ECOWAS and the Urgency of Term-limits in entrenching democracy and the rule of law
By Mathew K Jallow
It was the opening salvo of a new political paradigm. For a moment, it seemed fresh and pregnant with hope. But again, not really. It was more like deja vous all over again. ‘We will not allow coup after coup in this African sub-region’~Nigerian President Tinubu, also ECOWAS Chairman.’ His statements were gripping and hyperbolic all at the same time. And looking back at the storied history of the past two decades, they are cynical too, if not an ostentatious display of a macho man complex. But I digress. For now. Notably, prior to President Tinubu’s in-artful articulation, chairman of ECOWAS Parliament Committee on political affairs, Melvin Snowe Jr, had delivered a blunt admonition that reverberated all across Gambia. Instantaneously, the political discourse shifted from complacency to trepidation, and benign concern to dreadful alarm. Senegal’s week of deadly political violence had became a lesson, if not for all of Africa, then at least for West Africa, ECOWAS, in particular. And for Gambia, the three-term presidency hushed across political circles over the past several years, finally soft landed to the full glare of a bedazzled public. A colossal failure of leadership was slowly bearing down on the Gambia, which promises to unravel the democratic gains that so many died for. Suddenly, the conflict in Senegal became the catalyst in realizing that Gambia could just as easily fall victim to the reckless machinations of unscrupulous politicians. Senegal could prove to be the testing grounds of a blueprint for spineless political greed, and a metaphor for the unflattering self-centeredness that could possibly consume the Gambia in dystopian nightmare. The opposing forces in this grim scenario could conceivably plunge the Gambia in tragic moral and ethical quandary. Without being sanguinary about it, the Gambia could possibly be cruising towards ominous clouds beyond the horizon. And politicians with mind-numbing affinity for Machiavellian immorality could be the accelerating agents of this political inferno. Make no mistake about it, should political pandemonium ever envelop Gambian politics over the threats of a third term run, it would not be based on principle or logic, but rather on things so elemental to African politics; power greed.
When Nigerian President Bola Tinubu made that pugnacious statement last week, he had reason to be enraged by what has happened across West Africa over the past decade. The question now is whether ECOWAS has the level of institutional integration to entice member states to coalesce around an issue of intrinsic value in fostering political stability, and by extension, economic growth. And so, in Gambia, the problem of governance that’s quintessential African in nature, promises to tear the country apart over President Adama Barrow’s asinine third term run. The impending split between the far less educated President Barrow camp, whose overarching goal is exclusively centered on staying employed, and the highly educated opponents of a third presidential term, uniquely informed by an interest in entrenching democracy and good governance in the Gambia. At the center of it all this is the lack of a Constitution in which the term limits language is entrenched as a sacred pillar of the co-equal branches system of government. And therein lies the problems that have dogged the Gambia over the last half century. Sir Dawda, a democrat through and through, overstayed, and in 1992, his party convention dealt Gambia a fatal blow, which gave rise to the 1994 military coup. It took two years for Gambians to overcome the initial shock of the military take-over before beginning the struggle to uproot the junta and restore Gambia’s fledgling democracy. This effort was spearheaded by a Gambian diaspora whose primary motive was the unconditional Yahya Jammeh removal from power. Its wasn’t until the miracle of fate gave birth to the social media platforms Facebook, and WhatsApp that our common political aspiration became possible. A Gambian diaspora imbued with academic knowledge and lived experience of the flaws inherent in the Gambia’s burgeoning democracy, committed to a renewed reincarnation of a system with the two-term limits as centerpiece of the three co-equal branches constitutional system Gambia adopted in 1970. In the end, the disastrous MoU signed by the current and aspiring political parties displayed withering contempt for professionalism, shattered the hopes for a truly democratic Gambia.
The blunders caused by Gambia’s political parties in effectively mismanaging the post-Yahya Jammeh era, notwithstanding, one opportunity remained to remedy the amateurism demonstrated by politicians in their mad rush to sideline the diaspora. With an amateur leadership at the helm of the transition, what brought the Gambia to edge of this political abyss can only be described as criminal neglect. First, the caretaker government circumvented the gentleman’s agreement for three-year transition on the grounds that it did not comport with existing law. That was just the beginning. Seeing a possible new opening, several years ago, government raised the plausibility of a third term run for President Barrow. The issue surrounding this matter is the brainchild of government officials most of them rejects from the military regime. Enough time has passed to have ratified a constitution that reveres the term limits, one of the linchpins of democracy. And Gambia did commission the drafting of a new constitution, and following extensive and exhaustive consultations with Gambians at home and all across the diaspora, the drafting commission, chaired by a former Attorney General of a Caribbean nation, concluded its work, after two years, at a cost of whopping GMD 123 million dalasis, in accordance with the contributions of a broad-spectrum of the Gambian public. The draft constitution retroactively enshrined the two term limits, to reflect choices Gambians made during the commissions’ interactive consultations with citizens, but the National Assembly failed to pass the draft by the required two third majority. This was three years ago. Assembly members on the government’s side rejected the two term limits in the draft, and wanted it expunged. And we know why. The whole idea of holding the draft constitution hostage for the last three years so as to revert to the 1997 constitution and support the arguments of a third term run corrupts the system. The proclivity to amend national constitutions in order to extend term limits, in the ECOWAS region, has been deadly to citizens and devastating to the democratic order that citizens are striving build. West Africa’s 414 million citizens hang their hopes on a retroactive ECOWAS Two-Term limits, now, rather than later.
Lord John Dalberg-Acton`1883.