As a country, we are going through some trying and interesting times; together we are searching for inspiration, seeking guidance and yearning for leadership. Unfortunately, our country has not yet formed the habit of undergoing complex and meaningful examination of its foundations, its values and its institutions. For this reason, we are not in a position to dig deep within ourselves, take careful observations and focus on repairing our nation’s soul.
During such trying times, it is common for us Africans to invoke and seek the wisdom of our great ancestors. And for this piece it is a quote from the great Afro-Caribbean philosopher, Frantz Fanon, author of the classic The Wretched of the Earth that assists us in such a focus, it reads:
“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity.”
The writings of genuine revolutionaries inspire us and resonate in our collective memories because beyond providing inspiration, such writings set benchmarks against which future conduct and actions may be judged. Our mission must be to understand that the consciousness of the people and their active participation as agents of change in their own lives is the key to democratic transformation, the focus of our passions and energies must remain the fundamental transformation of our society.
The struggle for the humanisation of society and for the full realisation of human rights has always been an important dimension of the broader struggle to make our brief lives on earth matter to the people we live with. With some variation, this is the cornerstone of the policy statements of every organisation ever convened to mobilise for the freedom of humankind:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness”.
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
The two quotations are from the American Declaration of Independence and the Manifesto of the Communist Party: both are political ads for a revolution; both were authored by great students of the European Enlightenment: Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx & Frederick Engels. Both documents contain succinct theories of transformation and theories of the role of Government. The main difference between the two propositions is that one is premised on the individual as unit of society autonomous and unique for his own sake; whilst the other is anchored on the primacy of community as having a better claim for investment, and that the individual’s happiness is inescapably tied to the happiness of the society.
These commonalities in the pedigree of the two ideas have proved in practice to be antagonistic in the two republics where the theories were applied in full measure namely the USA and USSR. The USSR was dismantled more than thirty years ago while the USA is the dominant global economic power nearly 250 years after the Declaration was made.
Remarkably, China’s extraordinary and peaceful rise to the number 2 slot in the global pecking order of power within the lifetimes of the post-independence generation of African leaders must give pause to anyone wishing to discredit the ideas of Karl Marx. For the seventy years of its existence the Chinese Communist Party has been a force for good for the Chinese people even if not entirely good for Africans. The transformation of China from a mainly rural agrarian nation into a mega polis with gleaming skyscrapers, with astonishing engineering, the feats in construction of bridges and social infrastructure in remarkably short period has not been without blemish. But then nor was American pre-eminence achieved without the ‘original sin’ of slavery.
Considering that it took a Civil War that killed more than six hundred thousand people to abolished slavery in the USA; and that it took more than a hundred years of struggle for African Americans to have their ”Unalienable rights” recognised but not respected to this day by white supremacists like the supporters of former President Trump. The elevated prose of Jefferson sounds very hollow to the world and most African Americans.
However, if it were merely a struggle for human rights sloganeering, we could have declared “mission accomplished’ in 2017 when we had a ‘New Gambia’ when we booted out that vile dictator. But in many important respects, the blue print of governance the 1997 Constitution left by the dictator is by many accounts a flawed document, as a consequence, it has not brought about citizens engagement or empowerment. As it concentrates absolute power in the Executive branch of government, effectively weakening the other branches of government, the Legislative and Judicial branches.
The issue therefore is as leaders how do we measure the success of our mission of building and sustaining democratic constitutional government. Is it in the number of things we say freely without getting arrested or the opportunities we create for the people to lift themselves out of poverty? Is it in the number of government officials who are now chauffeur driven around town in expensive 4wheel drives?
I think the more appropriate measure ought to be seen in the profile of poverty that nauseatingly manifests itself in the Gambia. The harsh and ugly truth that confronts our generation is that more than six years after the coming into office of the ‘New Government’ and the restoration of democratic governance, the everyday lives of the majority of our people remain as hopeless and as filled with despair as before.
Perhaps there is something consistently and fundamentally wrong in our understanding and communication of the message of constitutional government and the rule of law? Perhaps the people have been lulled into a belief that government exist for its own sake and glory and not for solving the problems of the times? What is the meaning of the rule of law in our time?
What is the use of democratic government? We should ask these questions because this is a moment when we are searching for guidance from ourselves. Perhaps these questions afford us the time to reflect, to take stock of the plight of unemployed youths and irregular migrant, to understand why we are witnessing the profound apathy and massive civic disengagement of our people.
We must understand that in these trying and interesting times knowing that moments of crises can become moments of opportunity. So let’s be clear our quest should be for a democracy that has a palpable presence in the lives of all of our people. Our determination should be to serve our people and, if this generation does not know our people and we do not know of their struggles and challenges, then government is probably serving only its officials and not the interests of the people.
Therefore, our mission must be to try and understand those gaps that exist between the very best endeavours of our government – in the laws passed, the finances allocated, the policies adopted and the public servants employed – between all of that and the lived realities of our people’s lives that we must discuss the overriding importance of empowerment of our people. The lack of serious debates about the purposes of democratic self-government and the need to build a developmental state in our nation speaks of the level of people’s consciousness, of their misconception of the role of Government, of their limited understanding of empowerment.
Empowerment is about giving the people a stake in our democracy, in making our republic a high-energy democracy. It speaks of a necessary shift from a mere focus on representative democracy of periodic elections to the imperative of a resurgent democracy. What constitutes an energised democracy? A democracy that performs and delivers services for our people in their daily lives but certainly cannot be a democracy of mere lip service or the mere occupation of offices of state and the ability to just talk about accountability probity and transparency.