By Baba Galleh Jallow
If you think democracy is hard, try dictatorship. Try a system where one man assumes absolute power, usurps the rights of everyone in the country, turns himself into a malignant god on earth, kills innocent people left right and center, has a horde of minions telling him he will live forever, and assumes a monopoly on what constitutes wrong or right, truth or lies, justice or injustice and wisdom or foolery. If you think democracy is hard, try a system in which a village idiot struts around clad in the fake garbs of holy piety, uttering confused noises and insisting on being the most righteous, most just, and most wise individual to ever walk this earth. Yet, dictatorship, hard and bad as it is, is much easier to manage than democracy. That is because the path to democracy is strewn with slippery slopes and frightening corners that threaten to crush and annihilate all that would walk towards democracy. While there is no easy path to freedom, as Nelson Mandela famously put it, the path to democracy is even harder as South Africans and increasingly Gambians are learning.
Yet, we cannot afford to stop, or to fail in building a democratic culture in our country. We cannot afford to be pessimistic about the future of our country. We cannot afford to be afraid of the slippery slopes and frightening corners of democracy. We cannot afford to allow the mistakes of the past or the challenges of the present to derail the Gambian renaissance. We cannot afford to allow despots in exile and their minions to laugh at us and say we told you so. We have more than what it takes to turn The Gambia into a model democratic nation in Africa and in the world. But we cannot afford to be complacent or to imagine that democracy will just happen easily, or that it will happen just because we say it will happen.
It is not enough for us to declare to the world that we are committed to the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We must make sure that our lofty pronouncements of fidelity to democratic ideals are matched by fidelity to practical democratic actions and steps towards the actualization of a true democratic culture in our country. We can start by realizing that there that there are and there will be obstacles and threats of all kinds along the path, but also by recognizing that we are more than capable of dealing with whatever obstacles and threats may arise on our path. We must react to these obstacles and threats not with fear and the knee-jerk reactions motivated by fear, but with sensible and measured actions whose outcome will be success and a step closer to our desired state of democracy and progress.
We must realize that there are no half-measures in democracy. We cannot at once be democratic and undemocratic. We cannot pledge allegiance to democracy and act in ways that threaten to derail our progress towards democracy. We cannot pick and choose which democratic practices to embrace and which to discard. Democracy comes in an indivisible package of the good, the bad and the ugly and we must be ready to deal consistently with all of them in a democratic manner. A nation cannot be half democratic, half dictatorial. It has to be either one or the other. The moment we start acting in undemocratic ways, we expose ourselves to sliding further down the path of dictatorship because that is the much easier path to follow. We must realize that it is also the much more expensive path, the path to destruction and failure. And we cannot afford to destroy ourselves or to fail. Small actions that may be justified by reference to issues of national security often multiply in short order and become a mass of undemocratic actions that inevitably leads to the derailment of a democratic process. We cannot afford that in the new Gambia. And since we are more than capable of avoiding a derailment of our democracy, we must recognize the smallest missteps we make and correct them as a matter of urgency.
The path to democracy is full of annoying noises that we must nevertheless listen to and manage with utmost care and intelligence. Democracy gives rise to a multitude of voices that may have nothing important to say, but that may want to say something anyway because it is their right to do so. These voices are not to be shouted down or silenced. They must be allowed to have their noisy say in the democratic space. Yes it may be hard to listen to citizens who say things just because they have the right to say things, whether these things make sense or not, whether we like these things or not, whether we agree with these things or not. But there is simply no alternative to allowing them to have their say, and making the most of what they have to say. The challenge is to understand that becoming democratic inevitably presupposes becoming an unwilling interlocutor to all kinds of opinions, some directed at us, some directed at our critics, but all purportedly directed at the quest for a better common national space. The right of our fellow citizens to free expression of peaceful opinion, however uncomfortable it makes us feel, must be tolerated and protected as much as our own right to free expression of peaceful opinion is protected.
The greatest obstacle to democratic progress in Africa since independence has been fear: fear of protests, fear of critical public opinion, fear of the truth, fear of losing our privileged positions in society, fear of being thought weak. All these fears inspire a strong desire in us to do undemocratic things even as we reaffirm our commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In a dictatorship, these fears inspire a hatred of all things democratic and the very concepts of human rights and the rule of law which insists on tolerance and civility. But these fears are ill-inspired. They should not exist at all in the democratic mentality. Peaceful protests, critical public opinion, the truth, and losing privileged positions are all part of the democratic process. And the democratic mentality should not entertain fear of the democratic process. The way to deal with uncomfortable events and processes on the path to democracy is to manage them intelligently, not to suppress them or paint them in the evil colors of the devil out to destroy us. If there is hard evidence of a desire or intention to deliberately disrupt the public peace, then we can legitimately step in to take corrective action. In the absence of such hard evidence, intelligent management is our best option.
Crisis is an integral part of the democratic process and must be managed rather than muted. Generally, efforts to avert crisis through undemocratic measures only leads to greater and deeper crisis. We must believe enough in the power of our human and Gambian intelligence not to let fears, often unfounded, to derail and subvert our democratic process. Because that, precisely, is what the enemies of democracy would like to see. If a particular event in our emergent democratic culture is perceived as a threat to our national security, we must do everything possible to make sure that it does not in reality pose such a threat, not by arbitrarily stopping that event, but by thinking intelligently about how to manage the event so that it proceeds peacefully as planned. The capacity to think in strategic democratic terms grows from the capacity to recognize that there is no easy path to democracy, and that ever so often, we may need to take action that is both intelligent and courageous, and never to take action or fail to take action out of fear of expressions of the democratic spirit. As Nelson Mandela again reminds us, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” We have made some significant steps in this direction, especially in our tolerance of the former despot’s party. But again, Mandela tells us, “After climbing one great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” We can do this. We must do it. We cannot afford to fail. And we will not fail if we recognize and embrace the reality that there is no easy path to democracy.