Symposium: From Dictatorship to Democracy


System Change

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you Mr Njundu Drammeh, the moderator and thank you to my fellow panelists. I am honored to share this stage with all of you. And thank you to all of you for gracing us with your presence. I am profoundly moved by your presence here tonight to have a conversation centered around democracy and our little Gambia. I thank you all. The conversation is centered around the transition from dictatorship to democracy and for my part, I will be focusing on system change.

What is a system? A system is a set of people, institutions and processes that are linked in such a way that they produce their own unique pattern of behavior or procedure over time and space. For the purposes of this gathering, I will limit this conversation to the political system. While the political system encompasses other subsystems that may not necessarily be political such as the legal or social systems, we can agree that the political system is the main factor that determines these subsystems.

For some context on this thing we call a system. I want to tell a story. It is a story men and women and children. These were men and women of honor. They had their own value systems and caring for another was one of those. They all shared the same last name; Gambia and so they were called Gambians. These men and women were doing alright by themselves until some strange men from a faraway land came to visit. These strange men told Gambians: Hey, you people are sick! You have pain all over your body. Your immune system is weak but lucky you, we have all the cures you will need to make you feel better. We will treat you with medications and we will stay here with you to show you how to take our medications.  We will work with you and show you how to get well. We will make you better. We will show you how to live so that your system will be able to withstand any disease. We have with us doctors and nurses that will take care of all you and if you happen to die, we will ensure you go to paradise. But you really don’t have a choice; you must accept us and you must accept our treatment plan because we know better. We will make you better by bettering ourselves first.  The people we call Gambia, believing they were actually sick, felt they had no choice but to accept the offer of the strange men! The prescriptions that the strange men forced on the sick only kept them alive to be able to work and subsist in poverty, more disease and slow death.

After some time, Gambians decided they had had enough of the strange men and demanded that they want their own doctor and nurses to help them heal. After much back and forth, the strange men left the land of The Gambians, but they didn’t take their medications and treatments with them. They also left some nurses they trained and the directions on administering these medications.

After the strange men left, the new doctor from among the Gambians, comes in to try his hand at treating The Gambians who still believed that they are actually sick. Because of a lack of many qualified nurses, aides and orderlies, this new Gambian doctor decided to use the nurses trained by the strange men that left. The new doctor also decided to use some of the same medications that were never meant to cure the Gambias but to make the strange men better. The new doctor maintained the same clinics and processes and over a period of time, not much changed in the health of The Gambians. In fact, they started to feel pain on some parts of their body. Somehow, this genius of a doctor and his nurses felt better but the rest of their patients suffered even more debilitating pain. And then the doctor refused to leave and retire. He clung on even when it was apparent his expiration date has long since passed. The Gambians continued to be sick and some died slow and painful deaths!

Then out of the blue, one quack of a doctor came through the back door and announced that he is the best doctor that man has ever seen. He faulted the previous doctor for accommodating the ways of the strange men and said The Gambian doctor and his nurses are all thieves anyway. He promised better help for all Gambians especially those who got sicker under the previous doctor. The new doctor and his chosen nurses maintained the same hospitals, prescriptions and procedures and even built more empty hospitals. This fanciful doctor shoved medicines down the throats Gambians and proclaimed that his skills as a doctor were handed to him by god himself. His chosen nurses forcefully held down so-called patients with the help of orderlies and men in uniform. Those helping the doctor claim that they were afraid of the doctor because he sends people to a hotel that the previous doctors used to punish sick patients that fell afoul of their desires.

When The Gambians worked on their farms, this new quack doctor will take majority of their produce and give them leftovers. Those nurses that helped him hold down the patients during forced treatments were rewarded with more food and their cheeks grew even fatter and shinier from the sweat of the farmers whose produced they stole. When men from other parts of the world tried to help the sick Gambians, the nurses and aides will help the doctor divert the assistance to make the doctor even richer than all the men and women put together. The quack of a doctor and his able helpers continued to get fatter while the sick continued to get sicker. The doctor will toss some food here and there and some of the patients would celebrate his benevolence ignoring or oblivious to the fact that the food was theirs to begin with!  Everyone suspected that the doctor was stealing their food and giving them leftovers that he didn’t want. Some patients that dared to complain were sent to the sick hospital where people go to die.

But the complaints grew louder and some of the complainants formed various alliances to seek treatment for themselves. But they could not agree on who would lead these efforts because they didn’t trust one another. Few patients were willing to complain. When they did, they were taken to a room infested with more sickness. The nurses cheered the doctor for his brilliance and hailed him in faraway lands as the best they have ever seen. But some patients just couldn’t accept things as they were. They decided to fight back and in the course of doing so, some lost their limb, others lost their freedom, and some paid the ultimate price. But life continued for the majority of the so-called sick men and women. In fact, some of the patients derided the men and women that were trying to help get rid of the quack doctor. Gambians continued to still feel pain all over now. The pain was becoming real.  Even the nurses helping the quack doctor were sick, but they could afford to visit other countries for treatment. All they had to do was find a poor sick man on whose back they could ride on.

