By Ousman Manjang
On 2 December 2016, Gambians were able to show to those outside the borders of their tiny country that they are not without mettle after a 22-year-old autocracy whose many and regular atrocities had made many doubt that Gambians were indeed worthy of being the custodians of a modern nation-state; they were finally able to take the bull by the horns.
A twentieth-century state whose leader could claim to have been “mandated” to “cure” HIV-AIDS; who officially claimed to be hunting down and neutralising witches and who openly threatened to exterminate members of an ethnic group that is at least 40% of its population was, for sure, a state that was heading towards another Rwanda-type calamity. That Gambians were able to vote that government out of power and steadfastly held it so till the regional powers came to help them implement that ouster was indeed one great African triumph. An African triumph? Yes, generally speaking, but particularly a triumph of Gambian voters who rose up to cast their votes, their opposition politicians who cleverly devised a coalition plan, the militancy of the members of the different political parties of the various aggrieved resident communities and of the various Diaspora communities outside The Gambia. The commitment and dedication of members of different communities of citizens all over the country and the widespread resentment of citizens no longer ready to tolerate tyranny and the rampant seizures of state and national assets by one mad autocrat, finally.
However, any coalition based on the support of so many and so various a mixture of support-base must be vulnerable to the knocks, shocks and jitters that go with all coalition politics. But why I write is not in response to any excess of such wrangling, but its remarkable absence; a near total absence of any push-and-pull over the National Development Plan 2018 to 2021 of the Barrow Administration. The silence before March 2018 when it was up for discussion by a donor conference in Brussels is well understood and even applauded but we cannot all just hush up about or on all issues about the Plan in the name of sympathies for any government, coalition or not. What I just now cannot be quiet over is this National Development Plan especially if it can open up a discussion that can lead to its improvement in quality, impact, timeliness and relevance and perhaps much more. In other, words what I hear are not the shouts of rage of discords over the plan, what I hear is the deafening silence of all the nine parties of the supposed coalition government. But some silences are more worrying than the tumults that go with the rowdiest discords.
Political parties are creatures for the formulation, propagation and argumentation of intended or potential state policies. Partisan politics are the controversies over such policies by the differing parties. Development plans are the recorded catalogues of such would-be state policies intended for a duration of time. If there is so deafening a silence over the passing of the National Development Plan 2018 to 2021 without much ado then ought not we celebrate and thank our stars for a stable, united and loyal coalition government? Or are we to wonder at the sincerity, abilities, dedication or mettle of the eight or nine parties constituting the coalition? I consider myself as one who has been exercising sufficient restraint from making any damaging commentaries on the NDP when it was being touted for the attention of the donor community. If I was under patriotic restraint then, now, I am under patriotic duty to speak out my mind for its possible improvement now that the draft of the plan document has been tendered for the scrutiny of the donor community and it has already attracted both the support and commitment of so many of them.
Why a development plan?
In a foreword to the plan, His Excellency, President Barrow wrote: “Since coming to power, we have undertaken many measures to stabilise the economy, restore public confidence and strengthen democratic institutions. However, we are also aware that more must be done, and urgently. That is why I tasked government to draw up a new National Development Plan (NDP) to provide greater clarity and focus for government action, citizens’ engagement and also for our development partners who are eager and stand ready to assist us.” In other words, the plan serves to provide clarity and focus for government action, citizens’ engagement and an eager team of overseas development partners.
In his introduction to the Plan, former Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Hon Amadou Sanneh wrote: “With the coming in of the new government, it was evident that a new National Development Plan had to be drawn up that took account of the momentous changes the country had gone through, the vision of the new government and the expectations of the country’s citizens. We therefore revitalised and expanded the existing Thematic Working Groups and provided new guidelines to ensure a plan that was reflective of the “new Gambia”. The keywords here being “revitalised” and “expanded.”
While the President seemed to be claiming some originality, his former Finance Minister stressed more continuity, that is to say, the plan’s emanating from the former President Jammeh’s about a dozen Thematic Working Groups (TWG).
