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On Gambia’s Think Tank: hard-headed thinking needed to help everyday working Gambians

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In his widely-acclaimed book entitled “Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy” the redoubtable US scholar Derek Leebaert warned against public officials he described as ’emergency men’. ‘Emergency men’, he says, first identify a problem – real or imagined, sound the tocsin and come up with action-oriented solutions. Driven, to an illusionary level, by their certitude, rooted in folly that their magical prognosis and diagnosis are magic wand solutions, ’emergency men’ had left trails of blunders in their wake. And the deleterious consequences: blood, sweat and tears.



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Derek Leebaert was talking about leading US foreign policy wonks, from Douglas MacArthur to Henry Kissinger. But his description of ’emergency men’ aptly fits the former swivel-eyed Gambian dictator, Yahya Jammeh. For 22 years, he had ruled a population of over 1.8million people with a mixture of fear, repression and superstition. With a tyrannical-toddler temperament, he would identify a problem – real or imagined, sound the tocsin and come up with action-oriented solutions, to the detriment of Gambians: declaring The Gambia an Islamic state, cutting normal working days from five days to four excluding Friday, wrestling control of both micro and macro-economic policies from the Central Bank to his office wrecking the economy in the process and, with the impulse of a mad-axed man, yanked The Gambia from the Commonwealth of nations inter alia were among some of Jammeh’s strategic faux pas.



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Deranged, deluded and dingy, his brand of politics was always going to catch up with him: dividing people, instilling fear in them, coercing them to coalesce around you was stupidity built on stilt. The four elections he won (1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011) made him feel invisible to the tectonic political shift sea-change of disillusion and disenchanted surge engulfing failed leaders. Such was his arrogance that he batted a question from the BBC’s Umaru Fofana when reminded of his own words that he ‘will not campaign for votes’ in a presidential election. Without any patina of irony being lost on him, he was out that day on the campaign trail late into the early hours of the morning. Like leaders of his ilk, Jammeh was living in a smug – a sort of La La Land –completely out of touch with realties in the real world. When his pantomime of vote base turned against him at the ballot box on that fateful December day, he was given a rude awakening.


His acceptance of the result, then rejection states his mindset in all its lurid details: caught completely off guard, he became trapped in cognitive dissonance – thinking different things at the same time. And mental diplopia setting in, making it a dangerous cocktail of a humdinger of a problem for him. Because the victor was an unknown quantity in Gambian politics: Adama Barrow.



Since assuming office properly, President Barrow has made a significant move that set in train his vision for a better Gambia in June: establishing a 16-member Gambia National Think Tank (GNTT). This is the right direction of travel. It is the vision thing, the ideas that can transform a country. And President Barrow is elected into office for course-correction. For decades Gambians have been worse off. With his hands on the tiller, President Barrow and his team were put on notice on 1st December last year to put The Gambia on the right path. That is why how he goes about managing The Gambia matters more than anything else.


There is an impression being created, from government briefings and reports, that the new administration is pursing issues that are red-herring, bordering on tangential towards building a Gambia that can work for working-people. The setting-up of an inquiry into the public enterprises and Jammeh’s mismanagement of public funds is welcomed. But no fresh thinking is coming from the new administration on how to fix the economy, growing it by putting jobs and opportunities at its heart.

It is the economy, stupid to coin Bill Clinton 1992 soundbite
The central plank of the GNTT should be the economy. When a country puts its finances in order, it can fully fund public services that people depend on: hospitals, school’s, roads among others. That means making sure investment is made to give people the skills they need to have jobs, making the economy competitive by cutting our debt and deficit and attracting investors and making public services efficient. One of the reasons why thousands of Gambians fled the country for Europe through the so-called -back-way’ was as much lack of jobs as poverty-wages. Yet no new thinking is emerging on how to reverse this trend. One of the best routes out of poverty is work. And a work that pays well.


In policy terms people not in education and employment (NEETs) are an economic wasteland. And in The Gambia many people are in this category. The aid given to the government by the European Union is meant to cushion this, by training young Gambians on skilled jobs. That is all well and good. The first step towards building the nations finances should start with setting basic parameters: where there is talent, it should be channeled to the right direction, where there is effort there should be reward, where there is work there should be wealth and where there is sacrifice there should be success. To make this happen, a long-term economic plan must be set out, underpinned by values of fairness, decency, opportunity, financial security for working people, fiscal rectitude from keepers of the nation’s finances. In the latest budget of the new finance Minister, Amadou Sanneh, these were missing on his fiscal abacus radar.


And it should be a serious cause for concern for any serious Gambians. In this new, realistic era, as opposed to the nimbyist Jammeh time, an economic sadomasochism will be bad for the economy. Because dark clouds are gathering around the public finances. Take the latest debt of the country, for instance: The Gambia owns $504.7 million to multilateral and bilateral creditors, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The creditors include the IMF, Africa Development Bank and Islamic Development Bank. The bilateral creditors are: Paris Club, Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, Export-Important Bank of India and Saudi Fund for Development. In dalasi terms, our debt is D28670, which is 67.9% of our GDP. Now, you might ask why banding these statics around? Why does it matter? Who cares?



