By Amadou Camara
Dear President Adama Barrow,
I hope you will take kindly, with kindred spirit, the content of this letter, which proffers you advice on how you can set The New Gambia train moving towards an opulent, glorious sunny land. To rattle off, a bit of analogy and historical context will do:
“Deus ex machina” is how the phlegmatic former Harvard philosopher of Brazilian decent, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, described such fortuitous calamity-induced opening: when schemes of things are upended politically, economically and socially there is always an enormous opportunity to introduce change to set things right. Unger was admonishing one of his brightest students who was then the most powerful man in the world, Barack Obama in David Remnick’s gritty detailed biography of Obama entitled: The Bridge: The Rise and Life of Obama.
After the 2008 economic crash and the disastrous war in Iraq, huge failings were exposed within US institutions and the distorted, dishonest and damaging actions by official movers and shakers of some of the gargantuan US government cog machine. Ordinary Americans were harrying Obama to go for the bank barons, whose dereliction of duty caused the crash in the first place by taking advantage of shady loopholes in the system. People on the left, even left-of-center (the political landscape Obama occupied and led) urged him to have the political spine and pine for ordinary Americans, who bore the brunt of the banker’s decision and picked the tabs for the disaster they wrought. Unger, as a respected voice on the left and as is his wont, lent credence to this point of view.
Cue to his sharp political acumen, Barack Obama listened, responded and delivered – albeit modestly to Unger’s liking, understandable so, for pure electoral reasons and avoiding to yawn the aperture between the Democrats and big business – using the aftermath of the 2008 financial to curtail the power of bankers, set up robust rules and regulations and gave rigorous incremental power to fiscal oversight bodies in the Senate and House of Representatives. Today both the Left and the Right in US politics, even the Far-Right, the Donald Trump base and the bête noire of everything Obama stands for, agreed that these fundamental reforms were right. Deal sealed: Obama used a crisis as an opportunity to set the US on a course-correction.
History, yes political history, is littered with tales and legends of leaders using their head after a crisis to shuttle their countries towards, or to, pole positions: Franklin Delano Roosevelt using the 1939 Great Depression in the US to usher in Prosperity with his successful strings of policies couched as the New Deal, Clement Attlee, the Labour British Prime Minister after the second World War, built a war-torn country from the ashes of the war, introducing big social reform and institutions, such as the National Health Service (NHS) ( thanks to the archetypical social justice crusader Aneurin Bevan) , which to this day benefits Britons. And, closer to home, Nelson Mandela used post-apartheid South to dismantle the skewed institution and apparatus of apartheid.
In the twilight days of 2016, a “deux ex machina” klaxon signalled that change is needed in Gambia, after former derring-do, mutton-headed muguwump dictator, Yahya Jammeh, was booted out of power by the people’s wish and will at the ballot box. His politics, for 22 years, was divisive as his policies were bordering on the comical. As the unknown political quantity to have emerged President, Adama Barrow, you had a rendezvous with history to set Jammeh’s follies and anomalies right. But so far you and your government are dithering and flailing. For every transformative political change to be translated into meaningful things for people it needs ELE: Events that will bring the upheaval, a Leader who will shape the event, with his/her (team) and Ideas.
In the Gambia, the event happened, the leader was elected to lead it, but you and your team are, like a panda-like passivity, bereft of ideas on how to shape this wave of change to benefit Gambians. And the resultant effect: Gambians, so euphoric and enthusiastic after a change of government, are despondent, despaired and dispirited at the current direction of travel the country is taking. The buck stop with you President Barrow. You have got to take responsibility: roll up your sleeves, dive in to your thinking bunker with your intellectual blood banks (your aides and advisers) and come up with grand, grandiose and sweeping ideas that would rejig The Gambia on the path to prosperity, jobs and opportunity for young people, build an economy that can power public services people depend on: schools, health centers, government institutions, roads, uninterrupted water and electricity supply.
GEAR The Gambia towards prosperity
There seems to be muddled thinking at the heart of your government. And where there is muddled thinking, a government muddles along without any coherent strategic direction. And, sadly, when this happens a government is at the mercy of events. Where do you want to take the Gambia in the next few years? How do you want to achieve your goals? What sort of policies are you going to pursue? How are you going to use the bullying pulpit of the presidency as a platform to advance your agenda? All these questions, inferring from your statements, public appearances, deadpan signals coming from your government, are all written on a blank page. In other words, there are no answers to them.
When you took over in 2016, there was no idea that underpins “The New Gambia” which captured the public zeitgeist and resonated with many Gambians. A deft political operator, with a dab political hand and a razor-sharp mind would have turned this slogan into a political soundbite, wrapped with concrete policy details. You need that. Every serious government, President or Prime Minister needs it: For Theodore Roosevelt it was called the Squire Deal, for Franklin Delano Roosevelt it was called The New Deal, for John F Kennedy is was called The New Frontier, for Lyndon B Johnson it was called The Great Society, for Harry Truman it was The Fair Deal, for Barack Obama it was Yes We Can, David Cameron it was The Big Society and Tony Blair New Labour, New Britain. These are not empty slogans.
