Op-ed: Missteps, Missed Opportunities and High-Voltage Politics
Vexed issues dominating the public sphere in Barrow’s Gambia and their potential ramifications for the December 4 presidential ballot.
Almost five years since Gambians saw the back of Yayha Jammeh, the initial optimism and euphoria that had swirled through the nation feels like a mirage today. For many Gambians, the election of President Adama Barrow did not only mark an end to tyranny and self-perpetuation , but also the beginning of a new dawn of freedom and economic prosperity. And as Gambians now prepare to decide whether the man who replaced Jammeh is worthy of another chance or not, here are few critical issues that had been dominating discourses in the public space and how they can influence the December 4th polls.
Vessel of change or a recycling bin? The former president’s men still rule supreme
The proverbial ‘old wine in a new bottle’ has become a recurring punchline for critics and even ordinary State House watchers. Yayha Jammeh might have left the Gambia all these years but some of the cobwebs that were symptomatic of his regime are still much visible within the Barrow government. For many Gambians, any post Jammeh-government serious about ushering a meaningful change would have started off on a clean slate with a view to remedying the malaise that for over two decades permeated the very soul of their country. But in one of those moves critics point to a lack of commitment to serious reforms, Barrow as did his predecessor, summoned the services of one Mambury Njie to take charge of the Gambia’s purse strings; this after letting go of Amadou Sanneh. The sacking of Sanneh, a man reputed for his fidelity to financial discipline and expertise, as interpreted by some observers, was down to the cost-saving measures, particularly the vehicle policy he had introduced. This is said to have rankled with the petit bourgeois Gambian civil servant who would rather go hungry than having his fuel coupon frozen.
It is not as if Mambury Njie, who, as evidenced by the Janneh commission, colluded with Yahya in making away taxpayer money, is the only high-profile figure sipping tea at State House. In the mix are a prominent few. Home Affairs Minister Yankuba Sonko, Defence Minister Sheikh Omar Faye, Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Mamadou Tangara and Chief of Protocol Alagie Ceesay are all Jammeh-era personnel helming strategic posts under Barrow, with some of them having integrity questions hovering over their head. While it can be argued that all the afore-mentioned men are Gambians who are entitled to serve their country regardless of which government is in power, it can be strongly countered that there are a multitude of other Gambians out there that are equally deserving of those roles in deed, character, knowledge and experience under an administration that came in to right the wrongs of the past. Maybe, just maybe, the Gambian story was the one the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr had in mind when he coined the phrase “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, translating “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Draft constitution aborted; dreams torpedoed
In 2017, the National Assembly of The Gambia established the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) to facilitate the drafting of a new constitution. Disappointingly, after about two years of hard work, any hope of a new constitution that was to usher in the third republic suffered a premature death on the very floors of the same National Assembly. In hindsight, it was a national project that overwhelmingly involved the Gambian people as the CRC toured every region of the country to solicit the inputs of the citizenry. Community-level meetings and a series of engagements were held with the various civic and political actors as well as interest groups including faith-based organizations.
The exercise, albeit expensive, was inclusive. Unfortunately, when it was time for it to be midwifed by lawmakers, the bill hit a stone wall as it fell short of the required votes to pass. The major sticking point centered around what Barrow backers viewed as a discriminatory retroactive provision given that his soon-to-expire first five-year term would have counted as part and parcel of the two-term limit embedded in the draft. The rather dispirited stance of the executive on the Constitution Promulgation Bill at the time of its tabling also threw a spanner in the work of the CRC. Debates on the bill became the subject of a tetchy political bickering with one pro-Barrow lawmaker going as far as describing it as bogus among other unsavory adjectives. Meanwhile, at the corridors of power, the President himself wouldn’t be drawn into the issue – not even a word to his people – about a make-or-break moment that may define his legacy. Alas! months after, mediation efforts championed by former Nigerian President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan to resuscitate what was a comatose draft couldn’t yield any tangible outcome. As it stands, the draft constitution is temporarily dead in the water. A vanity project, at least for now.
Heightened internal safety and security concerns
To hear the average Gambian say “even under Jammeh these things weren’t happening” is both a mark of desperation and an increasingly diminishing confidence on the part of the populace in the government. Who would have thought that after all the Jammeh-linked killings and disappearances unearthed by the TRRC, a remark as salacious as such would be made by any? Well, in the face of a surge in banditry, frequent killings (discovery of dead bodies) even beyond urban Gambia, disturbing images of stabbings and rape across the metropolis, anyone can be forgiven for making utterances of that nature. Apparently, the wheels have come off the wagon in the most unexpected ways.
