By Baba Galleh Jallow
Gambia on a roll. That’s how I called my recent critique of Elizabeth Ohene’s omission of Gambia from her story on the fall of veteran leaders in Africa 2017. The title was deliberate. I knew it would raise some eyebrows in some quarters of Gambian public opinion, and for good reasons too. And it was absolutely not to romanticise our momentous achievement in kicking a dictator out of power by peaceful means and epic nationalism. One appreciates the daunting challenges our country faces as we enter 2018.
We all know that it is not all smiles and roses in the Smiling Coast of West Africa. The picture is bright and hopeful, but not as bright and hopeful as we would wish it. But as I would try to demonstrate later in this piece, Gambians have much to celebrate and be hopeful for in 2018 and beyond. But first, why do some Gambians have good reason to doubt that Gambia is on a roll?
At several crucial levels of existence Gambia is certainly not on so much of a roll. Psyche-blasting blackouts are a common pain many Gambians endure on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day. The specter of sudden blackouts snapping Gambians almost out of their minds is common, as is the sharp sense of powerlessness that is a recurrent and immutable effect of blackouts. A unique and ubiquitous feature of African life across the continent, blackouts represent a form of psychological torture whose dire consequences are yet to be fully understood.
One has a strong feeling that Africa’s sluggish pace is to a very large extent a consequence of her governments’ failure to find creative solutions to the electricity deficit problem. Apart from being generally bad for business, both public and private, blackouts numb creativity and initiative, they delay the completion of vital projects and transactions, they cause the destruction of machinery and food, and they inspire a state of mental impotence that renders people incapable of getting excited and therefore adequately motivated to do their work, whatever that is. Blackouts are an urgent emergency in the New Gambia that needs to be redressed with utmost urgency.
One has a feeling that if the solar energy option is seriously considered, it might prove vital to the solution of our persistently chronic national energy crisis. Blackouts are simply unhealthy for national development. They hold us back and keep us down. They must be eliminated.
And then there are our strange neighborhood streets. Driving on a street in Churchill’s Town, London Corner, Tabokoto and other communities in the Greater Banjul Area is like driving up and down mini mountains, driving in and out of mini valleys, and tilting sideways and back as if one were driving on the rugged sides of mini hills. In the rainy season of course, both people and cars have to wade in large stretches of muddy hills and through mud-filled valleys to get to their destinations. The time wasted, the health risks involved, especially the breeding of mosquitoes, and the stench of the pools require urgent action for redress.
Sometimes, all it takes is a little creativity and some modest funds to solve these seemingly unsolvable problems that stick with us and oppress us from day to day, year in, year out, for decades on end. How about a homegrown corps of road engineers and street builders? How about engaging local builders and masons and using cement and other locally available materials to build simple but sturdy paved streets? How about a ten year project of street-building in The Greater Banjul Area? We certainly have the youthful manpower to train locally on the art and science of street building. And with firm commitment to the project, we can garner funds to see it through.
Gambia is also not on a roll in the traffic and space management sectors. Sometimes, especially around the time of religious festivals, it takes an hour or more to drive from Westfield junction to Serekunda market, a distance we can cover in about two minutes under normal circumstances. The same traffic madness characterises Westfield roundabout itself, the Westfield-Churchill’s Town stretch, the Turntable area in Brusubi and many other spaces around the Greater Banjul Area. The problem stems from the fact that over the decades, our governments have not been able to adapt to changing circumstances in the nation space, in this case a growing population of both people and vehicles. More and more people live in the Greater Banjul Area and more and more vehicles drive on our roads.
Yet, the spaces of activity for both humans and vehicles remain unexpanded. The result is a personification of public disorder, not of the violent sort, but of the sort manifested in a rough jumble of human activity without planning or due attention. Everyone seems to be going everywhere at the same time, and everyone exudes a sense of urgency rivaled by everyone else. There is a certain diminishing of the human person caught in such disorder and a concurrent privileging of individual aims and conveniences over the collective goodwill. While Gambian culture ensures a certain restraint in human interactions within these chaotic traffic conditions, they have a negative cumulative effect that will increasingly diminish our humanity and empathy, and cumulatively increase our propensity to be stressed out and hostile to each other. Installing more traffic lights, expanding current roads and/or building alternative road networks will help arrest this increasingly damaging public disorder in our society.
