By Maa Touray
Teengadeh (Fulani straw hat) is trade mark hat (traditional-cum-cultural) of Fulas in West Africa. Hamat Bah, being a Fula, putting it on should be normal. However, he putting it on at the swearing in ceremony of the “Caretaker Cabinet” on January, 22 was misplaced. He was being sworn in as a minister of state, I supposed based on his experience-cum-expertise, and not because of his ethnicity. In fact, he was not the only Fula being sworn in as minister. And, Fulas have always been part of the cabinet from the birth of our nation. So, what was his point?
The cabinet is not a place to celebrate, showcase or represent one’s ethnicity. It should be a place of ‘country first’, first and foremost, with unity of purpose and sense of service to the nation. In case of Hamat Bah, for example, it should be about a minister who happens to be a Fula, rather than a Fula becoming a minister. Representation matters, but context is key. How about if every other minister sworn in had also dressed in their distinctive ethnic wear? How would that make other tribes, none of whose members happen to be part of the cabinet, feel? How about, from now on, all the Fula supreme court judges (the word order deliberately used) put on teengadeh when in session?
President Adama Barrow, unless he is in on it, needs to be wary of Hamat Bah… Without doubt, as a nation, there has never been a time when we have been more divided as now. So, instead of sounding the drumbeat of unity and reconciliation; Hamat is insidiously stoking the embers of division. The Gambia, currently, is a tinder box; and, should it kindle, Hamat would have contributed significantly to that.
However, despite seeing Hamat’s action as misplaced, divisive and self-serving, I would not in any way advocate for the eradication of our tribes. I still believe we should embrace and celebrate our tribal-cum-cultural identities. However, when, where and how we do that in the context of the nation is what is key. I see the statement “for the nation to live, the tribe must die” by Samora Machel, the first president of Mozambique, as misguided. True, the conception of The Gambia as a nation was not premised on tribe, religion, region, or language, and so forth. However, our tribes as representation of our cultures, are part of our core identities. And, as such, our national identity is defined by multiculturalism in terms of ethnicity, language, and religion. Therefore, we don’t need to lose our tribal-cum-cultural identities for The Gambia to survive and progress. What we should strive towards is the recognition of the essentiality of diversity as a means to making progress as a nation. And that, all cultures, in the context of the nation, out of many, are one—all contributing to the progress of it in a complementary way.
As a result of the above, all tribes should be made to feel or made to have a sense of belonging to the nation. While at the same time, the nation should embrace and integrate all the tribes. Therefore, when a president-elect is being sworn in, for example, there should just be one general Gambian way of doing such a ceremony. The rite of the tribe that individual happens to be as per installing their (the tribe’s) ruler shouldn’t be given any prominence. Or, any of their cultural acts be given any more significance than the rest. Example, Kamansa Jarju of Foni Bajana being allowed to perform some Jola cultural acts in the last swearing-in of former president Yahya Jammeh at the Independence Stadium in January 2012. So was when a number of kora players lined up to perform as it would have been done, I suppose, in installing a Mandinka ruler during the swearing in of President Adama Barrow in January 2017. The point here is, none of these leaders was being sworn-in as the president of their individual ethnicities; but rather, as the leader of all the tribes in the country. Therefore, should rites in terms of ethnicity be part of a swearing in of the president- elect, it should be all or nothing. That is, either all the ethnicities be allowed to perform their individual rites to the president-elect being sworn in—so he or she (the president-elect) would know and understand they are being sworn in as president for all tribes—or, none should be allowed at all.
In the same vein, when officers of state are being sworn in, they shouldn’t use the religious books (Qur’an or Bible). What is the point? The Gambia is not Israel or Pakistan. And, obviously not Saudi Arabia. The duties and functions of these officers, strictly speaking, wouldn’t be as per the teachings of Islam or Christianity. Instead, they should be sworn in using the constitution. What happens when an irreligious person or an agnostic is to be sworn in as an officer of state?
However, if one has to take an oath to speak the truth (as a witness, for example), in that case, religious books, especially for the Christians, can be used. In Islam, the traditional (sunnah) way of swearing does not involve the use of the Qur’an. It is done by simply stating the names of Allah SWT by which one will be expected to speak the truth.