It is paradoxical that a government that came on the back of reforms, particularly in the security sector, is seemingly failing to provide a safe haven for its people. Despite the fact that under Barrow, political opponents aren’t knowingly going to bed with one eye open as it has been the case before him, the widespread occurrence of violent crimes will hardly pay him any political dividend. Meanwhile, in the grand scheme of things, a climate of fear where citizens risk being attacked or robbed in the full glare of the public will not dent the image of the country as a crime zone, but it is one thing that stands to erode investor confidence. A recent Old Jeshwang robbery incident where some 16 million dalasi was reportedly stolen from a private residence sounds like a well choreographed scene from a blockbuster crime movie. To the credit of the Gambia Police Force, the launch and moving into motion of the Operation Zero Crime has been yielding results as they take the offensive to thugs. However, combating the current spate of crime will require more than short-gap measures like time-bound codename operations. The underlying issues festering crime need addressing. As they say “kill the host, kill the virus”.
On the back of a mega seizure of about three tonnes of cocaine reportedly commanding a street value of $87 million at the Banjul seaport, there were genuine fears amongst Gambians that the country might not only be used as a transit point for the narco trade but could open the floodgates of organized crime in a country where a rise domestic crime is getting to worry the people. As has been the case with many other matters of public interest, investigations into that shipment from Ecuador and allegedly bound for Europe remain shrouded in mystery.
The hydra-headed monster that is corruption
If social media talk, word on the streets or even unascertained charges from other activists and politicians are anything to lean on, the appetitive desire for corruption under the Barrow administration is one that borders on recklessness on the part of the administration. Just as there is very little if any substantial evidence to support the claims that some ministers and or/ Barrow handlers are busy siphoning money to build houses that are way below their pay grade, there also appears to be nothing forthcoming from the government to either rebuff or substantiate the accusations. For a government that is wedded to media dispatches, it beggars belief that pressers or releases have not been made to react to claims of corruption making the rounds in the Gambia almost every other week.
Incredibly, even when the Health Minister himself showed macro-boldness by raising the alarm about the pandemic-triggered, epidemic nature of corruption in his own ministry before parliament, no publicly known official probe has been launched into the cries he made on the altar of the people’s house. And even where there was one, the public still remains in the dark thereof. Now, that also seems dead like a dodo. And while the authorities made several attempts to clear the mysterious circumstances surrounding the over 30 million dalasi equivalent ‘mistakenly’ wired into the coffers of the First Lady’s Foundation in 2017 allegedly by a Hong Kong private bank, their explanations tend to leave a curious public with more questions than answers.
Clearly, Gambians aren’t always up to speed with certain burning matters of huge national significance. These include findings of the Malagen investigation linking ‘suspended’ Fisheries Permanent Secretary Dr. Bamba Banja to an alleged bribery scandal as well as the fire incident at the Ministry of Fisheries, Water Resources and National Assembly Matters where some confidential files were said to have been burnt. As December 4 inches ever closer, the government’s handling of public contracts and procurement deals still sends ripples across town, with some intimating that whilst it was state capture by one man alone (Jammeh during his time), it is the case of everyone taking their cut in a now or never fashion. The government’s very reactionary mode of communication which heavily relies on high sounding, knee-jerk press releases is equally doing little in the area of accountability and transparency given that media dispatches either from the presidency or the office of the government spokesperson tend to come in the aftermath of public outcries over issues.
Tellingly, on the backdrop of the echo chamber of moanings and groanings over corruption in Banjul, what is most incomprehensible is the fact that almost half a decade - marking the expiry of a first term in office - the Barrow government couldn’t establish an anti-corruption outfit despite having in place other vital institutions like the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), TRRC, etc. If anything, an anti-corruption bureau will be indicative of the leadership’s preparedness to tackle head-on allegations of corrupt practices in the public sector and perhaps also provide answers to an information-starved public if and when talks of corruption arise.
Adding credence to charges of corruption in the country are recent findings released by the Afrobarometer, a pan-African, Independent, non-partisan research network. As reported in The Standard Newspaper, “a staggering 71 per cent of Gambians do not believe President Barrow is doing a ‘good job’ in fighting corruption in the country.” What further leaves a bad taste in the mouth is that “six in ten Gambians'' as per the same survey findings , “say the overall level of corruption in the country increased ‘somewhat’ or ‘a lot’ during the past year, almost doubling the proportion recorded in 2018 (32 percent).” This menace could be Barrow’s own Frankestein monster.
