The Presidential Debate: The absentee 4 and how the leaders who rose to the challenge fared

The Presidential Debate: The absentee 4 and how the leaders who rose to the challenge fared

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There is little doubt that the collapse of the former regime’s vote in 2016 and the subsequent rupture of what was the coalition, precipitated a shift in the tectonic plates of The Gambia’s political landscape in ways never seen before. By all accounts, such state of affairs makes it much more difficult to say with any respectable degree of certainty, how the marbles will land come election day. Naturally, one would expect such uncertainty to generate a spirit of collaboration among opposition parties and candidates, something which has been and perhaps still is a mainstream view within certain quarters.

However, as 4th December draws closer, this logic is increasingly melting out into a myth, albeit still too blissful to let go of by some. In reality, not only is there reluctance for any collaboration among the opposition, there is strangely a higher drive among the opposition to overtly go after each other in ways which they do not pursue the incumbent’s NPP and its satellites. Why this is, is perhaps a subject for another day. For now though, sticking with the above theme, after last week Saturday’s debate, any belief that a merger of any description was possible between Halifa Sallah’s PDOIS and independent candidate Essa Faal, would have certainly been vapourised by the fiery exchanges which ensued.

Quite clearly, the object of the debate could surely not have been to offer certainty either way as regards the possibility of collaboration among the candidates. Or maybe it actually was, and the absentee four candidates, uncomfortable with the idea, made it a self-serving duty to plant themselves as far away up country as geographically possible, to quietly make the point. The leaders among the six invitees, Sallah and Faal nonetheless turned up, but only for similar sentiment to emerge from their exchanges — with the former’s projected in much more subtle terms than the latter’s. Well, this is at least the sarcastic version and I could perfectly see how such characterisation may be conceived as painting a trivialised picture about a very serious subject — so levity aside, there is every reason to believe that the absentee four skived the debate because answering questions about their plans for government is something which they would rather avoid, unless it is by friendly media, paid airtime to ask benign questions of usually questionable journalistic value.

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Credit to Sallah and Faal for putting themselves through a challenge which their absentee four opponents clearly and admittedly lack the leadership tools to muster before.

On the substance of the exchanges between the two on the day, Sallah and Faal’s gambits were such that it was quite clear, that neither was going to meet the other’s demand to conform to the other’s concept of a political debate. ‘Pacifist’ Sallah appeared as unprepared for a confrontational exchange as policy-light Faal was unprepared to address a policy-heavy interaction, with each coming across as being visibly irritated by the other’s persistence to address them on their own terms. Under the circumstances, as the rest of the debate later proved, a convergence became a structural impossibility, and no wonder, the gap between the positions of the duo grew wider and wider as the clock ticked. Like Sallah’s debate with Dr Ismaila Ceesay of Citizens’ Alliance few months back, this debate revealed the existence of far more differences in the political thinking of the duo than anticipated by the vast majority of the public, which divergence it could be argued mathematically shores up the electoral position of the incumbent.

I must say that I was quite struck by how strongly Faal glamourised his admiration of capitalism but without advancing any capitalist policy positions: the financing of every single policy proposal he advanced was predicated on state funding and for public utility rather than for a profit motive. Nothing could be more socialist than this. Either Faal misconstrues the concept of capitalism as an economic ideology or, he simply adopted it as a bespoke device for the purposes of the debate, given the profile of his opponent. I suspect it is more the latter and although controversial, it was very effective at forcing Sallah to extinguish a substantial part of his allocated time defending against what he saw as a mischaracterisation of PDOIS’ economic ideology being communist and so forth rather than unpicking the holes in his opponent’s policy positions. Faal’s controversial approach was so effective, it threw Sallah off from capitalising on a wide-open goal: that every policy advanced by his self-professed capitalist opponent, was socialist in every sense of the word.

I would like to think that I am not alone in thinking that Sallah’s policy position on ending the use of handcuffs deserved further scrutiny which never came. Not from Faal, not from the moderators whose moderation I must say was top notch. On Faal’s part, I would put his oversight down to his tact to over-focusing on forcing Sallah down a channel to tactfully preoccupy him with defending against being mischaracterised a Communist and so forth rather than focus his scrutiny on forensically unpicking specificities in Sallah’s policy positions. Faal’s controversial tactics, although very effective in other areas as earlier stated, missed him a wide-open goal to effectively probe Sallah on this one in his rebuttals.

Personally, if what Sallah means is the abolition of the misuse of handcuffs as a weapon of coercion, abuse and pain compliance, something which is a routine malpractice by Gambia law enforcement authorities, then I agree. But, if at all what he means is a complete abolition of the use of handcuffs, then I would disagree because, contrary to popular belief, the primary use of handcuffs is to ensure that the person being handcuffed does not pose a danger to themself and those around them. To offer a classic operational example, unless a suspect in custody and in transit who is so inclined is placed in handcuffs, there is little to stop them reaching for the door latch, swinging for the driver or even pulling to engage the handbrake while the vehicle is still moving, putting themselves, the other vehicle occupants and road users at serious risk of harm or even death. There is certainly a need to train law enforcement on the safe, lawful and responsible use of handcuffs as personal safety policing devices, but I’m not sure what societal desires abolishing their use as advanced by Sallah would be responding to. I am certainly not going as far as suggesting that an abolition policy is not practical but, what I am indeed saying is, its practicality and essence requires further explanation which unfortunately wasn’t possible during the debate. I hope this further explanation would be forthcoming in due course. 

I was amazed how both candidates failed to effectively exploit the absence of their absentee four opponents against them, and to their own advantage; this was there for the taking all throughout the debate. Whether an intentional and conscious omission or an oversight, not pursuing this was a political misjudgment.

Without any doubt, the public’s benefit of the policy positions of candidates before any elections is a very important part of free, fair, transparent and credible elections, but equally important is the candidates’ resilience both of which were amicably put to test during the debate. So without descending into the infantile business of expressing this in winner or loser terms, if the object of Faal’s tactics was to prevent Sallah characteristically focusing the entirety of the debate on his terms and on policy, he would have left feeling very pleased with the results and, if Sallah’s reference to Faal’s July 1994 prosecutorial role in his political trial was meant to discredit Faal, he would have also left the stage equally pleased with the results. Overall, in the context of the broader political atmosphere of the time, it was a very robust and high-voltage exchange albeit very productive and beneficial to voters and the wider public. In hindsight, the absence of the ‘absentee four’ was after-all a blessing in disguise.

The passionate show of affection by the duo to each other after such a fiery exchange is something which one could not justly address this subject without commending. This was a mark of exemplary leadership on the part of both Sallah and Faal which one would hope that the ‘absentee four’ would’ve learnt a thing or two from.

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