By Baba Galleh Jallow
Almost ten months after the fall of the Jammeh dictatorship, Gambians are beginning to learn, among other things, that struggling for democracy does not necessarily mean being democratic in spirit. We are seeing ample evidence that it is one thing to clamour for the freedom of expression for everyone, but quite another thing to respect freedom of expression for everyone. We challenged the Jammeh dictatorship and shouted it down at every turn for being intolerant of our dissenting opinion; but we now display unbelievable intolerance for other people’s dissenting opinion. All this points to the difficulty of tolerance and the human propensity to protect our opinions against opposition by others which, incidentally, is the very stuff dictatorship is made of.
Yet, democracy is indivisible and irreducible. If we struggled for our right to express opinion contrary to the dictator’s, we must further struggle to make sure that people enjoy their right to express opinion contrary to ours. We cannot all belong to or support the same political party, but we all belong to the same nation and we must all support and nurture the democracy we fought so hard for over so many years. It is strange that the kind of political intolerance we now notice among and between Gambian supporters of our different national parties is the same and even often worse than the kind of fanatical jingoism and intolerance we fought against for over two decades.
Blind and uncritical support for the AFPRC/APRC was what enabled the fallen despot to oppress, throttle and exploit us and our country for 22 years. Ironically, we are practising a level of blind and uncritical support for our political leaders and parties today that is almost a carbon copy of the blind and uncritical support we opposed in Jammeh supporters. The level of vehemence with which we shout down all opinion critical of our parties of choice is sometimes even more vitriolic than we ever saw under the Jammeh despotism. This is true of the supporters of all political parties inside or outside of government, whether these are part of the Coalition government or not. On all sides of the political divide, we display levels of intolerance and needless hostility towards contrary political opinion that are truly unworthy of our new democratic dispensation and our democratic aspirations as a nation.
It is a cruel paradox that as a people we crave and cherish political pluralism and civility but are not able to tolerate political pluralism and civility. We want others to tolerate our criticism and respect our right to criticise them; but we are not able to tolerate their criticism or respect their right to criticise us. We want people to respect our right to freedom of expression on all matters political in our country; but we cannot respect people’s right to express their opinions on all matters political in our country.
Even as we continue to decry the kind of blind support and uncritical obeisance that distorted Gambian politics and society during the dark days of the Jammeh despotism, we are engaged in the same kind of blind support and uncritical obeisance to our parties and leaders in the new Gambia. The roots and complexity of this damaging syndrome lie in the fact that without critical self-evaluation, and without an unusual level of introspection and a strong capacity for humility, we human beings are very likely to always maintain the most favourable opinion of ourselves, which often translates into a narcissistic tendency to consider our ourselves, our views and opinions beyond reproach and near-infallible.
Do we ever stop to consider that no human being ever admits that they are a bad person? Even the worst tyrants in human history, such as the one we just kicked out of The Gambia genuinely believe that they are good people. The worst tyrants in human history will never admit that they are evil. Self-love and self-preservation, which are key defining characteristics of human nature, do not readily allow us to admit our mistakes or recognise our errors of judgment. The capacity to do that requires deliberate effort on our part. It requires us to swallow our pride, even if we are sometimes right, in order to accept or at least tolerate other people’s assumption of right in their positions and opinions that are different or even hostile to ours. We should consider that the persons we are communicating with feel the same level of entitlement to respect and tolerance of their views that we feel entitled to. We should consider that the persons we are addressing want to be respected as much as we want to be respected.
As we struggle to move our dear little country away from the malignant and debilitating culture of intolerance and oppression of the past 22 years and towards a culture of kindness, mutual respect and tolerance, we must expend deliberate effort to recognise, respect, enhance and uphold the humanity of our critics and political opponents. We should always remember the ancient golden rule of human behaviour – to only do and say unto others as we would like others to say or do unto us. Or, put another way, never to do or say anything to others that we would not like them to say or do to us. This is particularly important in the arena of national politics, in conversations about the direction in which we want our country to move.
Considering that we all belong to the same nation, that we all love our country equally, and that we all have equal rights to ownership of our country, it is foolhardy and self-defeating for anyone to lay claim to sole ownership of anything in the nation-state space. Governments come and go, parties come and go, leaders come and go, and individual citizens come and go.
The only constant is the nation-state space itself which, like a precious garden, needs to be tended and attended to with the utmost care by all its owners, which to say all its citizens. Those who try to claim a monopoly over ownership of the nation-state (like Yahya Jammeh did) will face the justified rage of all good citizens of the nation and will eventually fall into eternal historical infamy, a fate as dreadful as it is worth avoiding by all means necessary. We fought for democracy and tolerance. Let us practice democracy and tolerance, however difficult it is to do so. We know it is easier said than done. But we know we can do it. And we will do it if we embrace both the power and the limitations of our humanity.
Professor Dr Baba Galleh Jallow, a Gambian former newspaper editor, is the author of several books and now lectures in a US university.