By Baaba Sillah mu Sabel
Time passess quickly and without written and readily accessible records, we forget the events of our past! When the custodians of that past pass; records become distorted, confused and the truth falls between nebula and mirage. Bereft of our inheritance, our knowledge of our past and ourselves, become liable to err! Who do we turn to for redress?
To those who have monopoly and control of the means of definition?
How do we reclaim the selves we were and make meaning of who we are and the selves we might become…?The relics from our past still linger in their own queer and quintessential ways!
The big build-up!!
The Gambia is witnessing an unprecedented build-up towards the first elections of its kind since she was carved out as a nation state in the 1880’s. This is true for all the municipalities throughout the country.
The altered involvement of large and mixed numbers of candidates do reflect our ethnic, rligious and gender diversities, the multiple political parties they represent and those that have struck out on their own as independent candidates. Each of them presenting their own agenda for change. Consequently, they have kept afloat our flagging spirits for optimism for the future of politics and the making of a pluralistic society in this sleepy land, all length and no breadth. Though potentially a vibrant country, her political resonance and sparkle are yet to be fully tested. Thus far, to me, the majority of the candidates are unknown quantities but time will tell especially when new dramas unfold and new reality set in, that is when they will nail their colours to the mask and we will get to see them for what they really are and what they stand for.
Importantly, the involvement of the dynamic social movements having obvious enabling and catalytic effects in creating paradigm shifts amid the noise and haste, the push and jostle of the candidates are hugely valuable and enchanting to the electorate. Consequently, the level of the debate has risen although limited in scope and thoroughness! The issues being raised are many and varied. Some of them go across party lines. Some concerns raised are age-old bread and butter questions while others are perennial in nature. Sadly, I did not hear much serious matters pertaining to ideology and long term visions of the candidates but the stench of ethnicity and narrow nationalism reek and dwarf the battle of ideas and argument! Although disguised, smothered and, thus far concealed; matters pertaining to the ethnic divide (that have long since been brushed quickly aside and or pushed under the carpet), are beginning to rear their ugly heads, emerging, surging and soaring over the land. This is the subject of this article and I will return to it later.
Apart from a sprinkling of the old party hacks and chronies here and there with their old bags of tricks in the fray, the majority of the candidates who have thrown their hats and scarves in the ring are mainly young people orchestrating for genuine change. It is indeed very heartening to see all these youngsters raising cross-cutting issues aboveboard even if many of them are not really alive to the geo-politics and the machinations of the big players and the big issues both from within and from without. What has become apparent to all and sundry is that there is no going back to repression and resignation. The Gambia is going through a new awakening and a new self-hood following two decades of dormancy and a state of fear and jitteriness. At the very least, the overthrow of the Jamme regime has unleashed some synergies in the communities; has triggered a new drive for political emancipation, made for a new broadening of political participation (especially among an between an undaunting youth). The same youth that have left on the mass hijra to languish in the make-shift jails of Libya, to be mangled and maimed and duped by traffickers and their agents along the long and torrid sand dunes of the Sahara desert, to die in vain amid the waves of the mediterranean and for the survivors winding up seeking refuge in hostile and uncharitable territory.
The generation before mine, my generation and the generation after have failed them. Yes indeed! Ever since we ceased to set our own goals and standards; shape their minds and even to parry the mishaps of a misspent youth, we have failed them in not taking responsibility as their rightful guardians and nurturers.
Little wonder why they took to the so-called back-way to affirm their dignity and to reclaim a lost sense of their own individuality. All of these and many more have heightened the contradictions in the Gambian body politic.
Some more upheavals can be expected as people realise now that they can roll back the frontiers of change and can pull off the blinkers from their eyes. Take their destinies in their own hands and usher in the changes that are yet to come and must come. Above all events will come and go as they will and would naturally let lose a potpourri of things that the society will have to address in spite of everything and without due thought or consideration as all of them will demand appropriate responses.
I was up and about the Westcoast region during the past week and in Banjul at the week end and witnessed first hand the growing mutual tolerance of divergent political persuations. I felt a little rattled for an old cynic. I could immediately catch glimpses of a burgeoning political coming off age even if what I felt could have been an illusion…, a self-fulfilling prophecy…perhaps? I daresay, maturity among people especially the youth. I was also quite pleasantly surprised to learn that at least four of the candidates vieing for the mayor’s seat, pitched up on Saturday the 18th March in Banjul at the debate in order to market their manifesto commitments to their constituency. It will not be long before we will have cause to hold them down to these as the debate continues to rage. The new office holders will soon start to grapple with reality!
