By Cherno Baba Jallow
My group meeting with President Adama Barrow in downtown New York City on September 23, 2017 gave me a rare opportunity of presidential access, something I never had with the two former presidents Dawda Kairaba Jawara and Yahya Jammeh.
The closest I got to meeting with Jammeh was when I sat inside his boyhood room in his family home in his native Kanillai.
In 1994, shortly after Jammeh shot his way to power, my former newspaper The Daily Observer, sent me to Jammeh’s village to unearth him, his persona, his story, his life, his upbringing —- the full canvass of The Gambia’s new head of state.
As a young reporter, I was initially nervous about this assignment; it was a big one.
My managing editor, Kenneth Y.
Best, a Class of 1959 graduate of the inestimable Columbia University Journalism School here in New York City, had given me specific instructions during a pre-assignment briefing in his office. ”Talk to his people, find about him, and give me a descriptive account of his village.”
In a bid to help me decipher Jammeh the man and to help bring a certain quiddity to my thoughts about him, I spent a good while ruminating inside his mud-built school-boy house.
I sat on an old, rickety bed.
I noticed that the roof of the room hung very low. I felt hemmed in; the room was eerily quiet, quiet so much so that a certain feeling of morbidity befell me.
Outside, in the family yard, I walked around, alone, away from Massereng Jammeh, the-then village head of Kanillai and my tour guide, away from the family goats and Jammeh’s first cousin Jalamang Jammeh, one of the few occupants of the Jammeh family home, a stand-alone compound of a few old rooms located several bushes away from the village proper.
They watched me traipse around inside the home and outside, looking here and there, occasionally steeped in pensive thoughts, the heightened curiosities lurking in a reporter’s mind, bracing for clues and anecdotes and imagining the story’s initial outlines and the finished product later.
A brisk walk close to the Kanillai/Cassamance border with Massereng, the village head, and an evening meeting with the elders in the village center would mark the end of my two-day tour of Kanillai and my virtual hotel-room-meet-and-chat with Jammeh, talking about his childhood days (going hunting, tending to the crops and shuttling between Kanillai and his other family in Mayok, further east.)
I never physically met with Jammeh, but I wrote extensively about him over the years, and most of it wasn’t flattering.
I didn’t flinch; writing critical stuff about somebody you have never met or with whom you have no relations isn’t hard at all.
But writing about Barrow, a person I once high-fived and laughed with in the ‘Hood, hasn’t been easy for me. He is now my president and you always want to see your president succeed, especially if that president is somebody personally known to you.
It is a clash between the familial and the national, between personal ties and the national interests.
But it doesn’t and shouldn’t take long before reality sets in: the country should always come first.
The idea is to be as honest as possible, and as objective as the facts and the realities permit.
A coalition, not a transitional government
The closest I have gotten to being ”considered” President Barrow’s wingman has been my support for him to serve the full five-year term instead of the three-year coalition-agreed mandate.
I used to be in support of the three-year deal but only if Barrow’s successor was democratically-elected, not merely plucked from the back door, and without the consent of the people.
As I have mentioned many times before and elsewhere, a three-year timetable would have made sense if The Gambia had, say, just emerged out of a political void, if the country had been trying to eke out a silver lining out of a “failed state” status, like Somalia after the fall of its dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991 or the former Zaire (now Congo) after the fall of Mobutu in 1997 or Chad after the fall of Hissen Habre in 1990.
These three countries had shared something in common with The Gambia: Time was, they were all ruled by bloodthirsty dictators.
But there was still something else that separated The Gambia from the rest of the pack: while the other countries went through civil wars and militarily deposed their leaders, the Gambian state was a functioning one and went the route of democracy to topple a longstanding dictator.
It was just business as usual: it was another election cycle, another stab at democracy. Finally, the Gambian voters, pained by years of authoritarianism, summoned the courage to yank off their dictator.
It took a coalition to finally see the end of Jammeh. And this coalition just happened to participate in a scheduled elections and won.
So the Barrow government is not a transitional one in the classical sense. Transitional governments, by and large, and with a few exceptions like the pre-Bolsheviks Russian Provisional Government in 1917 and the Iraqi Governing Council under former President Jalalal Talabani between 2003 and 2004, are not run by politicians —- those with political ambitions and vested interests.
They are mostly run by members from academia, the clergy, trade unions, civil rights groups —- members from civil society with no political axes to grind or conflicted by ambitions of political power.