They contained policies that have widely, whizzingly and winningly transformed the countries where they were introduced. Closer to home, across to the South, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) summed up their policy programme and platform in two words: Reconstruction and Development. And you will have a striking insight into how to build a country if you read Nelson Mandela’s book covering his term as president, entitled: Dare Not Linger, Presidential Years co-authored with Mandla Langa. It contains valuable lessons and interesting contrast with our country’s current situation: establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, uniting a divided country, building an effective coalition government and introducing security reforms inter alia.
As President you have a duty to lead. There are arrays of policy issues that optics your attention: re-structuring government departments, cobbling others together, setting new department to serve the NATIONAL INTEREST. Remember your government is still operating on the same departmental turf set-up by former President Jammeh. Ipso facto, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that government departments were organised to serve the interest of one man: Jammeh. Your speeches are littered with trying to make the civil service “efficient and effective”, but you can go up hill and down dale about this, and come hell or higher water achievements would be infinitesimal, because there is no way an “efficient and effective” civil service can be rolled out for Gambians without properly aligning government Ministries.
Take the Ministry of Employment, Trade, Industry and Regional Integration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Gambians Abroad, Head of the Civil Service and Presidential Adviser, Fisheries and National Assembly Matters for instance. You will see a big mismatched and overlapping of functions. With ministries like this how can you remotely have an “effective and efficient” civil service? Frankly, unless you are inhibiting La Lal Land, you can clearly see that these are chaotic arrangement. A solution: The Ministry of Employment, Trade, Industry and Regional Integration should simply be: Employment, Innovation and Skills. All these three sets of things are aligned, and the talents of young Gambians can be tapped, shaped and harnessed by such Ministry. The Ministry of foreign Affairs should have a department with remit of Regional Integration and Gambians abroad. There should be no ministry of National Assembly matters, because that branch of government is independent of the executive.
Rather to make for the loss, given that you have policies that needs to be debated at the National Assembly from your Ministers, you should create a unit of legislative experts called National Assembly Unit within your cabinet to help better prepare your Ministers and you on briefs, loopholes in policies you are about to introduce to the House and potential pitfalls. That is the standard, effective practice. On head of the Civil Service and Presidential Affairs Minister, it is a potty idea as it is puerile to have such a Ministry. Transform it to the cabinet office and makes it independent from government control, to be headed by a Cabinet Secretary. That is how you safeguard the independence of the civil service. I realise that words like rule of law, democracy and independent judiciary, roll from your tongue quite easily. But they are better serve with practical reforms like this, if we are to avoid being seen, or speaking, as drivel-spouting dullards by policy wonks and political mervins. When these reforms are in place then you can GEAR New Gambia with policies verging on: Growth, Employment, Agriculture development and Reconstruction (GEAR).
Use the three Ps of politics to change politics in Gambia for good: Politics, Policy, People
Sometimes elected officials are in government, but they are not in power. While others are in power but not in government. These are distinctions with difference. In your case, you appear to be in power but not in government, because if you govern you lead from the front with your set of policies, rooted in your values and principles. Tony Blair puts it so clearly: “power without principle is barren, but principle without power is futile.” You should have the gumption to lead causes you believe in: championing education for all from cradle to college to university, good healthcare for all Gambians (the current strike by nurses and doctors revealed what is known for too long; that they are under-paid, unmotivated and unappreciated and a strategic move would have been to commission a panel to look into their grievances and come up with a solution), reconciling different strata of the country after the divisive Jammeh era and showing Gambians that you are on their side.
Politics is about people’s lives and livelihood.
As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said all too truly: “The first and foremost responsibility of government is to serve people.” Back your politics with gritty policies that can help Gambians from getting by to getting on with their lives, and make people’s real life concerns front and center when addressing Gambians. Speaking in sweeping, lofty generalisation terms about democracy, rule of law and all the rest of it is all good and well. But you have to condense it in snippet, snippy and serious terms that mean food in people’s stomach, money in their pocket, firm trust that institutions are strong enough for them to rely on in their time of need. When giving a speech on the economy, go and make that speech at a business center to send a powerful message, a speech on education go and make it at the University, or College or High school, or even Primary School – wherever it is desirable. You have got the hang of it?
Doing all these things requires, sometimes, difficult decisions. As a leader, a President, you have got to have the courage of your conviction to lead by conviction when the situation demanded it, or by consensus, which seems to be your modus operandi. Leading by conviction means shooting your head above the parapet and get it directed towards strategic goals you genuinely believe are in the National Interest. It is not easy. It will never be easy for someone in your position. But it will require patriotic political persuasion, bureaucratic agile, firm leadership and wining Gambians over towards your vision to accomplish things.
You are an ardent football fans, gunning for the gunners, Arsenal. Therefore, I know this analogy will resonate with you: don’t be the captain of the team who is given penalty in the last minutes when your team is drawing and desperately needed a goal to win, only for you to aim the ball towards the sky, not the net. You will become a villain. So this is a legacy thing for you: aim that Gambian ball in the net to give us a competitive advantage Captain – oops, I should address you with your honorific title – President Adama Barrow. The ball is in your court. Seize it, and etch your name in history!
With best wishes,
Your fellow countryman