the missing instrument in our toolbox
The twenty-two years of the Jammeh regime and its aftermath have provided the perfect theater for the study of the impact of political literacy and civic mindedness on political engagements of the Gambian citizenry in matters of national development. The long and brutish rule of the Jammeh government was aided by many factors, one of which is a severe lack of civic mindedness among the Gambian population. That lack of knowledge of the political process and citizens’ roles in that is arguably the most critical of the factors that had disarmed Gambian citizens in calling to order the political calamity that has claimed the lives of many Gambians and squandered significant resources of our land. This very problem of civic illiteracy has, in fact, begun plaguing the future of the country and can easily stunt the growth of our nascent democracy.
In the new Gambia, it is, unfortunately, the vain wrangling and lack of a constructive dialogue among Gambians in matters of national development that have caught the attention of a group of Gambian scholars dubbed the Interdisciplinary Committee on Civic Education and Critical Thinking in The Gambia. The committee has members who reside in The Gambia and across the diaspora. Its purpose is to engender a serious discussion concerning the state and need for civic education in The Gambia. One of the first tasks of the group was to research about the current state of affairs of civic education in the country. Before we delve into our discussion of findings, it is important to unpack the broad categories of skill-set that constitute the concept of civic education we have applied in our analysis.
Thompson (2013) offers a theoretical framework that demarcated seven interrelated but distinct boundaries within civic education, viz: political literacy, voter education, rights education, citizenship education, peace education, education in democracy and development education. These are the boundaries of civic education we have adopted in examining the state of civic education in The Gambia. Each of those categories of civic education in Thompson’s conceptualization is defined below.
Political literacy facilitates knowledge acquisition in the practice of politics; it centers on the acquisition of political power and the use of political power to distribute services for individual and community development. Voter education deals with the acquisition of knowledge about the voting processes and centers on the questions of why the citizen should exercise his/her right to vote and when voting should take place. Rights education focuses on individual and collective rights. In that education, citizens are sensitized on their rights and responsibilities which they should enjoy, assert and claim when they are denied those rights. Peace education embodies the value of peace in sustaining our global humanity. Education in a democracy is the study of the quality of governance or the understanding of the principles and practice of democratic participation. Citizenship education centers on the rights and obligations of the citizen and dwells on the concerns of nationalism and patriotism. Lastly, development education is geared towards equipping citizens with the skills and positive attitudes and values to contribute positively towards sustainable development processes.
Thompson’s (2013) framework is instructive as it allows us to see where our deficit lies in building a generation of a civic-minded population and perhaps areas that have profited from the existing avenues that provide civic education in The Gambia. Our review of the existing documents and programs concerning civic education in The Gambia illuminated a situation of critical deficiency of programs and avenues for the propagating of civic mindedness. The primary documents that formed the center stone of our analysis were the National Council for Civil Education (NCCE) Act, the Action Aid Human Rights Approach to Development Handbook and the Social Studies and Government curricula of Junior and Senior Secondary Schools. Committee members also include civic (voter) educators in past elections who offered their reflections in our analysis. It is important to note here that PDOIS has been taking a leading role in fostering a civic-minded population through their civic education program. However, our review did not cover their curriculum due to lack of access.
The Gambia’s 1997 constitution gave birth to the establishment of the NCCE Act, mandated to launch a civic education program to enable the political awareness and participation of citizens in the political process. The council is largely in the shadows but somewhat active during election cycles. However, its work is restricted principally to voter education. An insider source intimated that the institution is severely underfunded and thus, it is quite unproductive in executing its mandates. While there is no available empirical study on the impact of voter education on the political consciousness of the voter population in The Gambia, the benefits from such endeavors are most likely not significant. Voter educators in our team reveal that due to the issue of limited funding for voter education, there is the problem of coverage as such programs do not reach all Gambians and particularly those who live in the rural most areas of the country. Gambians insensitivity to voter education further compounds that problem. Evidently, the National Civic Education Council only supports voter education in its limited efforts which, is just one of the many aspects of civic education.
