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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Insults and lies don’t win elections

Insults and lies don't win elections

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In recent months and weeks, the issue of political insults has moved to the fore as the atmosphere heats up for the 4th December 2021 presidential election.

Anyone listening to FM radios would come to the correct conclusion that there are two types of Gambians living within the borders of our country.

There are those who like insults and those who don’t. The first group has been hard at work while the second continues to protest with varying degrees of despair.

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Of course, I am referring to politically motivated insults, which is a complicated issue. Outside of politics, Gambians are a very respectful bunch. We are trained not to use our left hand to point at people, let alone use our mouths to insult them.

In all Gambian cultures, we have expressions that precede the use of “bad words” as prior detoxification for bad behaviour. But politics is a bare knuckles kind of game (ku mun sa morom duma)

The whole issue of political insults is a complicated matter; even those who don’t insult like insults when it is their side doing the insulting, otherwise they all protest vehemently against the use of insults in the political game.

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Since no-one likes insults, why can’t we all agree to stop? Again, it is not that simple.

Getting the “communicators” of the two fiercest political parties, United Democratic Party, UDP, and National People’s Party, NPP, to be civil to each other on radio on social media and on their campaign platforms is as difficult as putting together a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict. For them, there are only two questions, namely who started it, and who must stop first! It appears that until we have an answer, the war of bad words must continue.

The question is, why the insults? The simple answer is one word: politics. But what has politics got to do with insults? After all, the political parties want to win us to their cause and one would suppose that the most obvious and desirable course of action would be for every party to sell itself to the electorate instead of engaging in this orgy of abuse and downright lies about one another.

The name of the game of politics is power; but power for what? Ideally, the power should be about seeking to make the lives of Gambians better. In other short words, the power must be about us.

So, what has that got to do with lies, insults and abuse? Swamped in this ethical and moral contradictions, most Gambians appear to have come to the conclusion politicians are seeking power because it is simply the shortest route to fame and power.

Don’t get me wrong; insults have been part of the culture of politics from the dawn of civilisation. In traditional life, insults are seen as a safe mechanism for people to vent their anger and frustration but that mechanism is regulated by firm boundaries of where, when and how.

In our modern political context, Parliament is the place for such exquisite non-personal insults within the structure of debates and arguments. The Speaker has the power to distinguish between good and bad insults in the chamber, and has to reject the latter as “un-parliamentary”.

However, political debate appears to have moved away from Parliament to the media, especially social media and the radio where one frequently finds MPs from different political parties engaged in the kind of debate that ought to take place in Parliament.

In fact, we hardly hear of any serious debates in Parliament because Parliamentary activities are generally very sparsely reported.

Why has political debate moved from Parliament to the media? Perhaps the answer lies in the climate and context of politics and political campaigns in the post-2016 era.

I am not alone in the stout belief that the KIND of politics we have today, dictated by the 1997 Constitution, has contributed to the kind of communication we have in the public space.

The political life is unbalanced because of the over-mighty executive arm of government which makes the President more of a monarch than a modern-day chief executive. We are lucky that so far, we have had Presidents who have been rather measured in their use of executive power.

That sounds plausible but cannot be the complete answer. Any reading of the Hansard, the official report of the First Republic Parliament would reveal very spirited debates even in the days of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) when Parliament was unlikely to have much effect on what the Jawara government wanted to do.

In those days, Radio Gambia used to broadcast a nightly programme known simply as Today in Parliament and MPs needed to impress their constituents.

That word “impress” holds the key to the style of communication we have today. So many political figures have graduated into government from membership of the “communication team” and there is no point being quiet on the sidelines when you need to impress the bosses and the party faithful.

This insight around the word “impress” answers a question people ask about political abuse or misbehaviour: does it win votes? Well, it is not meant to win votes but to impress and galvanise the party faithful.

The point is that much as the politicians want to use abuse to motivate their members, they are scoring own goals because political insults discredit the political process and politicians as a whole.

Even worse, political insults can result in violence because politics when conflated with ethnicity and religion can yield very emotional responses.

The headline for this article is a message from a wise old man who told me to deliver it to politicians: Tell them, he said. Insults and lies don’t win elections.

Well, I have told them.

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