Dr. Badara Alioune F. Taal
Prior to the beginning of the political environment in the Gambia, and in the history of politics in this country before and after independence, there has never been an open debate featuring potential candidates for the presidency or any congressional seat to engage the citizenry on important issues to tackle when elected to office. This is a proud moment for Gambia and also a sign of progress and maturity in our thinking process. It should be included in the constitution for all presidential candidates to engage in multiple debates to be scheduled in different venues in the country to give voters the opportunity to hear from candidates directly and also be granted the opportunity to ask questions pertaining to their welfare to help informed decision-making processes in selecting a president and/or a representative. This is the empowerment of democratic principles and transparency for the new systemic change in the Gambia. The candidates should justify their promises to the voters and the strategies for their individual solutions when elected and how those strategies will be funded – who is paying for diner? This way, the candidate can be held accountable to fulfilling his/her promises to voters to which they (voters) can use to assess and evaluate the candidates next time around for re-election. It is about time for Gambians to hold their representatives accountable to promises made on the campaign trail. For example, the politician was once a friend whom we grew up together, drank tea (attaya) together every day, played on the same soccer team during the regular season and rainy season soccer tournaments (nawettan), went to the same schools, sat in the same classroom, spent most of the time together hustling on street corners looking for opportunities, and also very close neighbors. Something changed and that same friend became a politician won an election that we whole heartedly supported and voted in his/her favor. Within a course of a year in this new role, this politician surmounted the ladder of success and all friends, supporters, and voters found themselves sinking in the quick sand of abject poverty. It is therefore hopeful that these debates will change the perspectives of voters to disassociate themselves from emotional, religious and tribal ties and vote their conscience to for the best candidate with good intentions for the country and its citizens. This situation has to change as it is the norm in this country where people asked for your votes to become corrupted in power with so much to show for themselves and their immediate families and nothing to show for their constituents. The candidates’ priorities do shift from constituent or country to self and cronies. Their children and family members will never take the “back way”, so why should yours take the risk of the unknown? Those choosing to take that way have lost hope in the system and the leadership. They are disappointed by a leadership that have no accountability. Why should these leaders develop your hospitals, or schools (education system)? The reality is that, their families are schooled in Britain or the U.S. and if sick, they are rushed to neighboring Senegal, Britain, or the U.S and it is you, the tax payer in the Gambia that will pay the tap – who cares about your healthcare, schools, or better yet failed to create incentives or opportunities for you scale the socio-economic bracket?
These debates, if consistent, should be welcoming and allow candidates to do so in the local languages especially when venues changed from the city limits to the rural areas or at least have translations concurrently while the life debate processes are taking place. The information retrieved from the face off debates are raw and directly from the candidates’ mouth to your ears. This process will help voters to determine for themselves the candidates that should be trusted with their vote for the country as far as preparations to take the helm, visions and ideas to make a difference, planning and programs, accountability and responsibility, funding, commonalities and differences.
Debates do open the gateway for Candidates to craft and articulate their individual party plans and also to explain designed programs they wish to implement that is of concern to the country and its citizens. Voters are responsible for detecting which of these candidates have a clear understanding of the issues that plaque the country and their vision to move the country away from it and forward. For example, records in our hospitals, schools, and security system, are paper based where the world has gone digital – there are no track tracing – this (paper filings), creating the grounds for the rampant corruption. These candidates should provide tracking information to show their understanding of the problems or issues and their step-by-step explanation of method(s) to debunk the problem for progressive and better future for the Gambia and Gambians. Candidates should have a better understanding of the economy, geography, finances, infrastructure, and resource endowments of the country. In addition, plans and strategies to efficiently extract and utilize resources to maximize utility for job creation, and a sustainable development and improved standards of living.
The Gambia is a country of indifference (Badjie, 2021) and rightfully so because the citizens are not proactive and have this relaxation mood especially those that are impactful for their survivals. The thing is we always prefers the back seat on issues and rely on others or to Allah for a miracle. We have to shy away from that mind set because doing so only empower the policy makers and politicians relieving them of their responsibilities. The electoral process does not end at voting for a candidate and once your party gains victory, individual satisfaction is accomplished. The arty and the candidate in particular, have to be held accountable to all that was promised on the campaign trail. It is not fair to say that all promises made has to be achieved at the end of the term but at least we can account and assess as voters the successes and failures.
