For the first time in the political life of Gambians, change of government through elections took place on 1 December 2016. Until then the governance system of the country was a mere façade of democracy during the 1st Republic to be followed by an outright dictatorship in the 2nd Republic. Hence when Gambians decided on December 1, the cry was for a system change. The ruling Coalition today that was in opposition then had also said their objective, as stated in their MoU and Manifesto was aimed at a system change. But what is a system change?
Governance is a system. This system is founded on and run by the combined functioning of laws, institutions, processes, practices and people. The system concerns power and decision-making and the participation of the citizenry to determine the management of public resources and national affairs. When that system or structure responds to the protection of human rights and satisfaction of human needs, then the system is said to be good governance, otherwise what will prevail is bad governance hence dictatorship.
For 22 years the Gambia was under dictatorship. Dictatorship is a political system in which the rule of law is subverted as state institutions are weakened while legal and official processes are circumvented for the benefit of the dictator and his accomplices. Dictatorship kills human rights and disempowers citizens so that the Dictator is beyond accountability. Dictatorship therefore is the personalization of state power and resources by one person. Dictatorship systematically abuses laws, institutions, processes, practices and people to maintain the system of oppression.
Therefore the goal of our decision on December 1 is to bring about that structural change in the laws, institutions, processes, practices and personnel of the state machinery in the overall management and governance of the Gambia. That is to ensure a complete overthrow of dictatorship and the ushering in of a democratic system of governance. Hence December 1 was not just about regime change.
In that regard, the transformation from dictatorship to democracy requires, first of all changes in the laws of the Gambia. The country needs a new constitution as well as amendments or repeal or creation of other laws. For example, we need to amend the Criminal Procedure Code to remove bad provisions such as ‘giving false information to a public officer’ that limit fundamental freedoms such as the right to petition. We need to repeal the Public Order Act to protect freedom of association, assembly, demonstration and expression. We need to also create a Freedom of Information Act to ensure that citizens get true, relevant and timely information from public institutions hence make the government open, honest and accountable. We also need a National Bill of Rights in order to further protect human rights at all times.
In our institutions, we need to review their functions to make them more responsive, efficient and accountable. For example, we need to review the NIA to bring it under parliamentary scrutiny to prevent abuse and waste of resources. In terms of practices, we need to stop public institutions from buying newspaper pages just to send a season’s greetings to the president. Such practices are a waste of resources that also perpetuate personality cult and dictatorship. We need to adopt new practices that strengthen transparency and accountability such as a weekly press conference and timely release of public information. Public officers must declare their assets and continue to do so every two years as required by the constitution. GRTS needs to create programs to amplify the voices of all Gambians.
There are some institutions we can also create such as a National Human Rights Commission, a National Anti-Corruption Commission as well as National Commission for the Prevention of Torture. We also need a National Media Commission to promote professionalism, accountability and the development of the media. There are many existing institutions that need strengthening in all ways.
There is need to also reform some institutions such as the Ombudsman, the Labour Office, Women’s Bureau as well as the Department of Social Welfare to expand and strengthen their mandate to further protect rights of workers as well as children, girls and women in all sectors of the economy and society.
One of the most crucial institutions to bring about not just system change but also nurture a culture of democracy in our society is the National Council for Civic Education. They need immense support in all ways in order to lead a robust civic awareness and empowerment campaign across the country. We need a law to make GRTS and all private and community radio stations to dedicate an amount of airtime to NCCE daily or weekly to sensitize the population.
In other words, we need to do a review of the entire state structure so that we reposition, restructure, separate or close down existing institutions or create new ones. For example, I would have abolished the Ministry of Information altogether and transform it into a Media Commission. I would have also separated the Department of Social Welfare from the Ministry of Health. In that way we can better focus, make better use of resources and directly address the needs of the citizens.
In terms of processes, we need to make the police realize that not every incident requires arrest or detention or bail. They must employ innovative means of addressing crime such as the use of community policing techniques among others. Police and military checkpoints everyday and everywhere must be abolished while we equip and train the police better to combat crime. We must also ease or simplify the various processes in registering businesses or obtaining various public services such as utility or accessing justice among others. When processes are long and cumbersome, they become more expensive which means bribery also becomes a part of them. This kills efficiency and accountability.
In terms of personnel, we need to institute and enforce checks and balances within the public sector. The civil service must be based on meritocracy and stop politicizing it. We also need to strengthen performance appraisals in public institutions in order to link promotions, incentives, training and other benefits to performance. Sycophancy, patronage and favouritism must be fought tooth and nail in order to create an efficient civil service without which the country cannot move forward.
For that matter, we do not expect that Barrow will bring back those prominent individuals who aided and abetted dictatorship inside his government. We must not convince ourselves that the Gambia has a reconciliation issue. We do not. We face a truth and justice issue. Citizens who deliberately entrenched dictatorship on our people cannot and must not be brought back to run our society again. They had a choice like everyone else and they decided to support tyranny against our people. On what justification should we therefore engage them?
In that regard, it is also not enough to just appoint new people. Rather we need individuals with progressive minds and vision. If we bring in individuals who still harbour the same backward conservative ideas then we will still be in the old system. We need Gambians with critical thinking who wish to see real change in our society. Thus Barrow needs to make sure before he appoints a new person to ask that person to tell him what is his or her vision to transform the system in that institution and the Gambia as a whole? This should form part of the performance appraisal of that person. For example there are still scores of top public and security officers who do not believe in human rights or who have no idea about how to bring about systemic change or who do not even believe in transparency and accountability. Such people pull us back.
On 1 December 2016 our verdict was to change the system of governance so that the sanctity of citizenship stands supreme for the sovereignty of the Gambia resides in no one except We, the People. Therefore Barrow has a legal, political and moral duty to ensure that all the laws, institutions, processes, practices and personnel of the State are geared towards expanding, satisfying and protecting the rights, needs and dignity of the Gambian citizen.
Without a system change, then it would mean we only changed one government for another but maintaining the same system. Let Barrow not allow partisan interests and political ambitions make him delay or derail the process of system change. It will come back to haunt him sooner or later.
Those who support Barrow and those who work with him must advise, guide, support, and insist that he threads on the path of system change. That is his legacy for which if he succeeds, Gambians of today and generations yet unborn shall speak glowingly of a great president we once had called Adama Barrow.
But if Barrow fails to effect system change, or stifles our efforts for a system change or does a half-hearted system change, let him know that Gambians of today and generations yet unborn shall also come to say one day that indeed there was once a very useless and bad president called Adama Barrow. He will then become the symbol of bad example only to join the league of such bad men as Yahya Jammeh, Idi Amin or Mobutu and many others.
History is recording.