Lingering doubts over the execution of truth commission recommendations
“Precedents are dangerous things; let the reins of government then be braced and held with a steady hand, and every violation of the constitution be reprehended: If defective let it be amended, but not suffered to be trample upon whilst it has an existence.”
America’s first President George Washington said so, and speaking of being trampled upon, the experience with the Janneh Commission findings is that the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) could suffer the same fate. Having seen what became of the government's handling of the final report from that hugely expensive process where some highly indicted individuals got a free ride as others were barred from re-entering public service, it is only understandable that any hope in TRRC outcomes may not be as high as the infant days of its establishment. The grumbles by sections of the public as to whether the government will prosecute those adversely mentioned or those that have committed heinous crimes are still rife. But the fact that the Lead Counsel Essa Faal qualified Jammeh-era atrocities mainly the killings of some two hundred people as crimes against humanity -which Karim Ahmad Khan, the new ICC chief prosecutor endorsed in a tweet – will naturally make any behind- the-curtain political machinations harder to smother the wheels of justice in that regard . Besides, crimes against humanity, we are told, cannot go unpunished.
Added to the worries of some people is that since his occupancy of no1. Marina Parade, President Adama Barrow or the presidency itself has hardly shown any assurances that victims of rights abuses will get the justice they deserve. Bizarrely too, in all these close to five years of his presidency, Mr Barrow seemed to have lashed at his opposition leaders more than the man whose refusal to cede power saw him airlifted to Senegal, where he would eventually take the sacred oaths of his office. Aside from his frequent comparing of the total number of kilometers of road works executed under the Jammeh and Jawara administrations, one memorable mentioning of Yahya Jammeh by Barrow was his infamous ‘N’na systemo balanta’ – a Mandinka referencing of how he felt an anomaly in his system on the day he shook hands with his predecessor at one gathering. Also, Barrow’s refusal to publicly condemn the deeds of Yahya Jammeh in recent times and ongoing overtures between his National People’s Party (NPP) and the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) could somehow bolster his political base within the ranks of the Green party but might potentially lose him significant political support amongst neutrals and persons who are still scarred by the APRC stewardship. But if the most recent developments are anything to go by, that now signed and sealed alliance itself could be a potential power keg for Barrow as divisions mount within the former ruling party faithful who have been vehemently vocal against any such marriage of convenience. Critics from within the APRC itself have been crying foul over the arrangements, with some branding the long-drawn political covenant as a well calculated move designed to replenish the pockets of the Tombong Jatta led executive at the expense of their party. More alarmingly though are widespread concerns that the just announced APRC-NPP Memorandum of Understanding would once and for all jeopardize the quest to bring Jammeh to book - at least under a Barrow presidency - thereby deny thousands of people the justice they yearn for. How the deal pans out in the end will definitely be answered by the passage of time.
(Hike in food prices, youth unemployment)
Rising food prices may be nothing new in the Gambia but in the past few months or better part of the year, the problem, based on the moanings of the poor – a reflection of the reality on the ground- is appearing to be having a chilling effect on every Gambian. It is commonplace to hear people say that “I would rather not complain about anything else as long as the price of a bag of rice is reduced”. Curiously, the cost of basic consumables in our country hardly goes down the moment they increase, regardless of what economic factors are at play. The over dependence on imported rice, the nation’s staple, continues to spell economic worries for a lot of households in a society where extended families are the most prevalent. Despite being blessed with large swathes of arable land and fresh water, both the Jammeh and Barrow administrations seem to have run out of ideas when it came to industrializing rice cultivation in the Gambia. The rice production hotbed of Jahally-Pacharr - once the success story of our agricultural sector – appears to be in a moribund state.
Notwithstanding this, there still exists massive potential for the Gambia government to invest in large scale nationalized rice schemes that cater for the consumption needs of the populace at a reasonable rate. In fact, as of 2015, figures from the national agricultural sample survey pegged the total production output/volume of paddy rice in the country at 53,309 metric tons. Also, it would also appear that the Barrow government missed an opportunity by not utilizing the large arable rice field ex-President Jammeh had been putting under cultivation in Pacharr, Central River Region. As it were the case, threshing, bagging and selling of produce from the massive field were all possible and could have been leveraged upon by the new dispensation with a touch of innovation that could compete against imported rice in the country. Additionally, the large volumes of onion that are locally produced by rural women continue to face their fair share of challenges. Chief among these is the lack of a readily available market which often compels the helpless growers to sell their produce at give-away prices to (bana-banas) middlemen. Import substitution which could have helped the cause of women during the peak of the harvest season for whatever reason hasn’t been fully explored by the government.
