Growing up, I have always heard the saying, “Gambia is a peaceful country and Gambians are peace-loving people”. I never questioned these sayings and in fact, I believed and even said them often. I still believe we are a peaceful people, and Gambia is a peaceful country but when I look at current affairs in The Gambia against conflict indicators, I worry about the sustainability of peace.
The 2020 Global Peace Index (GPI) ranks Gambia at 60 (a position it shares with Equatorial Guinea), out of 163 independent states and territories according to their level of peacefulness. At regional level of Sub-Saharan Africa, Gambia ranks 12 out of 44 countries. The Global Peace Index is measured according to the definition of negative peace with a focus on the absence of violence or the fear of violence across three domains: Safety and Security, Ongoing Conflict, and Militarisation. The report summed that “Economic problems have left the Gambia vulnerable to further deteriorations in peacefulness. With a youth unemployment rate of over 40 percent, public dissatisfaction and migration have been on the rise. In addition, the country has recorded a rise in police brutality, particularly in clashes with anti-government protesters.” This may seem good for many but I feel differently knowing of the inadequacies of data in The Gambia, which can greatly flaw research findings.
Therefore, my argument will base on current prevailing circumstances from my perspective with as much reference as I can gather. The idea of this piece is to provoke thought and discussion on the current realities of The Gambia to create a collective consciousness and adapt proactive measures to sustain our peace.
Defined within the context of violence, peace is the absence of physical and structural harm. This definition though generally used, does not fully capture the full meaning of peace. Another definition of peace proffered by Albert Einstein is that, “Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice, of law, of order —in short, of government.” The very last part of that definition raises eyebrows of doubt.
However, Johan Galtung, ‘the father of peace studies’, argues that Peace can be viewed through the lens of both negative and positive peace. Negative peace is the absence of violence or fear of violence, while positive peace involves the attitudes, institutions and structures that, when strengthened, leads to a more peaceful society. In other words, positive peace is an environment with positive content such as restoration of relationships, the creation of social systems that serve the needs of the whole population and the constructive resolution of conflict. The 8 pillars of positive peace include; a well-functioning Government, sound business environment, sound business environment, good relations with neighbors, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption, equitable distribution of resources. The Gambia’s peace was measured under negative peace implies an absence of violence but is there an absence of fear amongst Gambians?
Conflict indicators (early warning signs)
A failed transition?
After 22 years of authoritarian rule, Gambians ushered in a new democratic dispensation that was supposed to chart in a new Gambia. To achieve this, a transitional justice process was embarked upon, but how has this fared? The Janneh Commission has been concluded but Gambians are greatly dissatisfied with the overall outcome, especially with regards executing the commission’s recommendations. The constitutional review commission has not only incurred a huge budget but also ended up a total failure. The security sector reform seems to exist only on paper but not much achieved in practice and the much-needed Service Sector Reform is only getting lip service. The Truth Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (TRRC) is due to submit its report soon. However, given the lack commitment to recommendations of previous commissions (Janneh Commission and Faraba Banta Commission), sceptics are worried that it may be another effort down the drain.
Military and security
Despite its gains in maintaining peace, the continued presence of ECOMIG peacekeeping Force has caused a dent on the pride of Gambian security forces. There is low morale within the ranks and despite the calls for security sector reforms, internally led capacity building remains negligible. There is an increase in crime, especially violent crime and there is continued distrust and despair over the police force being able to guarantee the protection of life and property. Road traffic accidents are on the increase and the attitude of people on the road is reflective of the frustration and anger amongst the people. Furthermore, despite the gains in peaceful assembly, there have been over seven violent demonstration since 2017, for which no one has been held accountable. The lack of punishment for such breach of the law could embolden would be protesters. Furthermore, given that there has not been recruitment for the past five years, the sector could face serious work force challenges especially in providing deployment for electoral duties and the OIC summit.