During these party congresses, there are wide displays of poor people flexing their patriotism for UDP, NPP, CA, GDC, PPP, NCP, APRC, etc., etc. – all the eyes could see on the televisions screen are seas and oceans of party colors, yellows, green, white, red, etc. of people. All these patriots had to sacrifice their daily chores at home to join these candidates to traverse the whole country in exchange for three daily meals, a T-shirt, or clothes with party regalia (bought by supporters). In many extreme situations, these supporters will do whatever it takes, fight others, name calling, willing to spill blood, disown their relatives, neighbors, and friends to show loyalty for their party. Mind you, most of these supporters have no clue what their party’s agenda/mandate or the party’s responsibilities to its members and fellow citizens. They were never offered the opportunity to ask questions pertaining to party intentions and commitments in regards to the welfare of the nation. In essence, these supporters are willing to go down and sacrifice everything within reach to blindly support their candidates. And I get that passionate feeling, however, passion should be followed by accountability to that which one is so passionate about – there is no free lunch.
That situation is not unique to Gambia, for example in the mighty U.S, both the Republican and Democratic parties exhibited similar behaviors. As a result, both parties felt entitled to the African American votes with no accountabilities to campaign promises. We have all seen the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, on the streets, soccer fields, basketball courts, tennis courts and many venues. These issues should have been something of the past, but today it is very much comparable to living in the 1960s America. The Hispanic voters in the U.S on the other hand, are taken more seriously on issues relating to their needs – Unity. So, for Gambian voters, you have the power to decide who sits in the White house or Congress. It is your God given right to challenge all candidates on their duties, intentions, responsibilities, and they should be held accountable to any promises made on the trail. It is not their job to give you anything, money, sugar, rice, and/or cooking oil to grease your wheels and after which nothing changes in your welfare the next day. These are temporal fixes to permanent problems to make it look as if they are doing something to help you. They should be working (advocating) to make you less dependent on those alms and give aways. Those give aways were paid for by your taxes – just recycling the funds that were allocated to develop the country.
Every job offers came about from rounds of lengthy interview processes; so seeking the leadership of the country or sit in congress, we have to ask the right questions at the interview table and candidates have to give us the answer before they get hired for the job. If they failed to do so, it is up to you to decide what to do with them. The voters deserve the bread and not the bread crumbs fit for a, homeless person (douhaan daimme). The point here is that emotional issues, friendship, “maaslaahaa” should be thrown out of the window because such draperies are artificial barriers used for people to blindly follow without questioning the motives.
I remembered once a family member was running for an office in the Gambia and at the time and I was told that everyone in the family was rallying other members to go vote for the individual. I would not have voted for him because I deeply felt that he had nothing to offer to the constituent he set out to represent. We should vote for people because of individual welfares, the country’s issues are bigger than fulfilling an individual satisfaction and until that candidate is open to tell us his/her plans on running the affairs of the state to our collective satisfaction, that vote should not be wasted in his/her favor. We empower and create our dictators by enabling decision makers to receive an easy vote to office. Growing up in Banjul, I noticed generational support for parties and such families grew up in poverty and died in poverty and yet blind to the fact that change is necessary – look at the elected officials (with the exception of the late Bora M’bodge, at Louville Square) their families will not sufferer poverty for generations to come.
I do not want to refer to the former president, a dictator, but it was the Gambians that made and equipped him with everything he needed to be successful in his trajectory to become one. For example, Yaya came to power without a bank account and all of a sudden became the richest Gambian and one of the richest leaders in Africa. His party supporters with everything revealed in the TRRC and Janneh Commission hearings, yet are claiming returning “his” assets – those were stolen government assets that belonged to the Central Bank of the Gambia to be liquidated to finance the infrastructure and the economy of the country.
Halifa Sallah pointed out this same illustration in his closing remarks regarding acknowledgement of the truth and in denial of accepting the truth, and being ignorant of the truth, as a result, people dwindled and languish in poverty through their family generations. This could be avoided only if we are truthful to ourselves and to country. All this public display of food in parks and play grounds need to stop and let the politicians know that they should be working for you not to feel sorry for you.
