By Matida Jallow
The Gambia political euphoria is reaching its climax with the PDOIS embarking on their nationwide tour under the slogan of System Change. Perhaps the adoption this slogan was inspired by the irresistible use of the phrase by the party leader of PDOIS, Honourable Halifa Sallah, who usually uses lack of system change in reference to the outcome of 2016 election and the current government’s modus operandi. Although countless of Halifa’s devotees, most of who deceivingly profile themselves as elites by virtue of their “academic credentials” or any other considerations that allow group of individuals to falsely construct elitism around themselves, despite that they take Halifa’s lines of explanation of system change for granted, the question remains revolved around the extent to which Halifa actually comprehends the word system change relative to regime change, and the extent to which his application of system change, or lack thereof, embodies the outcome of 2016 election? A close appraisal of the conceptual frame and the application of system change suggests that Halifa’s distinction between system and regime changes is a utopian distinction and has no explanatory power to acceptably present the current reality of Barrow’s government.
The difference between system and regime is generally blurred, as they are sometimes used interchangeably to refer to structures or forms of governments, or to refer to how government functions. Nonetheless, political regime (also known as “régime”, in French) is generally used in Political Science to refer to the form of government, or political structures that make up a State or form or system of control or government. Regime generally refers to institution that has clear substantive and geographical limits, but which is defined by explicit rules agreed on by the government. The concept is used in most instances after a special adjective, for international, national, or urban, to refer to an area where a regime exercises its jurisdiction. Hence the emphasis is placed on the principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures under which the expectations of actors, normally governments, are institutionalized. However, in the field of politics and its practices, the use of the concept of regime often involves an association with an individual (Jammeh regime) ideology (fascist regime) approach (military regime) or political regime (neoliberal regime). Thus, theoretically, the concept does not necessarily imply anything about the particular type of government to which it related.
System, on the other hand, is generally referred to groups of elements that interact and are interrelate according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. Thus, political system is a set of formal legal institutions that constitute a “government” or a “state.” This is the definition adopted by many studies of the legal or constitutional arrangements of advanced political orders. More broadly though, political system is understood as process of interaction between sub-system of socio-political and non-political institutions in a political context. In the world of politics, it refers to the complete set of institutions which constitute a political system, including interest groups such as political parties, trade unions, and lobby groups. The study of political system entails how these institutions are related with political norms and rules that govern their functions.
A closer look at the difference between system and regime, one would realise that both concepts are related to government and its functions. However, while the regime focuses on norms and principles as well as the decision-making procedures of a government, the concept of system focuses on the composition of a government in terms of institutions, and the nature of relationship between different sets of institutions that form a government. Thus, the question remains whether the political change which occurred in The Gambia in 2016 is system or regime change? More importantly, the most striking question perhaps is whether the current regime is an embodiment of regime or system change?
At this juncture, it is imperative that we have a quicker look at major types of political changes and their effects. The most fundamental type of political changes is Revolution, which transforms not only the structure of a government, but also the whole polity, including social order, the moral basis, and the values of society. Undoubtedly, the elections of the coalition government in 2016 cannot be dubbed as a revolution in its strict application. Even though 2016 elections have resulted in a partial change in the way people come to view each other in different settings, it did not have a profound change in the beliefs by which people live.
A second type of political change is structural changes, which involves alterations to the political system. The essence of this change is not a fundamental change; hence, the basic transformation of the nature of the regime, but it leads to a greater shift in the policy direction and in other political outcomes. This is because the structure of the political system, its formal and informal institutions, and their arrangements, which alter as a result of this type of change, are the determinant of policy outcomes. Thus, effective adjustment of institutional forms through which a government acts, is a strong indication of this type of political change. While one can agree with Honorable Halif that the ascendency of coalition government to the power is yet to be followed by effective institutional changes relative to pre-2016, the unsettling question is to what extent the political change occurred in the Gambia can be considered a regime change, as argued by Halifa?
