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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Gambia and Gambians, what do we want? History offers some valuable lessons

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By James Orehmie Monday

Gambians are finding out that the peaceful removal of Dictator Jammeh last year has not automatically led to a “Freedom Dividend”, that would offer peace, stability and opportunities to lay the foundations for our rapid and sustainable socioeconomic development. Instead, what is happening in The Gambia today, is easily predictable if the lessons from history, including recent history are understood.

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To the discerning reader and mind, recent history from Tunisia and Egypt at the onset of the Arab spring at the start of this century and from the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at the end of the last century, teaches that the likely outcome of any immediate post dictatorship era is instability, that would lead to perceptions of incompetence of the new government and that would in turn ultimately give rise to feelings of despair and hopelessness in the country.

This era often starts with acute political jockeying and re-alignment of power bases and business interests ahead of the public interest and the unrealistic and unmet expectations of both locally based nationals and the diaspora. Add to this mix, weak institutions (including the security forces) that once oppressed with impunity those they were meant to serve, suddenly finding themselves unable to operate constitutionally because they are ill-equipped, poorly trained and are without the ingrained culture and systems to change their modus operandi. Include in this cocktail, the modern phenomenon known as 24 x 7 social media fueling the deepening of fault lines and hardening of views between the masses of the poor and the educated elites against their new government.

Fast forward world history to the Independence Stadium, in Banjul, February 18th 2017 and you will find that it was here that these same factors started to come together in a perfect storm to create the political economy that the new government and President Barrow now find themselves in. For it was at this venue and time, when the grandest of celebrations of the new Gambia was occurring, with the official swearing in of President Adama Barrow, that the feelings of euphoria in The Gambia were at their crescendo. But, even before President Barrow left the stadium, reports of chaos and lack of crowd control at the gates to the stadium (even affecting foreign VIPs) were permeating social media to become the first ominous sign of storms ahead and that world history was about to repeat itself – this time in The Gambia, with unabated zest and for all to see. Students of history are about to add Gambia’s lessons to their body of work.

The genesis of the current predicament in which the government finds itself, seems to be the perception that the Government is inept and unable to deliver on the expectations of the people. This perception is not unwarranted. After the crowd control problems at the stadium, there was the issue with the process and selection of the cabinet, followed soon after by the brazen, cowardly and shameless tearing apart of the coalition during the national assembly campaign and elections. Through this all and to this present day the lack of communication from the government about anything and everything is inexcusable. There was also the issue of the government allowing for very narrow and selfish business interests, the wanton destruction of the Monkey Park in my home town of Bijilo. This was the first shock to the conscience of the nation in the post Jammeh era, highlighting that something in the new system was not working as it should.

We have also witnessed the continued joblessness of our youth, the pollution of our beaches, waterways and watercourses by other private business interests, riots in Busumbala and now Kanilai, the in-your-face acceptance and selection of those in the immediate past Jammeh regime to high office (e.g. the former APRC Speaker) as if there are no other qualified Gambians to fill these positions. There has also been the daily example of the lack of law and order with increased levels of thuggery, violence and robbery in our communities, neighborhoods and roads. And then saddest of them all, the shocking news of the violent raping to death of an 8-year-old girl – this should never happen in a society and country like ours. The perception and experience that our public hospitals and health centers that were already not good, is getting worse. There have also been the endless rolling blackouts and piped-water closures. The negative list of missteps, mistakes and missed-opportunities goes on and on and on.

It would be grossly unfair of me to leave out the very significant successes the Barrow government has registered and the good things they have done. These include the peaceful removal of Jammeh (no easy feat) without the drop of one ounce of blood, extending ECOMIG’s stay, stabilizing the economy to some extent, strategically re-engaging our development partners and re-positioning the country in the world, allowing peaceful protest and assembly, the re-building of the judiciary, control the security services, dismantling the NIA, the freezing of Jammeh’s assets, the prioritization of reliable power and energy as the top developmental challenge and re-joining the ICC and the Commonwealth. These are significant successes that should neither be dismissed nor undervalued.