With the heavy thumb of authoritarian rule lifted off the back of Gambians, more people are taking active roles in politics. With the coalition broken and along with it its promises, more political parties as well as independent candidates, have emerged. The broken love affair between President Barrow and the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the formation of the National People’s Party (NPP) has created a rift with ever-growing tensions. According to the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) Early Warning Outlook 2021, “A critical dynamic in the December 2021 election is that President Adama Barrow contests under his own National People’s Party (NPP) following disputes with the United Democratic Party (UDP) over reneging on his promise to step down after three years in power to allow a transitional government to organise fresh elections. This has heightened the stakes ahead of the elections in 2021, as relationship among ruling coalition has been characterised by tensions, acrimony and competing political interest.” Besides these problems, there is a rise in political association based on tribe, region and religion.
According to UNDP 1994 Human Development Report, ‘Human security can be said to have two main aspects. First, it means safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. Second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life – whether in homes, in jobs or communities. There are seven key elements in Human Security and these include; Economic security, Food security, Health security, Environmental Security, Personal Security, Community Security, and Political Security.
According to a World Bank report on The Gambia, “The global COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have severe socioeconomic consequences. GDP growth is projected to decline to between 2.5 and -2.4% in 2020.” Unemployment rate is at 30 percent, and 40 percent of the unemployed are youths between the ages of 15 and 24. This pandemic and its effects on the tourism sector, the biggest foreign earner further compounds this situation. The report further states that limited fiscal, monetary, and financial buffers and high risk of debt distress limit room to maneuver. A poor health sector and slack of social safety nets as food security continue to be threatened from exploitation by fishmeal factories. The cost of food and other essential commodities are under constant increase and there is growing frustration as citizens continue to struggle to put food on the table.
Environment and resource management
Land disputes especially in the Kombo coastal area, continue to pose problems with some even leading to violence (e.g. Faraba Banta (2018), Gunjur- Berending (2019), Basori – Duwasu (2021)). In a feature published on the Chronicle paper in 2020, Abdoulie Fatty a lawyer, described land dispute in The Gambia as a ticking time bomb, he said, “As Counsel, a considerable number of queries that I receive from prospective clients are land related. Current trends suggest that this will get worse and with serious consequences”. Exploitation of natural resources and its impact on environment also pose serious threats to our peace. The timber trade and frequent clash between Senegalese security officers and Gambians are sticking points.
In December 2021, Gambians will go to the polls to elect a new president. With 17 registered political parties and 2 independent candidates and possibly more to come, the stakes are very high and the tension mounting. Eyebrows are already raised as to the preparedness of the Independent Commission (IEC) to hold credible elections. First, there are contentions as to the legitimacy of the Chairman of the commission as some claim that his term in office should have ended in April 2016. Second, the electoral calendar has been affected as the 14 January to 26 February voter registration was stalled and rescheduled to 29 May to 11 July. This lapse could have been a disaster if there was going to be a referendum. The proliferation of opposition groups and political exploitation of differences (tribe, religion, and region) are further widening the cracks of unity.
Toxic social media political discourse
Social media is now widely used in politics with cross-cutting effects. In The Gambia, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter are now commonly used for political messaging with the former two being very popular. Scroll through Gambia Facebook space and you will come across a lot of political content. Sadly though, a lot of the content is inimical to peace. Political castigation, name-calling, insults, character assassination make up most of this content. Some do Facebook Live and go on spew a lot of abusive and messages of hatred. WhatsApp chat groups are created for the sole purpose of insulting others. People record voice messages filled with hate speech, insult, false information, etc., and these get widely circulated.
We are navigating a very slippery ground and must all be very cautious of our deeds, words, and intents. I urge the government to intensify peacebuilding efforts, politicians should carry messages of peace and urge their followers to be tolerant and respectful of divergent views. Religious leaders need to preach more on the values of peace and civil society organisations should engage more in peacebuilding activities. Above all our leadership must recognise these problems and steer us on the path that maintains the spirit of peace, progress, and prosperity.