A little over a year ago, I had made, an assessment of the state of the nation in an article published wholly in the Point and in the Foroyaa in part and because of its extraordinary length, it was serialised over several issues. I had in the article, made a postmortem of the Jamme decades of terror. I had also made reference to, among other things, the nonchalance and the pandemic corruption of the preceding regime that had spanned three decades earlier. I had argued that the Jamme regime was nothing but a natural consequence of development from the first republic; an offshoot, an outgrowth of three decades of misrule. The article was entitled, ‘The end of an era-two scores and two’. I tried to contextualise the grounds for the dire-straights we were herded en-masse into with the gun and other coercive instruments and means of terror but, a year later, I find little else that is comforting and different in terms of the practice of the new leadership and the situation of the run off the mill Gambian. Yes, the state house has been renovated; people have regained their ‘freedoms of speech’ though I quicken to add that these were freedoms fought for and won by both the diaspora and the Gambian people at large. Freedom was not brought by the new regime I might add. By the way, ‘Freedom and democracy’ are not things you package and hand over to a people. They are not manufactured in the shores of the West so, we need not try to prove to anybody that we are democratically minded and we respect human rights).
The early morning and after work sirens continue to blare and become a nuisance to all; the motorcades, the pomp and the pagentry of officialdom, the marching of the boys in uniform, the mutual ego-massaging, the praise-singing, the massess of jet-setting officials travelling abroad in a bid to cajoal investors to come and rescue us and the collective jaw-hanging; demoralised, besoted populace, still caught up in a quandrary. They are all wondering where they are heading to? The prevailing sense of befuddlement hangs in the air and you can cut through it with a knife. it might pay off for you to revisit the write-up because in there, I had argued that the most logical thing that the political class, the elite of the society would do, as they have done is to re-group, forge new alliances, and continue much as before until kingdom come. In many instances, they become the sit-tight, comprador elite who will define, act as the divine mediators and interpreters of the needs and aspirations of the masses. They will continue to entrench their positions and procure their interests. They will also whip-up emotionally charged sentiments closely allied to matters in the chest, not in the head to further misguide and bamboozle the massess until at such time that they are jolted and booted out of their treachery through a rude awakening. Now that there is a vibrant popular movement of the masses. The change we are witnessing is not a stagnating change. It is a liberating change and it will carry on for as long as we continue to tune into an alien frequency that has little or no bearing on our material circumstances.
I suggest this revisitation pointedly because I would like to shift your focus on the main subject of this discourse.
Here, I will argue that the phenomenon of tribalism is a hang-over and indeed a practice akin to the earlier explorers and colonialists. They came to Africa with firmly held mind-sets about the racial superiority of the Europeans on the one hand and deficit models of the Africans on the other. Although prevalent, today as it was since the advent of slavery in the early seventeenth century, tribalism and racism are the two sides of the same Dalasi. I will propose that racism and tribalism are interchangeable. The contexts and perpetrators may differ but the difference is in style, not substance. They are both deeply rooted in prejudice that finds expression in an irrational attitude or in an attitude cluster.
I will further demonstrate the similarities in methods employed and their origin.
I realise that often, we take it for granted that people are familiar with the terminology we use. I would like to offer some working definitions of certain concepts that have been bandied about to the extent that they may mean different things to different people in different contexts but let me indulge you with the following in order to clarify our terms of reference in this write-up:
Ideology: This is a general system of ideas, beliefs and theories, a way of thinking, based on a particular interpretation of society and history.
Tribalism: This hairy, thorny, derisory, divisive term is the invention of Western anthropologists. It is used to describe only African and other powerless, dispossessed and disenfranchised people who were denied the means of self-definition. We have ourselves imbibed the term and it is very much part of our local lingo.
Have you ever heard of an English tribe? A Welsh tribe? A Scottish tribe? A Germanic tribe? Swedish? Norwegian …?
This innovation, among several other ideas, were whetted and transformed into sciences. Do the following drop a butuut? ‘Eugenics, – This is the theory of the innate superiority of white people. According to this theory, only certain people or groups of people ought to be allowed to haver children.
Class: Crudely defined means, if a group of people share or have the same relationship to the means of production, that group constitutes a class. The modern day sociologists will substitute means of production with ‘scarce resources’.