I had an open mind entering this debate to listening to both candidates of whom I knew very little about. I have not read their individual manifesto or their agenda for the country. So based on the information from the debate, I looked for composure, organization and presentation of ideas for the ordinary citizen or layman to understand. The programs that each party planned to implement when elected to office, and also their commitment and preparations to take on the responsibilities of leading this country in the global economy of the 21 century and further. In addition, the infrastructural plans each of these parties devised for the need of this country. Lastly, I wanted to hear how these programs will be executed and financed – who/ how will dinner be paid? Is Gambia resorting to increasing debt that will lead to surrendering ownership and royalties of our natural resources to foreign countries (complex contract signings with China)? I was hoping to hear from the candidates the issues of technology transfers, and refraining from complete dependence on handouts from politicians of revenue generated from those resources that belongs to all Gambians.
It was clear from the debate that Dr. Ceesay was less informed on issues, regarding economic developmental strategies and also was not quite clear in explaining Citizen Alliance’s agenda on issues affecting the country to the audience. I heard more of his repetitive answers to questions uttered by the counterpart, Sallah. Mr. Sallah is a seasoned politician, and had the advantage on streamlining his party agenda, and eloquently explained his party approach to job creations, and utilization of resources to pay for his programs as well as to create opportunities, and feed the population. He was also able to address new ideas of improvements to the educational system to provide access to all citizens in all corners of the country. It is one thing to talk about the West especially the United States, it is another comparing Gambia to it. The U.S is big in selling bonds particularly Treasury bonds to finance its debt, however, contrary to Dr. Ceesay, bonds are loans with guaranteed returns (secured investments unless in the case of bankruptcy). All smart investors in the world would love to purchase U.S Treasury bonds because of its security and guaranteed payments. The total public debt of the U.S. in 2010, was $11.9 trillion of which 33% was held by foreigners and almost 30% of that foreign portion of the debt is held by China (Schiller and Gebhardt, 2015). As Sallah pointed out in the debate, China and other countries purchase these treasury bonds using remittances from services in the form of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). Unlike bonds purchased from the Gambia government, those bonds are less attractive compared to other options in the world.
Sallah’s mandate is clear and simple to follow, such as receiving royalties for resources, and also returning ownership of land to the people. Free the government’s responsibilities in resource ownership (gardens, the Kartong soil mining, etc.) and increase privatization so the public sector can flourish and engage the economy to address important problems. Both candidates were well aware of the importance of the private sector for the economy to flourish to create employments and develop wealth. After an extensive elaboration on the question of resources development to sustained wealth, Dr. Ceesay found himself in a confused state and for some reason Norway’s development was brought into the debate. I think it is best to remind these politicians especially, the young politicians that the issues at hand are to determine the Gambia’s definition of its problems and to solicit a Gambian solution to those problems. Gambia is not Norway, U.S.A or Senegal, we have to as a nation, or should be able to, assess and come with solutions to be on the same scale with our neighbors.
To Dr. Ceesay’s credit, he was right stating the need to having regulatory agencies and laws to guide those agencies to protect investments in the country. That is one of the fundamental pieces missing in Gambia’s economy, there are no regulatory agencies for different sectors of the economy, such as housing, fishing and agriculture, consumer protection, etc. If there are such agencies, then they are lost in the shuffle. Having such agencies will ease the burden to make FDI more attractive to those investors. Investors will therefore have some recourse to protect their investments. There is already a high risky associated to individuals bringing assets and resources to invest in foreign countries, more so when there are no protections for securing such investments to minimize risks. In politics, especially that of the Gambia, we tend to copy so much from the West and ended losing originality. The point being, as Dr. Ceesay pointed out in the debate that it does not bother him that foreigners to be able to own land and other institutions in the Gambia. I disagree with that opinion and my objection remained to allow investments and no ownership of our natural resources. A foreign investor can come in and work in partnership with the locals in a limited partnership agreement. It worked in China and no one is complaining so the same should be the standards in the Gambia, we always get fooled at the end of the contractual agreements – See the case of an Israeli investor and the iron ore debacle for royalties in Guinea. History has not been on the African decision-makers’ side on issues where contracts are signed with foreigners (Western or Eastern) because we are satisfied with photo ups, lobster and shrimp dinners instead of intense negotiations in our favor.