Of all the economic issues bedeviling Gambia, unemployment accounts for a major source of frustration for the country’s youthful population. According to the Gambia Labor Force Survey of 2018 conducted by Gambia Bureau of Statistics (GBoS), there were 377, 326 youth actively participating in the labor force, of which 54.4 percent were male and 45.6 percent female. Youth unemployment rate, as per the same study by GBoS was at 41. 5 percent as of 2018. The proportion of youth unemployment-to-population ratio in urban Gambia was 54.7 percent while the rural areas constituted 45. 3 percent based on the figures revealed by the Gambia Labor Force Analytical Report 2018.
On the face of it, the government can single out the European Union funded Youth Enterprise Project (YEP) as a success story in creating economic opportunities for Gambia’s youth as a way of stemming the tide of irregular migration. Between 2017 and 2020, YEP reveals that it has created some 2661 jobs and projects the number of young people it trained on technical/vocational training or apprenticeship at 2789. Similarly, young people that benefited from entrepreneurship and business development services, according to the data released by the project, stand at 3698 whilst access to finance(grants) make up 41 percent for women and 59 percent for men within the same period. Despite these efforts in the informal economic sector, there still are gaping holes that need filling, especially if one considers the thousands of students that graduate from the University of The Gambia, Gambia College and other higher institutions of learning every year.
Alarmingly, the not-so-hopeful state of our youth always manifests itself in flashpoint situations where they tend to get turbocharged and fall for mob justice. Faraba: a few years ago and most recently Sanyang are cases in point. For context purposes, it will be imperative to note that the Covid-19 pandemic as well has had a domino effect even on the biggest economies in the world, and in the case of the Gambia, the tourism sector which is a significant employer of our youth took a nosedive for the worst as it also impacted on remittances that are the lifeblood of hundreds of families/households in the country. In fairness, no one expects a post-Jammeh Gambia to be any cloud cuckoo land, but in all honesty also, there is nothing much to write home about as far as poverty alleviation is concerned.
Wanton environmental destruction
In a country where plastic bags were deemed environmentally destructive, carcinogenic and therefore eventually banned, what no one did see coming was that in a span of a few years, some of the Gambia’s most beautiful beaches would turn into a wasteland. Parts of the country’s most alluring coastal belt, which for decades was prime touristic attraction, are now in the sorry state of an eye-sore. Gunjur, Sanyang, Tanji – all in Kombo South- are some of the communities bearing the brunt of industrial fishing plants polluting their waters, marine resources and immediate surroundings. Despite rallying calls by pro-environmental groups, individual activists and community members who are at the mercy of the chemical emissions from these Chinese-owned plants, the deafening silence and inaction from the government raises head-scratching suspicions for anyone who cares. Whatever the arguments and counter arguments, the government owes the people in that part of the country a duty of care. Lives and livelihoods cannot be traded for anything!
A health sector in need of surgical operation
As per the 2019-2020 Health and Demographic Survey, 84 percent of births in the Gambia are assisted by a skilled medical professional with assistance at delivery by a skilled provider far higher in urban (88%) than (75%) in rural Gambia. Regardless of these figures, incidents of maternal deaths at health facilities in recent times have been sending ripples across the country. Out of concerns for what trended online as a dizzying problem, women from different walks of life in late 2020 staged a peaceful march under the catchphrase Gambian Women’s Lives Matter. It was a headlined event meant to spotlight not just the alarming deaths of young women at healthcare centers, but the not-so-impressive state of affairs of the country’s health infrastructure itself, where patients are often compelled to acquire drugs from private pharmacies or better still part away a king’s ransom if one decides to opt for private clinics. Further choking the populace’s confidence in the health sector were the recent revelations by a certain female nurse that even gloves had to be used multiple times in patient care as she detailed among other things the prevalence of special treatments to supposed VIPs and those in their circles at the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital (EFSTH) – the country’s number one referral center.
