By Ousman Jassey
The Gambia has experienced its share of evil of totalitarianism for 22 years under a devil leader. This period can be sincerely referred to as “Dark Ages” (1994-2016). She is now enjoying a new found political freedom which can be safely referred to as pseudo-democracy. Despite the relatively great democratic accomplishments we have chalked up on December 1, 2016 against the cruelest dictator in 21st century, compared to most other African countries, our democracy still remains fragile and our challenges have been compounded by the tribal/ethnic divides that seem to threaten the stability of our nascent republic and democracy. The tribal/ethnic politics in The Gambia poses obstacles to the realization of our national stability and democracy. Unfortunately one can say that this has ever been the issue in The Gambia but it came to its highest peak during our Dark Ages under Devil Jammeh’s militancy administration.
For this article, Tribal lineage or ethnicity will be defined simply as a group of people closely related by their shared experiences such as language, common heritage, and common traditions. In The Gambia, Tribal lineage or ethnicity is defined mainly along these lines. There are many tribal or ethnic groups in The Gambia. The largest tribal or ethnic groups are the Mandinka (Mandingo) spread almost all the regions of The Gambia, Fulani located in Upper River Region, Wolof found in Greater Banjul Area and Saloum regions, then you have the minority tribes of Jola found mainly in Foni region but a significant number of them are in Kombos also (which most Gambians believe are economic migrants from Senegalese region of Cassamance and became permanently settlers), Serahule found in Upper River region, Aku or Creole found in Greater Banjul Area. There are many other minority tribes or ethnic groups scattered around various regions of The Gambia.
Research in social science, especially in political science and experiences have shown that tribal or ethnicity is crucial in political matters, since it affects the democratic stability, institutional design, economic growth, and individual wellbeing of nation-states if they see each other as one diverse family and accepts principle of diversity, work together to advance the plight of their various groups. At the same token, tribal or ethnic divisions can also threaten the survival of democratic institutions as well as the legal and economic structures of nations. The politicization of tribal or ethnic divisions destabilizes nation-states thanks to an outbidding effect that results from one or more ethnic parties that may poison the political system, leading to a spiral of extreme bids that destroys competitive politics. Tribal or ethnic political parties usually appeal to voters as champions of the interests of one ethnic category or set of categories to the exclusion of others, and make such appeals (rather than workable public policies) central to canvassing for votes. An ethnic political party may also cater to the interests of more than one ethnic category, but do so only by identifying one common ethnic enemy to be excluded, as former Dictator Jammeh did it to the Mandinka tribe. This tactic is well known as “Policy of divide and rule”.
Realizing the destabilizing tendency of tribal groups or ethnicity in nation-building, the first president, Sir Dawda Jawara, kept tribal or ethnicity influences at bay by ensuring that a Gambian was employed in government institutions as a Gambian irrespective of his or her tribal or ethnic background. Unfortunately, his predecessor Yahya Jammeh (the devil) had not followed his wise decision to ensure tribal or ethnically diverse government (but not surprising because he came to power through illegal means). However, the composition of current Coalition Government of President Ado has been viewed by opposition parties and Freedom Radio of Pa Nderry as tribalistic based, whilst some supporters of the Coalition Government and other concerned Gambians accused President Ado of allowing the enablers of Former President Jammeh to infiltrate his government and eroding the credibility of the Coalition Government. These issues have generated a huge debate among Gambians on the internet and social media. At times, the debate can be very nasty, unhealthy and personal. In fact the debate is contributing to misunderstandings amongst tribal groups in Smiling Coast of Africa.
It is ironic and disappointing some political parties’ leaderships in The Gambia have been preaching about unity but still put a blind eyes and ignore the actions and behaviors of their party militants and it is widely believed that some of them encourage violence, for reasons best known to them. Gambians knew that, violence, tortures, killings and horrible human abuses had been the game of Devil Jammeh. This made him a common enemy but now he had gone and will never be the leader of The Gambia again. So why are some Gambians still believe in and supporting his toxic mentality and behaviors?
The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of the problem of ethnic politics that has characterized our national polity, and of its consequences for our nominal democracy, as well as to offer modest suggestions with a view to creating a stable and democratic system of government. The aim here is not to apportion blame to any particular group or groups, for all are guilty but APRC carries the greatest guilt (because of its parasitic and murderous founding fathers), but rather to awaken people from their political slumber. It is high time we all saw the long-term implications of the ethnopolitical course we are charting for our nation.
The past ethnocractic militancy democracy in The Gambia (1994-2016), where representatives of certain ethnic group hold disproportionate numbers of government positions in relation to the total population of the country, and use them to advance their political and socioeconomic status, was deleterious to the political stability and lasting peace of the country. In fact the mentality developed from that, is one of the causes of the numerous political skirmishes we currently seeing, because people enjoying before at the expenses of Gambians have their sources of income and survival cut off. Like many other African nations, The Gambia under Yahya Jammeh, the beneficiaries of ethnocratic government used their positions to acquire illegal wealth to the neglect of other groups, through bribery, corruption, and kickbacks from government contracts or purchases among other things. These acts are evidenced at the famous Janneh Commission. Example is today, I was watching sittings of Janneh Commission, former AFPRC member, Captain Yankuba Touray was quizzed about the slogans of military junta, “accountability, transparency, and probity” but still behind the scenes, the actions of the junta is absolutely dirty and opaque. To my amazed he confessed to the fact that the actions of the junta were not transparent.