It is only in the Gambia that a potential presidential candidates would dare mention raising taxes, unlike the United States, no presidential or local politicians are crazy enough to hint increasing taxes for the citizens – Mondale/Reagan, 1984 presidential debate. The population in the Gambia can be socio-economically characterized as 10 percent rich and 90 percent poor and no middle class and of this 10 percent, 8 percent may be foreigners. The tax base is very small. Therefore, it is on all Gambians to always place Gambia first on everything you do because everyone I know of does the same for their countries. Take a page from Youssou N’Dour, he can sell out the Bakau Stadium and Box Bar put together for any concert in the Gambia today. He always states that nothing is of interest to him other than Senegal, its welfare and wellbeing. Gambians will not go see a Gambian artist perform but will go to the extent of bankrupting their resources to buy a ticket anywhere to see N’Dour’s stage performance, – go figure. “This country will sink if we don’t think and take the right decision, it will float if we think and take the right decision” (Sallah, 2021). We cannot depend on loans and selling our resources in exchange to losing our sovereignty, like Sallah said, we need to harness what we have and that which belong to and own by all Gambian, so let those resources benefit the common good – Gambians.
The questions that should have been asked on this economic package in the debate should have been: What resources does the country have that should be harnessed? I bet the Chinese and the Europeans knew the answer but the Gambians do not. The only idea the Gambian politicians are buried under is hell bent on an AGRARIAN ECONOMY, a dead economy. Gambia needs to get in with the 21st century economies such as venture capitalism, manufacturing, knowledge-based economy, etc. Elect individuals that have ideas and are visionaries not the James Gomez, and Yahya Jammeh type politicians that will loot our resources for personal gains.
Equity – education/healthcare
The equity issues addressed in this debate was very minimal and was pointed at creating access to education and health care to all region of the country. Both candidates’ response to equity were comparable to almost the same tune. My interest on this area as in the rest was nestled on the payment process to these services from an economy that failed to create jobs through useful policies or better yet development of regulatory agencies instead of making government as the primary employer and provider for its citizen. Dr. Ceesay pointed out the need for the government to create a viable private sector through implementations of programs and policies to increase private investments. “When Government goes into business, they failed because they are not good at doing business. They are good at making legislative framework…” (Ceesay, 2021).
At the end of the day, it was clear that both candidates have agreed on one objective and that is eradicating POVERTY but they have not seen eye to eye on the method(s) to implement for solutions. Although, Sallah was clear in outlining his party agenda as their mandate to include: Poverty, Injustices, and Ignorance. However, the opposing candidate, Dr. Ceesay, even though he did not list his party objectives but all he said can be categorized and summarized under one of those listed above, i.e. POVERTY. So they both said the same things, and it is very important that they both go back and listen to the debate and hopefully craft a collaborative memorandum of understanding to work together. Poverty breed, inequality, tribalism, injustices, and ignorance. These candidates have more shared commonalities than they have differences and it seems there is room for them to join forces together to better serve the interest of the nation.
Both candidates addressed the primary problems in the Gambia along with the creation of a sustainable development in the future. In Africa, people do not decide on their leaders based on the ideas they possess rather votes are based on that which you did for the voter recently (Prof. Lumumba). Voters in the Gambia should ask their candidate as well as other candidates competing for the job, pertinent questions on what their agenda will be to move the nation forward in job creation and economic development. We are only divided because of ignorance and poverty and the politicians are aware of the carrot and the stick mentality.
Halifa discussed his program to eliminate poverty and how to provide payments to make it work for the common good through royalties. Using the resources embedded in the land and above it to generate funds to reinvest on the people. Also providing interest free incentives to local investors to develop their businesses, and to empower women on the fields with feeds, fertilizers, and other equipment needed in developing their trade. These are viable means of creating jobs, empowerment, and increase sustainable developments as well as an expansion of the tax base. Dr. Ceesay, mentioned eradicating poverty, and providing health care to all with other important issues related to equal access to education, however, he failed to mention the funding mechanism to implement his programs.
Overall, the debate went well and both candidates did very well and like in everything, there has been a method of evaluating winners and runners up for each round of debate, it was Sallah who in my assessments seemed to have the edge. That being said, Dr. Ceesay deserved a lot of credit for being part of the process and justifying the CA’s purpose and agenda for the Gambian people. In addition, I would give credit to both of them for participating in bringing awareness to the citizenry about where their party is and what their plans are for the people they seek votes from. They both made history participating in a land mark event for the Gambia as something that was never envision prior to and post-independence – you both should be proud of yourselves for job well done. Borrowing from the host of the debate, it is Gambia that won and should be proud of its citizens for having a civil discussion and no shouting match.