director of Press and the minister confirmed that the statement is indeed from the President’s office. It was then sent to us directly through the usual alias list for publication. The information minister indicated that he can confirm the statement is from the DG of press, but that he does not have the details on how the statement came about. He promised to find out more details.

The content of the statement is not necessarily the issue as it is within the purview of the government to outline it’s achievements or lack thereof. The government indeed has achieved a lot since it took over power. Nothing can underscore that, but there also remained a mountain to climb including reforms which Halifa may have been alluding to. What is odd about the statement and why we believe it was ill advised, is the need for the coalition president – President Barrow to respond to an opinion statement made by a reporter touting a law maker’s statement as “Incredible” on the lack of system change in Gambia. Essentially, President Barrow appears to have been caught in the long political feud between PDOIS and UDP surrogates. In essence, the President was advised to respond to a statement that our current coalition settings and political situation should not encourage. Even more surprising is that President Barrow was forced to throw under the bus one of his strongest and confidential advisers during the political impasse. In fact, both the President and Halifa Sallah were heard saying that Halifa remained to be an adviser to the President and the coalition. Even the statement released by the president did affirm the fact that PDOIS remained part of the coalition.  So who got to the President, advised him to write a statement responding to Sulayman Bah’s analysis of Halifa’s speech appears to be not well thought out and partisan motivated.

It must be understood that President Barrow is not a partisan President as much as some people like to claim him to be. His election came about as a result of equal sacrifice of all the political opposition and an independent to get him elected. Even more important is the bravery of the Gambian people across partisan lines who defied the dictator’s massive power grip and elected Barrow. This story must be remembered in whatever decision President Barrow makes. The second important closing point is that President Barrow is a transition leader and his legacy would be judged on his success or failure to transition a strong democratic Gambia with strong independent institutions to the next government. Regardless of the long partisan divide between mainly the UDP and the PDOIS which continue to deteriorate into hatred of one side or the other, the President should be a uniting force. From the time Barrow was forming his government, signs of this partisan divide manifested it’s ugly head depriving both the President and his closest adviser the luxury to continue to tighten their relationship that existed so well. The disagreement on the National Assembly contest method was another side of the long political divide, but President Barrow was the bridge between the two sides who settled the manner in which the NA was contested.

It is therefore important that President Barrow remain vigilant to these partisan divides which could degenerate into unnecessary tribal bickering as seen on social media. President Barrow in other words is the uniter and cannot allow himself or the President’s office to be used to go after the very people who worked so hard and closely with him to achieve the privilege and power he is leading right now. There is evidence that the statement was forced because it broke almost nine months of silence on the government explaining some of the achievements and the release of information the public has been asking for. So the question is why now, and why does it have to get to this level for the President’s office to respond to what could easily be brushed aside as an opinion? In fact, stronger statements were made by the opposition GDC which never received a fitting response from the President’s office.

It must therefore be understood that those arguing that there is system change in Gambia does not understand what system change is all about. Clearly there are operational changes on how the security forces were operating, how the President’s office was operating and probably how government procurement and hiring is being handled. But you cannot confused those operational changes from a system change. The Barrow government still governs through the same constitutional provisions, the same parliamentary system and the same civil service appointments. There certainly have been moves to reform some of the systemic operations such as the security forces but there are no significant institutional system changes that prevent the re-occurrence of dictatorship if another person were to seize power. That is what is meant when people talk about system changes. President Barrow’s statement therefore only amplifies the partisan divide that has existed within surrogates – validating the suspicion that it was partisan motivated. It does not promote the coalition spirit and contradicts a strong statement from the press release that says “The richness of leadership is the ability to accommodate, listen and provide advice and guidance to the people who entrust you with the leadership“. Gambians expect our President to live by this statement and we hope this would be a learning curve in good faith.

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