Just like its predecessor, the Jammeh-regime ran a series of three to four-year programs; from the Poverty Alleviation Program, that was inherited from Jawara’s days through the Poverty Alleviation Program, to the Poverty Eradication Programme , through several other such programs before concluding with PAGE (Programme for Accelerated Growth and Employment). In fact a year before its effective conclusion, perhaps as a last kick of a dying horse, Jammeh seemed to forget that one before he heralded the Vision 2016, which, like a magic wand, was expected to make Gambia become self-sufficient in rice and to put a stop to all importation of rice by the end of 2016.
However by 2017, Gambian officialdom was without any plan. PAGE had been abandoned, just like Vision 2016 and the IMF which had previously been behind much of government’s programmes, had finally given up on President Jammeh. But despite this, Jammeh had not wholly given up. He continued by ordering for the formulation of a new programme. He had his men dispatched to work on the preparations for a new government programme. Already by October 2015 some of his bureaucrats were assigned into about a dozen so-called thematic work groups that were to look into about a dozen supposedly developmental themes that were captured in the course of several presidential retreats held in Jammeh’s palace in Kanilai. So as former Finance Minister, Hon Sanneh, said, the new plan, the National Development Plan was nothing but a “revitalised” and “expanded” variant of Jammeh’s, conjured up after the dramatic ouster of a virulent but protracted dictatorship.
In order to remain relevant to the Gambian body politic, after losing in four consecutive elections, the political parties opposed to the autocracy were luckily able to come up with a formidable coalition that succeeded in defeating the incumbent APRC regime. Their electoral victory came as big a surprise to them as to the defeated party itself. It was not their political creativity, or the depth or breadth of their views that made them able to win. It was simply that partly the mass of voters were fed up with the Jammeh regime and partly, the tactical blunders of Jammeh himself. The coalition was not a government in waiting. It was far from the case. It was not so that the opposition coalition defeated the dictatorship from its own strength but that the Jammeh dictatorship, badly bruised and thoroughly weakened by years of misgovernment, went on to pass the Electoral Act 2015 which, in a way, forced the opposition parties to take the option of coalition-building more seriously.
The new Act made it untenable, if not impossible for most of the parties to continue being considered as registered political parties separately. The uproar that followed the killing of Solo Sandeng and the imprisonment of the UDP leadership made the formation of such a coalition much more feasible.
The new coalition government was a team of officials mainly new in government or even say officialdom. They needed something, a plan, or whatever you call it, a document say, to give to potential donors who seemed in hurry to bring badly needed aid to the former pariah state. But it was a document not only for the purpose of shedding light on the path to development but a roadmap on the path of constituting a viable government administration.
My take on the National Development Plan
The plan itself is a rather copious printout, being a 360-page document. Perhaps an abridged version would have been better welcomed for most members of the government administration, much more, the political followership and broader sections of citizens. Better still, tape-recorded versions in the vernacular would have even been better welcomed. Hon Amadou Sanneh wrote that there was an abridged version somewhere but I am yet to lay my hands on one.
Whatever, I would not have called it a National Development Plan. May be something like National Recovery or Redemption or even Rectification Plan would have been more proper, in this way suggesting an operation that is prompt, immediate, swift or transitory than a “development plan,” which suggests one more deliberate, slow all-embracive and systematic if not systemic. Coalitionpolitics had become a feature of the body politic of post-war era of many if not most countries. The type of coalition government formed depends on what united the different members of the coalition parties or in other words what pulled them together if they were lucky enough to be organized in political parties. Otherwise it was a crypto-personal affair depending mostly on the chemistry of the personalities involved, often ending up in what the pre-independence political parody of what Ali Gaye was supposed to have done to the Muslim Congress.
Under the trials and tribulations of the Second Republic, what united the parties in The Gambia was their opposition to the APRC’s illegitimate and monopolistic hold on political power and its manipulative efforts at self-perpetuation and the absence of free and fair elections as well as the huge deficits in governance, accountability, human rights and civil liberties. Naturally with the absence of that which united them, the tendency would be to push the parties apart, and it sure did, particularly if they were without political principles or even policies. The coalition partners were hardly able to constitute what resembled even one united government for any reasonable length of time for few of them were really parties in the true meaning of the word.
