Professor Abdoulie Saine’s Insightful Lecture in Context

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Dr. Ebrima Ceesay

When the “Democracy” movements in Africa began to gain momentum in the early 1990s, the emergence of these popular pro-democracy movements did give rise initially, to optimistic scholarly assessments about the prospects for a democratic future in Africa. The late “Africanist/Gambianist” scholar, Dr John Wiseman, who had a huge impact on this early democratization literature, did clearly belong to the “demo-optimist” school of thought. Using a very minimalist notion of democracy at the time, John had argued that there was a case for cautious optimism in Africa. On the other hand, you also had the “demo-pessimist” school of thought.

The end of the Cold War (1985 – 1991) brought about a huge paradigm shift, with a very strong move, at the time, towards democratic forms of government in African states, as we saw several mass pro-democracy movements across the Continent. As a result, a very rich and voluminous literature was developed. The democratization literature was awash with analyses of how, for example, the end of the Cold War was a crucial factor in leading to political change in Africa, along with changes in the Aid policies of the World Bank and other Western donor countries.

Paradoxically, whilst many of these sub-Saharan states were moving steadily towards democracy in the first half of the 1990s, The Gambia moved in the opposite direction and towards military dictatorship. As such, the Gambia provided an interesting case to study because at the time of the 1994 coup, the country was only one of four existing “functioning democracies” (Senegal, Botswana and Mauritius) during Africa’s ‘third wave’ of democratization which began in 1989 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet, in the wake of the 1994 coup in the Gambia, there was a dearth of research in the existing democratization literature through which one can locate and analyze this Gambian “exceptionalism” and “re-democratization” in the country. This was due to the fact that the Gambian case was unique, in that our country was not merely democratizing, but re-democratizing under a quasi-military regime, following the 1996 Presidential Election which Jammeh “won”.

The term, “re-democratization”, by the way, was used by Saine and myself in our respective scholarly works to denote both concept and process that involved the re-introduction and re-institutionalization of the rule of law lost suddenly through a coup d’état or other forms of internal political strife. In sum, the academic literature on democratization in Africa did not, at the time of the 1994 coup in the Gambia, adequately address directly the issues of “re-democratization” for countries such as the Gambia – which were moving into military dictatorship at the time of this “third wave of democratization”.

Consequently, assessing “re-democratization” in the context of the Gambia, first under a military (1994 -1996) and later, under a quasi-military regime (1996 -2016) could potentially, add to the richness of the literature on democratization in Africa.  The Gambia’s ‘exceptionalism’ in regional, continental and global political development needed to be explained and analyzed. And scholars such as Saine and myself wanted to re-conceptualize the (theoretical) debate on Africa’s democratization processes and prospects – rather than just re-state or reaffirm the existing literature (on the democracy discourse in Africa).

These questions, among others, were posed: what implications and lessons would the Gambian case offer or have for the literature on democracy and democratization in Africa? How are we to make sense of “re-democratization” in The Gambia and situate it within the larger literature on democratization in Africa? What potential lessons would the Gambian case hold to both strengthen and possibly modify some widely-held conclusions about democratization in Africa?

It was against this background that a cadre of scholars mainly Abdoulaye Saine, Ebrima Ceesay, Ebrima Sall, late John Wiseman, David Perfect and Jimmy Knadeh began to use The Gambia as a case study, in order to examine the process of re-democratization that was occurring in The Gambia at the time. Some of us felt the need to revisit the theoretical discussion of the relevant literature, in order to come up with something afresh that would re-conceptualize rather than regurgitate the prevailing literature.

The paradox being that at the time of this burgeoning democratic transition in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s, The Gambia went against the trend, and succumbed to a military coup d’état in 1994. Therefore, this Gambia’s “exceptionalism” at a time when both internal and external calls for democratization in Africa were increasing in strength, did present scholars such as myself, Abdoulaye Saine and Ebrima Sall with a conundrum.

How and why would the Gambia, an apparent stronghold of multi-party democracy, suddenly lurch into military dictatorship, when so many of its neighbors were espousing democracy? The task was to explain and analyze the conditions which pre-disposed our tiny country to a military coup d’état, at a time when much of Africa was “democratizing”. Some of us wanted to explore the Gambian case, as it imposed an important distinction that other democratizing states in Africa did not, necessarily, share. And Professor Saine’s work(s) on Post-1994 Gambia did make a seminal contribution to these debates of democratization and reform in Africa.

By Dr. Ebrima Ceesay

Source: Community of Gambian scholars Listserv

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