Gambian opposition leader Ousainu Darboe has been in politics for the quarter of a century but has never held elective office, and thus robbing the voters a chance to assess how he would lead them as president. That’s a problem. But that’s not the only one.
At 73, Ousainu Darboe, the leader of the opposition United Democratic Party, is possibly nearing the end of his political career. He is going for his fifth presidential run. Five years from now, he will be 78, and his health permitting, he could still run if he loses on Saturday.
Darboe’s age hasn’t factored much in this campaign and nor should it. Age is just a number. He isn’t the only one in the history of elections to have pursued the presidency at such an old age. His supporters, ever defensive on Darboe’s age, continue to traffic in gerontological equivalence. They liken Darboe’s candidacy to that of the former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade or the current US Presidential Joe Biden.
The Experience Factor
Wade, born in 1926, made, beginning in 1978, four unsuccessful bids for the presidency before finally winning it in his fifth in 2000 at the age of 74. Biden, who was born in 1942, made two failed attempts for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and 2000 before winning it and the presidency in 2020. At 78, in November 2020, Biden became the oldest person ever to become US president. In 1901, and at 42, Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th and the youngest US president.
In the run up to the US presidential elections in 2020, it was said of Biden and a unanimous verdict at that, that no other person was as ever prepared for the presidency. The UDP has their own line, too: among all the candidates running for the presidency, Darboe is the ”most qualified,” has the ”most experience,” and is the ”best man” for the job. Please.
For an epistemological study on the symbiosis between gerontology and presidential politics, Wade, Biden and Darboe could all be grouped together under the microscope and it will be a bumper-harvest of similarities among the three.
But one thing will separate Biden and Wade from the Gambian.
It is the experience of elective office. Darboe is suffering from an acute shortage of it. Actually he has none. A long-running legal career and a protracted stay at the acme of a political party doesn’t necessarily equate political experience and a person’s state of readiness for the highest office of the land. Consider:
Biden was Obama’s vice-president for eight years. Prior to that, he served his home state of Delaware in the US Senate from 1973 to 2009. Wade, who founded his party in 1974, was elected to Senegal’s National Assembly in 1978 where he served until 1980. These two leaders had bagged years of political experience before becoming president.
True, the experience of elective office doesn’t necessarily translate into presidential greatness, but a lack of it, especially for veteran political leaders like Darboe, should raise eyebrows. Staying this long in politics (25 years and counting) without having once served in an elective capacity and thereby robbing the voters the chance to assess how you would represent them in the presidency is a troubling blemish in Darboe’s political record.
Even more troubling, and embarrassing even, is that one of his young lieutenants Talib Bensouda, the mayor of Kanifing Municipality, has, in just five years, accumulated more experience than the ”perennial candidate” Darboe ever had in his entire quarter-century political career. (Memo to Dr Ismaila Ceesay and Essa Faal: work your way up the electoral office ladder; don’t be like Darboe.)
Darboe is bucking the trend in the history of Gambian presidential politics. Taking Yahya Jammeh as an exception, Darboe will be the only candidate of a major political party to ever run for the presidency without having picked up elective office experience elsewhere. Alhaji Sir Dawda Jawara had it. So, too, did Assan Musa Camara, Sheriff Dibba and Mamma Kandeh. Darboe’s lack of elective office experience remains a drag in his political evolution and it continues to expose him for he is: a terrible politician with no knack for consensus and persuasive politics.
But that’s not only his problem. Inconsistency is another one. He was for President Adama Barrow staying for five years before he went against it, calling for the president to step down after three. He was against Barrow before he supported him and before he went against him. Again.
From 2018 to 2019, Darboe was Barrow’s vice president and previously foreign affairs minister from 2017 to 2018. But these positions, as brief as they were, and with one of them ending in a dismissal, show very little in terms of how much governing experience Darboe accumulated along the way.
But during a recent campaign speech in the Upper River Region, Darboe boasted that he was the one who brought those new road projects to the area. He forgot that he was a handpicked man who served at the pleasure of the president and for whom he (Darboe) was running errands that included finding funded projects for The Gambia.
In the Barrow cabinet, and prior to his firing, Darboe was a steady presence in the president’s decision-making. The president was deferential, even to an embarrassing fault. He called Darboe his ‘political godfather.’ Upon his release from jail, Darboe was made foreign minister and then vice president. He was rewarded. In the UDP, Darboe holds a larger-than-life place in the party’s imagination. His supporters are visceral in their support of him. One of them once said setting eyes on the opposition leader alone will lead to your sins being forgiven.
Even before he reaches the presidency, Darboe is already enjoying cult-like status within his party. To his rank and file supporters, Darboe is ”Baba,” a reverential title usually reserved for the father in Gambian households. In Gambian culture, you never go against Baba, for he is always right. His decisions cannot be questioned. They are final.
Earth to the Gambian voters. In a few days’ time, you will, in another exercise in participatory democracy, go to the polls to elect a president who will be subservient to you. Leave aside the experience and the flip-flopping factors for one moment. Rewarding leaders who induce supine acquiescence out of you will be a grave travesty.