Editorial: Political missteps that could negatively define and stain President Barrow’s legacy

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Some described him as an accidental president. This may have offended the President and his supporters but the term “accident” in this context is not meant to be offensive. It is rather a direct translation from our local languages. When something unexpected happened from nowhere, people call it an accident. That is the true story of the rise of President Barrow and his coalition to power. No one saw the historic defeat of the dictator coming…

It was remotely unanticipated that the coalition will defeat an entrenched dictator who has been in power for more than two decades through the ballot box. The closest many observers predicted was for the coalition to give Jammeh a run for his money during the 2016 elections. Few people saw the historic defeat of the dictator coming using his very own flawed electoral system he has controlled for over twenty years.

The coalition were unprepared for victory, much less take over governance from a rotten dictatorship that was so entrenched in power. They were not even well organized and prepared for a nationwide campaign. Gambians in the Diaspora across the globe and other private citizens on the ground had to step in and mobilize resources to make sure that the campaign did not fail during the two weeks allocated for campaigning countrywide.  This intervention by Gambians from all political spectrums gave the electorates added courage and motivation to go out and vote the dictator out. In other words, the elections were more of a vote against Jammeh than vote of confidence in the opposition coalition. The lack of confidence in the ability of the opposition to come together over the years and the jailing of Darboe and Co had dampened any hopes on whether the opposition could unseat Jammeh. The elections therefore were not results of thorough vetting and confident of President Barrow and the coalition’s ability to lead the nation contrary to the President’s narration; but rather a desperate move to salvage the nation.

But let’s give credit were due since the coalition was the vehicle through which Jammeh was defeated. History will forever celebrate that democratic victory to end brutal tyranny in Africa’s tiniest nation.   After the remarkable unexpected victory that made the rest of world envious of Gambia, Gambians were for the first time united on moving the country forward. Even members of the APRC administration were quick to welcome the new government and most pledged their loyalty. This was an incredible opportunity to craft a new way forward.

The coalition at this point was expected to coalesce around a serious reform and governing agenda to correct course and move the country in a new direction. Ideas and abundant Human Resources poured into Gambia to help celebrate but also salvage this tine nation once again. Some great ideas such as forming a think tank group; a resume database bank to regain Gambia’s massive brain drain and forming a strong unity government among others were great signs of a new direction for the New Gambia. The think tank group could have been the best resource for the inexperience President Barrow and the Coalition to tap into for guidance in reforming various sectors of the economy and government. This expert bank could have been the brain to spearhead and guide the Government prioritizing areas to address the nation’s most pressing challenges. This body of experts and technocrats from various disciplines would have created political and economic reform road map that could have led Gambia into a new nation and system.

Just in passing let’s put the debate that there is or no system change to rest. The system of government in Gambia consists of three branches of government; The legislature, the judiciary and the Executive. Some will add the media as the fourth estate. The fact is all these branches operated under what many considered a flawed and tampered with 1997 constitution. In essence what happened during the Jammeh regime and to some extend the three decades of the Jawara government was abuse of the system. We repeat the system was abused to the core designed to entrench one person or a group of citizens. When the unexpected change happened many Gambians thought including the president that the problem wasn’t the system but those leading it. Without a doubt this is somewhat true but what allowed the system to be abused; lack of checks and balances, citizens’ inability to change the abuse of a vulnerable poorly designed system of governance. So Gambia the system has not changed what changed to a degree is the abuse of that system. This is a work in progress and yes there will be missteps but the President and his team think they are on the right track. Many disagree but the signs are not too encouraging… We are all a witness weather we agree or not to one rookie mistake to another that would proof costly overtime.

For whatever reason allowing long term rival politicians who for decades could not put their difference aside to achieve this result in charge of the cabinet was a mistake; a costly one for that matter. But few people seem to saw it coming. People were focus on rewarding people for years of enduring pain, suffering and the struggle. While we agree that it was somewhat ok to involve in reforming the system, we did not believe that people who are vying for the same position of power from different parties could stick together longer. The best path would have been a mixture of technocrats to reform the system and politicians to stay relevant. Mortgaging that whole system change without a particular party being in charge was a disaster waiting to happen. We are there now as one party feels it is close to dominating and therefore taking complete control of government and the others feeling elbowed as they suspected. The end results is that we are mired in a power struggle and possibly a complete betrayal of what the coalition agreed upon. The question is not whether the party or President in charge can make moderate reforms, but we are going to be fragmented and it could cost us the ultimate goal of reforming the system and possibly entrenching one party or leader.

We must continue to push for reforms every step of the way and hopefully we will have incremental gains rather than replacing one abuse of system to one that makes two steps forward and one step forward. The encouraging thing is that Gambians are prepared never to be taken for a ride again. Our young people are showing interest in getting involved in the political affairs of our tiny state. This is encouraging and no matter what direction President Barrow takes citizens will not let it go completely out of control as we have seen before.

President Barrow’s recent political missteps are a cause for concern. Anytime a leader feels he did the bulk of the work to get the nation to where it is, that can be dangerous and can embolden the leader to a level where he would not see any other citizen’s efforts but himself. We have seen this movie before and if anyone is paying attention, it is not the desired route for a humble leader. You couldn’t have gotten there by yourself. It is ok to pad yourself on the back but always remember the efforts of your fellow citizens. There was a time when Barrow had a perfect respond to this question of how we got here. He said it was the Gambian people who braced the sunshine through the support of citizens that brought us to this point. That seem to be fading fast and the president is only seeing his efforts or at least only remembering to highlight what he did. This was a collective effort and it was historic. Generations unborn will admire how a tiny nation pulled a stunning victory to end dictatorship. President Barrow must stay above the noise and be able to deflect such questions coming from individual citizens or opposition trying to get him off of his mission – that is to unite the country and deliver the change we all yearned for. This is not the most difficult to understand because the President would like to highlight his achievements short or long term. In the same token his opponents which is a pre-requisite of a growing democracy will take advantage of his failures and highlight those instead. Any political being cannot be surprise that the opposing camp would dwell more on his failures, so they can replace him. To hear the president say they don’t talk about xyz was somewhat very elementary because that is not their job.

It is the President and his team’s job to highlight those successes. Of course  the media has the responsibility to highlight both successes and failures. We believe the Gambian media is also going through some transformation and someday the country will get there. We will have seasoned media personnel who will not only criticize but also give credit where due. But for the most part the media is more complicated than running the country. There are some that will have agenda’s to reach the top in ratings, there are some that will always protect their brand and integrity in reporting or highlighting the failures and successes of the regime. It is easier said than done but one area the media can enhance this is to bring government officials to tell the people what successes and failures they have achieved. They will reserve the right of course to have follow up questions which are always not pleasant. On balance the Gambia has made great progress in many areas. The results and impacts on the ordinary live of the Gambia apart from the fear and right abuses are still intangible. They will come over time as long as we remained focus as a country. Our unsolicited advice to the President, share your briefing with your staff, give them the space to critic your statements and make it more Presidential and unifying. He will have to step outside of his comfort zone to do this as Gambian culture doesn’t allow subordinates to correct their superior even in the classroom. This is a learning lesson for President Barrow and his team. Do not get in the mud with individual citizens and certainly do not discredit what has historically been the landmark of a successful nation – the education and training of its citizens. Citizens as well must be measured in their criticism especially if they are seen as role models. This is equally difficult to achieve. Criticize but always give room for reconciliation and benefit of the doubt.

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