By Alagi Yorro Jallow
In his famous 1918 lecture entitled Politics as a Vocation, Max Weber writes, “Politics, just as economic pursuits, may be a man’s avocation or his vocation. There are two ways of making politics one’s vocation: Either one lives ‘for’ politics or one lives ‘off’ politics. He who lives ‘for’ politics makes politics his life. He who strives to make politics a permanent source of income lives ‘off’ politics as a vocation.”
The view expressed by Weber highlights the importance of analyzing the motivations of politicians in the context of their career decisions over the lifecycle. The very existence and functioning of a representative democracy, where citizens delegate policymaking to elected representatives, hinges on the presence of politicians. The electorate wants politics and politicians to focus on competencies and to deliver good public policy and better government, rather than on personalities and their careers as well as cheap point-scoring.
Politics is not a professional career or means of wealth creation but an avenue to give back to your country. Before anyone makes politics a professional career, one must have a career identity and a need to have the resources and abilities to serve his or her people and society.
Let’s change this. We’re wasting so many opportunities with the current political landscape. Common sense will agree with the option suggested that a politician should need a career outside politics and not just be a businessperson, retired schoolteacher, hustler, or lawyer. We also need health professionals, mental health professionals, journalists, educators, engineers, environmentalists and scientists, sociologists, and economists. If we could change the Gambia, we could make a difference, as in the global community. Perhaps we should also limit the tenure of our politicians, so that being a politician becomes a contribution to our democracy and less of a career.
Clearly, if we were to advertise ministerial posts to attract those with the necessary competencies – with the abilities, commitments, knowledge, experience, and skills to do the job well – very few indeed, if any, of the current lot would be appointed.
Politics has also become the end. Career politicians that make it are mostly qualified just to play the game, but not to govern.
Unfortunately, the skillsets and experience required of a career politician essentially make them incompetent to govern effectively. Their career path is often from high school and grassroots politics through local government/party engagement; only a few have university education and worldview experience, perhaps serving as a foot soldier, to pre-selection, then election, and so on.
Career politicians serving in government adversely select aggressively Machiavellian political agents and give them a monopoly on power. And this system was never chosen by the people! The solution is to remove the monopoly through genuine democracy. Well-designed democracy doesn’t replace elective government. It improves it.
As Nobel laureate James Buchanan warned, poor government is the inevitable consequence of the “adverse selection” of purely amateurish career politicians who intend to exploit the monopoly of power by expecting a high profit and be among the highest bidders for political franchise. Good people wishing to serve, for a time, will be attracted to politics instead of feather-bedding careerist politicians.
Can’t we realize the waste! Our young men and women roam around doing nothing else. There are no serious problems such as the struggle for independence, which motivated our first-generation politicians like Sir Edward Francis Small and others, their motivations were not to hold onto power and amass wealth. The utter shame of our young careerist politicians, who take up politics as a vocation and roam around without doing any other job but making a living out of politics!
Can we dream of a Gambia wherein the politics is taken purely as a passion of patriotic duty serving your country and not as a professional career aimed at wealth creation and selfish interest at the expense of the people? Too many youngsters are attracted to politics without doing any other job that could earn them a regular income to live on or feed their wives and concubines lavishly!
For example, when the charismatic leader of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, visited India, he held a discussion session with Indian politicians. Ho Chi Minh politely and eagerly started the discussion. He asked the Indian politicians what they do to earn a living. In chorus, they replied, “We are politicians. We contest elections; we win and occupy various positions with authority.”
Ho Chi Minh was rather confused. He again queried, “What you all do is fine; still, how do you earn a living to feed yourself and your families?” He continued: “To tell you the truth, I am a farmer basically, I get up early in the morning every day, look after my farms, I irrigate plants, bushes and shrubs. After doing all these daily chores…I leave the field to the President’s office since I happen to be the President of Vietnam.”
Even after becoming the President, he maintained his austere lifestyle. Despite there being a President’s House in Hanoi, the official residence, he chose to live in a hutment of the complex of the Presidential house until his death. He used the Presidential house only for official meetings or dinners with foreign dignitaries.
It was the charismatic leadership of Ho Chi Minh that had its magical influence over the people of Vietnam, who were ready for any sacrifice with this hope and belief that after liberation everybody would be able to share the fruits of independence. The fact remains that after liberation, the aspirations of the Vietnamese people were never belied, never contradicted. The biggest achievement in this process was that the importance of labor was not only recognized but that it earned a place of distinction in society and the feudal structure was completely uprooted.
It’s also true that a person must not be a politician to help society; instead, when one enters politics, he or she must be able to improve the needs and aspirations of the people he or she has been chosen to represent. But when politics is regarded as a money-making avenue, that’s when the systems, structures, and personnel become corrupt. The right way to end politics is to end empty with evidence of your fruit in your people and community not your belly and family only.
Politics and politicians have become a daily “conflict game”, dominated by career politicians concentrated on winning points on the other side, rather than on developing and delivering good public policy and good government. Increasingly, fewer have ever had a “real job” or a significant career before entering politics, and even then, that may not qualify them to be a competent legislator or state minister.
Yet, many end up as legislators and ministers responsible for significant government portfolios and large budgets, with little or no relevant experience or skills or commitment to that area, let alone in management. By contrast, in earlier decades, the bureaucracy was more permanent and was motivated to give full and fearless advice to politicians, especially when freshly elected.
Public servants are meant to pursue ongoing research, maintain records, and keep crucial information up-to-date so that more ephemeral politicians can be adequately briefed. With lunatic verve, politicians have strived to decimate public servants and create an army of “yes men” controlled by overpaid “executives” and bullied by stubborn independent voices.
An independent public service is a keystone of our checks-and-balances form of government, and voters should be seriously alarmed by the amateurish career politicians’ accelerating politicization of public services and harassment of any staff who elect to remain “fearless”.
In the same way, positions of political power tend to attract those persons who place higher value on the possession of such power. These persons will tend to be the highest bidders in the allocation of political office. Is there any presumption that political rent-seeking will ultimately allocate offices to the “best” persons? Is there not the overwhelming presumption that offices will be secured by those who value power most highly and who seek to use such power to further their personal projects, be these moral or otherwise?
Genuine public-interest motivations may exist and may even be widespread, but are these motivations sufficiently passionate to stimulate people to fight for political office, to compete with those whose passions include the desire to wield power over others?
The problem with politicians is that they develop policies in areas in which they have no expertise to suit ideological agendas and those pushed on them by donors and lobbyists. Instead, policy development should be handled by true external experts appointed to the roles with the agreement of all sides, much like the US system, but with less emphasis on “swamp” inhabitants. Politicians should look after the passage of policies through the legislature and the needs of their electorates. That’s it. For anything else, they are useless.