By Mustapha Kah
One of the most used phrases in our new sojourn as a nation is the phrase “new Gambia.” It has almost become an enduring certainty in our national lexicon. It is difficult to see a public conversation without the use of that slogan. While some see eye to eye with its use, others have shunned it, claiming that the phrase New Gambia is almost a façade and does not match the reality of our situation as nation six months into our drive as a democratic country following the December 1st 2016 change.
The fact that we are debating these issues reflects a national need for constructive dialogue and debate to be able to overcome the monumental challenges we face as a motherland. For many years following our independence, we were starved of a boulevard to express ourselves and critically examine the fundamental issues we face.
Our founding fathers including our first President Dawda Kairaba Jawara gave us some semblance of democracy on the eve of our nationhood. As most of our continent was being engulfed by one party socialism, coups and counter coups, we had the gift of multiparty government which many in Africa were starved of. But even that didn’t enable us to have true democracy where all engaged in constructive debate as a way of pushing the national development agenda forward without recourse to divisiveness.
That was however, not the worst. The worst came on the eve of July 1994 when the then military junta of Yahya Jammeh took power from Jawara’s 30 year monopoly of power. The 22 years of quasi military rule that followed were disastrous for free speech and dialogue. Free speech and debate was essentially treated with contempt and abhorrence by the country’s leadership.
One sided narrative was promoted. Media institutions which contradicted the position of the government faced the wrath of the leadership. They paid a heavy toll for promoting divergent views and as such the 4th estate as the media is often called, almost faced extinction. Private media houses like the Independent Newspaper and Radio One FM were scorched. Citizens FM was closed. Deyda Hydra was killed. Chief Ebrima Manneh was also abducted by the state and has not been found to date.
It is unimaginable that a country with a constitution that protected free speech and assembly would stifle and muscle free speech in a manner reflective of a totalitarian state. Free speech is guaranteed by Section 25 of the 1997 constitution. The same section protects freedom of thought, assembly and association, freedoms which cannot be alienated from free speech.
The Gambian was like the caged bird that Maya Angelou spoke about. We were imprisoned in thought. Our fate was in the hands of the state. The state had its shadows on our wings. It clipped our wings so much so that even though we are free today, our feathers feel heavy.
One down side of the oppression we have faced in the past few years is that we have been so subjugated that many of us have become oppressors ourselves. The sad thing is that many of us are not averse to the fact that we demean those who differ with us in opinion in a manner reminiscent of the dictatorship we condemn in Jammeh. One does not need to go far to arrive at this ending. While some of our national discussions have been very productive, the same cannot be said of many of our national debates.
As a vibrant social media activist, I am sometimes taken aback the lack of genuine critical thinking by many of my countrymen. Instead of being objective and serious in our dialogue, we focus on issues that have little or no bearing in our collective future. We attack personalities, tribalise everything and focus on minute issues that will only derail our march into the future.
Looking back on December 1st, it is almost unimaginable that we were the same people who faced Jammeh together with conviction. It is unbelievable that we were the same group of people who were united with an unmatched national fortitude and wisdom which enabled us to triumph over one of the most callous dictatorships that the world has ever seen without a single gunshot. That act of defiance against Jammeh earned us a central place in human history. Unfortunately, the tables have turned and we now are a people walking on our heads.
On the bright side of life, I am very positive that all hope is not yet vanished. I believe that the current state of our national discourse could be better elevated by enshrining debate and critical thinking in our national discourse. In this, history can be our North Pole star.
To give one of the most poignant examples of how debate can enhance national development, we only have to travel through history to 427 BC when one of the most pronounced debates was held in the mother of Western Civilization, Ancient Greece.
The particular event had come to be called the Mytilenian debate and it concerned Diodotus who had made a passionate debate to appeal against the people of Mytilene. The people of Mytilene had unsuccessfully launched an insurrection against Athens and that had led the Athenians to vote for the death penalty against the leaders of the plot and to ensure that the children, men and women of Mytilene were punished. Diodotus had claimed that the judgment was harsh, but he was opposed by Cleon known in those days as “the most violent man at Athens.” This necessitated a debate between the two.
Cleon supported enforcing bad laws rather, believing that any show of weakness by the Athenian state was disastrous. At the end of the day, Diodotus won and a vote was narrowly passed which gave the Mytilenians clemency.
The Mytilenian experience captures our national dilemma today. Borrowing from this example, I founded Debate Gambia Association in 2014. Debate Gambia is a registered association formed by University students in 2014, with a passion to represent the views of the debaters in universities. Debate Gambia is a non-governmental, nonpolitical, non-religious, non-profit, impartial, and non-partisan organization that operates in perpetuity.
It aims to train minds to be discerning intellectuals, and critical analysts in debate and speech, and good persons of moral and spiritual standards worthy of emulation across the country. Our members have participated in international debate championships such as the World, Pan African, Ghana Universities Debating Championship and national competitions like the All Nigerian Universities Debating Championship, Ghana Tertiary Debate Championships and Ghana Open Debate. We are committed to creating social change through debate.
Since the founding of the association, we have won 4 international awards. We have also held a number of national debate championships were all tertiary schools in The Gambia have participated in it. Last year for the first time we initiated the Masters Round Debate Championship.
This year, we have started the Banjul Open Debate Championship. This tournament targets national universities and tertiary institutions to engage in current affairs issues that affect the country, Africa and the world. The name of the tournament which is the Banjul Open Debate Championship is strongly rooted in the creation of a national debate platform that promotes pulsating, peaceful, critical and constructive debate using the British Parliamentary style of debate.
