Democracy is often described as government of the people, for the people and by the people. That presupposes that while not all the people can hold public office, their collective will drives the operations of government. The idea is aptly captured by the concept of popular sovereignty, the idea that political power rests not in the hands of those that govern, but in the hands of the governed. The relocation of political power from government to people was one of the key characteristics of the emergent nation-state system in the 17th and 18th centuries and remains the defining characteristic of democratic polities to this day.
In many cases however, especially in Africa government of the people, for the people and by the people, is little more than an empty slogan touted as proof of the existence of democratic regimes. The concept needs to be translated into a practical reality in all countries that call themselves democratic. The people must not only be said to be the true holders of political power; they must in reality be cognisant of that fact and be able to wield political power in practical terms. They must be able to remove their leaders and governments from power if they do not work in the interests of the nation whether because of lack of efficiency or for any other reasons. The question then remains as to how exactly people will be able to govern themselves and their governments whether their governments are inclined to be democratic or not.
Our national experience as Gambians over the past 22 years makes it imperative and even urgent that we actualise the ideal of government by the people in our country. Clearly, what obtained both under the Jawara administration and the Jammeh dictatorship was not a government by the people in the real sense of the term. Under Jawara, there was a reasonable level of political pluralism. Regular elections were held and people went to the polls to vote for candidates of their choice. The same process was enacted with far less credibility during the Jammeh dictatorship. One tragedy of African politics is that democracy is equated with the holding of regular elections which, whether free and fair or not, are considered to be synonymous to the practice of popular sovereignty. This outmoded conception of democracy cannot be allowed to continue characterising the new Gambia. If it did, there would be nothing new about Gambia. It is time to take our country and our democracy to another level by making sure that political power is effectively exercised by the Gambian people both during and outside of election periods. The people should not merely be called upon once in a while to cast their ballots for our political leadership; they must be rendered proactive in our day to day politics and be able to do whatever it takes to hold their leaders accountable and make their voices heard whenever and wherever it matters.
In the few months since the Barrow administration took over, things seem to be looking up in terms of democratic practice in The Gambia. The release of many prisoners who might have been wrongfully incarcerated by the ousted dictatorship and especially the fact that a wronged journalist was given access to GRTS are good signs for our country. The fact that some coalition government ministers have been responsive to public opinion by publicly admitting their errors points to the emergence of an aspect of democratic culture that bodes well for our country. Respect for human rights and the rule of law must continue to be actively advocated, encouraged and demonstrated by the coalition government because it will contribute to the building of a solid foundation for the emergence of a democratic political culture in our country.
But while government responsiveness to public opinion and respect for human rights and the rule of law are important steps in the right direction for the emergence of a functional democratic culture, they still do not make a country a government of the people, for the people and by the people. That would require a level of citizen agency that can only be exercised by a people actively conscious of their power and capable of exercising it. And the only way people can be actively conscious of their power and become capable of exercising it is by understanding the source and nature of their power as contained in their national constitution. Gambians not only need to understand their constitutional rights and responsibilities under a republic; they also need to understand the nature and functions of the institutions that govern their lives under a republic. They need to understand the meaning and significance of the rule of law; namely that in a constitutional republic no one is above the law, not even the president. Most Gambians do not think of the nature of the relationship between public servants like the president, ministers, MPs, soldiers and the police on one hand and the law on the other. Many tend to equate these public servants with the law itself. Gambians need to be fully conscious of the fact that like every other citizen, the president, ministers, MPs, soldiers and the police must obey the law. They need to know that the law stands over and above every single person living in the country, regardless of position or status and that whoever breaks the law needs to be held accountable for it. They also need to understand what the separation of powers and checks and balances mean in a republic, and what the different functions of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary are. Only then can we have a government of the people, for the people and by the people.
It is not uncommon to hear arguments to the effect that the majority of Africans cannot be given an effective political education because they are not literate in western languages. Given that their lives are governed by a constitutional nation-state system that operates through western languages, and considering the low rates of western literacy across sub-Saharan Africa and in The Gambia in particular, this argument is tantamount to imposing an interminable prison sentence on the collective consciousness of our people. We cannot afford to wait for the majority of Gambians to be literate in western languages before we embark on a process of political education for the Gambian electorate because that is not likely to happen anytime soon.
We contend that language barriers are not obstacles to political education in The Gambia. Gambians are capable of learning anything and everything about modern constitutions, political systems, ideologies and institutions in their own local languages. No concept or theory of the western nation-state system that govern our people’s lives is so complex as to defy effective exposition, communication and understanding in Mandinka, Pulaar, Wolof, Sarahule, Manjako, Jola, Serere, Bambara, Mansuanka or any of our national languages. A well-crafted political education curriculum taught by well-qualified professionals will effectively educate our people on their national constitution and remove the anomaly between political perception and political reality that renders them perpetually unsure how to deal with their government. It will give our people enough knowledge of their constitutional rights and responsibilities and the limits of constitutional authority which will politically empower and render them capable of holding their leaders and governments accountable. And it would represent momentous progress towards the actualisation of a true government of the people, for the people and by the people.
In addition to obtaining knowledge of their constitutional rights and responsibilities and the nature and functions of the various organs of government, Gambians need to also distinguish the subtle but very important differences between leaders and rulers or mere power-wielders. On the surface it may appear that these terms are essentially the same. However, leadership has certain moral, ethical, persuasive and positively interactive undertones and connotations that rulership does not. Ruling or power wielding is more of a top-bottom regime of command, control and coercion. Leadership on the other hand, is more of a horizontal, multi-directional process of interaction and mutual influencing largely devoid of coercion and guided by certain unassailable moral and ethical standards of behavior that equally applies to both governors and governed. In a rulership situation, rulers insist on ruling from the front and the top. In a leadership situation, leaders lead as much as they are led. This distinction needs to be made clear to all citizens to prevent unjust power wielders who lack legitimacy from lording it over them while strutting around draped in over-flowing gowns and wearing funny hats, or carrying strings of bogus titles after their names in a bid to appear big, relevant and mysterious.
Overall, our point is that in order to establish a true democracy in the new Gambia, we must enhance the emergence of a new, politically enlightened and empowered Gambian. This we can do through a regime of healthy political education in both English and our local languages. Simplified versions of our constitution need to be required parts of all our school curriculums, from around grade 4 in elementary school. From high school right through undergraduate studies, Gambian students must be required to take courses not in the usual civics lessons, but in Gambian Studies, including Gambian history and Gambian Constitutional and Political Studies. Hence, we advocate the establishment of an Institute for Gambian Studies at the University of The Gambia that will oversee this important work of universal political education for all Gambians. Until Gambians understand the constitution and institutions that govern every facet of their lives, until they are enlightened and empowered through effective political education to hold their leaders accountable, our country will be stuck in a never ending cycle of ineffectual and docile governance, potential dictatorship and civil conflict that no amount of foreign intervention or foreign aid can stop. The Gambian people need to govern themselves in a very practical sense of the term. We need to start building a true government of the people, for the people and by the people.
Dr Baba Galleh Jallow is a native of Farafenni. The Armitage and Gambia High School alumnus ran a newspaper in The Gambia before resettling in the US. He is now a professor and the author of several books.
By Baba Galleh Jallow