The Barrow Presidency, No. 1

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By Foday Samateh

One year on, the most charitable thing to say about the Barrow Administration is that it’s governing by temporizing. It’s a tale with all the pretensions of an epic story, but lacks a theme, a narrative and a rhythm. It’s a mishmash of words and acts that so often disappoint rather than inspire confidence. And the protagonist has made a habit of not showing up for his leading role unless swooning crowds are assembled to cheer his public parades. He is the opposite of Coriolanus who delights in charging into action and shuns the ceremonial aspect of power. Though any comparison to Nero would be unfair, Barrow seems most animated by the spectacles that come with the presidency, but shows little passion for the nitty-gritty of being president.

These are not some flippant throwaway lines by a Jacques in “As You Like It” orating artful maxims. I must hasten to add that I never counted myself among the Administration’s hardened critics laying claim to self-justifying vindications. Nor am I a sentimental admirer turned disheartened by unfulfilled lofty expectations. Any realist can only be so optimistic about the fortunes of a country emerging out of entrenched despotism. And I was willing to be kind to any citizen who, thanks to the accident of circumstances, becomes responsible for a broke and broken country if the individual dedicate their best ability to the arduous challenges of nation building. Ideally, the task should fall to a visionary. Though Barrow is no Henry V, he has something going for him the previous guy never had — character. Or, so I thought.

Just after I wrote those words, a friend called to tell me Dr. Ismaila Ceesay had been arrested. The outspoken academic and public intellectual had, in an interview with a newspaper, shared his concern that the President needed to win the trust of the army for the country’s long term security. To the authorities in Banjul, that anodyne observation constituted a threat to national security. So the police “invited” this latter-day Socrates for questioning.

Shock and alarm rushed through me before subsiding into a cold, depressing feeling. Instead of making a clean break from the past and delivering on the promised reform of “overhauling everything,” Barrow is more and more continuing the abhorrent practices of the rejected despotism. Summarily firing officials without explanation; accepting millions worth of personal “gifts” from anonymous “philanthropists” and giving them out in his own name; surrounding himself with a cabal of cronies of questionable reputations and self-serving whisperers; establishing outfits of patronage in his own image; and, now, arresting upstanding citizens for the crime of speaking their mind. So much for the so-called third republic.

My purpose for this piece before the the news of the good professor’s “invitation” to the Serious Crime Unit at the Police HQ was to echo the clarion call of Madi Jobarteh and others denouncing the Barrow Youth Movement and the Adama Barrow Foundation for Inclusive Development (ABFID) as horrible ideas in themselves and reminiscent of the terrible past. Did Barrow seriously think that inserting the descriptor “Inclusive” in his foundation’s name would fool us to think it’s different than his predecessor’s Jammeh Foundation for Peace? And did he think we would be so unsuspecting to realize that the Barrow Youth Movement and the July 22nd Movement are distinctions without difference? To the credit of the brother from Kanilai now “vacationing” in Malabo, he exercised the rare humility of not naming his movement after himself. I can’t believe I just said that.

There’s no need for me to bother sounding redundant in reinforcing the salient points already raised against the Barrow movement and foundation. Barrow is doing a pretty good job of shattering his own creditability. Anymore stupefying acts of self-aggrandizement and abuses of power, his words will ring hollow; and his authority and character will fall into moral bankruptcy. On second thought, maybe the Nero comparison wouldn’t be so unfair as inadequate after all. At least the Roman was only fiddling while his empire burned.

It’s not too late for Barrow to turn things around for himself and the country. The Information Minister’s press release about the unconditional release of Dr. Ceesay and the Administration’s respect for freedom of speech isn’t enough. And no, we won’t breathe a sigh of relief nor feel contented that no hemlock was administered to this philosopher accused of corrupting the minds of the youths to incite them against the reigning order. The moment demands a presidential address. Barrow needs to go on national television to announce that he is disbanding the movement and the foundation. He needs to reassure the public that all constitutional rights are sacred and inviolable. He needs to reaffirm that he will serve only a single term in office and will not stand as a candidate in the next presidential election per coalition agreement. The following day, he needs to do house cleaning by firing anyone in the Administration who sold him on the movement and the foundation, and disassociate himself from those outside the Administration who urged him to take such missteps. And on the third day, he needs to convene a meeting with all the coalition stakeholders at the State House to recommit themselves to the transition agenda.

Will Barrow do anything of the sort to win back his deserting troop of supporters and disarm his swelling rank of critics? But more importantly, will he make a real show of public reassurance to reset his presidency and the country’s fledgling democracy? With the past being the prologue, the chances of him doing so are slim to none. Barrow needs to disabuse himself of the notion that he rather let his record speak for itself. This conception of leadership is so wrong on so many levels. For the sake of taking him at his word, he should know that his record is speaking out loud. And the message is not good.

Barrow certainly deserves the blame coming his way, but the fault is not entirely his alone. The National Assembly is culpable, too, if not complicit in many instances. Where are the legislative bills to prevent presidents from establishing foundations, transacting businesses, and engaging in things that have whiff of conflicts of interest? If the National Assembly can amend the Constitution for one individual to get appointed Vice President, surely they have no excuse for failing to act on nobler reasons for the greater good.

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