In a confusion typical of situations stemming out of prolonged dictatorships or autocracies some argued that the different parties should have continued as a coalition of parties when even they contested the legislative elections, not knowing that such an option would have robbed voters of the range of political choices and options that the different parties actually, or claimed to have, constituted.
I have long argued that Gambian politics is yet to grow and mature into a process of controversies over issues and policies, so I am not so surprised that the NDP was ‘sold’ to Gambians not so much on the relevance, appropriateness and quality of its issues and policies as on the “robust nature of its accountability framework.”
The accountability framework that President Barrow described as “robust,” will include the following:
a) All public institutions will be required to develop and publish Service Charters.
b) Government to better articulate its messages will undertake public campaigns on key policy issues and messages to mobilise public action.
c) Government will set up forums for citizens’ engagements and create opportunities for citizens to interact with public officials at all levels.
d) Government will establish digital platforms to strengthen engagement.
e) To build public interest on policy issues, government will establish a “Feedback Unit” whose purpose would be to build the social media platforms to ensure a more active and engaged public. A robust social media policy will be developed based on international best practices and benchmarking.
f) Government will endeavour to create a new mind-set among public officials such that they have citizen-centric mind-set and are ready and willing to respond positively to public concerns.
The Ministry of Communication and Information will play a crucial and central role in this and it will be appropriately retooled to ensure that it has the right capacities and capabilities. All sector ministries and government and public sector institutions will be required to establish citizen-government engagement platform.
This accountability framework, to me, sounds like what is locally called a “bu-nya,” in other words a supplement, or an after-sales extra added, often to compensate for a deficiency in the quality of the sold item. It was this supposedly robust accountability framework which, from the beginning, spurred my mind to be on the alert. To be on the alert for what? Honestly I don’t know. Because all the personalities I have known in or around the new government I have learnt to know and respect as honest and dedicated people. Though I would disagree with most of them on many issues, particularly on issues like governmental plans or programmes, I will not consider any of them to be of less able technicians or politicians in analysing and assessing governmental programmes. We may just be of deffering political orientation or persuasion but not of one better than the other. My early studies of the works of Charles Bettelheim, the French economist and author of Sekou Touré’s proposal to the failed Kankan Congress of 1961 and the draft plan of the First Cuban Communist Party Congress and the various critiques of the recently belated Samir Amin attempts at import substitution in Mali, Guinea and Ghana of the early 1960s turned me into a keen observer of reform and transition agendas everywhere.
The transition that the Barrow-led administration is currently embarked on in many ways resembles both the transition from war-time to peace-time economies of the late 1940s and the transition from communist to capitalist economies of the early 1990. Though the Jammeh-regime presided over a market economy, both the command and control system and the kleptocratic fashion it presided over marked it out as a special type of its own. The system truly needs a thorough transition to put it back on a track to normalcy. More often than not, such transition plans fail. They fail due to many different reasons: including lack of sufficient funding; bad planning; too little time or too much to-dos; poor sequencing or pacing and so forth. But we have already agreed to shelve looking at the costs criteria and the financing strategies for the moment.
Suffice to say that to ensure full realisation of the NDP, Government has formulated a financing strategy, which is presented in a separate document. The total gross budget, without accounting for available resources, stands at $US2.4 billion. The main cost drivers are energy and infrastructure (57 per cent), agriculture (11.2 per cent) and human capital (8.34 per cent). It is quite regrettable that government has not considered the rehabilitation of the about two dozen wharfs along the River Gambia to restore river transport, enrich the country as a tourism destination and spur economic growth, an important part of its infrastructure ventures. Regrettable is it also that the NDP has not included an item on the multiplication of asses, horses and even mules on its transport policies.
Combined, the three strategic priorities account for 76.5 per cent of the budget. With respect to the highest cost driver, which is infrastructure and energy, most of the financing will be acquired through PPP and other “innovative financing models,” according to the authors. Their repeated insistence on proper sequencing and pacing being more a salutary gesture to former World Bank top official Joseph Stiglitz than any regard to the task at hand. See Globalization And Its Discontents by Stiglitz.