By Musa Bah
When the representatives from the different states in America met to discuss the type of government they wanted to have after extricating themselves from British rule in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was confronted by a woman on the steps of the building when he emerged from the meeting in Independence Hall and asked him what type they had chosen. “We gave you a republic, if you can keep it,” he replied. This implies that having a republic also puts a burden, a responsibility on the citizens.
The question we now must ask as Gambians is this: Can we keep a republic? A similar question was asked of us more than fifty years ago when we told the British that we wanted self-rule. There was a referendum which, though did not ask this question in those same words, implied them. We answered in the affirmative and were given the reins, so to speak.
Fifty-three years later, we are still struggling with it and the question is yet to be put to rest. First, we had the government of President Dawda Jawara which lasted thirty years or close to it. That in itself was an indictment against our ability to keep the republic. One individual perpetuating himself in office for three decades is no way to keep a republic. Yet, despite this long time in office – of self-rule – the Gambia failed to meet the most basic needs of its citizens by enabling a conducive environment for citizens to have equal access to opportunities; be it in education, healthcare, food security, a good road infrastructure and so on. The gap between the rich and the poor kept widening at an alarming rate.
On July 22nd, 1994, a group of young soldiers overthrew that government which was widely believed to be corrupt and inept. They promised to change the system and bring in a new way of doing things. They promised accountability and probity. They promised to work towards levelling the playing field to enable ALL Gambians equal access to the national cake by providing a good education system, fighting corruption and removing all inequalities. They failed in almost all those areas and perpetuated themselves in power for twenty-two years, close to the duration of the previous government.
Again, on December 1st, 2016, we all came together and said that that government is belying our promise and pledge that we could keep a republic. But again, here we are almost in the first two years, declaring to the world – through our actions and/or inactions – that we cannot keep a republic. Since President Adama Barrow came to power, we have repeatedly seen scandal after scandal which can undermine our democracy and not much is being done to arrest it.
The first blow which hit us hard was the president giving the members of the National Assembly fifty-seven vehicles which he claimed came from an anonymous donor. Until now, the president and the presidency have refused to reveal the source of those vehicles and the members of the National Assembly – the Apex Accountability Institution in the nation – have continued to drive those vehicles and failed to hold the president to account – at least in that respect.
Of late, we were told that someone or some people anonymously deposited thirty-three million dalasis in the accounts of the Fatoumatta Bah Barrow Foundation and no one is the wiser. Remember, the members of the National Assembly approved a budget for the office of the First Lady which makes it legitimate for citizens to question and interrogate anything that is done in the name of the First Lady. Until now, neither the National Assembly nor the Fraud Squad of the Gambia Police Force has said a thing about that money and what it is doing in the accounts of the First Lady’s Foundation.
Citizens have spoken, written and asked for explanations and yet, not even one of these accountability institutions has raised a finger against this. What type of governance do we have that the office of the president keeps hiding behind anonymous donors and the office of the First Lady keeps telling citizens that their foundation is not a state sponsored one and thus they are not accountable to the people?
Yet, we claim that we can keep a republic. Democracy, they say, is participatory, thus the government has a duty to listen to citizens and consider their legitimate concerns and not ignore them or use tricks like ‘anonymous donors’. We have the right – and responsibility to ensure that our nation is not used for money laundering, terrorism or selling drugs – which all are possibilities when we talk of the 33m deposited in the First Lady’s Foundation’s accounts. The time has come for us to demand explanations from elected officials to ensure that we are not taken for a ride and taken back to dictatorship or massive corruption and mismanagement of funds.
I ask again, can we keep a Republic?