The reforms agenda
Whatever has happened to some of the major promises that the coalition government rode on as they first assumed the reins. For starters, calls for electoral reforms which jolted the late Solo Sandeng and others into action and which played a major role in the ouster of Jammeh never came to fruition almost five years on. On the contrary, the changing of the age limit for the vice presidency was one of the first acts engineered by the government with Hon.Fatoumatta Tambang as the beneficiary of that early move. And since then, most of what happens in the reforms zone tends to be more piecemeal than wholesome.
The Gambia’s civil service and state-owned enterprises in the Jammeh-era were largely at the beck and call of the ex-president. He could fire and hire willy-nilly. Key government parastatals would do as he asked without batting an eyelid. To think that our state institutions will to this day dance to the whims and caprices of the presidency post-Jammeh is something few would have predicted when the coalition government took over the reins. Under President Barrow, the sackings and/or deployments of key government mandarins to totally new professional ecosystems have become a familiar pattern.
In today’s Gambia, civil or public servants may not be going through the nagging fear of being picked up and intimidated by state agents as it were the case but the all too familiar expectation of showing loyalty to the President is still much alive. That loyalty question is in fact a serious issue that compromises professional independence and integrity. Apparently, the nuances in state-government dichotomy aren’t very much grasped by our people, more so heads of key government agencies who see their appointments or elevations to top jobs as some kind of favor/debt that must be repaid to the appointing authority in the form of political heavy lifting - the President in most cases.
Of course, there were rare cases when a few notable persons who got axed without any plausible justifications turned down offers of redeployment to completely new surroundings. Muhammed Manjang, a former Managing Director of the Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation (SSHFC) and Bakary Jammeh, the man heading the Central Bank of The Gambia (CBG) are too big guns whose dismissals left jaws on the floor and who declined new offers they argued had no bearing on their professional background/expertise. Mr. Jammeh’s case sparked even a bigger stir after describing his removal by the President as illegal. Not even the public outcry and bullish determination by the top economist to seek legal redress could make Barrow change course. Overall, there are genuine concerns that much has not been achieved in the area of institutional reforms, not least the security services which as argued by some are mortgaged to Senegal due to the notable presence of Dakar’s forces in Banjul.
From ‘Barrow is our Barrow’ to a rumble in the jungle
The polarized nature of Gambian politics today cannot be discussed without foraying into the fallout between Adama Barrow and his former party leader Ousainou Darboe, whom the former name-dropped to good effect as he sought the mandate of the Gambian people under the now decimated coalition banner. Until the sacking of UDP leader Mr. Darboe as Vice President, it was no secret that Mr. Barrow was largely provided a shield of protection against criticism by most of those that now are putting him in the doghouse these days, mainly UDP supporters who once shared with him the same political home. Matter of fact, up until that fateful Friday when Mr. Darboe was relieved of his duties, talks of simmering tension between Head of State and his number two had been rife even whereas the duo and their handlers attempted to rubbish those talks. From the moment things came full circle leading to the sackings of other UDP heavyweights from within the government, relations between Barrow and his erstwhile party turned sour . And with Barrow reneging on his three-year campaign promise sold to Gambians, he rubbed more salt into the wounds he created in the UDP camp and also angered other neutrals along the way.
Seemingly emboldened by the power of incumbency and basking in ‘folkloric lionization’ of himself , the leader of the coalition went about throwing barbs and along the way, making decisions that jarred with the hopes of a ‘New Gambia’. Against this backdrop, rumors of a new political party began to swell, and as time also proved with rumors the President’s National People’s Party (NPP) was born. Months after its registration, NPP would replace APRC as UDP’s biggest rival. Like some power game that showed no sign of abating, a handful of renegade UDP lawmakers that were openly cozying up to Barrow including Talinding’s Fatoumatta Jawara got their marching orders from the party. Then came Sherrifo Sonko, who got the chairmanship of Brikama Area Council under the UDP ticket only for him also to jump into the NPP bandwagon to the chagrin of his parent party. Efforts by the UDP who got him sacked for ‘non-compliance with rules’ to have him lose his seat at arguably the country’s biggest local government didn’t materialize after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. For most of 2020 to date, it was like a political version of the football transfer window during which rival teams prey upon each other’s star players. As it stands, most of the incomings and outgoings revolve around UDP and NPP, two parties that are determined to land the other a knockout punch in an already crowded field.
Famara Fofana is a freelance journalist and public affairs analyst. He is based in Turkey, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in Media and Communications Studies at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Ankara University.
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