Should National Assembly members have minimum qualifications and/or work experience?

By Abdou Samad Njaaye

In the run-up to the 2017 legislative election held across the country on April 6, 2017, diverse opinions about the profile of contestants have been floated.  Although several media outlets worked in concert with a sizeable number of activists to discourage voters from parochial ethno-linguistic voting behaviour, it appears that zealous grassroots volunteers and party apparatchik, united by a desire to maximize individual parties’ representation in legislature, have overwhelmed constructive messages geared towards institutional and nation-building.  As the political dynamics unfolded, rare calls for circumspection and election of  “right” and “competent” candidates  were equally drowned out by discordant and loud sound-bites that typify machinations reminiscent of old-style politics.

As the dust from recent upsurge in political activities settle, and newly (re)elected NAMs are sworn into office, it is still pertinent to ask and reflect on what makes a legislator a “competent” person and consequently a “right” choice of representative by the electorate?  In its current state the 1997 constitution is silent on the question.  Indeed, the said constitution only speaks about eligibility to contest in national assembly elections in these terms “a persons qualified for election to the national must be a Gambian citizen;  make a declaration of his/her assets; have no criminal record;  is not a holder of public office, elected local government official or member of the disciplined forces;  is not financially bankrupt; be at least twenty one years of age;  able to speak English; and ordinarily resident in his/her constituency for at least one  year immediately prior to nomination day.”

The way matters currently stand; I find it odd that proficiency in the English language is the only competency required of prospective NAMs.  No effort is needed to spot the asymmetry between requirements for employment at officer level in the executive branch of government and members of the legislature who are mandated to scrutinise management processes and deliverables of ministries, departments, executive agencies and their employees.  It is naturally legitimate therefore to ask why comparable or higher standards of educational attainment and/or work experience are not applied in the legislative branch of government? And what are the predictable consequences of having lower entry standards for the legislature? In much the same way as the personal identity and character of individual legislators are correlated with meaningful representation, competence is crucial to effective and efficient execution of law-making and oversight functions of NAMs.  For context, it is perhaps sufficient to make the observation that actions and omissions of the legislature impact on all spheres of national life and reflect on people’s well-being even after NAMs/lawmakers have left office.  Our diplomacy and international relations, steered under the watchful eye of the legislature, could also impact the lives of people living beyond our borders.  Thus summarised, the gravitas of the office of NAM cries out for a sustained public discussion of the question “should national assembly members (NAMs) have minimum qualifications and/or work experience?”

For starters, depending on whom one speaks to, high educational attainment is not seen as a guarantee for being a good legislator.  Some even argue that the “school-of-life” makes a person a better legislator.  Notwithstanding, one cannot be oblivious of the fact a decent education fosters mental acuity that confers quantitative and discursive analytical skills which serve as the basis of a person’s ability to read analytically and think critically about text belonging to different genre groupings, and his/her ability to communicate effectively, even if the persons has limited experience.

Why resurrect the issue of competence? Simply put, the “competence” question is a legacy issue that needs to be addressed for positive social transformation to become a reality, for our leaders to become global citizens and the country to gain global competiveness. Historically, incumbent NAMs/Parliamentarians engaged in a no-holds barred contest for elected office had no interest in rule changes.  Large-scale self-alienation of professionals and intellectuals from politics and low levels of political awareness among the populace also contributed to the enduring perception of politics as a “an activity to be engaged in by other people”.  Currently on the cusp of social transformation catalysed by political awakening of the Gambian electorate, there is no better time than now to introduce measures to professionalise important public offices such as the legislature by imposing academic qualifications within the next 10 years to curb narrow parochialism and infuse the legislature with new vitality.  After more than 50 year of nationhood, upward trends of access to education and educational attainment, there is no excuse for maintain eligibility standards set before independence.

In legislatures outside the African continent, the majority of lawmakers have university degrees in diverse fields of educational pursuit relevant to public policy debates.  In advanced countries, like the US, UK, Germany, Singapore, amongst others, 90 – 95%% of legislators have at least a first degree, the remaining 5 – 10% being “old” men who are elected in constituencies where they face little political competition.  In advanced countries, it is not unusual for legislators to have dedicated staff with diverse educational backgrounds assisting in the task of untangling complex issues and providing advice on questions they are continually faced with.  In the Gambia, no support of the kind is afforded to NAMs whose performance inter alia is further constrained by 1) a low average member-to-committee ratio; and 2) overcrowded parliamentary calendar, which collectively impose a high burden of competence and time pressures on NAMs who need to ably and expeditiously execute their functions with little or no help from aides.  With less than 1 in 5 NAMs having university degrees, a historical survey of elected officials activities is likely to reveal that only a small percentage of NAMs/parliamentarians participate in a meaningful way in the work of the National Assembly/Parliament. Over the period of their tenure, legislators/NAMs who do not sufficiently improve on their competence and self-confidence are more likely than not to become uncritical followers of majority opinions, voiceless or ghost legislators (No pun or disrespect intended).  Suffice to say that non-productive NAMs are no help to the legislature.  Task efficiency as a group depends notably on constructive and insightful individual inputs that cohere with the aspirations of Gambians and the rule of law.

Should university degrees become mandatory for NAMs, the legislature will of course be in competition for top talent with the executive branch of government, private and voluntary sectors.  In response to apprehensions about a potential skills gap, my answer is “Nothing to worry about. Just figure out the population of Gambian graduates in 10 years’ time.”  Before then however, let us have a quality mentorship programmes in place to help young graduates/professionals build leadership qualities, upgrade and expand their skills sets.  In my considered view, establishing minimum educational standards for elected office represents a critical first step towards sanitising Gambian politics of its most divisive elements, creates opportunities for young talent across both sides of gender aisle, and augurs well for fostering a culture of enlightenment among legislators.  To safeguard against elite capture of participatory democratic processes or the emergence of an oligarchy, suffice to remind readers that the Gambian electorate has constitutional powers to recall elected representatives for commission of ‘irredeemable faults’ (expression mine).  In addition, I can be counted among people who firmly support the imposition of constitutional term limits to prevent self-perpetuation of NAMs (and other elected officers).

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