Anthropometry was the term that was coined-up by Europeans for the measurement of the heads of Africans to see how much room they have for brain-capacity. By the way even among the Europeans themselves, the attitude of supremacism prevailed as was the case with the persecution and suppression of the Samis, the Tartars, the Gypsies and so on.
All these racist ideas and theories filtered through the ages in songs, the stories, the pictures, and even in music.
Similarly, inter-edthnic feeling was fomented by slavers and by the trade itself and the weak suffered in the hands of the powerful overlords. They were bought and sold by European trading companies under a system of bartering. Generally though, guns were used as currency in exchange for slaves.
The evil triangle thrived mainly through Europeans using Africans to do their bidding. Agents (invariably chiefs) were appointed to trick and capture slaves for the slave dealer. More often than not, the chief-agent will raid other neighbouring ethnic groups overnight, capture and sell them as merchandise at the fort or at the factory depending on what the dungeons were called. In some instances, churches were built over these monstrosities to bless the souls of the human cargo destined for the middle passage and eventually to the new world. . .
The same methods of ‘othering the other’ was used to justify the dehumanisation of the slave. He did not have a name! It is a thing; a trade good, a property to be owned, a tool to be used and disposed off. It has no past, except at it’s entry into the market on a bill of sale.
Slavery came to Africa with a hedeous baggage! That baggage was racism. This is the institutionalisation of the ideology of racial superiority of one set of people over the inferiority of the other. This was enshrined in law, in popular culture and even in the belief systems of those that uphold the practice. To the victims, in spite of being at the wrong end of the stick, many, if not most of them had imbibed the practice and accepted their inferior status as lesser beings. Racism became the practice and racialism the ideology.
Fast forwarding into colonisation, the colonialists used the same methods to rule the African. Feeling threatened by the marabouts for example, the British swung to the side of the soninkees. Much the same way that when they felt that there was some resistance in West Africa, they brought in the West India regiment to put down any resistance or rebellion.
At ‘independence’, we were given a constitution that caused utter mayhem and confusion! A parliamentary system that failed to speak to the geo-political realities and even worse, an electoral system based on ‘winner takes all’. One set of elite was set against the other. One ethnic group was pitched against the other and we were at a loss as to how we should rule ourselves.
The elite were quick to pick up the relative advantages of the system and therefore used it to their best advantage.
We had abandoned the systems of seeking internal general agreements; consensus building, gentle persuasion, devolution, all of which existed in the past. The opportunistic elite saw that it was best for them to encourage people to vote on grounds of ethnicity rather than being driven by the strength of their own ideological convictions. The majority ‘tribe’s political party’ will always win the elections and put their own ‘tribesmen’ into positions of authority in all the arms of government on the ground that they constitute the majority. Aren’t there more adaptable electoral models that are more all embracing and user-friendly that we can try? The Westminster model is by any stretch of the imagination alienating and not suitable.
Is it surprising therefore that in Africa, the party that no one votes for ceases power and rules? The records are there for all to see but somehow, we always think that it will never happen here and we never learn from history. Worse, successive civilian governments continue to put on the pedestal and parade former rulers and present them as our heros of modernity. Up till now, since the fifties, well over eighty coups have taken place in Africa. Was this not the case here when Jamme and his cohorts were thoroughly incensed by the excessess of the practice of rampant nepotism and corruption that made them take over the reins of power by force? Are we heading in that direction yet again? Think about it and speak out sooner rather than later.
As humans, we are all endowed with several abilities not least; the capacity to learn from experience, the ability to predict the turn of events and their outcomes, the ability to see the wood for the trees and the war for the battle?
Finally, let me try to bring the foregoing to some form of closure.
During the build-up towards nationhood, the countries in the African continent marched towards their freedom in different ways, befitting to their own contexts and peculiar local idiosyncracies. Nationalism was what fired up the peoples imagination to rise in order to take back their countries from the colonial establishments that controlled and dominated their economies, their politics, in short their lives and livelihoods.
In the main, the majority of African nation states started clamouring for their independence in the mid forties after the second world war. Although some historians date the rise of African nationalism to 1935 when Italy invaded Abyssinia. Faced with formidable resistance, the Italians resorted to using poisoned gas against Asmara.
