By Amat JENG
Sciences Po Paris – “Constitutions are rules for the elites.” These were the words of Prof. Abdoulaye Saine, during the first discussion on the new Gambian Constitution, hosted by Harona Drammeh of Paradise TV. Professor Saine is one of the most renown political thinkers in today’s Gambia; and as a product of the American Political Science school of thought, his statement can be traced back to the making of the American Constitution. President James Madison and the bourgeois class of 19th century-America crafted the American Constitution in order to perpetuate their own control over the government and the economy.
Recently, the discourse on the nature of Gambian politics has been steered towards two fundamental topics: the new Constitution and the level of bureaucratic corruption in the country. The two topics have one thing in common: they both serve the interests of those in power (politicians, ministers, directors, bureaucrats). To protect the poor and tame the political elites and corrupt government officials from pillaging our meagre resources for their carpe diem lifestyles, we need strong and inclusive institutions that work for all citizens and protect the majority from the ensuing tyranny of the few. Gambia’s perennial problem does not lie on its Constitution.
Therefore, we argue that The Gambia does not need a perfect constitution; what the country needs are strong, inclusive and just institutions. The overarching goal of spending D116 million on the Constitution was to come up with an instrument that prevents a self-perpetuating rule and therefore, puts checks and balances on the working of the government. From Jawara to Barrow, our main problem has always been our weak institutions and their operators. This is why it is hard for some of us to see the rationality behind the D116 million spent on the new Constitution. Less than half of this money is sufficient to help protect whistle-blowers – a strategy that can go a long way in helping curb corruption in our institutions.
We know that constitutional reactionaries have a strong case for advocating a “good” constitution for The Gambia – and we are not making a case against this. The crux of our argument is that no amounts of judicial instruments can help us move forward (whatever that means) when our institutions are so bloated that they cannot protect us from the nature of pork-barrel politics and bureaucratic corruption in the country.
For decades, our institutions have not been able to curb the level of corruption in the country (except few years under Jammeh), despite the provision of a ‘Code of Conduct for Public Officers’ in the 1997 Constitution. Consequently, the bureaucracy has developed a life of its own by paving the way for institutionalised kleptomania and corruption, thus becoming a highway for riches and turning citizens into victims of clientele politics. This is something no constitution can solve.
The new Gambian Constitution, promising as it appears, is a tool aimed at taming power. But we are inclined to ask: Whose power? The masses or the political elites? Which power does the poor farmer have? The poor farmer’s power lies on his voter’s card, which he only uses once in every five years. The political elites, on the other hand, have powers that need to be checked on a daily basis by means of some legal scrutiny – thus, the need for a constitution. The new Constitution, therefore, like any other constitution, has two (underlying) fundamental goals: to tame the powerful and reconfigure the political system to the liking of some of the political elites – and this is the point Professor Saine was making.
Finally, we are of the view that much of the political wrangling about the new Constitution does not serve the broader interests of the proletariats; rather, it serves the palatability of the political elites. For unlike the proletariats who only have their chains to lose, the political elites are caught in the battle for power. While the hullabaloo over the new Constitution continues to make waves, we should not forget that our problem lies heavily on our weak institutions – by this, we also mean the corrupt behaviour of those responsible for the daily operationalisation of the institutions.