By James Orehmie Monday
The events of Faraba this past week should not surprise anyone, not least of all the government. The sunny boundless optimism and hope in the future of the country that ushered in the Barrow government, in mid-January 2017 has long since been replaced by dark storm clouds of bitter frustration and hopelessness. The government is seen by many to have lost its way. The mood of the country has been on a downward spiral of pessimism since the National Assembly elections by the shameful way in which the coalition disintegrated. This confirmed for all that the politicians were not that interested in developing the country.
Their actions left bare for all to see that they were not particularly interested in addressing the chronic poverty, failed public services and rampant corruption that plagued the country and held us all back, in as much as they were in perpetuating themselves in power for the obvious reasons of enriching themselves. What else could have been the reason for this?
Since the National Assembly elections, the government has been struggling to address the real aspirations of the people, especially our youth. The Brussels conference in May (last month)offered the government the perfect opportunity to move rapidly to build on that momentum, to operationalize the plans in the National Development Plan and to establish the planning and delivery mechanism to turn the pledges into firm commitments.
Instead, what we witnessed was the immediate return to the old ways symbolized rather callously, by the government’s call for the people to turn out on the streets to welcome the President back from Brussels as he rode in his motorcade from the airport to State House. While still in Brussels, I could barely believe my ears when I heard this call. So, it’s ok for the people to turn out to sing and dance to the praises of the President and the government, but it’s not ok for them to protest on the same streets the environmental destruction of their land, water, air, neighborhoods and livelihoods, or whatever issue of concern that they have. Really?
The government must understand that the root causes of the predicament the country finds itself in is not tribalism, the perceived lawlessness of the youth, the new democratic dispensation, keyboard trigger happy commentators on social media, impatience of the people to have their needs addressed or envy of those in power. These are just symptoms of the underlying problem.
The root causes are threefold in my view, and are (i) chronic, widespread and generational poverty in all its dimensions combined (no or very low income, food insecurity, inaccessibility to essential and life-dependent services, inaccessibility to marketable resources, lack of durable and secure shelter, insecurity of assets, dis-empowerment and powerlessness to address one’s own problems, lack of voice etc.); (ii) lack of or very few economic opportunities for upward mobility and (iii) poor leadership.
The fight against poverty (what fight?) is nonexistent. The government does not explain what it’s doing to address this issue. Seldom if ever, do we hear the president, his ministers or any senior government official talk about poverty and the hardships the majority of people are facing in The Gambia. This makes us all wonder whether they get it.
Taking the second, what the people see, especially the youth, is that not only is the government not creating economic opportunities for upward mobility, but, the very few economic opportunities that exist are only shared amongst the very government leaders themselves, their relatives and the unscrupulous businessmen and women that have successfully crossed over from the old government to this one. There is a general perception of lack of fairness in the distribution of “wealth” and that this government is arrogant and does not care. Large contracts are not seen to be awarded fairly, not only that, these contract prices are seen to be inflated and then the benefits are not shared beyond the selfish few.
If you are not creating new opportunities and the few that exists you are keeping for yourselves, what are the rest of the people supposed to do – curl up and die?
And then, there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the third point – poor leadership. Many like the president and so do I. I find him charismatic, affable and pleasant. He also has enough emotional intelligence that allows him to connect with the masses of people, in ways many of us would find difficult to do. These are good qualities for effective leadership. What he now needs to do is to become more informed of the issues so that he can rely less on his coalition ministers and advisers, and more on his own knowledge. He needs to stay up late at night, till 1a.m. or even 2 a.m., much like Obama did during his presidency, reading the briefs, technical papers and reports of the major economic and technical issues the country faces. He needs to have a better technical command of the issues that the country faces, so that he can lead and lead effectively.
I don’t believe a PhD is a prerequisite for political leadership, but with the other qualities that I believe that he has, he now needs to develop the capacity to be in command of the technical details of the issues, so that he can ask the right questions, know when his people are bull-shitting him and are not delivering. The reason he is slow in acting, is because he does not know the issues, which handicaps him seriously, and leaves him at the mercy of his ministers and advisers. At the end of the day, his ministers will only be a foot note of history, it will be his name that will bear witness to his legacy and how history will judge him. At this moment, neither will be kind to him.
I respect those who voted for the president. I understand their vote and I understand how people vote. Again because of poverty, people vote generally on tribal lines and within these boundaries once they have elected their leader, they now expect them to be personally responsible for their daily needs and welfare and all that ails them. This is not new. From firsthand experience, I know how this symbiotic relationship between the people and their elected leader works. My late grandfather, H.R.Monday (snr) (God continue to rest his soul, I miss him so much) was a politician and the PPP member of parliament for Banjul Central (1977-82). Our home at 24 Clarkson Street was full of his constituents from sunrise to beyond sunset, daily. Whenever they had a personal issue or problem, they came in their numbers unannounced, feeling entitled and left only on their own terms. I often had breakfast, lunch and dinner at home with people I did not know, slept in the same room and sometimes even in my own bed, with people I did not know.
I literally had no privacy and had to share everything I owned and had with people I did not know. This taught me a lot about myself and helped shape my world view that has placed me at the center of the fight for the poor, because poverty deprives one of ones’ dignity in addition to the major hardships it causes. To get to watch your child die of a preventable disease, to not be able to put food on the table or clothes on their backs or to educate them is not only heart wrenching but also dehumanizing. Generational poverty is even more concerning and unconscionable. My grandfather spent much of his time going to funerals and weddings and visiting the hospital beds of his constituents, many times a day, day after day after day. We never really saw much of him during the time he was in parliament. The same political system prevails to this day. That is why the offices and homes of our political leaders of today are full of people who are not there to conduct official business and that is why these leaders are forced to put their constituents as unqualified and uneducated as they may be, into government positions. When the government and the system fails the poor, what else should we expect? I get this. But all of this is unsustainable. There is a better way.
Developing The Gambia, or setting her on a sustainable path to development in a generation is not that difficult really. The solutions are there, many countries have done this in my lifetime, so we know how to do this. The financing is also available, provided the plans are solid, the governance and oversight of the funds are secure and the political system produces stability and accountability. The international development banks, the global financial markets and philanthropies are awash with trillions of dollars, desperate to help countries succeed. Plus, many Gambians at home and in the diaspora, are willing and able to invest in bonds, commercial paper and other financing instruments if they have confidence that the funds will be used properly and will provide returns on their capital. The Gambia’s financial needs are small potatoes compared to this, so we can easily position ourselves to access all this cash to address our development needs.
But, it’s going to take a change of course by the government, particularly by the president himself. One away from the current selfish and personal only considerations made by our leaders, towards an attitude that puts the common good of all, first. Mr President, do away with the political youth movement that many see as the precursor to your future political party and the personal foundation that appears to be a way to get funds that by-pass the government’s fiduciary controls, and spend your time, getting to know the technical issues and details of the burning issues we face. Hold your ministers accountable, stop putting square pegs in round holes and demand excellence of yourself and your government. Communicate your plans and update on their implementation, regularly. Do these things and I guarantee you, the people with give you more time. Your best guarantee to stay in power are your achievements and the confidence people have in you to deliver on their expectations.
And if you do none of these things, this you must do – address the needs of the youth now ( 60% of the population is under 24). If you don’t, the next Faraba is down the road, literally, in Gunjur, Kartong and the other sea towns on the south coast where Golden Lead or whatever they call themselves, will join Julakay in the growing list of companies made famous by infamy, and will drive us deeper into crisis and away from the future we want for our children and their children.
It does not have to be this way.