Gambians isn’t this ironic?
Electoral systems that promote the formation of political parties along ethnic lines deepen and heighten ethnic conflicts, while political parties that serve multiple interest groups—not just a few groups of similar political persuasions and ethnic affiliations—endure. In the past so-called democratic dispensation in The Gambia, which tribal or ethnic group or groups control government posts or positions, wealth or fortunes depends on which political party is in power. This situation gives the excluded groups little incentive to support the system. It may also lead to violence since excluded groups are more willing to take risks than the beneficiaries. Another point causing conflicts is many of the former excluded groups during Devil Mansa’s administration are still complaining that the Coalition Government is recycling the former enablers of Devil Jammeh neglecting them and their concerns. They accused these enablers of helping Devil Jammeh to torture, abuse and kill their relatives plus rob the national wealth. Example of such people is Secretary General Fadera under President Ado, who was once a senior ranking officer under Devil Mansa.
In The Gambia, ethnic identities have become political instruments that our politicians use to gain access to power. The highly centralized nature of political power in The Gambia makes the situation even worse, especially in the presidential elections. What ethnicity or tribal favoritism does in the body politic is to help secure an advantage in the competition for power, as tribal groups or ethnicities are employed as social identities to solicit votes. Politicians remind their people that the allocation of resources tends to follow tribal or ethnic lines, and that elections are the time for deciding who will allocate those resources. The Gambian politicians and intellectuals know that most ethnic conflicts in Africa are the direct results of inequities and unequal distribution of resources and positions among the population, yet these same politicians continue to engage in tribal or ethnic politics. For centuries, political theorists have viewed political parties as dangerous, divisive, and subversive of political order and stability, as well as injurious to the public. The situation is worsened when partisan politics is combined with emotional factors like ethnicity.
Nowhere are these fears more clearly realized than in sub-Saharan Africa, where ethnicity is used as the main tool in soliciting or canvassing for votes, instead of good public policy. Michel Foucault said, “For centuries, humanity had been what Aristotle had said we were: a natural animal with a political situation that it had to work out. But now we are an animal whose politics put our very natural survival into question.” This quotation reminds us the Mandinka phrase of “Al-ma Suturo-mayla” (meaning long live the privacy) possibly for mankind. The moral lesson behind this statement is that Politics can make people who would never normally be capable of cruelty to others, become actors who play significant roles in vast schemes of human annihilation. Such people are pure human evils whose only mission is to devour human souls by all means. If the cover of darkness of night is blown, many of them will face ignominy.
Alan Wolfe in his book, “Political Evil,” maintains that the best way to deal with the evils confronting the 21st century people is to stop talking about evil in general and focus rather on political evil in particular. Wolfe defines political evil as “the willful, malevolent, and gratuitous death, destruction and suffering inflicted upon innocent people by the leaders of movements and states in their strategic efforts to achieve realizable objectives.” For two decades the Gambians went through this. While we cannot prevent all evils, we stand a better chance of reducing the amount of political evils, if we can reflect on our political decisions and actions. Some people have argued that The Gambia has passed the stage of ethnic or civil war because we are a religious nation and our founding fathers, religious and community leaders have been praying for peace. Well fellow Gambians that notion is not refuted but I wonder why didn’t those prayers protect us from the vile claws and evil souls of Devil Jammeh and his enablers? Modern men always think of themselves as somehow in a situation better than that of the people before them. Yet theHolocaust would have been unimaginable to people living during the 18th-century European Enlightenment—until it happened. It seems that modern men do not understand the nature of evil or how to resist it. From the psychologists’ descriptions and analysis of evil, one can therefore describe evil as the “dense and dark material” of history.