Is it not ironic that the war veterans’ experience from the killing fields of Sidpur, Murdok, the Arakan and the kaladan etc. had ignighted the flame of nationalism within them and in gingering up the feelings of their compatriots to cause them not only to initiate action but also to lead the anti-colonial marches to government houses in Accra and other government houses in African capitals to force the change. Gambia’s own ‘Bread and Butter’ march was one such example. having demystified the invincibility of the white man in battle and after the Africans themselves had figured out that Lord Lugard’s ‘dual mandate was a ploy. Lugard’s real intention was to enter African territory to extract Africa’s resources. The resources were never for Africa’s benefit but solely for Britain to use those resources to feed the European industries. The mandate was therefore a singular mandate. This relationship goes back to slavery and the same relationship have taken on different forms, different shapes and guises over time! To say that that relationship has changed and that was a long time ago, one must be really ill-informed or one is inhabitting a fools paradise. Be this as it may, can we quickly shift our focus on what is engaging our minds as we look to the future. to outline the historical origins of the phenomenon we now either deny vehemently that it exists or timidly mutter in the safety and privacy of our minds or in the quiet confidentiality of those within our private spheres of intimacy.
I would like you to pause here for a moment and ask yourself the following questions:
Do I harbour any negative or positive feelings towards others simply because they belong to another ethnic group?
Is there a prevailing attitude among my ethnic group about other members of other groups?
Do I harbour any stereotypes about people of other ethnicities as for example: ‘Soose du sausal ken’; Surwaalu mee fang long’; Fuloolu, jamfaa dorong’; Aku bopam rek te du anda ak Olof; Sarahule … xalis rek, seetunj mboka’; Jolas stick together and speak with one voice’. By the way, do you know that the term jola comes from the mandinkas? It means that they pay you back in like measure. The term fula means that the Pular speaking people speak with two tongues.
I am sure you can add to these stereotypes which in time become firmly entrenched and become steeped in our everyday attitudes.
We all have private prejudices! What is important is what we do with them. Do they guide our conduct or do they govern our behaviour towards others?
Psychologists have identified three components of attitudes.
The first is the cognitive component, the second is the affective component and the third component is what they call the action-tendency!
The cognitive component is the rational side of the attitude. For example when we hold the thinking that the Aku’s are miserly, the jolas are a proud group of people and the fulas pilfer, the wolofs are big-mouths and so on.
The affective component is that part of us that feels the thoughts we have about something or someone. I do not know why but I feel that this girl is a gold-digger!
The man with the felt hat next door is a crook! I feel him from the distance.
I feel that the pharmacist round the corner is a distant admirer of mine and so on. We hold on to these feelings until something else changes to make us reverse our feelings.
The third component is called the action− tendency. This is the part of us that does something about how we think and feel about something. This is where we act on our attitudes.
We promote someone unfairly on the job because he is a mandinka or wolof like us.
You tell your constituents that they have to watch the wolofs because they are very divisive people. Can you think of other instances vis a vis theis component?
In the early sixties; after the formation of political parties and the general build-up towards the national elections for independence, the verbal abuse, the harangueing of political opponents was so rife that the Banjul elders summoned up all the leaders of the political parties and their stalwarts to a meeting at the ‘Rittz cinema at Fitzerald street. The goal of the meeting was to persuade the party spokes-people to tone down their verbal, at times physical abuse, character assasination and irresponsible rhetoric of hate, anti-ethnic sentiments and derisions closely akin to caste origins.
This initiative did not stop there! In the mayhem, emerged a very out-spoken group of four gallant patriots called the Committee of gentlemen comprising K.W.Foon, M. Siise M. B. Jones and Idrissa Samba.
They were a loose gathering of patriots, activists that rose above ethnic nationalism, the colony and protectorate divide, the emerging political disquiet and crisis. They were clear and forthright in their thinking. They were opposed to all the machinations and chicanaries of both the prevailing political party leaders cyphering, gimmickery and the stalling tactics of the establishment. They wanted to set The Gambia on the right foot and on the right path to political independence. Lamentably, these men of honour and conviction have fallen into oblivion and I have not come across any record of their timely interventions anywhere in the political discourse of this country nor have I found it even in our history books in use even at the tertiary and higher education?
As a nation, we are now at a threshold when plain speaking is crucial. I have quickly reviewed the new national development plan. I cannot fault it! It is a good plan, a well intentioned plan that speaks to our needs and aspirations. However, my problem is its implementation? Do we have the wherewithals and importantly, the capacity to make it work without transforming the nation into a nation of paupers and debt slaves? How can one plan on other people’s pockets? If we lived in a world of good all round samaritans and these samaritans will give you all the resources gratis then, we can put our feet up and pass the hat around. Unfortunately, we live in a world where no such thing as dis-interested aid exists. The rate at which we are going is yet again on the track to more and more debt from the Bretton woods institutions and from bi and multi-lateral agencies and loan sharks from so-called development partners. The sooner we come to the realisation that no body will give you the best of what they have got the better it is for us. The lesson is for us to plan from our own pocket! The plan itself articulates it even better than I would. More so, it points at the ramifications of debt-servicing and how it militates against development. Our creditors know this well but they continue to hold the hare and chase with the hounds! When will we learn?
