By Baba Galleh Jallow
Party identification, identifying with a political party within a nation (which we here call partisanism), is the defining feature of a democratic political dispensation. For any country to be considered democratic there must be a number of political parties and individual actors competing for a share of the people’s political power and public offices. Where there is only one party in a country or if the party in power is oppressive and intolerant of dissent, partisanism will still exist because people will identify with the parties of their choice whether these parties are allowed to operate legally or not, and whether the single party in power likes it or not. Partisanism is therefore an integral and inevitable aspect of political life in a nation-state.
However, partisanism may often degenerate into blind loyalty and political bigotry. In authoritarian states like the ousted Jammeh regime’s, identification with the party in power is erroneously equated with a sense of political omnipotence, infallibility and an unrestrained right to enjoy special power and privileges within the nation-state. This kind of partisanism is dangerous because it subsumes the nation and the national interest under the parochial interests of a specific sub-national political entity. Under such unhealthy political conditions, the party in power suggests to its supporters that they literally own the political space to the exclusion of other equally legitimate and entitled entities within the nation. The consequences could range from brutal repression, mindless nepotism and cronyism to widespread political hostility and a culture of angry silence that smothers the nation’s intellectual, creative and economic potential. The party in power manages through repression to impose a peace of the iron grid, an illusory peace that sooner or later explodes into varying forms and degrees of civil conflict. In some cases it leads to violence that consumes the nation and wreaks almost irreparable havoc on the country. In The Gambia between December 9, 2016 and January 19, 2017 a cool-headed and measured intelligence denied the ousted dictatorship an opportunity to orchestrate a deadly repression that would have been supported by the dictator’s blind loyalists.
Blind partisanism can easily morph into a kind of fascist sub-nationalism. In The Gambia, blind loyalty to the ousted dictator and his party over and above the Gambian nation by both civilians and segments of the security forces helped perpetuate a regime of brutality and terror whose nature is only now becoming known to some Gambians. As the discovery of evidence of extrajudicial killings and unmarked graves continues, Gambians must keep in mind that blind partisanism is partly responsible for the perpetuation of these crimes. There is no harm in supporting parties and leaders of our choice; but it is dangerous to render so much support to these sub-national entities that we come to consider them more important than the nation to which they belong and within which they are embedded.
Blind partisanism generates a culture of political hostility in the body politic. It discourages healthy political debate and discourse, shuns fair competition and fosters a politics of insults and lack of respect for political opponents and differing opinions. It encourages unquestioning and unconditional loyalty and support for party leaders and precludes critical evaluation of their pronouncements and actions. Whatever the party leaders say or do is considered beyond question by their supporters who also insist that it must be so accepted by the opponents of the party or its leader. It therefore denies and rejects the human capacity for making mistakes and errors of judgment and therefore ascribes to the party and the leader a semi-divine status that borders on sacrilege. A party that promotes and thrives on blind partisanism may win power and hold on to power for any length of time, but it is inevitably doomed to failure and will wreak considerable damage on the nation-state it presides over. Non-governing parties that encourage blind partisanism in their supporters also foster a culture of political hostility that is inimical to the wellbeing of the nation.
At all times and under all circumstances, especially in our beautiful little Gambia, party leaders and supporters should remember that while it is okay to disagree and even quarrel across party political lines, it is never okay to allow such disagreements and quarrels to degenerate into a hostile enmity that poses a threat to our national wellbeing. We have succeeded in dislodging a divisive and violent leader and his jingoistic party from power. But recent unsavory exchanges between political parties and their supporters suggest that our partisanism is at risk of morphing into a form of virulent sub-nationalism inimical to our healthy progress as a nation. We all have and should freely enjoy the right to support the party of our choice. But being a member and supporter of one particular party should not translate into considering the members and supporters of any other party as our enemies with whom we must engage in a battle to the death over who enjoys more legitimacy or who should be in power now or in the future. Let us think of ourselves as belonging to one extended Gambian family for in reality, that’s what we are.
Gambians of all religious, ideological and political persuasions must always put love of country above support for any single entity with the nation, whether this is a party, a region or a leader. We must expend conscious effort to build a spirit of Gambian nationalism that transcends all forms of ethnic, religious, and party political loyalties and places the supreme interest of the nation above all sectarian interests. Democracy is built upon a culture of political pluralism, competition, debate and disagreement. But we must constantly guard against the ascendancy of a politics of blind partisanism and bigotry that thrives on insults and degradation of political opponents and critics for no reason other than that they are not members of our political party, or do not agree with the words and actions of our party leaders. Where partisanism is pitted against nationalism, nationalism must be made to triumph for in that triumph lies the salvation of our beautiful little nation.