The centrality and necessity of identity politics in The Gambia


By Sulayman Njie

In my canon of political science, a lot is placed in the supremacy, centrality and, to a certain extent, the idealization of political debates and logical conclusions. For example, a good many political scientists, analysts, and observers tend to idealize that, somehow, the best policy arguments in political debates will appear right to everyone. Thus, voters would choose the best candidate based on the winning argument. This is, arguably, the biggest fallacy in politics. This is not how people function. This is not how people react to politics. This is not how people view and digest politics. People are attuned to the drama, fear, and, in a hyper-polarized environment?—?put on steroids by FaceBook and WhatsApp?—?the divisions become more sensationalized and ominous.

A functioning political system requires several things including, but not limited to, organization, grouping of people, and interest groups to push agendas, interests and persons to administer the affairs of the state, localities, and municipalities. In this process, especially in the West, these groupings take place in the form of ideological politics?—?the Left and the Right. In the West, specifically the United States, these organizations, groupings, and interests have morphed into identity politics. Put simply, they have become “tribal” in their orientations. In “tribal” politics, “othering” and winning become supreme and central. Politics becomes a sport?—?a pep rally?—?victory for the home team becomes the rallying cry?—?identity being the organizing creed. The winners see themselves as such and the losers would have to fight back?—?because they need to win or else face annihilation from their enemies?—?the other “tribe”.


In the case of The Gambia, political organizing and interests have also become “tribal”?—?ethno-linguistic groupings. Many would argue that this has always been the case, while others would argue that Jammeh started it. Notwithstanding, in a political system that has been erected on the cult of the person and patronage?—?mostly bereft of ideas and policies?—?how, exactly, do we expect people to organize and marshall their interests and vote? The question, in my view, is not whether people are proponents or opponents of candidates mostly based on ethnolinguistic affiliations. The question is, if they do not organize and vote for, or against, candidates based on ethnolinguistic affiliations?—?how do you expect them to vote in a political space that is bereft of ideas and policy debates?—?rife with mudslinging and diatribes? Is it “tribalist” for someone to vote for, or against, a candidate mostly based on ethnolinguistic affiliations? If so, how? We need to be specific. Seems like everyone throws around the “tribalist” word like a piece of candy nowadays.

It is scary, I know, but any political system?—?absent one-party states?—?requires diverse interest groups to organize and participate in the political process. In our case, the interest groups are not divided among Left or Right, or Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, or Pro-Brexit or Anti-Brexit. Today, our interest groups are divided among ethnolinguistic lines. Lest we forget that in a democratic society, people can vote for anyone of their choosing and no matter how we detest their choices, their choices are their choices and, in 2021, a plethora of Gambians are going to vote for, or against, a candidate because of their ethnolinguistic affiliations.

I just hope that Gambians of all ethnolinguistic groups can soon admit our common humanity, but also our shared frailty and begin the hard work of addressing our diversity?—?especially in politics?—?in healthy ways in our own households, platforms, and communities. Because, folks, the notion that we are all one and that we all intermarry, and that we are all Gambians is not going to save us from a potential post-election macabre. I have said this before, but remember that generations of Gambians to come will one day, ask of us living, what have we done with our time? Hopefully, we will answer that we have mastered our destiny?—?that we have contributed to the peaceful advancement of The Gambia. That, in essence, should be our summons to “The Gambia ever true”. May we, the citizenry, appeal to each other’s better angels, and may peace be.

A better Gambia is ours for the asking?—