Notwithstanding, the country and the people deserve better and more than what has been achieved. Our collective potential as a people says more can be achieved. So, here are three steps that the government can take immediately to begin to restore the confidence and trust of the people in their government and president.
1. Communicate better and more frequently – President Barrow is the elected leader of the country, so when a situation like Kanilai happens, he and not the Minister of Interior (with all due respect to the minister who I like btw) must address the nation, to demonstrate leadership that would reassure the nation that he cares, that he gets it and that he is in charge. The President can then ask the Minister of Interior to explain the operational details of the response and any future deterrence measures. What Gambians saw was an abdication of his responsibility which only leads to more feelings of despair and ill-will towards him. Going forward, the President and his team should prepare a communication strategy and plan that clearly and regularly communicates to the nation the President’s priorities, his plans for executing his priorities, and for reporting progress with implementation and results from executing these plans.

2. Seek and issue an international arrest warrant for Jammeh – it is clear that Jammeh still has a hand in what is going on in Kanilai. To send a strong signal to him, his hosts in EQ and his shameless agitators at home, the government should immediately turn up the heat on Jammeh’s behind by seeking and issuing an international arrest warrant for him. The government has had ample time to prepare a preliminary case against him with credible probable cause. This will also remove once and for all, the sick notion that his remnant supporters still hold dear that he will return to power one day. God forbid. Amen!
3. Prepare and implement a sizable Economic Stimulus Plan (sufficiently large and approximately sized, say at 5% of GDP) for the next 2-3 years – The Gambia has neither a tribal problem nor a regional problem. What we have is a severe and critically acute poverty problem, one that manifests itself in many destructive dimensions, including creating the space and opportunity for extremism and lawlessness.

With no opportunities for foreign visas, the perils of the backway and no jobs at home, what other viable options do our youth have? Our youth need immediate attention. Six months on, it is about time for our youth and ordinary people to get a break and an economic hand-up. Therefore, I urge the Government to immediately devise and implement a stimulus plan that would pump money directly into the economy in a non- inflationary way, into the hands of our youth and ordinary people and not the same unscrupulous business men who are now beginning to poison our country with their greed and corrupt practices yet again. The stimulus plan should be two pronged.

3a. Vocational training of our youth for employment. (Target 10,000 youth across the country). Partner with and strengthen GTTI to develop vocational training programs that would put our youth in classrooms for 12months. While they learn a vocation, pay them a monthly income (of say D3000) so long as they stay in the workshops and classrooms, attend apprenticeships, pass their exams and stay till the end. Give them a certificate at the end. Also, provide them with micro-credits to help those who want to set up businesses, succeed. There are many successful mechanisms around to world to learn from. No need to re-invent the wheel, just fine-tuning for the local conditions required.

3b. Rehabilitate and re-build our public infrastructure throughout the country – Through GAMWORKS, channel funds to re-build and/or rehabilitate our public roads, sidewalks, drains, parks, offices, building hospitals, schools, etc, throughout the country. In a fair and transparent process, allocate contracts to predominantly Gambian consultants and contractors, based on labor intensive works to create employment ready for our youths graduating from the GTTI vocational program mentioned above and others who are ready now but don’t have contracts. The government can start by awarding the renovation of the statehouse in Banjul to a Gambian company.

I am very much aware of the lack of financial resources and budgetary pressures the country faces, but such a critical stimulus plan justifies deficit spending and is needed. The financial and economic analysis of such a plan will show a significant cost benefit that would lead to less youth restlessness and riots, put real incomes in the pockets of our people, who will then spend it immediately, and by so doing generate increased economic activity which in turn will lead to more revenue for the government. This would buy the government the time, space and good will it so desperately needs to develop and implement the longer term strategic plans, like strengthening our public health care systems, dealing with the rolling black-outs, failing public schools, lack of critical infrastructure, revive agricultural productivity and output and access to markets, etc.
I still believe in President Barrow. Any person that can handle the transition process the way he has, deserves my respect and patience. But, time is fast running out on him.

He needs to step up and lead, to stop the sliding public sentiment about his administration from falling to critically low levels where it will be very difficult for him to be effective and to govern. My continued trust in President Barrow is not misplaced. I recently met with him in his office in Fajara, where I presented to him plans to develop infrastructure in the country. He is a good man. He cares about his legacy, is learning fast and wants to do the right thing always (which is why he is sometimes seen as slow to respond). These are good qualities in a leader. Above all else, I truly believe that he has the capacity to turn things around and to start to bend the trajectory of our development upwards. But, he cannot do this alone. He needs all of us to help him. But he does need to lead.
(This article was first publish in 2017)

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