And then there are several bad laws from the old Gambia still sitting in our law books. Two prominent examples are the Public Order Act and the newspaper registration law. It is unfortunate that people who want to register a newspaper in the New Gambia have to abide by a law the old regime used to stifle the voices and opinions of Gambians. To register a newspaper, people are still required to post a very large bond and to submit to the registrar’s office the lease to a landed property. While most of the bad laws are expected to be expunged from our books during the proposed constitutional review process, this newspaper registration law needs to be annulled immediately.
This will open up and enrich our media landscape and allow Gambians interested in establishing newspapers and participating constructively in the national discourse to do so without unnecessary hassles. Repressing public opinion and controlling the national narrative – two main reasons for this draconian media law – are no longer relevant to our national trajectory. They must not be allowed to stifle our national genius and stunt our collective creativity. I hope our able Information and Justice Ministers will help cement public confidence in the New Gambia by taking swift action to have the newspaper registration law repealed sooner rather than later. Doing so will make Gambia a more hopeful and much happier place in 2018 and beyond. And it will earn the government more respect both locally and internationally.
In spite of all these daunting challenges among many others, I maintain that Gambia was on a roll in 2017 and has entered 2018 on a roll. For one thing, we peacefully kicked out a brutal dictator and we are in the process of finding out how he squandered our national resources. We are also on the verge of systematically finding out how and why he brutalised so many Gambians and non-Gambians in the past twenty-two years. One clearly witnesses a sense of purpose in the sittings of the Janneh Commission. One notices a drastic change in the deliberations of our national assembly where healthy debates occur on issues of national interest, a far cry from the rubber stamp banality of a previous era.
And one sees deliberate planning and consultation in preparation for the launching of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. Equally encouraging, there is ample evidence that freedom of expression and of association are undeniable realities in the New Gambia. Any and all efforts – deliberate or otherwise – that have so far been made to stifle these two fundamental freedoms have been called out by the Gambian public. Even the party of the dictator freely campaigns across the country, advocates its programs, criticises the sitting government, and makes claims and promises as to what it will do and not do if it ever comes back to power. So yes, on the score of tolerance for differing opinions and freedom of association, we do have some ground to cover, but we are on the right track and growing.
And then one cannot help but admire and feel proud of the caliber of Gambian minds on social media. Facebook, at least what I see of it, is full of posts by Gambians in areas that were not the stuff of open and public Gambian discourse a few years ago. Yes, there are the political squabbles and all the other unpleasant stuff posted by Gambians. At the same time, one comes across a good number of posts touching on issues of the human mind, on what it means to be human and on the virtues of pleasant human interactions based on our own indigenous traditional norms and customs. There are also very progressive engagements on issues of national development of the sort discussed above, as well as critiques of public policy and action that can only bode well for our country. All said, the proliferation of intelligent ideas, thoughts and suggestions on Gambian social media circles and our local press is genuine cause for optimism. We are identifying our problems, and we are talking openly, sincerely and intelligently about them. For this and this reason alone, we can afford to be genuinely optimistic.
Society is always a work in progress. Nations and states are works in progress. The difference between countries is not a difference of essence, it is a difference marked by particular societies’ capacity to identify their problems, talk intelligently about them, and devise solutions for them. We cannot hope to rid ourselves of national problems because they too evolve and emerge with time. But we can solve most of our current problems with a little bit of creativity and determination. And we can continue to identify, engage and resolve our emergent national problems as they arise. Gambia 2018 should be about modestly but strongly maintaining our collective “can do” attitude and taking the commensurate right actions to raise our country to the next level. We can do this.