Such members see no further than their mandates stipulated by statutory power, and they go as far as their mandates go.
Transitional governments have fixed tenures; they are temporal. Coalition governments go as far as possible, up until mutual agreements and shared goals diverge and the political center falls apart.
A government of different parties of different ideas, motives and agendas, is susceptible to political dissonance. Unanimity, before long, goes out the window. And soon the flirtation with consolidated power comes to the fore.
The objective of the coalition partners to bracket Barrow into a transitional status when he was actually going to be the leader of a coalition government was always going to backfire.
The British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott had once warned us: “To try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise.”
Barrow was deemed an Independent candidate during the elections in 2016, but this was more theoretical than real. He was never Independent, for he ‘belonged’ to a party (UDP) whose goal, like all the other parties, is to run the state. Barrow has been in on it, too —- secretly nursing political ambitions.
He has pushed out of his coalition cabinet several members from his own party. He now stands alone, the power of one man.
But that’s what coalition government leaders tend to do. They want to out-run and take it further afield.
If we had to have a transitional government in The Gambia post-2016, then we needed to have members from civil society run the country.
Somebody like Dr. Wally N’dow, a former UN Assistant Secretary General or Dr. Lamin Leigh of the International Monetary Fund would have been entrusted caretakers of the Gambian state until a new government was formed.
But this scenario wasn’t applicable to us because there was no raison d’être for it, there was no political vacuum, there was no basis to appoint people.
We had elections to go to and there was power to be had through the ballot box.
Going back to the drawing board
Barrow won by a whisker.
He was given a constitutionally-sanctioned mandate of five years. Asking that he be allowed to serve the full five-year term isn’t necessarily about him; it’s about congruity and stability in the system, in the democratic process.
Barrow shouldn’t have been given and he shouldn’t have accepted a three-year term when there was no need for it, and when we were merely following the sequential order of the electoral calendar.
Since the coalition leaders were concerned about the unfair advantage of incumbency and thus a future coalition president prolonging his/her stay, all they had to do was to agree and to and sign off on a single five-year term for the coalition presidency.
Barrow would be a one-termer, and new elections in 2021 would bring in a new president and a new government, be it a single-party dominated or a coalition power-sharing one.
Barrow now seems poised to take advantage of the tenuousness of the situation and extend his stay in power. And some people are already up in arms about it.
It is hard imagining the ill-fated consequences of a prolongation of the Barrow presidency.
Almost three years on the job, the evidence has already reached unassailable heights: statecraft isn’t and will never be Barrow’s forte.
His incompetence is harrowing. His governance is lackluster, slow-moving like an an old train sputtering from one stop to another.
We are used to seeing these kinds of governments in Africa; they are directionless, they are bereft of ideas and energy, they encourage the pervasiveness of chicanery and mediocrity, greed and corruption.
But these political pathologies are usually inherent in governments that are in their twilights, when the dull stasis of power-perpetuity sets in and when the men in khakis and big boots in army barracks sense an opportunity to wade in and make a fortune for themselves.
The Barrow presidency is relatively new and it is therefore expected to operate on all cylinders and from sustained bursts of energy. But it’s operating like it is in its death throes. Like the tail end of the Jawara presidency in 1994.
Or Siaka Stevens’ in Sierra Leone in 1985. Or Lansana Conte’s in Guinea in 2008.
The jarring incompetence of Barrow says more about us than him; it’s a sardonic testament to the speciousness of the Gambian voting public. We tend to reward mediocrity over excellence. We don’t know how to pick good leaders from the bad.
So our current misgivings with Barrow should serve as a self-flagellation exercise —— we must go through this painful experience in order to deaden the pangs of Barrow’s leadership inadequacies, and by extension, our own follies as an electorate.
The year 2021 can’t come fast enough. We would be presented with another opportunity to deepen our democracy and send Barrow packing should he decide to hang on.
Two incumbents voted out in five years, an electoral feat that would be comparable only to that of Benin’s.
In 1996, Benin’s then-President Nicephore Soglo, a former World Bank economist, lost the elections after having been in power only for five years.
He lost partly due to the rampant nepotism in his government and a general indifference to the poor. Soglo was succeeded by Mathieu Kerekou, the man he (Soglo) had defeated only five years earlier.
In The Gambia, we won’t have to worry about another Jammeh presidency, not at least in the near future.
We would arrive at another opportunity to pick some one new, the right man or woman for the job. It would be a matter of taking this opportunity, or wasting it —