By Lamin Saho
It’s been almost two years since The Gambia peacefully booted out a dictator through a democratic election. This act alone catapulted this small country on to the world stage, and overnight became a darling of the world and with that came lot of goodwill from the international community, including the multilateral agencies such as the UNDP. But one message that I keep hearing from all these agencies is that for The Gambia to make a leap into a fully fledged democracy, the onus lies on its people to unite in diversity and undertake the rewarding, but difficult task of nation-building in the context of political pluralism. This would require us all to tighten our belts and nurture the democracy we all yearn for.
On the eve of the official inauguration of Mr Adama Barrow, ushering us in to the new dispensation I did point out to a colleague that we are about to usher in a very difficult period, given that democracy though the best system of governance so far, is very difficult in practical terms. I based this assertion on the experience gathered as a student in the former USSR, where I witnessed firsthand the trials and tribulations as people soldier on with the task of transiting from authoritarianism to democracy.
The experience was very insightful and did provide me the opportunity to take a long hard look at democracy and the efforts of a people to come to terms with this thing called democracy following the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the experiment in socialism – at least the Soviet model of socialism. I gathered some lasting impressions that serve as an inspiration for me to pen a series of articles published by major newspapers entitled “Transition from authoritarianism to Democracy – Another perspective and lessons for the new Gambia”.
In these articles, I did try to highlight the challenges of transition to democracy from a practical perspective in the areas of good governance, security sector reform, the role of information and the media in general and the need for all inclusive and participatory democracy, where everybody counts. I did emphasize the need for the current authorities to pay serious attention to bread-and-butter issues, given that the democracy dividend needs to be felt soonest rather than later. I did point out that the foot soldiers and the vulnerable segments of society who were decisive in effecting the change through their vote care less about the trappings of power and the nitty-gritties of governance, but want their bread and butter issues addressed. I must admit that since then a lot of water has passed under the bridge and serious and tangible efforts are being deployed by those in power to address the needs of the citizenry in a democratic context. The National Development Plan has been rolled out, but I have the impression that tackling the bread and butter issues is a work in progress and the bag of rice and price of basic commodities remain high.
The other key issue was the need to institute serious and holistic reforms as these relate to the civil service and the security sectors, given that dictatorships affect all levels of society and given that the security sector is part of society and very sensitive, particular attention has to be paid to it. Suffice to say that no need for purges, but vigilance is the key word as loyalists are still in the system and might try to sabotage the new order. The shootings in Faraba Bantang could have been avoided with a bit of vigilance.
The other issue is the need for candour and free and correct flow of information as post-authoritarian societies are usually very information hungry, thus the need for the new authorities to communicate often to the public to explain the new dispensation and that democracy does not mean anarchy and rights do come with responsibilities. Major steps have been taken to address this critical area at the highest level and both the print and electronic media have risen to the challenge and are revisiting content to reflect the new democratic order. A spokesman for the Government has been appointed to explain government policy and programmes in a more coordinated and organized fashion.
In the foreign policy front, the policy of isolationism has been reversed and The Gambia is gradually taking her rightful place in the comity of nations. This is manifested by the brisk relationship that has been forged at both bilateral and multilateral levels and the icing on the cake in my view include our return to the Commonwealth family. Invariably, The Gambia is on the move in its transition to democracy.
However, a disturbing trend has been observed and this is the rise of hate speech and tribalism mostly using the trendy social media platform. For this small country of less than two million people, where everyone tends to be related to the other, this is suicidal and I urge the relevant authorities to come up with the right measures to curb these unfortunate ills which are slowly but surely creeping in – the hangover from 22 years of authoritarianism. We need to nip these ills in the bud otherwise there is tendency to derail our forward march to a more inclusive and democratic society. Lest we forget, even the dictator did point out the need for peace and stability as a sine qua non for progress and development.
It has been emphasised in another piece that “authorities of the New Gambia can capitalise on the potential of the TV and the media in general to influence opinion for the better, shape perspectives for the better, and sensitise the general population as they embark on the difficult task of governing in the context of political pluralism. The new Gambia is faced with a myriad of emerging national constraints ranging from social, economic, security challenges including tribal and religious bigotry and all the ills related to post authoritarian socio-political dispensations”. I want to believe that the media has a crucial role to play in bridging the gap between the governed and the governors in a noble mission to convey a balanced narrative of the burning issues of the day.
As the outgoing UN resident coordinator in The Gambia, Ms Ade Mamoyanyane Lokoetje reminded us during her farewell statement, “A nation is built by its people. Gambians have to work together to make sure that the peace that we have initiated is nurtured. We must ensure that it is sustained and stays with us forever. Peace is not easy to build and once we built it, it must be nurtured in order for it not to disintegrate”.
Therefore we must use “every tool in the box” to address these issues, especially tribal bigotry, which in my humble view has not been properly addressed since independence. According to the editorial of a leading newspaper, The Standard, “It is time to rid the country of tribal bigotry which has the potential to destabilise our nation and instill in every one the values that matter and celebrate diversity of our people.” Lest we forget, The Gambia is the Smiling Coast of Africa and our tourism brand hinges on the peaceful disposition and the conviviality of the Gambian people, who are very friendly and ever ready to share with visitors.
Lamin Saho is a tourism and marketing consultant