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Missteps, missed opportunities and high-voltage politics Vexed issues dominating the public sphere in Barrow’s Gambia and their potential ramifications for the December 4 presidential ballot

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Almost five years since Gambians saw the back of Yayha Jammeh, the initial optimism and euphoria that had swirled through the nation feels like a mirage today. For many Gambians, the election of President Adama Barrow did not only mark an end to tyranny and self-perpetuation , but also the beginning of a new dawn of freedom and economic prosperity. And as Gambians now prepare to decide whether the man who replaced Jammeh is worthy of another chance or not, here are few critical issues that have been dominating discourses in the public space.

Vessel of change or a recycling bin? The former president’s men still rule supreme 

The proverbial old wine in a new bottle has become a recurring punchline for critics and even ordinary State House watchers. Yayha Jammeh might have left the Gambia all these years but some of the cobwebs that were symptomatic of his regime are still much visible within the Barrow government. For many Gambians, any post Jammeh-government serious about ushering a meaningful change would have started off on a clean slate with a view to remedying the malaise that for over two decades permeated the very soul of their country. But in one of those moves critics point to a lack of commitment to serious reforms, Barrow as did his predecessor, summoned the services of one Mambury Njie to take charge of The Gambia’s purse strings; this after letting go of Amadou Sanneh. The sacking of Sanneh, a man reputed for his fidelity to financial discipline and expertise, as interpreted by some observers, was down to the cost-saving measures, particularly the vehicle policy he had introduced. This is said to have rankled the petit bourgeoise Gambian civil servants who would rather go hungry than having his fuel coupon frozen.

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It is not as if Mambury Njie, who, as evidenced by the Janneh Commission, colluded with Jammeh in siphoning taxpayer’s money, is the only high profile figure sipping tea at State House. In the mix are a prominent few. Home Affairs Minister Yankuba Sonko, Defence Minister Sheikh Omar Faye, Foreign Affairs Minister Mamadou Tangara and Chief of Protocol Alagie Ceesay are all Jammeh-era personnel helming strategic posts under Barrow, with some of them having integrity questions hovering over their heads. While it can be argued that all the afore-mentioned men are Gambians who are entitled to serve their country regardless of which government is in power, it can be strongly countered that there are a multitude of other Gambians out there who are equally deserving of those roles in deed, character, knowledge and experience under an administration that came in to right the wrongs of the past. Maybe, just maybe, the Gambian story was the one the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr had in mind when he coined the phrase “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, translating “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.

Draft constitution aborted; dreams torpedoed

In 2017, the National Assembly of The Gambia established the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) to facilitate the drafting of a new constitution. Disappointingly, after about two years of hard work, any hope of a new constitution that was to usher in the third republic suffered a premature death on the floors of the same National Assembly. In hindsight, it was a national project that overwhelmingly involved the Gambian people as the CRC toured every region of the country to solicit the inputs of the citizenry. Community-level meetings and a series of engagements were held with the various civic and political actors as well as interest groups including faith-based organisations.

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The exercise, albeit expensive, was inclusive. Unfortunately, when it was time for it to be midwifed by lawmakers, the bill hit a stone wall as it fell short of the required votes to pass. The major sticking point centered on what Barrow backers viewed as a discriminatory retroactive provision given that his soon-to-expire first five-year term would have counted as part and parcel of the two-term limit embedded in the draft. The rather dispirited stance of the executive on the Constitution Promulgation Bill at the time of its tabling also threw a spanner in the work of the CRC. Debates on the bill became the subject of a tetchy political bickering with one pro-Barrow lawmaker going as far as describing it as bogus among the use of other unsavoury adjectives. Meanwhile, in the corridors of power, the president himself wouldn’t be drawn into the issue – not even a word to his people – about a make-or-break moment that may define his legacy. Alas! months after, mediation efforts championed by former Nigerian President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan to resuscitate what was a comatose draft couldn’t yield any tangible outcome. As it stands, the draft constitution is temporarily  dead in the water.  A vanity project, at least for now.