The Action Aid Handbook: A Human Rights Approach to Development we reviewed falls under Thompson’s civic education topology of right education. The handbook is for development practitioners, however, and it provides the framework with which development workers can address and integrate human rights into their work. The guide offers a conceptual framework that explores human rights, its development, legal basis and the essential foundations of a human right approach to development. The central argument in the handbook is that dominant development method tends to be structural (excludes beneficiaries) rather than people-centered and hence the need to empower recipients of programs to participate in the critical stages of donor-funded programs for sustainable development. The Handbook is required reading in one of the Development Studies courses offered at the University of The Gambia.
The curriculum of the Junior Secondary School (JSS) Social and Environmental Studies (SES) outlines civic education topics such as citizenship, political systems, government, and governance. These areas, if taught in a heuristic manner would allow students to develop and exercise their knowledge of the fundamentals of citizenship, right, and responsibilities. Given the undemocratic environment that characterized the twenty-two years of the Jammeh regime, however, it is highly unlikely that the pedagogical and instructional strategies for teaching those topics were focused on raising students’ critical awareness of their rights and responsibilities in the democratic process.
Further, the lack of teaching, learning, mastery, and application of key civic duties and responsibilities as part of the fundamental aspect of basic schooling is evident in the lack of a separate and specialized subject that offers a combination of the different components of civic education outlined above.
The Senior Secondary School (SSS) Government syllabus has few components of civic education, addressed in the Thompson’s framework but falls short of a comprehensive civic education curriculum. The curriculum partly meets the criterion of political literacy in its encompassing of basic political concepts such as power, authority and their sources. It does not, however, adequately address the critical component of the role of those in authority to provide public services. Also, the aspect of rights education is partially met by the syllabus in its focus on the rule of law, human rights, etcetera. However, a mere conceptual knowledge is not sufficient, and particularly when right holders are not informed of their rights and civic duties to question the policy decisions of those in power.
Voter education is for the most part covered in the curriculum. Citizenship education features in the syllabus as well, but the particular means to manifesting nationalism and patriotism are striking missing. Further, peace education and democracy education is just treated as concepts with no reference to governance, and the component of development education is largely missing from the syllabus. It is important to note that government is a subject taught at the SSS level only. Considering that Gambia has a basic schooling of nine years, many of the country’s youth leaving school at the 9th grade or below do not come across the few components of civic education contained in the SSS Government syllabus. Furthermore, Government as a subject is mostly catered to students in the Arts stream. Therefore, many students who specialize outside of that discipline often lack the opportunity to be introduced to the topics of citizenship and civic rights and responsibilities.
While our review is not by any means conclusive, the evidence on the ground regarding the state of civic education in The Gambia suggests an overall dearth of the civic literacy environment. There is a conspicuous lack of avenues for the provision of a comprehensive and critical civic education to young Gambians as part of their formative development and formal schooling entitlements.
We argue that the consequences of an ill-informed and civic-undereducated population are the reproduction and display of lack of civic knowledge- a problem that could severely affect the development of a democratic society. The remedy to that civic illiteracy and civic disempowerment is not far-fetched. A solution can be found in rethinking about the significant social, political and economic returns the nation can accrue from its investment in the civic education of its citizens and particularly for our young ones who are the beacon of hope for our country’s future. The benefits from such endeavors are immense. As noted earlier such efforts will create a socio-political consciousness, which is a sine qua non for sustaining the fundamentals of the social contract between the citizens and the state. It is only through this process that a “Bantaba” for a national dialogue can ensue, thus engendering a more mature and constructive political discourse for fostering citizen-government partnership. In addition to the potential social and political benefits from a civic-minded population, political stability founded on a sound governance culture and the rule of law are essential forces of attraction to foreign investors. The need for a civic-minded society in boosting foreign investments cannot be over-emphasized. Countries such as Senegal (in our back yard) and Rwanda are classic cases where strong civil societies among other reforms have led to a significant investment flows from foreign direct investments.
Our search for fair-mindedness and intellectual responsibility for the progressive society we are hoping to build in the new Gambia can only be realized when our societal and school curricula inculcate in the minds of our young citizens some critical and relevant mode of thinking. Civic education as a viable investment for national development is the principal missing instrument in our toolbox for our post-Jammeh political renaissance and which the government of The Gambia must pay attention to among other national concerns as we leap forward into the future.
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By The Interdisciplinary Committee for Civic Education I The Gambia