We demand freedom! We cherish democracy! We aspire for progress! We need to live healthy lives! We want economic growth and development! The demands of the inhabitants of the smiling coast remain the same after fifty-three years of independence. For more than fifty years since the British left the shores of our young beautiful nation, we are yet to achieve these dreams. While they seem insurmountable, yet they are easy to achieve. Actualizing them for our people were, and still are, the reasons we suffered death, torture, exile, harassment, intimidation, humiliation, and became refugees in distant land as the list goes on.
We share these dreams with many nations. Some of them made progress in turning the dream into reality. The question is: why is The Gambia still lagging behind? Why are these aspirations still just dreams? Why, after more than fifty years we seem to be worse than we were under colonialism? Perhaps we weren’t ready to govern ourselves, thus, asking for independence in 1965 was a premature and unconscionable move. Maybe our founding fathers failed to establish strong democratic principles and a sense of national pride and identity. It could be that we forewent the vision of our founding fathers, dismantled the foundations they laid, and thus, we are the creators of our own doom. I don’t know the answers to these questions. I don’t believe there is someone out there who knows the right answers to all of the questions raised, or if even there is a single right answer. Certainly, people would give different answers to each question and the basis for their answers will differ. I am not attempting to answer the questions raised above, rather I will make a bold statement. We have failed to achieve our dreams as a nation because from the onset we failed to establish a genuine rule of law regime in our nation. One reason we could not establish a nation of rule of law is the mindset we have with respect to governance.
A majority of Gambians believe that The Gambia will never attain real freedom, democracy, progress, a good healthcare system, or economic growth and development if a “bad person” becomes our President. There is strong belief that only when we chose a “good person” to become our President that we can attain the aforementioned. Thus, the common belief in The Gambia is that a “good person” is the solution to the current woes for not establishing rule of law. Well, I have news for you, this belief is nothing but a myth. There is ample evidence in Africa, America, Asia and Europe that counters this belief. I will not delve into who is a “good person” and “bad person”. I will, however, state that people choose presidents with the belief that they are “good” people. No nation will intentionally choose a “bad person” to be their President. Any elected president that became a dictator was not elected to office as such, rather is transformed into a tyrant after being inaugurated into office.
For example, some people who knew Yahya Jammeh before he became president never called him a monster. They said he was kind, honest, and humble. Many witnessed Jammeh calling for economic progress, a good life for everyone, national development, and an end to long-term rule as he said Jawara stayed for too long. These are not statements a “bad person” will say or even think, right? What happened? Well, I leave you with that question and a simple answer. I know for a fact that being a “good” or a “bad” person is not a guarantee that citizens will enjoy human rights, freedom, a good healthcare system, democracy, progress, and economic growth and development. The only thing that will guarantee these benefits for every citizen —irrespective of one’s status, ethnicity, political affiliation, religious belief, sexual orientation, and nationality — is the Rule of Law. I will borrow Thomas Carothers’s instructive take on this from his piece entitled ‘The Revival of The Rule of Law’ where he said:
The rule of law makes possible individual rights, which are at the core of democracy. A government’s respect for the sovereign authority of the people and a constitution depends on its acceptance of law. Democracy includes institutions and processes that, although beyond the immediate domain of the legal system, are rooted in it. Basic elements of a modern market economy such as property rights and contracts are founded on the law and require competent third-party enforcement. Without the rule of law, major economic institutions such as corporations, banks, and labor unions would not function, and the government’s many involvements in the economy-regulatory mechanisms, tax systems, customs structures, monetary policy, and the like-would be unfair, inefficient, and opaque.
What is this desirous and savior called the rule of law? The concept rule of law is one of the most misused and abused in the world. It means different things to different people depending on who is using it – lawyers, politicians, economists, or political scientists. A concise and precise definition of rule of law that would appeal to many people is propounded by the World Justice Project. The World Justice Projects asserts that the rule of law is a system in which four principles are upheld. These principles are:
1. Accountability: The government and its officials and agents as well as individuals and private entities are accountable under the law;
2. Just Laws: The laws are clear, publicized, stable, and just; are applied evenly; and protect fundamental rights, including security of person and property;
3. Open Government: The process by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is accessible, fair, and efficient; and
4. Accessible and Impartial Dispute Resolution: Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.
These four elements must be present in a system before it can be called a rule of law regime. The Gambia has never experienced these four principles concurrently since she attained independence from the British. Not during the thirty years of Jarawa’s Presidency, obviously not under the twenty-two years of Jammeh’s regime, and certainly not under the Barrow’s administration. Almost everyone will agree with my assertion that these four universal principles weren’t present under Jammeh’s regime; some will argue that the Jawara administration showed glimpses; and there will certainly be divided opinions with respect to the Barrow administration. Not surprisingly, supporters of Barrow have mounted the defense that it is too early to determine whether this administration will operate on the basis of the rule of law. My response to that is unless you are naive or you are enjoying the “national cake”, the evidence so far points in the direction that the administration is not operating on the basis of the rule of law.
The reform policies of the current administration are almost always geared in the wrong direction. With all the hopes, aspirations, and promises of the “New Gambia”, we seem to be choosing the wrong priorities again. I have been asking myself, as Gambians have been too, why are we always hitting the wrong targets? It is due to ignorance, or corruption, or political cynicism? The truth is, I don’t know. Thomas Carothers, a great scholar, once said that the primary obstacles to rule of law are not technical or financial, but political and human. Donors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into rule-of-law reforms, but outside aid is no substitute for the will to reform. Genuine and sustainable reforms must be homegrown.
In The Gambia, most of our leaders seem to either believe differently, or busy trying to score political points, or worst still they are simply just unqualified to lead us. Almost all the policies this administration is pursuing are geared toward donor-driven policies and projects. Policies are crafted around what donors want to see, not what will address the short-term and long-term problems of the average Gambian. The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), the Janneh Commission, increasing the staff in embassies, establishing a Adama and Fatou Bah foundations, and creating the Barrow Youth Movements, and countless workshops are the wrong priorities over immediate legal reforms such as freedom of information laws, amending or repealing bad laws like the Information and Communication Act, the Public Order Act, education reform, and health services reforms to mention just a few.
Most of the crucial existing bad laws and inefficient policies that have failed our nation continued to be in force and enforced. I will end by saying that the desirability of the rule of law in “The New Gambia” is clear, but the government seems to be interested only in consolidating power and popularity merely for its sake.