Yet mankind does not seem to have better understanding of what evil is and how to prevent it. As human beings struggling for survival in this wonderful world of confusion, it is important to note that a gap has opened up between our awareness of evil and the intellectual resources we have for handling it. Why is it hard for us to understand the nature of evil and find ways to stop it? Instead of taking time to reflect and ask critical questions in a contemplative fashion, the Gambian politicians and their apologists use political campaigns to inflame tribal sentiments and engage in partisan fights. The questions we should be asking ourselves in this situation are: Why have our political party campaigns turned into fights and occasionally into death? How long can our democracy survive given the tribal or ethnic composition and power of the dominant political parties? How can we as a people conduct politics and political discourse in polite and dialogical fashion? And why can’t we accept the skewness of the sharing of economic opportunities and benefits among tribal or ethnic groups resulting from a change of political power as a problem and correct it? I am amazed at our unwillingness to recognize the tribal or ethnic favoritism, nepotism, and cronyism and capital control in our polity and to tackle the real cause of this political monster. The main causes of political conflicts in The Gambia and many other African countries are nothing but the distribution of economic benefits and positions that comes with any change in political power. To many people, the outcome of elections has become a matter of life and death. To simply define this belief is:
When most of the opportunities for advancement in life are controlled by the state—and when those opportunities can mean the chance to get rich—it is difficult to get politicians to play by the rules of the democratic game. If they will lie, bribe, embezzle, smuggle, kill and misuse power to accumulate an illicit fortune, they will also stuff ballot boxes, and steal votes, buy electoral officials, intimidate the opposition, and murder rivals in order to gain or hold on to power. Example was situations in The Gambia during Dark Ages (1994-2017). Instead of the Gambian intellectuals and politicians accepting tribal or ethnic politics as a national problem that needs to be confronted, they use it as a political tool—laying the problem at the doorstep of a rival party or the government that is in power. However, there were few notable exceptions to this. The Gambians were tired of sufferings during Dark Ages, some Gambians like Solo Sandeng and others sacrificed their lives and faced the Devil himself. Of course the outcome was terrible but it brought life and hopes to many Gambians regardless of tribal or ethnic affiliations. However, still now tribal and ethnic conflicts is a real concern in The Gambia, and I think the Gambians need to accept it as a national problem that must be confronted by all, in order to initiate healthy debates on the issue instead of always using the logic of “two wrongs make a right,” that it is all right to do something bad because another person did it first. I suppose this attitude, like racism, is something you never recognize until you are on the receiving end.
Take for instance, the accusations from the two major parties. During the PPP and APRC regimes, Gambians who were unsympathetic to these two regimes felt left out of most sensitive positions in the country. People complained that important positions and scholarship awards sending people to study abroad were distributed based on ethnic favoritism, nepotism, and cronyism. Now the Coalition Government of neophyte President Ado came to power and the other side felt left out. Yet no one from either side is ready to accept the fact that ethnic favoritism, nepotism, cronyism, and capital control is a national problem and not a party problem. Now we have the Coalition Government in power the nincompoops from various quarters on the globe screaming spoiled mouthy chickens of tribalism from neophyte President Ado.
Instead of an intelligent conversation on the issues, we hear only accusations and counteraccusations. I do not think the present political system with parties formed along ethnic lines can be sustained for long. Let us find a political system that can work for us instead of the wholesale importation of other countries’ political systems, especially as those systems may not be applicable to us, given our level of social and cultural issues. I think we need to start a national dialogue on these issues with a view to addressing them. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that The Gambia has passed the stage of ethnic violence. Almost all the ethnic groups that committed the most horrific violence against one another lived harmoniously side-by-side for centuries, until one day something struck like lightning and set them ablaze. We should never underestimate our human depravity and propensity for evil. We need to create a democratic system where all citizens and members of government can own the government instead of wanting to own a part or a piece of it. In an ethnocratic government, everyone thinks only of how he or she can get something for himself or herself, or members of a certain ethnic group, instead of taking the whole country into consideration.
We have to foster the social cohesion necessary for social, political and economic reforms. The degree of social cohesion will determine the strength of the foundation of the economic, political, and legal institutions we build. Government’s ability to build better institutions, implement better policies, and alleviate fundamental problems will all depend on our social cohesion. Judith Maxwell, formerly the head of the Economic Council of Canada, describes social cohesion in this manner: Social cohesion is a process of building shared values and communities of interpretation, reducing disparities in wealth and income, generally enabling people to have a sense that they are engaged in a common enterprise, facing shared challenges, and that they are members of the same community. Positive changes or reforms will not grow out of mere political rhetoric; they require a conscious attempt on the part of our leaders to establish democratic institutions to better control corruption, deliver the public good instead of private ones, and ensure ethnic compromise and fair distribution of economic resources and positions, barring ethnic affiliations, cronyism and nepotism.
The crucial question now is: how do we make our political systems both stable and democratic? We can do this by creating a political system that espouses nationalism instead of ethnic divisions. There should be a basic sense of nationalism among all the Gambians. This can be reinforced by adoption of a few national symbols. We need to devise a business-like approach to politics where talents and skills are appreciated and rewarded instead of distributing positions along ethnic lines. We should also learn how to agree to disagree on important issues. Most importantly, we should seek to strengthen our democracy by ensuring that local people, who know their neighbors better than the president does, are allowed to select their own leaders. How can we talk about democracy when the people at the district levels can’t be trusted to select their own leaders and hold them accountable?
Furthermore, we need to promote dialogue among the various political factions and conduct summit diplomacy among the elites, as well as considering the idea of proportionality in the distribution of public goods, services and resources among the various ethnic pillars. It is also high time we learned to depoliticize critical issues and accept the government’s right to govern. In addition, there is the need for the political parties to seek votes along non-ethnic lines, perhaps among organizations such as teachers unions, trade organizations, workers unions, farmers, artisans, religious organizations and other grassroots groups. The parties should also start using surrogates who are discrete, gentle, polite, intelligent, wise, and cautious in their utterances, instead of using people of questionable character