In light of the recent democratic upsurge in the country that ended the 22 years Dictatorship of the former APRC regime, we deemed it fitting to create a platform for Gambian speakers to show their Demagogic Prowess to settle Gambian problems through promoting diversity of opinions and ideological tolerance amongst students from higher learning institutions in the country.
The current national issues which the country faces call for an urgent address and engagement by youths to critically bring to the table solutions that can resolve these issues. It is young people that continue to bear the brunt of many social issues and it is our belief that once we address these problems with young people then, we would have dealt with the root of the matter.
As the tournament progressed, the truth that no modern nation can make the necessary development without debate came to light. This truth is premised on the reality that debate and the healthy exchange of ideas are crucial for the consolidation of democratic traditions and critical thinking in incipient and fledgling democracies including The Gambia. A robust national debate culture ensures that the most vulnerable groups in society have their ideas heard and considered in national policies.
Just come to think about the voiceless in society and the poor who can barely afford three square meals a day. These people unfortunately form a large percentage in our population. But without openly debating and discussing socio-political issues, it may be that the section of our population
More than fifty debaters from different tertiary institutions partook in the competition. Some of the participating institutions included the University of The Gambia, Gambia College and Gambia Technical Training Institute.
There is an English proverb which says that “it is better to teach man to fish rather than giving him fish every day.” Acting on this saying, an experience team of international debaters including myself, Muhammed Lamin Kinteh, Musa Sawanneh and Alagie Jarju imbibed the debaters with debating skills.
The training centered on public speaking, different argument presentations, argument evaluation and research skills amongst others.
The debate format that was used was the British Parliamentary Debate system. As the name implies, this debate set-up emerged from the British Parliament and is the main system used in most renowned international tournaments including World Universities Debating Championship, Pan African Universities Debating Championship and in sub-regional tournaments such as the Accra Open Debate Tournament and the Nigerian Open Debate.
One of the motivations for the debate tournament is that although Gambian debaters have done extremely well in international tournaments, there is still more grounds to cover. As one of the youngest debating nations on the African continent, we can only be at par with continental heavyweights like South Africa and Botswana by making sure that we have strong national championships that would foster the debating skills of Gambian students.
It is worth noting that The Gambia only made its first debating appearance at the continental level in 2014. I had the unique opportunity to have been selected in that year with two other students to represent The Gambia at the 3rd Ghana Tertiary Debating Championship hosted by the Islamic University of Ghana.
We reached the quarter-finals only to lose to much more experienced teams. Since then, we have made serious attempts to bridge that gap. We have been making progress in that regard, but more work needs to be done hence the national tournament. Such debate tournaments will continue to be a regular occurrence in our national academic calendar.
One of the many perks of our school system is that it emphases grades sometimes to the determent of extracurricular activities like debates. So being the case, it is not therefore, surprising that many an intelligent student in our schools find it difficult to express themselves and lack critical thinking skills.
In the many years of my humble career as a debate coach, I have always been approached by students with public speaking difficulties. Many of them are always desperately anxious to overcome their public speaking phobia. Just before we started the tournament, I asked many of the participants whether they think they will ever be able to speak on a topic they are given 15 minutes before the start of a debate without the luxury of holding a paper. Their answer was an emphatic no. I had to talk many of the participants into believing in themselves and trying to participate in the Banjul Open Debate Championship.
As the preliminary round came to an end last week after 9 resounding rounds, the fortunes of many of the first time debaters has drastically changed. Not only are they debating well, but they are also progressing into the Quarter-finals and if they keep up the momentum, they may even reach the finals.
If there is anything I have learnt from the debate competition, it is that our young people can do well in all fields of human endeavor if they are rightly guided and if the right environment is created for them. Gambians don’t lack talent. They have all the talent that their colleagues from around Africa take for granted.
Unfortunately, our society is sometimes not good at identifying and exposing such talent. This is more so, in matters of personal expression. We are taught from a very tender age not to be too expressive. It is very common to hear parents telling their children that “yow danga bari wah,” meaning you talk too much.
This can result in the damage of a child’s confidence and public speaking abilities; an impairment they sometimes have to live through the rest of their lives.
On a personal note, I cannot remember how many times I have been told those kinds of words. I thank Allah that I was not affected by such words. But many young people have not been as lucky as me. They have had to suffer such malaise for a long time in their lives.
The debating events in the past one week during the Banjul Open Debate Championship have swayed me to hold the particular view that as a country, our future can only be as bright and as swift as we embrace openness, debate and dialogue in all sectors of our development. No great idea dies under the illuminating light of scrutiny and debate. On the contrary, as we have experienced in the past few years, tyranny can only survive in the shadowy darkness of stifling unusual voices.
The more we shun rival voices, the more we will stifle our dream of building a society that works for all regardless of economic, social and political background. This will not be easy to achieve, but it can be done with commitment and ardor. If not anything else, the Banjul Open Debate Championship is leading the way in amplifying harnessing divergent voices in our strife to reach the Promised Land. Let the rest follow suit. We will be better for it.
Mustapha is the founder and President of Debate Gambia Association. He has served as an adjudicator in many international debate competitions such as World Universities Debating championship, Accra Open Debate Tournament and the Nigerian Universities Debating Championship. In 2015, he became the first Gambian to be appointed into the Chief Adjudicating Panel of the Pan African Universities Debating Championship in Ghana. He was listed among the 25 most influential young Gambians of 2015 by What’s On Gambia.