Heightened internal safety and security concerns

To hear the average Gambian say “even under Jammeh these things weren’t happening” is both a mark of desperation and an increasingly diminishing confidence on the part of the populace in the government. Who would have thought that after all the Jammeh-linked killings and disappearances unearthed by the TRRC, a remark as salacious as such would be made by any? Well, in the face of a surge in banditry, frequent killings (discovery of dead bodies) even beyond urban Gambia, disturbing images of stabbings and rape across the metropolis, anyone can be forgiven for making utterances of that nature. Apparently, the wheels have come off the wagon in the most unexpected ways.

It is paradoxical that a government that came on the back of reforms, particularly in the security sector, is seemingly failing to provide a safe haven for its people. Despite the fact that under Barrow, political opponents aren’t knowingly going to bed with one eye open as it has been the case before him, the widespread occurrence of violent crimes will hardly pay him any political dividend. Meanwhile, in the grand scheme of things, a climate of fear where citizens risk being attacked or robbed in the full glare of the public will not dent the image of the country as a crime zone, but it is one thing that stands to erode investor confidence. A recent Old Jeshwang robbery incident where some D16 million was reportedly stolen from a private residence sounds like a well choreographed scene from a blockbuster crime movie. To the credit of the Gambia Police Force, the launch and moving into motion of the Operation Zero Crime has been yielding results as they take the offensive to thugs. However, combating the current spate of crime will require more than short-gap measures like time-bound codename operations. The underlying issues festering crime need addressing. As they say “kill the host, kill the virus”. 

On the back of a mega seizure of about three tonnes of cocaine reportedly commanding a street value of US$87 million at the Banjul seaport, there were genuine fears among Gambians that the country might not only be used as a transit point for the narco trade but could open the floodgates of organised crime in a country where a rise domestic crime is getting to worry the people. As has been the case with many other matters of public interest, investigations into that shipment from Ecuador and allegedly bound for Europe remain shrouded in mystery.

The hydra-headed monster that is corruption

If social media talk, word on the streets or even unascertained charges from other activists and politicians are anything to lean on, the appetitive desire for corruption under the Barrow administration is one that borders on recklessness on the part of the administration. Just as there is very little if any substantial evidence to support the claims that some ministers and or/ Barrow handlers are busy siphoning money to build houses that are way below their pay grade, there also appears to be nothing forthcoming from the government to either rebuff or substantiate the accusations. For a government that is wedded to media dispatches, it beggars belief that pressers or releases have not been made to react to claims of corruption making the rounds in The Gambia almost every other week.

Incredibly, even when the health minister himself showed macro-boldness by raising the alarm about the pandemic-triggered, epidemic nature of corruption in his own ministry before parliament, no publicly known official probe has been launched into the cries he made on the altar of the people’s house. And even where there was one, the public still remains in the dark thereof. Now, that also seems dead like a dodo. And while the authorities made several attempts to clear the mysterious circumstances surrounding the over D30 million equivalent ‘mistakenly’ wired into the coffers of the First Lady’s Foundation in 2017 allegedly by a Hong Kong private bank,  their explanations tend to leave a curious public with more questions than answers.

Clearly, Gambians aren’t always up to speed with certain burning matters of huge national significance. These include findings of the Malagen investigation linking “suspended” fisheries permanent secretary Bamba Banja to an alleged bribery scandal as well as the fire incident at the Ministry of Fisheries, Water Resources and National Assembly Matters where some confidential files were said to have been burnt. As December 4 inches ever closer, the government’s handling of public contracts and procurement deals still sends ripples across town, with some intimating that whilst it was state capture by one man alone (Jammeh during his time), it is the case of everyone taking their cut in a now or never fashion. The government’s very reactionary mode of communication which heavily relies on high sounding, knee-jerk press releases is equally doing little in the area of accountability and transparency given that media dispatches either from the presidency or the office of the government spokesperson tend to come in the aftermath of public outcries over issues.