The regime change, which the third type of political change, is defined by Gurr, (1974) as a measurable and significant alteration of patterns of political authority. This change ensures that regime primary political “identity”, which can be found within the way it distributes and maintains political authority, is eclipsed from the political scene. To this end, Gurr suggests that regime change involves alteration of political identity of the regime, which is found in how it maintains its political authority. Hence the absence of the leadership a regime might not necessarily lead to the absence of the political identity which helps the regime to consolidate its power and authority. A strict application of this definition would leave one wondering about whether the departure of Yahya Jammeh ensured that the regime he installed changed in terms of ” the process of executive recruitments, the number of decision-making constraints with which the chief executive must be contend with, and the scope (or range) of governmental control, and the complexity of the governmental structures within the regime, which Gurr, believes is an indication of the presence of the regime.
The final type of political change involves the replacement of leaders. Generally, there is a recognition that a change in personnel of government leadership maybe an effective way of changing government policies. However, in some regimes where the political authority of the previous regime is overtly extended and deep-rooted in the government, replacement of the leadership of a regime alone might not necessarily lead to a regime change as defined above.
In view of the above, it is my humble conviction that the modern politics and its theorization about regime and system change predict the realization of the latter inextricably linked to the realization of the former. Thus, the present of elements that consolidate the political authority of a bad regime and internalise its approaches, philosophies as well as its doctrine in state apparatus cannot be an indication of a regime change, despite the absence of the leadership. Under such circumstance, the prevalence of effective formal and informal institutions and their arrangements that can produce greater shift in the policy direction and in other political outcomes cannot be envisaged.
Thus, the government of the Gambia have witnessed neither the immediate nor the incremental uprooting of people, mind-sets, and institutions (both formal and informal) who consolidated political authority of Yahya Jammeh, and internalised his approaches, philosophies as well as his doctrine in operating the government in the aftermath of the 2016 elections. As a result, while Yahya Jammeh has left the Gambian soil, the regime he installed remains effective and executed by the same people, mindset and institutions who perpetuated his reign. The failure of the Gambia to undergo institutional reforms, which should be the concern of any political critics, is not a natural result of the absence of system change, but an absence of regime change, the realization of which is imperative for the accomplishment of the former.
Accordingly, the use of system change as a parallel concept to regime change is not only misleading, but it suggests lack of comprehensive understanding and the appropriate employment of political jargons. While meaningful reform of formal institutions can pave the way to the realization of system change, this can only be guaranteed with eclipse of the human capital represented in personnel who consolidated the political authority of Jammeh, from important executive positions in the government. Hence the effective implementation of laws and policies requires disciplined and morally competent personnel whose institutional memories are not linked to organizational culture where corruption, misappropriation public funds, abuses of office are normalized, and where occupying a public office is deemed right rather than a responsibility.
To conclude, while any many Gambia envisaged the effect of both regime and system changes, what 2016 elections has resulted in is neither a regime change nor a system change. The best depiction of the outcome of 2016 is the change of leadership epitomised in the replacement of Yahya Jammeh, whose departure from the Gambia soil didn’t ensure the eclipse of empowering mindsets, institutions and laws which perpetuated leadership. Thus, an application of regime change on the post-Jammeh era should reflect the clear-cut distinction between regime and system changes, and the extent to which regime change is evidently achieved in the Gambia, which system change remains elusive.
While a concept or a phrase my suggest different meanings to different people, a deviation from the standard and conventional use of regime and system changes, as in the case of Halifa, should transcend the vague and abstract conceptualization, to a convincing argument that would suggests innovation and creative use of the terms, which is also necessary to the paradigm shift, and hence the development of knowledge. Unless this intellectual commitment is fully demonstrated on the side of Halifa Sallah and PDOIS, their misappropriation of system and regime changes in the context of the Gambia could be a certification of their limited comprehension.