To date, “the country is in external debt distress: it has an unsustainable public debt, which stands at GMD 48 billion ($ US 1 billion) or 120 per cent of GDP. Because of this, debt servicing consumes a huge amount of government revenue, leaving very limited fiscal space for financing critical infrastructure and human capital development needs and denying our private sector access to finance and credit, vital for its growth and expansion”.
At this rate, even my great, great, great grand-children will be paying this debt after we are long gone. We need to face ourselves. Part of that process of self-engagement will include the broadening of our capacities, our hearts and minds so that we can accomodate each other without prejudice and without being too needlessly judgmental. This way, we learn and continue to learn from the facts of history. We need constantly to identify those aspects of our dark sides. That Anima in us that is deeply recessed in our subconscious feeding those negative urges that are lacking in charity, that are intolerant to difference and the tendency towards fearing the other. Above all, we need to strengthen the education system so that it is more attuned with our economic realities. it must be looked at wholistically, not piecemeal and not in a cock-eyed manner. We must examine and rectify the deficiencies within them, from pre-school all the way to higher education.
We need to build capacities within our public institutions and find ways in which we can limit the usurpation of all the powers within them by the C E O. The CEO by the way is not the institution and the institution is not synonimous with the CEO. All managers, I presume, would have learnt that delegation is a cardinal principle of management.
The municipalities should remember that their primary role is community development. This is why they must dialogue with people in the municipalities, respond to their needs and work with them closely at all levels of the planning and implementation processes so that, the revenues they raise must be used prudently and transparently by opening their books for public scrutiny.
On another note, I am encouraged by the African free trade zone agreements conference in Ruanda. I am encouraged even more so that Mr Barro is attending. The salvation of Africa lies within Africa herself but I am deeply troubled about the current hysteria about Senegal. Jamme has left but his familiar, violent, emotional outbursts and temper tantrums about Senegal has rubbed off even at the most unsuspecting quarters.
Africa must go beyond free-trade agreements and veer towards realignment of our economies, find solutions for our energy needs so that we can industrialise. Does it not surprise you that we can, all by ourselves find and fulfill the energy needs of our continent? Renewable energy sources are infinite. Why do we not as Africans put this up as our top priority even at the regional level to begin with? Even the very basic domestic needs of electricity have not been satiated since 1977. Why can we not work this out with Senegal so that we do not continue to produce it inefficiently? Is it our ego that is making us prevaricate? This will be a necessary first step towards complementarity. we can complement each others strengths and work on our weaknesses in order to turn them into strengths and opportunities. Africa must open her artificial borders and allow for the movement of goods, people and services.
For the Gambian population, I am going to ask here a few pertinent questions on their behalf and I demand an answer. The Gambians deserve this! Are the local government elections a dress rehersal for the general elections to come? If yes, has the coalition’s promise of an initial three years tenure in office going to be honoured? If no, is this a case of the coalition reneging on the promise they had made to go to the nation after three years? The people deserve to be treated with respect and not left hanging on a string. Sincerity honesty and courtesy are important virtues that holders of public office must revere and cherish even if it is for the office’s sake.
I hope that it will soon dawn on us that; we are all the children of Adam; we are endowed with multiple identities, some of them shift while others remain; we all belong to a race, a gender, have different experiences, belong to a particular language grouping, a caste perhaps, belong to a religion etc. May be soon, We will come to the realisation that people may make different choices in their lives; will have differences and hold differing political and ideological stances. This does not make them enemies!
The Gambia will continue to be every body’s anchor, haven and heartland where we strive to work and pray so that we will all live in unity, freedom and peace each day. Let us, let us. let justice guide our actions towards the common good ….
Please keep tribalism out of our politics and maintain and stay committed to the ideals of the ideological stand you have taken and prepare to act to make a change. That is what will take us forward into the twenty first century and not take us back into the devisive old and bad ways and daunting mazes of ethnic and ‘tribal’ politics.
What has become of our cross ethnic jokes; our cross surname jokes, Sereers versus Peuls and the enduring ice-breakers within our traditions that build instant trust and friendship with each other? what has happened to our humour?