Yes we can

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By Baba Galleh Jallow

Happy birthday to our new and beautiful Gambia! Exactly one year ago, Gambians decided that we are sick and tired of Jammeh’s dictatorship and his unhealthy politics of insults, tribal bigotry and rampant squandering of pour national resources. The majority of Gambians rallied around the Coalition candidate and sent the despot packing, once and for all. A lot of water has flowed under the proverbial bridge ever since, some of it very good; some not so good. Nevertheless, it has been a great year for Gambians, especially for those of us who were forced into exile for so long. Some of us have had the chance to visit home again, in my case after 17 long years in exile. And we can’t wait to get back home again, finally to continue contributing more directly to the progress of our dear little country.

Ever since the advent of the New Gambia, some of us have chosen to be resolutely optimistic about the direction of our country. We believe that in spite of the challenges we have faced and continue to face, Gambia is on the move in the right direction. This is mainly because we are talking to each other; everyone is freely expressing their opinions and exchanging ideas, both on the ground, in the diaspora, and on social media. Acrimonious as some of these exchanges are, there is always the possibility of getting it right when people freely talk to each other. We have suggested that the free flow of ideas and information and ideas in the body politic is comparable to the free flow of blood in the human body. Just as free blood flow enhances the health of the human body, so does the free flow of ideas and information enhance the health of the body politic. Hence our abiding optimism that we can do this, and we will do it if we keep talking to each other, listening to each other however hard that may be, and taking action based on measured and intelligent deliberations rather than knee jerk reactions to fear or unpleasant or unjustified criticism. And as we mark one year of the defeat of dictatorship in our country, we remain supremely optimistic that we can take our country to the next level of peace, progress and prosperity because we are endowed with the natural intelligence to do what is right even in the face of momentous challenges.

Over the past several months we have observed certain commendable actions on the part of our new political leadership. It was a relief to see that when President Barrow returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca, he immediately declined to be called Alhaji. That was a positive and very wise action on the part of Mr. Barrow, for it allayed fears that he would soon accumulate a list of meaningless titles like our former president and many other African leaders have done since independence. Often, titles are freely conferred upon African presidents and could lead to moral corruption and eventual ethical bankruptcy. There are always people who will not hesitate to pronounce lofty titles for leaders as a means of gaining some benefits or because they feel they have to do so to keep their jobs. We therefore heaved a sigh of relief when Mr. Barrow explicitly said he did not want to be called Alhaji. Of course, that in no way nullifies the fact that he is an Alhajj, one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Equally encouraging was news that the president asked some young people who wanted to call themselves the Barrow Youth Movement or something like that not to do so. Again, this was a significant development in our resurgent democratic culture. In a continent with a long history of similar youth movements of dubious origin and intentions, it was great that Mr. Barrow stepped in to explicitly say no. Encouraged or left unchecked, overzealous youth movements quickly morph into jingoistic and fanatical militia who do not hesitate to resort to violence in the name of defending their leader. The despotic regime of Yahya Jammeh saw the mushrooming of groups like the July 22nd Movement, the Green Boys, the Black Black Boys, and eventually the Jungulars who committed all manner of crimes against Gambians in the name of defending their patron. They beat up innocent people and set fire to houses and businesses, even shot and wounded or killed people in the name of defending their patron.  And in the case of the mindless despot that was Yahya Jammeh, those acts of vandalism and criminality were encouraged and given the blessing of state support. We commend President Barrow for taking that step to discourage the youths naming their movement after him and urge both him and all party leaders to actively discourage overzealous party supporters from engaging in a politics of needless hostility.

