By Madi Jobarteh
The Gambia and Singapore gained independence in the same year 1965 (for the majority of Gambians believe that’s the year of our independence). Just like the Gambia, many had also said Singapore had little chance of survival. This is because not only was it overshadowed and threatened by bigger countries such as Communist China, Malaysia and Indonesia but also the country was a tiny piece of land, which is mainly made of swamps and no mineral resources. Like the Gambia it was an improbable nation as well.
Yet this tiny speck of land was able to move from a third world nation to a first world country within 50 years. It has become a thriving Asian metropolis with the world’s best airport and second best airline, the busiest port of trade, and has the world’s fourth highest per capita real income. Led by their first president Lee Kuan Yew from 1965 to 1990, this man led a robust nation building program with the development of massive road infrastructure, stamping out corruption, providing mass public housing and heavily investing in the education and overall capacity building of his people. Today Singapore is one of the world’s major commercial hubs and the fourth-largest global financial centre. Singapore has only 11 officially designated public holidays and are strictly observed.
For the Gambia, it is still classified as a highly indebted and a least developed country where majority of the people are below the poverty line, illiterate and lacking access to basic social services. Infant and maternal mortality are high just like unemployment while the country imports more than it exports. Cost of living is not only high but public service delivery is incredibly inefficient while the incidence of corruption remains high. In its 52-year history, the first half was spent under a weak governance environment that failed to build the necessary foundation and capacity. The second half became even worse under an intensely brutal tyranny. In 2017 the Gambia remains an improbable nation.
This is the reality that Gambians must understand and face in order to ask ourselves what kind of Gambia we deserve and need to build. Both our Government led by Adama Barrow and we the citizens must be very clear about this in order to realize that we cannot continue business as usual. We must understand that neither God nor vain hope will come down to build this country. Rather we will only build the Gambia based on an objective self-examination to identify our strengths and weaknesses as well as our collective interest to pursue them with dogged determination based on evidence-based policy and results-oriented management strategies within the broader framework of human rights and democracy. In this exercise there is no room for sentimentalism, sectarianism and self-delusion if we are to succeed.
Like the Singaporeans, Gambians must demand the best from its leaders and citizens. Our leaders and citizens must realize that even our best is not even enough. We must demand that the Government put in place policies that are well thought-out and found to be constructive and sustainable, and not to appeal to sentiment and populism. For example, the idea of price controls must be rejected because it is a policy that has been found to be counter-productive. No country is a better example of the failure of price controls than the Gambia. Since the First Republic, our various governments have used measures to lower prices yet this has only caused shortage of goods and make prices go up again amidst a high cost of living and poverty. Thus in our entire national life, we have continued to contend with these nightmares unabated.
We must demand that ultimately the adherence to the rule of law is non-negotiable and paramount. We must insist on a governance system based on the law that ensures that citizens enjoy their rights in full and therefore ensure equality, justice and peace. It is the respect for human rights that will produce a free society that can generate and strengthen free enterprise necessary to improve living standards. Our history has shown that the disregard of the rule of law creates more damages to lives, stifles business and kills opportunities in all sectors hence create more poverty and high cost of living.
Just like the Singaporeans, we need a Gambia where the Government will invest in our people to obtain quality and affordable education. Our public schools must be upgraded to the standard of the best private schools so that each and every child gets quality education. The future of any nation depends on the education of is population and Singapore has demonstrated that. The level of efficiency of the Singapore economy is based on the capacity of their people. Similarly our government must be told to invest in healthcare and build the necessary infrastructure for transportation and food production. Unlike Singapore, the Gambia has more fertile land with a freshwater river that slices the country into two halves. Hence the Gambia has the full capacity to generate its own development within a generation.
We must reject populist policies and actions of the Government because such decisions do not address our strategic needs. Populist polices such as price controls or reduction of transport fares merely address immediate needs but do not last long enough when prices will go up again. Hence the focus should be for the Government to strategically analyze our economy to identify and develop the key drivers and pillars. One of such drivers of the economy is an efficient public transport system. We need the Government to make such necessary investment in our health, education, transportation and food production sectors so as to not only serve the needs of the greater number of our people but by so doing also provide jobs and affordable and quality living standard to the people.
For far too long our governance and economic system takes the form of a top-down approach. We have to reverse this to make it a bottom-up system. We have to decentralize power and opportunities so that all of the Gambia does not have to come to the Greater Banjul Area just to be able to get better healthcare, education, housing and jobs. We should demand a development approach in which one could still remain in one’s town and village and still obtain the same opportunities and services as one would have them in Banjul. Similarly, we must demand that local governance systems be strengthened so that regions can address pertinent community issues without having to wait for approval from Banjul. This is the only way we will ensure a bottom-up approach that will create a durable and sustainable national development.
Finally the Gambia we deserve requires that we are able to overcome selfish, partisan and tribal sensibilities and only look at the long-term, strategic and holistic interest of the Gambia. We must develop the ability to overcome myopia and be able to see and think in terms of the bigger and the long-term picture. We must remember that it was because of such narrow-mindedness, partisan and sectarian views and approaches to national governance and development that have delayed and derailed our development for 52 years.
The sages say an unexamined life is not worth living; hence we cannot and will not develop if we fail to fully, objectively and bluntly examine our national life in order to acknowledge our errors and identify opportunities to take advantage of the moment and grow.