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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Civic education must be prioritised

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By Dr Ebrima Ceesay

Gambians are presently, living through one of the most divisive and polarised periods that their country has ever seen. Partisanship – and not policy preferences or even candidate performance – drives our politics. Sadly, for much of the Gambian electorate, every issue is now being seen through the prism of party allegiance and ethnic loyalty. In all fairness, in the current political environment, many Gambians seem to have lost the ability to have an objective, fair and balanced political discourse. Multi-partisan cooperation – by identifying points on which compromise is possible or can be achieved – is now a thing of the past.

Partisanship, propaganda, misinformation and disinformation, particularly on social media, have become the order of the day.

For example, just look at the case of Momodou Sabally, the aspiring parliamentary candidate for Busumbala Constituency under the United Democratic Party, whose nomination papers were recently rejected by the Independent Electoral Commission. Most people have just refused to come to this hot debate with a completely open mind on the rights and wrongs of the matter. Unfortunately, many Gambians – in both the ruling and opposition parties alike – seem to be following their party’s line or position on the issue, instead of giving the matter the fair, balanced and objective assessment it deserves.

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Clearly, the post-election discourse has split Gambian society right down the middle, and perhaps nowhere is this divide more evident in the country than in politics, where partisan extremism, sadly, is damaging the supreme national interest in that extreme partisans have tended to side with political parties they identify with, giving them blind loyalty and support, regardless of whether or not the party’s action or position would be inimical to The Gambia’s supreme national interests. 

In short, party allegiance is more important than objectivity and fairness. Many of the Gambian voters are highly polarised, and rather than policy views and programmes dictating political allegiances, tribal allegiances are being prioritised over the supreme national interest.  The spirit of unity, “we are one, and The Gambia first”, is virtually non-existent in post-Jammeh Gambia.

Regrettably, post-Jammeh Gambia is a country characterised by sharp polarisation in the way its everyday politics is conducted. In fact, political polarisation has risen, following the December 2021 presidential election, and ahead of the upcoming National Assembly elections. In particular, the use of social media has contributed immensely, to partisan animosity in The Gambia. And while there are many varied causes for the current state of the sad political situation in the country, one among these causes, which has been overlooked, is the lack of political or civic education among large sections of our population. To some extent, the country’s current state of toxic politics owes itself to the failures of its education system, especially at the level of primary school.

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For example, studies have shown that political or civic education positively correlates with political participation and heightened citizenship awareness. But unfortunately, since independence in 1965, The Gambia’s traditional education pedagogy has not adequately equipped Gambians with the learnings that they needed to actively engage in and rationally address political and social issues of the day. We now seem to be paying the price for the chronic lack of civics curriculum, especially at the level of primary school. Yet, studies have shown that citizens who did not receive a proper civic education foundation starting from primary school, may be ill-equipped to become well-informed citizens.

Therefore, to some extent, the current sorry state of affairs in our body politics is testimony to the failure of The Gambia’s education system that a high percentage of the voting-age population in the country is simply lacking the requisite knowledge necessary to act reasonably and rationally in the political process. In fact, in the past three decades we have witnessed the dramatic decline of civics (or civic education) in our school system, thereby leading to the status quo, as we know it now, whereby many Gambians are today ill equipped to become informed citizens. Yet, the importance of civics curriculum in creating an informed citizenry cannot be underscored enough.

Against this backdrop, civic education, in my view, should now be made a mandatory subject in our education system, starting at or from the primary school level, as it is clear that our fledgling democracy cannot be consolidated effectively, in the absence of mandatory civic education in our school system. The promotion and consolidation of our democracy must be accompanied by massive civic education for Gambian citizens. To some extent, the current Gambian education system focuses, and rightly so, on science, technology engineering, and mathematics, and while STEM education is important, social and political studies are also critical but lagging behind, again especially at the level of primary schools. Focusing on stem education, while ignoring the importance of civics has many disadvantages.

Again, for me, the absence of serious political thinking in The Gambia can be blamed, to some extent, on the effects of lack of a solid political education foundation which should have started at the level of primary schools since Gambia obtained independence in 1965. The authorities in The Gambia should realise that civic education is essential to the sustenance and enhancement of our fledgling democracy. Therefore, going forward, the education authorities in The Gambia must have an interest in the ways in which young Gambians are prepared for citizenship and in how they learn to take part in civic life. There is evidence aplenty that having active, responsible and informed citizens will sustain democracy.

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