It was also a pleasure to note that in his address to the recent UDP gathering in Crawley, Mr. Ousainou Darboe took the time to address the growing problem of intolerance and hostility displayed by some UDP supporters. Mr. Darboe made it clear that the UDP and its supporters “must not allow extreme negative militancy and overzealousness” and “unmeasured language” to tarnish their image. Mr. Darboe further said that his party leadership expects that “those who truly respect and belong to the UDP be mindful of how they communicate especially through social media” and to “ensure that all our communications no matter what platform we may use is driven and guarded by caution, sensitivity and modest language which is factual, relevant and tactfully put across.” With these words, Mr. Darb0e injected a healthy dose of political civility into the ears and minds of his party members and supporters. It is very likely that we will see a definite decline in the use of hostile language on the part of those UDP supporters who hitherto engaged in the practice. His words represent a very encouraging sign of the growth of a culture of civility in Gambian politics. The leaders of our other political parties are challenged to make similar statements to their members and supporters because the politics of hostility does not come only from UDP supporters. Such communication should not be a one-off event but an unfolding process of healthy exchanges between our political leadership, the members and supporters of their individual parties and the general Gambian public. After all, all well-meaning Gambians want the best for The Gambia and we can get the best for The Gambia if we encourage a culture of healthy civility and mutual respect for each other’s persons and political opinions and orientations. We should always observe the golden rule not to do or say unto others what we would not want said or done unto us.

Another encouraging feature of our new political dispensation is the accessibility of government officials – from the president to ministers, civils servants and our national public media. There have been many meetings and contacts between the president and some of his ministers with Gambian communities both at home and abroad, regardless of party affiliations. A few instances that come to mind are Mr. Barrow’s meeting with Gambians in New York during the UN General Assembly meeting, more recently his meeting with Gambians in Dubai, and Mr. Darboe’s meeting with Gambians in Maryland. The Minister of Justice Ba Tambadou has had some press briefings and recently participated in a panel discussion on transitional justice. Information Minister Demba Jawo has also had some significant interactions with the Gambian public. Both President Barrow and some of his ministers maintain active social media platforms where they keep in touch with the Gambian public. These examples of close contacts between the people and their political leaders and public servants represent a healthy closing of the power distance between people and government that exist in many African countries. It is a very healthy practice that we should nurture and encourage as we move into the second year of the New Gambia.

Also very encouraging is the growing culture of friendship and traditional joking relations between Gambians of different ethnicities and from different regions on social media. Facebook has seen a healthy rise in joking relations between Kiangkas and Baddibunkas for example, spearheaded by users like our good Kiangka brother Eden Sharp (not his real name),  Bass Drammeh, Jai Marong, Njundu Drammeh, Masaneh Bajinka, Jamal Drammeh, and many others. Baddibunkas like myself have staunchly argued that Kiang is no match for Baddibu. There are also similar pleasant exchanges with the Nuiminkas and Jarrankas. These exchanges are an age old tradition that helps to nurture friendly relations and camaraderie between Gambians from different regions of the country. There has also been some fun-poking between people having different surnames along the same lines. A few weeks ago, Bamba Serign Mass started an interesting conversation on Facebook about different surnames that are in fact the same among Gambian communities. The post was hugely popular, generating as at the time of writing, 148 likes and reactions, 254 comments, and 32 shares on Facebook.  It appears from Bamba’s list and the responses his post generated that most Gambians in fact share the same surname, even though they are written or pronounced differently. We must deliberately promote these rich cultural traditions because they help cement our ties across all kinds of other differences we may have, including ethnic, religious and political differences that have the potential of dividing us. They have the potential to dampen the ugly politics of ethnicity and general hostility that Jammeh introduced into Gambian politics and that often turn ugly in Gambian social media circles.

Particularly encouraging are signs that the Gambian judiciary is now exercising its long lost freedom from the executive branch of government. Judicial independence and the rule of law were literally taboo subjects under the ousted Jammeh dictatorship. But that has changed. A recent case in point is the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Public Order Act challenged by Mr. Ousainou Darboe and 19 other victims of the act under Jammeh is in fact constitutional. Justice Minister Ba Tambadou’s statement that while the government disagrees with the Supreme Court it nevertheless respects their ruling is an encouraging sign of the return of the rule of law in Gambian politics. The Public Order Act might not be unconstitutional, but it is certainly a bad law that needs to be expunged from our constitution alongside other Jammeh era bad laws that restrict the rights and freedoms of Gambian citizens. Hopefully all these bad laws will be removed from our constitution sooner rather than later, certainly during the proposed constitutional review process.

