It is a good thing that in The Gambia partisan politics and political campaigns are seasonal. After the votes are counted and our leaders are duly elected: what the people expect is performance from day one. I have said before that the Coalition Government is having a crisis of confidence and competence.
What I mean by this is that the Barrow Government has so far not articulated a clear vision around which the people can rally. The confidence to propose new projects or alternatives to the failed policies of the past means that there is a core competence within the government to envision and create a better and inclusive future for all.
This is the promise of a constitutional democracy. This, I have not seen as a citizen in the New Gambia. How do we fulfill this promise? What roles should the citizens assume to ensure that there is satisfactory performance?
Roberto M Unger, a Brazilian legal philosopher, a former law professor of President Barack Obama and a former minister in President Lula’s government discusses the concept of a high-energy democracy. He calls for “a set of institutional arrangements that ensure a continuing high level of organised popular engagement in politics’. He goes on to say, “a cold, demobilised politics cannot serve as a means to reorganise society.
A hot, mobilised politics is compatible with democracy only when institutions channel its energies. It is a goal that can be achieved as the cumulative and combined effect of many devices.”
Unger explains what it means to establish a high energy democracy: “one that permanently raises the level of organised popular participation in politics, engages the electorate as well as the parties in the rapid and decisive resolution of differences and equips government to rescue people from entrenched and localised situations of disadvantage from which they are unable to exit by the normal forms of political and economic initiative.”
‘People should be equipped and empowered in such a way that the manner in which they receive their educational and economic equipment leave the greatest range of social and economic life open to experimental reshaping. The practical means of basic human rights rests on an apparent paradox.
We make people’s basic rights and capabilities secure against the swings of the market and the reversals of politics. We do so, however, in the hope that thus equipped, people may thrive all the more in the midst of innovation and change. We do so, however, in the hope of making the scope for valuable change broader’
In drawing inspiration from Unger, there are two elements of an energised democracy that are clear and relevant to our realities.
The first is the role of the people and communities in energising democracy. The second relates to a social compact, defining a common understanding of each of the rights and responsibilities of the various social formations in energising our democracy, in deepening the gains of constitutional government and in improving the lives of all of our people.
We should be wary of the notion of a passive mass of poor people waiting for a government or a leader to deliver unto them what they seek. This notion is based on a perspective of development as something that government hands out to people as though it were some type of product or commodity. Instead, the development we should seek has to begin with a consciousness amongst the people, that they have power.
They have the power to elect their own representatives, to hold them accountable, to build institutions of democracy, to talk to each other to resolve differences, to demand functioning public services. People must have the consciousness to understand what development means, to understand what empowerment means, for these are not goodies handed out from mountaintops or official functions.
Empowerment aims to inculcate values of self-reliance ”Tesito” and self-development in addition to self-esteem, self-respect and self-confidence.
This is not suggesting that government must abdicate its responsibilities. Government has roles and responsibilities that it must play and play more effectively. What I am calling for is for more peoples’ power, for a deeper understanding of development and for a richer discourse on empowerment.
Let us accept that distorted notions of democracy abound. There are people among us; including in government, who want to nurture the notion that empowerment is something that can be dispensed; or worse, that empowerment is exclusively about conferring some rights on marginalised groups. Frequently this arises for self-serving reasons of power over the lives of others.
Government cannot deliver development single-handedly; it can and must partner with active and conscious communities to effect real transformation. Yes, government delivers infrastructure or health care or schooling, but these things only contribute towards development if there is a deeper consciousness about what development is.
A patronage-serving culture of delivery and empowerment constitute significant threats to our value system and our notion of constitutionalism.
The second point that is relevant to empowerment is the construction of a social compact for development. A social compact is not a new concept, yet we in the Gambia have failed to grasp its meaning. At the heart of a social compact is the sense that citizenship is stewardship.
A social compact requires society to set out the roles, rights and responsibilities of each element of society – government, business, labour and even the media have a role to play in this regard. I stress, a social compact is about rights AND responsibilities. However, in defining these roles and responsibilities, the primary question must be about the values that a society eschews.
These values must have at their core, the principles of people-centred development, of freedom, of conscientisation, of mobilisation and of high-energy democracy. Government has a clear role to play in redistributing opportunities to the most vulnerable.
Government has the right to expect from its citizens, both corporate and private that they pay their taxes that they abide by the laws of the country in letter and spirit and that all contribute towards development, in the spirit of our Constitution.
Similarly, government has a responsibility to ensure that the quality of public services improves, that we take clear measures to protect citizens, that we spend the public’s money wisely, that we clamp down on corruption and patronage, that we employ the best people for the job and that we involve local communities in the improvement of their lives.
Government has the right to intervene to try to correct market failures as efficiently as possible. Government has the responsibility to listen to citizens, to create the legal environment for citizens to contribute towards better schooling, better policing and better health care.
Business has the right to invest where they see an opportunity and they have the right to make profits. They have the right to be treated fairly, to be given opportunities free of the obligations of patronage. They have the right for their property rights to be protected. They also have responsibilities; to train their staff, to expand the pool of skilled people and to ensure adequate opportunities for men and women.
We the people need elites that plough back, not elites that plunder. We need a business community that balances their freedom to make profits with an understanding of the distorting history of poverty in our country. We the people need a private sector that is prepared to be a partner in development; yes looking for opportunities to make money, but recognising the bigger picture that a stable society is better for growth than a society wracked by social strife.
In conclusion, let me say that Democracy is something to fight for, constantly. Development is not something handed out at official functions. It is a conscious process of building capabilities, giving communities power to change their lives, empowering young women and men to make a contribution to our beautiful country.
The thread that runs through the references from Unger is the concept of consciousness, the deep understanding of the self-worth of people and the power of communities. The people must be given the power to change their lives. For an energised democracy is only possible if we think about empowerment differently. An energised democracy is only possible if we have it within ourselves to construct a social compact that puts our long-term interests above short-term gains.
An energised democracy is one where each element, business, government and communities balance their rights with their responsibilities.
This is our moment in history and this time we must redefine our core values that will ensure a prosperous future. Let us utilise this moment for a national catharsis and renewal.
Some of our compatriots have raised the spectre of rising tribalism in the new Gambia. The linguistic heritage you are born into is an accident of birth but a blessing for our diverse national character and must be celebrated as enjoined by our National Anthem.
Those who raise the issue of tribalism here in the Gambia or anywhere have no ideas and do not have any projects to unite the people. In reality there are only two tribes in The Gambia: those who have a little and those who have nothing. All our efforts as citizens and Government should be directed at increasing the tribe of those who have something.
Let us work together as advised by Unger who writes, “Social solidarity must rest (instead) on the sole secure basis it can have: direct responsibility of people for one another. Such responsibility can be realised through the principle that every able-bodied adult holds a position within a caring economy – the part of the economy in which people care for one another – as well as within the production system.”