Tellingly, on the backdrop of the echo chamber of  moanings and groanings over corruption in Banjul, what is most incomprehensible is the fact that almost half-a-decade – marking the expiry of a first term in office – the Barrow government couldn’t establish an anti-corruption outfit despite having in place other vital institutions like the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), TRRC, etc. If anything, an anti-corruption bureau will be indicative of the leadership’s preparedness to tackle head-on  allegations of corrupt practices in the public sector and perhaps also provide answers to an information-starved public if and when talks of corruption arise.

Adding credence to charges of corruption in the country are recent findings released by the Afrobarometer,  a pan-African, Independent, non-partisan research network.  As  reported in The Standard newspaper,  “a staggering 71 per cent of Gambians do not believe President Barrow is doing a ‘good job’ in fighting corruption in the country”. What further leaves a bad taste in the mouth is that “six in ten Gambians” as per the same  survey findings , “say the overall level of corruption in the country increased ‘somewhat’ or ‘a lot’ during the past year, almost doubling the proportion recorded in 2018 (32 percent).”  This menace could be Barrow’s own Frankestein’s monster.

Lingering doubts over the execution of truth commission  recommendations

“Precedents are dangerous things; let the reins of government then be braced and held with a steady hand, and every violation of the constitution be reprehended: If defective let it be amended, but not suffered to be trample upon whilst it has an existence.”

America’s first President George Washington said so, and speaking of being trampled upon, the experience with the Janneh Commission findings is that the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) could suffer the same fate. Having seen what became of the government’s handling of the final report from that hugely expensive process where some highly indicted individuals got a free ride as others were barred from re-entering public service, it is only understandable that any hope in TRRC outcomes may not be as high as the infant days of its establishment. The grumbles by sections of the public as to whether the government will prosecute those adversely mentioned or those that have committed heinous crimes are still rife. But the fact that the Lead Counsel Essa Faal qualified Jammeh-era atrocities mainly the killings of some two hundred people as crimes against humanity – which Karim Ahmad Khan, the new  ICC chief prosecutor endorsed in a  tweet – will naturally make any  behind- the-curtain political machinations harder to smother the wheels of justice in that regard. Besides, crimes against humanity, we are told, cannot go unpunished.

Added to the worries of some people is that since his occupancy of No.1 Marina Parade, President Adama Barrow or the presidency itself has hardly shown any assurances that victims of rights abuses will get the justice they deserve. Bizarrely too, in all these close to five years of his presidency, Mr Barrow seemed to have lashed at his opposition leaders more than the man whose refusal to cede power saw him airlifted to Senegal, where he would eventually take the sacred oaths of his office. Aside from his frequent comparing of the total number of kilometers of road works executed under the Jammeh and Jawara administrations, one  memorable mentioning of Yahya Jammeh by Barrow was his infamous ‘n’na systemo balanta’ – a Mandinka referencing of how he felt an anomaly in his system on the day he shook hands with his predecessor at one gathering. Also, Barrow’s refusal to publicly condemn the deeds of Yahya Jammeh in recent times and ongoing overtures between his National People’s Party (NPP) and the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) could somehow bolster his political base within the ranks of the Green party but might potentially lose him significant  political support  amongst  neutrals and persons who are still scarred by the APRC stewardship. But if the most recent developments are anything to go by, that now signed and sealed  alliance itself could be a potential power keg for Barrow as divisions mount within the former ruling party faithful who have been vehemently vocal against any such marriage of convenience. Critics from within the APRC itself have been crying foul over  the arrangements, with some branding the long-drawn political covenant as a well calculated move designed to replenish the pockets of the Tombong Jatta led executive at the expense  of their party. More alarmingly though are widespread concerns that the just announced APRC-NPP memorandum of understanding would once and for all jeopardise the quest to bring Jammeh to book – at least under a Barrow presidency – thereby deny thousands of people the justice they yearn for. How the deal pans out in the end will definitely be answered by the passage of time.

To be continued

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