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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Embracing a new chapter: The hopeful restart of Gambia’s constitutional debate

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By Sait Matty Jaw

Ganaw aye jaama, as the Wolof saying goes, which directly translates to “After conflict is peace.” Please don’t take my translation for granted you may want to consult Olof Njie. However, in these words, lies a powerful sentiment that unites us as Gambians, regardless of our differing perspectives. I have heard many at times mediators within family and outside use the term to help settle tension and forge relations ahead. The recent restart of the debate for a new constitution in The Gambia is a heartening reminder that, despite our disagreements, our shared vision for a better future remains intact.

The rejection of the 2020 Constitution Promulgation Bill in the National Assembly was met with disappointment, leaving many Gambians questioning why this important process had faltered. However, let us seize this moment not to dwell on the past, but to embrace the renewed commitment of all stakeholders to move forward. It is this collective determination that renews my hope in our democratic journey. In the process we should remember that this event was not the first-time constitutional proposals have been rejected in our political journey. In 1965 after passing parliament, Gambians rejected a proposal to move to a republican constitution following a referendum. A second attempt in 1970 voila, Gambia became republic and today many Gambians believe that 24 April 1970 should be celebrated as Independence Day because that was the day Gambia became fully sovereign.

Gambia has always had a unique perspective in building the state, despite interruption by Jammeh. Our strength lies in a credible electoral system that provides opportunities for all. Hence, unlike other African countries that implemented one party dictatorship following independence, Gambia promoted multi-party democracy to the best of its ability as a tool for promoting social cohesion and nation building. Albeit the challenges and imperfection, Gambians have historically accepted that the best way to choose leader is through election and there are citizens that have participated in election since the 1960s.

As we embark on this renewed constitutional debate, it is crucial to acknowledge our shared goal: a new constitution that consolidates the democratic strides made since the end of the Jammeh era. President Adama Barrow’s administration promised a constitution, recognizing the need to break free from the grip of what many aptly called “Jammeh’s constitution.” This underscores the fact that a constitution should serve the people, not the interests of a few.

One can’t deny the significance of this moment – a moment that encapsulates the shared vision of Gambians from all walks of life. The heart of our endeavor lies in recognizing the need for a new constitution, one that mirrors the democratic ideals for which we’ve strived since the overthrow of the oppressive regime led by Tyrant Jammeh.

 Here, I lay down ten compelling reasons why The Gambia simply cannot afford to be without a new constitution.

1.         Ending self-perpetuating rule: The new constitution serves as a beacon of hope in ending the era of leaders clinging to power. By implementing term limits and curbing executive powers, we pave the way for new leadership and institutions to emerge and lead us into a future of progress.

2.         Reconciliation through shared values: A new constitution embodies the values we collectively cherish – fairness, equality, and justice. It acts as a roadmap towards national reconciliation by establishing a common ground based on these democratic principles.

3.         Ushering in a new democratic era: With a new constitution, Gambia can take a giant step forward in refining its democratic processes. It guarantees the voices of all citizens are heard, steering us away from the autocratic past and towards a more inclusive future.

4.         Empowering women and marginalized groups: By mandating quotas for female representation, addressing discrimination and taking into account the needs of persons with disabilities, a new constitution can champion the rights and representation of marginalized groups, fostering an inclusive society.

5.         Enhancing judicial independence: A robust judiciary safeguards the rule of law. A new constitution can bring reforms that ensure an impartial, independent, and efficient judicial system, critical for the stability and growth of any nation.

6.         Economic growth and development: A stable political environment, guaranteed by a new constitution, creates an atmosphere conducive to nationally led economic growth and foreign investments. It has potential to provide the stability needed for prosperity to flourish.

7.         Citizen-centric governance: The proposed constitution holds the promise of empowering citizens. Public interest litigation mechanisms ensure that the government remains accountable and responsive to the needs of the people. Involving farmers in the design and implementation of agriculture policies and programs has both the potential to improve the living condition of farmers but also the drive towards food self-sufficiency.

8.         Fiscal transparency: By outlining clear rules and mechanisms, the constitution contributes to fiscal transparency and responsible management of public resources, ensuring their equitable distribution for the welfare of all citizens. This should also include beneficial and sustainable policies towards natural resources and the environment.

9.         International reputation and partnerships: A successful transition to a new constitution reinforces The Gambia’s commitment to democratic values, bolstering its international reputation and encouraging partnerships that support its development. At a time, where the rest of West Africa, is experience coups and counter coups threatening the sub-region, the Gambia can be a responsible member of the west Africa community leading the way in entrenching the shared values.

10.       Preventing a return to the past: A new constitution is the antidote to regression. It safeguards against the resurgence of dictatorial tendencies by installing checks and balances that prevent the consolidation of power and self-perpetuating rule. We have already embarked on it with the TRRC and other mechanisms. Its an opportunity now to consolidate the gains made over the period.

I am equally thrilled to witness the involvement of International IDEA, UNDP, EU and their partners in this pivotal moment for The Gambia’s constitutional journey. The introduction of a model that resonates with our unique context holds the promise of a more inclusive and effective process. Among the remarkable figures leading this initiative is none other than Ibn Chambas, a true stalwart whose connection to our nation’s political history spans across generations. His presence is more than a mere assurance; it’s a testament to the power of experience and dedication but also the commitment of the international community to accompany Gambia in this crucial moment.

The team of eminent individuals working alongside Ibn Chambas is equally inspiring. Among them is my esteemed sister, Fatou Jagne Senghore, whose unwavering commitment to justice and human rights in Africa and globally is a beacon of hope for our society. Her involvement also resonates with call by political actors for civil society to support in creating the neutral environment for dialogue. Additionally, the inclusion of religious leaders, Reverend Bennie Manga of the Christian Council and Imam Darboe of Supreme Islamic Council, signifies the recognition of the integral role that faith and spirituality play in shaping our nation’s values. The confidence and hope that this team instills in me go beyond their individual reputations. It reflects the power of collaboration, the wisdom of harnessing collective experience, and the spirit of genuine unity. Their involvement is a shining example of how progress can be achieved when all stakeholders work together, setting aside personal interests for the greater good. We hope that we will make their work of leading this important national undertaken worthwhile.

As we embark on this renewed constitutional journey, let’s remember that the path forward is not a solitary one. Our shared aspiration for a stronger democratic foundation serves as a unifying force that transcends individual interests and political affiliations. Each voice – whether in support, skepticism, or critique – is a thread woven into the fabric of our national identity. The true essence of “Ganaw Aye Jaama” lies in embracing our differences, learning from them, and working together to shape a constitution that stands as a testament to our unity and resilience as a people. The beauty of our diversity lies in its ability to forge innovative solutions and inclusive policies that encapsulate the dreams and aspirations of all Gambians. This is the legacy of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara and the men and women with him at the time of nationhood. It is our turn to go step further to making our beloved country what it was envisage to be, a beacon of hope for humanity. In the end, it’s not about how the constitutional process was initially stalled, but about how we, as a nation, come together to move forward. The opportunity to rewrite our future is upon us, and in unity, we should seize it, securing a democratic legacy that will guide The Gambia towards a brighter tomorrow. Progress, Peace and Prosperity.

Sait Matty Jaw is the Co-Founder and Executive Director, Center for Research and Policy Development based in Bijilo. His research interest focuses on Gambian Politics. @saitmatty

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