By Prof Baba Galleh Jallow
There is no doubt that the new Gambia is faced with a myriad of complex problems. Our economy is broken. Our civil service is broken. Our educational system is in shambles. We still grapple with power cuts and water shortages. Our streets are in a horrible mess. The cult of personality is rampant in our public institutions. One hears stories of strange personal vendettas and vicious infighting within some of our most important public institutions. And one hears and sees instances of blatant corruption bred by a dysfunctional socio-economic and political system that manufactures poverty even as it tries to create wealth and maintain sanity in society. But change is surely in the air and Gambians are doing what they can to manage this change and move it in the right direction.
African history is full of examples of national socio-economic and political failures. Many African societies have emerged from civilian or military dictatorships only to fall right back into them, or degenerate into a state of chronic rancor and disorder. Post-regime change eras are often chaotic because neither state nor society had any idea what comes next. The pre-change era was characterized by a stony determination to change the system. But no thought was given to what happens after the system change. It is delightful to note that the new Gambia is poised to be an exception to this dismal rule. Gambians have been thinking of the post-Jammeh era for many years now. They had grown to morally detest the bully state. And they had yearned and advocated for a state of democracy and the rule of law. In spite of itself, the fallen dictatorship foisted a common identity on Gambian society. It united us in our hatred of injustice. And it convinced us of the power of calm, dignified noncompliance with political despotism. Yes there are many problems in the new Gambia. But yes, Gambians are tackling these problems head on through a vibrant national discourse. That is our saving grace as a nation, and we are determined to nurture this beautiful spirit of open and honest discourse in the new Gambia.
One has a sense that the new Gambia is emerging into a beautiful model for African countries. During the impasse heavily armed soldiers in the streets of Banjul and the Kombos were calmly confronted by a quietly confident and totally defiant population. People simply went about their daily business and let the armed soldiers be. There were no loud and angry protestations that characterized such scenarios in other countries. There were no stone or missile attacks, no verbal outbursts against a bully state that literally had it finger on the trigger and just waited for an opportunity to open fire. The unjust authorities were treated with the calm and silent contempt they deserved and in the end, Jammeh’s oppressive apparatus simply collapsed into oblivion and eternal political infamy. There is a certain dignified presence in the air that makes one truly happy to be a Gambian.
The new Gambia is not going to fall back into dictatorship. There are almost zero fears of that. And it is unlikely to descend into a state of ethnic and political acrimony of the kind that has devastated so many African societies. This is partly because Gambians are actively engaged in a vibrant discourse on all issues of national concern. We are talking on social media, on the very many FM radio stations, on GRTS, and on the pages of our increasingly vibrant national newspapers. It is a beautiful and reassuring reality that Gambians now publicly express their opinions without looking over their shoulders.
They publicly criticize their government. And they publicly bring up issues that they feel are of primary national importance without looking over their shoulders. It is pleasing to note that over twenty-two years of dictatorship, Jammeh never succeeded in stopping Gambians from having their noisy say, whether he liked it or not. This culture of free expression predated Jammeh, it has survived Jammeh and now publicly blossoms with reassuring vengeance in the new Gambia. There is no topic left behind. There are no sacred cows. And there are no unnamable personalities. Broken is the infamous sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, and Gambians are engaged in a serious if often heated conversation over their national destiny. One has a sense of a forward looking, forward moving society determined to advance in a measured and sensible manner even as people vehemently disagree and squabble over all kinds of personal, ethnic, economic and political issues.
It is refreshing to see that in the new Gambia, there is a noticeable collapsing of the power distance that existed between state and society during the Jammeh days. It no longer feels as if the government is some hostile behemoth perched on the sharp pinnacle of power, whip in hand, sneering and glaring at the people down below. It is encouraging to see that Gambian society is totally relaxed in its encounter with state presence and cordial in its encounter with itself. The society projects a spirit of calm determination tempered with a certain civility that promotes a sense of national dignity and inspires confidence in our capacity to succeed in spite of the many formidable challenges.
In the final analysis, Gambians seem to understand that our success in taking our country to the next level depends on our success in acknowledging and embracing diversity in all its various manifestations. Particularly important is that Gambians are increasingly recognizing and embracing the reality of different political players and idiosyncratic actors in our national drama. We are recognizing and embracing the fact that each player on the national stage has the right to express their legitimate opinion and if we do not agree with each other, we will just agree to disagree. And we increasingly recognize that the vision towards which we move as a nation is accessible through any number of channels and strategies, some of which may appear to be useless dead ends. At the same time, Gambians seem to recognize and embrace the reality that tensions are an inevitable part of national politics and the national discourse; and that our salvation as a people depends very much on our capacity to manage and neutralize these tensions in open and creative ways. One has a sense that the new Gambia is capable of doing just that with flying colors.