Then one day, the fanciful doctor, convinced that the people he abused for over two decades loved him so much, decided he will have another loyalty test to see if Gambians wanted him to continue to be their doctor. He knew some of the patients had massive support to be doctors too. But he had a plan B in case he lost the test of loyalty. Unfortunately for him, some patients he entrusted with his security decided to burn down his plan B and flee the country. Some other patients had decided to put some of their differences aside and fight as one. In unity, even their sick bones could stand the pain inflicted by the doctor and the nurses assisting him. Because the quack doctor was so overconfident and delusional, he put in measures that made it difficult for anyone to cheat. When the results came out, the quack doctor lost the loyalty test. In shock, he accepted the defeat and called the new incoming doctor to congratulate him and even offered his advice on healing the Gambians who by now have even more sick people.  But upon realizing how many people he killed, raped and how much money he was helped to steal from the patients, he decided that he will not be moving an inch. Eventually, some other men from other lands had to band together and force him out. He gathered a few of his most trusted aides, nurses and orderlies fled the country. Now let us talk about system change a little bit and then get back to the story.

To change a system is not an easy undertaking in that it is a marathon rather than a sprint and countries that are willing to take a close look in the mirror and improve what they see can ensure improvements that maximize benefit for their communities. In transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, most of us agree that the system under the dictatorship of Yaya Jammeh was terrible. This was a system that was killing people, raping women, and stealing from poor Gambians. But this abusive system of governance didn’t materialize out of nothing. It is not as if a system creates itself.

A system consists of institutions, processes and people that make these institutions and processes work. It is therefore a monumental task to change a system of governance that grew pervasive over a century. I say over a century because some of the processes and institutions in place have been with us since colonial days. You just have to take a look at the customs and traditions in the way we do things and you will realize that these are all colonial relics. These institutions and processes were never meant to advance or develop us a people. They were never meant to showcase our rich traditions or values. They were not meant to make us feel better. Ladies and gentlemen, we were never sick to begin with! These processes and institutions were meant to sustain the colonialists! Yet, we continue to hold on firm to these institutions and processes that were never meant to advance us as a people. Incredibly, we expect that by maintaining these systems, we will somehow advance as a people! I am not sure if it is a mark of wayward consistency or unimaginativeness that we continue to do things the same way since colonial days! But at some point, we need to evaluate ourselves, we need to be frank with ourselves, we need to examine ourselves, see where our interest as a people lay, and position ourselves accordingly!

The first step to changing a bad system is to acknowledge that the flower-bed is rotten. But before you decide whether to prune the plants and apply fertilizer or just pull all the plants, you may want to look at the flower bed itself to determine what needs to change. Perhaps it is the process you used, perhaps it’s the plants or perhaps you are the problem yourself! To analyze the System, get an independent body to study it first so that you can get great insight on what issues there are, challenges, opportunities, resources with which to work with, etc. In other words, try to find out what is wrong with The Gambia first and foremost.

Once you analyze the system, you develop a strategic plan to change things. It may be imperative that to Change the System, first Change the People. Changing the people is not only replacing those people that are synonymous with the old system you’re changing, it also means instituting policies and programs geared towards adjusting people’s attitude to the new system. For instance, after the 1994 killings, Rwanda had to change the mentality of Rwandans and it was not business as usual. Paul Kagame, who is being hailed as a visionary today changed the national anthem, the flag, government institutions, and many other things. It was almost a complete overhaul of the country! People that were instrumental to the old order were held to account for their actions over the years. They didn’t go around rewarding such people. They realized that a system in and of itself is nothing without the people that run the system. Coming back home, we are yet to have that conversation! Most of the key people that built the old system, nurtured it, promoted it, directed it and implemented it are mostly still around doing the same thing. Can we realistically expect much to change about the system? Allow me to go back to my story if you will.

It was Nietzsche who said that “the sick are the greatest danger for the healthy; it is not from the strongest that harm comes to the strong, but from the weakest.” The patients, Gambians, remain. They are still hurting. Their whole body still aches. Some of the prescribed medicines Gambians are taking are from the strange men that claimed to be doctors, passed on to the doctor that kicked out the strange men and then handed down to the quack doctor that came through the back door. It is an African saying that that no matter how much you love a person, you cannot take their medication for them.  If they want to feel better, they must take their own medication. The question before Gambian patients is this: They have a new doctor. Were they even ever sick as the strange men told them; to begin with? Should they rely on someone else to take their medication for them? Do they continue to use the same nurses, aides and orderlies that the quack doctor left behind? Do they continue to use the same hospitals and clinics that bring them no good health? Do they continue to use the same handed-down prescriptions? Do they continue to abide by the quack doctor’s procedures and how to take medications? Should they continue to accept prescribed treatments for a non-existent disease?

Ladies and gentlemen, Gambia is yet to decide!

Thank you.

Presentation by Eden Sharp (Alagie Barrow)


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