Well it matters, and we should care. Because the borrowing power of a government is determined by its credit and GDP ratio. There were three options available to the finance minister to putting the economy on a sound footing, but he opted for, in economic terms, the spread-sheet, which is cutting spending. The others were growth policies and tax and borrowing. Until and unless the GNTT comes with measures that create a Department for Budget Spending, which can monitor government spending, taxes and borrowing it would be rear impossible for the economy to jump-start. Equally the NEETs should be helped back to work, and setting up a National Job Recruitment Center can be a big game-changer. Government and the private sector are the biggest employment sector in the country.


This is how this will work: all job vacancies can be sent to this body. People will be informed to send their CVs. After interview, people can be sent to the jobs that suited their experience. With impartial officials overseeing this body, this can be the best vehicle to get Gambians, especially youths, back to work. Also, with the fervent entrepreneur zest gusting from young Gambians, an establishment of an Investment Bank for Innovation to fund the projects that young people are undertaking can be a big boost.



But for all this to be fully maximised, a full-spectrum focus should be given to one area: EDUCATION! EDUCATION! EDUCATION! The strongest weapon against inequality and the better path to opportunity is education that can unlock a human being’s God-given potential. If we face up to the reality, the education system in The Gambia, and by extension in some African countries, is pale, stale and robotic. Nothing in most of the curriculum prepares someone for life in the real world. That is why two key areas the GNTT should look into have got to be funding and outcome: on funding education should be made cheaper – if not free – from cradle to college to University, with proper pay for teachers to recruit the brightest and the best talents to teach students. On outcome, creativity, innovation, resilience, character and grit should be the key. No matter what field you choose after school, you need all five of these traits to be successful.



Institutional reforms
Government institutions were skewed to serve only Jammeh then and his cabal, not the Gambian people. That is why it was galling when the coalition government of Adama Barrow took over did no major rejig of government departments. Some government departments functions and responsibilities overlaps, making it difficult to achieve the overall objective of government. Take the Ministry of Trade, Employment and Regional Integration for instance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Regional Integration falls under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A simple Ministry of Employment, Enterprise and Innovation will do, and Regional Integration be added under the Foreign Affairs Ministry. We don’t want long names besides, a simple Foreign Affairs Ministry will suffice, and Regional Integration and Gambians Abroad can be separate departments under the rubrics of Foreign Affairs. That is the standard practice.


Communications and Infrastructure are diametrically opposed, and yet that is how it still is. National Assembly Matters under the Fisheries Department, when a special department should be created within the cabinet to deal with National Assembly matters called the National Assembly Unit or call it what you will. Lumping the National Assembly matters under the fisheries department was a classic Jammeh under-hand operation to downgrade the relevance of the National Assembly. You get the hang of it GNTT members? Let us have a big, bold and brave root and branch shake-up of institutions to better serve Gambians.



Let us have elected Mayors in all the regions of the country
There is a political, economic and fairness case to be made about having elected mayors in all the five regions of The Gambia. Firstly, it is not fair the people of the Greater Banjul Area – Banjul and Kanifing – elect their mayors, while the people of LRR, NBR, CRR, URR and the West Coast Region have governors selected for them by the President. The governor becomes more answerable to the president than the people he/she should serve. This is a relic of the past and it should be scalped. As the GNTT thinks about this reform, they should replace the name too from governor to mayor or the chief executive of these regions. Governor signifies an authority overseeing a huge swathe of region on behalf of a higher authority.


It best suits a federal system. Economically, when we have elected mayors in all the regions we can rebalance The Gambian economy away from the Greater Banjul Area, making the regions an economic powerhouse. The Local Government Act of 2002 gives regional governments sound executive, tax-raising and legislative powers. They can come up with policies around these areas that work.
After all they are best placed to know local challenges, and solve them. Politically, the people from the regions, with all these going for them, will be engaged in politics more, energised and enthused, not be hemmed out as itty-bitty political participants. It is New Gambia. Let’s think anew.



On foreign policy, our standing was diminished as a force by the previous government, as it engaged in halitosis diplomatic vandalism. Our diplomacy was at best then a mega-phone diplomacy – saber-rattling against nations – and at worst it was tilting at windmills. We have a big opportunity to re-set that. Instead of a foreign policy driven by impulse, we should anchor our foreign policy on the quartet-pronged values of democracy, development and upholding/respecting international laws and making the Gambia open for Foreign Direct Investment.



To keep a country moving to the right direction does not require a magic wand. It takes an innovative, sensible, high-headed and high-minded ideas to put a nation on a full-throttle gear. A compassionate leadership, economic competence, open government, transparent to the people is what The Gambia needs. Let us not be trapped into the lifeless, mindless, soulless and broad generalities of change the country needs. This is your moment members of the GNTT. Do not fret and frazzle over your task. Help shape The Gambia with your much-awaited report, and whiles you are at it regain its former glory, as a beacon of hope across Africa and the world!



Amadou Camara is former Editor of Standard Newspaper, communications officer of the National Youth Parliament, currently based in the US.

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