2018 was a remarkable year for Gambia’s political dynamism. The country witnessed competitive local government elections that saw young citizens men and women entering the political scene for the first time. Some went on to win their seats through a competitive and fair level playing field. They earned their victories including the first mayoress candidate in the history of the country. The local government elections completed the full cycle of elections after the fall of the dictatorship through the ballot box in December 2016. It was the first time elections were held in the country without a clear incumbent party controlling power. The president was elected on an Independent ticket and therefore stayed out of the local government elections and allowed political parties to compete without executive interference.
The country also witnessed an elaborate and exciting political party congresses required of all legally registered parties to hold their congresses every two years. The exercise is a testament that all parties must remain active and dynamic for an open and competitive political pluralism. Of particular interest to most Gambians was the UDP Congress because of President Barrow’s pronouncement that he was going to compete for the leadership of the party even though he had officially resigned from the party before the 2016 elections. The incumbent party leader of the UDP Ousainou Darboe who was appointed VP by President Barrow was also poised to contest for the leadership of the UDP. This made an exciting adventure for many people and made the political climate more tense and interesting. That Congress delivered a clear verdict when Darboe was unanimously elected as the party leader. It left president Barrow and his close aides in limbo and many people wondering what would be the president’s next move. The jury is still out on that as Barrow strengthens his grip on to power and recruiting more people to his controversial youth movement (BYM).
The resurrection of the PPP couple with the announcement by former Vice President of the first Republic Bakary Bunja Darboe made another interesting episode. The contest to lead the PPP ended with the former dynamic VP and Finance Minister defeated by a young unknown contestant Papa Njie who earlier in the year vied for the UDP Mayoral candidate for Kanifing before going independence after he was declined by the UDP. Other parties all held their Congresses across the country making political activities more interesting in the country. A few announcements of new political party formations were issued but it is not confirmed whether these have been officially registered with the Independent Election Commission (IEC) or not. For the purpose of this commentary we will reserve mention of any new parties until they are officially registered. What is however very clear is that the political dynamism is changing fast in the Gambia. There are and will be new players while the new dispensation allows the old guards to reenter the political scene.
It is no doubt encouraging to see Gambians from all aspects of the political spectrum emerging and expressing their interest in taking part in the political process. This certainly wasn’t the case in the last twenty two years of dictatorship where politics was seen to be almost a death sentence to dare challenge the party in power. That changed in December 2016 after the defeat of Gambia’s former Dictator Yahya Jammeh through the ballot box. What is clear is that the political field is widely open for opportunities to not only take part but also form new parties to enter the contest of ideas to win the hearts of minds of Gambian electorates. This is a great shift in the direction of the country which was almost at the brink of political catastrophe as the dictator cling on to power by all means possible.
What is however not clear is what the political future holds for this tiny West African nation of less than two million people. As the nation baffles with reconciliation and healing through a Truth, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (TRRC) which is about to launch hearings and investigations, fresh wounds are likely to resurface. The commission promised to do its due diligent to uncover, establish the truth and bring about accountability and political reconciliation. The country is also drafting a new constitution that is likely to set the perimeters and lay strong foundation for a new Gambia that will coexist in a truly pluralistic and open society. This is a monumental task that will once again define the probable rebirth of a new Gambia that can be a beacon of hope and democratic model in the sub-region.
The million dollar questions many political pundits are asking privately and publicly are whether the current leaders are prepared enough to turn the New Gambia into that political model? Would the leaders put their personal political ambitions aside and prepare the nation for the much needed political and institutional reforms that will guarantee the building of a democratic society that will stand the test of time. Or would president Barrow also fail to learn from Africa’s most recent history of leaders consolidating power and ignore the viable political route that will leave a legacy of historic proportion. Would political ambitions and tribal divides keep this promising nation away from achieving the dreams and aspirations of a generation that fought to end dictatorship in the Gambia? Will history repeat itself when once again an African leader was elected to rectify a system and give way to a new generation rather than using the power of incumbency to entrench themselves in power? The jury is out on that too but sooner rather than later the Gambian people will get a feel of where President Barrow want to lead the nation.
As the writer George Santayana said “those who fail to learn from their mistakes are condemned to repeat them”. This is a strong reference to the importance of learning from history. That the people who are willing to learn from history are less likely to repeat the mistakes of the past. Have Gambian leaders in fact learned from recent history and the mistakes of the first and second republic to shape a new future? I am incline to believe that political pluralism is not Gambia’s long term solution to a model democratic society. It is one thing to form multiple parties to contest elections to run a nation but completely another to ensure that these parties are mature, prepared and have clearly articulated leadership visions and programs for a free, democratic and advance society. A simple review of individual party manifestos would tell you that the only difference between all of the parties is the people leading the parties. Their policies and programs boils down to the same philosophy of running a government without revolutionary ideas that will transform the national economy into a wealth and income generating economy that will not only improve but completely change the standard of living of this otherwise impoverish nation. The only party that strives to differentiate itself from the pack is the PDOIS which leans more towards a socialist democracy model which many argued may not be the right model for a tiny nation like the Gambia. The party is yet to make inroads into effectively articulating their policies to the electorates.
What then is Gambia’s long term solution to a viable democratic pluralism? In a society where there is clear disconnect between the people governing, mainly the elites and those being governed the ordinary citizens, there must be strong pillars that will protect the people and institutions against those who run the government. Strong and free independent institutions are the long term solutions to a nation where the elites have historically taken advantage of public resources to make a living. It is not inconceivable that any one of these existing political parties can take over government, monopolize national institutions and run the government with little to no accountability. Without an independent judiciary; an electoral and human rights commissions, civil society and a vibrant media government accountability will only be a lip service to please donors. These independent institutions keep the separation of powers as equal branches of government that can check on each others’ powers. The national assembly is the life blood of a democratic society. Their independence and patriotism cannot be compromised. When citizens are confident in their elected representatives and the justice system, the courts can be the ultimate arbitrator of justice and good governance. A vibrant independent media is a recipe for an open and transparent government that wins the confidence of the people. Gambia’s long term solution therefore will depend on how strong the nation’s institutions are from government. I am optimistic that if focus is on building these institutions, no political leader or party can take the country for granted and the power vested in citizens will always prevail over any misuse of power.
By Demba S. Baldeh