But even as we celebrate these and other healthy developments in our beautiful little country over the past year, we must also acknowledge some of the unhealthy developments that have taken place during this same period. For example, we feel that the occupy Westfield episode could have been better handled by the Barrow administration. By trying to discourage a peaceful demonstration, the authorities turned it into a bigger issue than it should have been. The right course of action was to simply issue a police permit and to provide the necessary security personnel to make sure that the protest proceeded and ended peacefully. But by trying to discourage and ultimately prevent it from happening, the authorities almost turned a simple civic event into a major national crisis. Of course many people did not buy the excuse by the police that the occupy Westfield group was denied a permit due to national security concerns. National security concerns, real or imagined, represent a hated bogey in African politics that is frequently exploited by paranoid regimes and individuals within those regimes to deny people their democratic rights and therefore inject an unhealthy dose of political acrimony into the body politic. Let people demonstrate peacefully if they want to and just make sure to provide enough security to ensure that no one breaks the law or causes public disorder.

In the interest of a better, healthier Gambia, we would also like to see the Barrow administration break from the strange tradition of firing government ministers and public officials without explanation. That is a very typical Jammeh era practice that should not be encouraged in the new Gambia. If a minister or some other high profile public official is removed from office, it is only fair that the Gambian public is given a sense of why they are removed from office. Transparency and accountability are lofty concepts but very tough virtues to practice. But however tough it is, Gambians should not be left speculating, gossiping and wondering why government officials are sacked from their jobs. It is not enough to be told that the president has the authority to hire or fire. Yes he has that authority. He also has the authority and obligation, by virtue of his position as the nation’s leader, to give Gambians a good sense of why government ministers and other high profile public officials are sacked. In the event that the government does not give an acceptable explanation, we expect that our private media should make it a point of duty to follow the story, investigate it, and share their findings with the general public.

More recently we have heard sad stories of Gambians being denied access to our beaches for most of the days in the interest of keeping tourists safe. This ugly legacy of the Jammeh regime is a very unhealthy practice that needs to be corrected as a matter of urgency. We certainly support the presence of police on our beaches for purposes of making sure that tourists are protected from unwanted harassment and other forms of inconvenience. However, preventing Gambians from walking or playing on our own beaches is not acceptable. It does not tell well on our image as a kind, friendly and enlightened people. Why not engage in an ongoing public sensitization program in addition to having a healthy but detached and restrained police presence to make sure that everyone is safe on our beaches? The money we get from tourism is certainly important. But nothing is more important to Gambia than our own people. We therefore call upon the Barrow administration and especially Tourism Minister Hamat Bah to facilitate consultations and reflections on how best to manage this tricky situation in a way that will allow Gambians to continue enjoying their freedom of movement in their own country while protecting tourists who need to be protected from undue harassment and other inconveniences. We also call upon our journalists on the ground to conduct a survey of the tourists in the hotels on this issue to find out how they feel about the matter of Gambians being denied access to the beaches.

No one can deny that compared to the old Gambia, it has been a great first year for the new Gambia. We have seen some beautiful developments, most especially the freedom of expression and of association that was denied Gambians for 22 long years. The president and members of his government have taken some steps that are very healthy for our democracy and some steps that are not so healthy for our democracy. There have been and there remain some serious socio-cultural challenges too, like the practice by some of us to unduly castigate members of other political parties, people belonging to different ethnic groups, or people expressing opinions opposed to ours. As we enter the second year of the new Gambia, our challenge is to continue working hard, thinking hard and remaining optimistic that we can improve on our achievements and overcome the challenges we face through a deliberate appeal to reason, commonsense and a love for truth, fair play and justice. We know that yes, it will not be an easy task; but we also know that yes, we are more than equal to the task of taking our country to the next level. Yes we can.

God bless The Gambia, the Smiling Coast of West Africa.

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