The massive reaction to my short piece “Easier said than done” shows that many Gambians are concerned about our seeming fall back into the bad old days of intolerance, blind support for and uncritical obeisance to the parties and leaders we follow. There is evidently a sizeable middle ground of Gambian public opinion that recognizes the gravity of our continuing culture of intolerance and fanatical political jingoism. I have been asked whether intolerance is a Gambian or an African phenomenon, and some reactions to my article on Facebook have suggested that intolerance has become part of our Gambian political DNA. Thankfully, this is political and not biological DNA and can therefore be extracted and discarded through conscious determination and right action.
To those who ask whether intolerance is a Gambian or African phenomenon, the obvious answer is certainly not. Intolerance, in all its various manifestations is common to all civilizations across time and space. Every society has its fair share of intolerance, whether of the religious, ethnic, racial or political or other kind. What they all have in common is that wherever any form of intolerance exists, it grows out of a specific historical context. And it will have been either initiated and/or perpetrated by a particular leadership, either individual or group.
Community elders afflicted with ethnic or racial intolerance will inevitably propagate a culture of intolerance among members of their communities or their followers. The same goes for religious and political intolerance. The election of a racist president in a racially diverse country inevitably leads to a spike in the level of racial intolerance in that country. If a religious bigot is elected or makes himself the leader of a country, that country inevitably sees a spike in religious intolerance.
And if a politically intolerant leadership presides over the affairs of a country for any significant length of time, political intolerance spikes in that country. Intolerant regimes of the sort we just kicked out breed cultures of intolerance. And since intolerance breeds intolerance, significant segments of a country’s society under a dictatorial regime are likely to exhibit intolerance in a post-dictatorship period. This is true of both supporters and opponents of the former dictatorship.
The troubling levels of hostility and intolerance we see within and among Gambian communities today is therefore a manifestation of the culture of intolerance propagated by the Jammeh dictatorship. From the protestations of ethnic superiority or the claims of ethnic marginalization, to the practice of shouting down people expressing contrary political opinions or supporting parties different from ours, what we see in today’s Gambia is the continuation of a culture of ethnic bigotry and political intolerance propagated by the ousted dictator.
The danger is that if we are not careful, we will be propagating and promoting the very bad things Jammeh was propagating and promoting – ethnic bigotry and political intolerance – not because we want to propagate or promote them, but because we are not making the conscious decision and taking practical steps to reverse the trends in ethnic animosity and political intolerance he set in motion. We will be doing his dirty work for him if we do not recognize that this culture of intolerance is his legacy and tackle it head on by publicly addressing and exposing it for what it is.
Our current government, which has the means to reach a national audience in the most effective ways, needs to recognize that the problem of intolerance is as serious or even more serious than any economic problem we have. The economy and the chronic problem of water and power shortages are serious challenges that the government must deal with. So are our pothole-ridden streets, our poor educational facilities, and the cult of personality that infests the ranks of our public services. But over and above all of these, the government must take practical steps to counter the politics of hostility and nurture a culture of peaceful politics and respect for dissenting opinion in our country. The government must recognize the urgency of this situation because left unaddressed and uncorrected, ethnic bigotry and political intolerance could eventually lead to open conflict within our society which, in turn, will destroy whatever economic gains we might have made as a nation.
But since the government is only one of several leading actors in our national politics, individual party leaders need to address their followers and supporters on this issue of crucial national importance. We call upon President Barrow to talk to the Gambian people in general and to immediately put in place institutions, mechanisms and processes well equipped to effectively neutralize this culture of hostile politics before it consumes our country. We also call upon our individual party leaders – Mr. Ousainou Darboe, Mr. Hamat Bah, Mr. Mai Fatty, Mr. Mamma Kandeh, Mr. Halifa Sallah, Mr. Henry Gomez and Mr. Omar Jallow – to address their party supporters on the urgent need for political tolerance in The Gambia.
For while all these parties might have different agendas and are desirous of taking majority leadership of our country, they all have a stake in and a responsibility for maintaining the peace and stability of our country. They must make it clear to their supporters and followers that their party names and the concepts they embody are not for mere show and propaganda. All parties have a word or phrase in their names suggesting high moral ground and their desire to lead a healthy democratic polity. Party leaders must make this a reality by impressing upon their followers the need to honor the ideals espoused in their party names.
We must recognize that the struggle against dictatorship does not end with the fall of a dictator. Rather, the fall of a dictator marks the beginning of a practical struggle against the unhealthy legacies of the fallen dictatorship on one hand and the nurturing of a democratic culture on the other. The two processes are inextricably interwoven. We cannot nurture a healthy democratic polity if we do not actively address and neutralize the unhealthy legacies of the fallen dictatorship.
These include the dysfunctional economic and institutional infrastructure which enabled a dysfunctional political regime to operate, but also the culture of hostile politics we now encounter on a daily basis as we shout each other down, hurl insults at each other, call each other ugly names and even threaten each other with death over political differences. We must rise up to the challenge of nurturing the Gambian renaissance that started with Jammeh’s ouster. If we continue down this path of hostile politics and uncritical obeisance to our political parties and leaders, we must know that we are doing Jammeh’s dirty work for him.
And much like a devil in the shadows of our nation, he would be gleefully licking his lips and smirking with malignant pleasure at his continued grip over our national consciousness and the future of our country. If ethnic and political hostilities are allowed to fester and spread in The Gambia, we will not only be perpetuating Jammeh’s unhealthy political legacy, we will be setting ourselves up for collective national failure which, God forbid, could well manifest itself in the outbreak of physical violence. We just cannot allow that to happen. The struggle therefore continues not against dictatorship per se, but against the propagation of a dictatorial culture in our body politic.
Meanwhile, we must also brace ourselves for the task of dismantling another one of Jammeh’s ugly legacies – his “shadow state” – the parallel institutions and individuals he created and used to bypass official channels in order to exploit our financial resources and further his own personal selfish political interests. While the revelations of the Janneh commission are mind-boggling in their extremity, they only expose the economic aspects of Jammeh’s shadow state. One dreads to imagine what will emerge when the dark aspects of his political shadow state are revealed through the proposed truth, reconciliation and reparations commission.