I decided to write this article after receiving a surprising call from a longtime friend whom I have not spoken to for quite some time. Attempting to make up for lost time, we began our conversation by getting to know each other again, talking about our respective families, and how we were faring with life and work. Having discussed those personal issues, we immediately jumped on to another subject that is a passion: politics and the Gambian dilemma.
True to my friend’s nature and intellect, he began to wonder about the Gambian people and their politicians. He asked, “Why is it that Gambian politicians and country are so oblivious to history?” I asked my friend what was he talking about. He began by offering an analysis of the October 2001, Gambian presidential elections, in which a dictator was elected over meaningful civilian politicians. Among several factors, he advanced the view that Gambian civilian politicians missed a golden opportunity by their failure to stick with a unifying strategy that would have dealt a blow to the soldier turncoat. He also spoke at length of his observations of the newly formed opposition alliance …NADD.
My friend’s perspective seemed to be shared by many observers and analysts of Gambian politics. Their reading of the October 2001 election resonates with what occurred in September 0f 1996, when the country held its first elections under the regime of Yaya Jammeh. At that time, the civilian politicians had to confront a soldier turn coat, but failed to seize the opportunity by not working with one another, and providing a unified front, instead became their own worst enemy by pursuing their own selfish agendas, thus enabling Yaya to emerge victorious in the 1996 elections.
While there appears to exist similarities between the 1996 and 2001 elections (as far as opposition strategy is concerned), they are few and far between. True, in 1996, it was a soldier, and in 2001, a full-blown dictator – I believe my good friend and other analysts of Gambian politics either ignored or did not notice the enormous differences that were evident.
On closer examination, the argument for a unified front seemed much stronger in 2001 than it was in 1996. As a matter of fact, by 2001, public confidence in Yaya had eroded to an all-time low, his record on governance was dismal, the Gambian economy had taken a nose-dive, and Yaya had become a pariah whose standing in the international community was nil, given his horrific record on human rights.
In contrast to 2001, the dynamics operating in 1996 were very different. First and foremost, there was a situation of after coup euphoria. This euphoria produced an avalanche of forces that Gambians have never experienced before. With the removal of Jawara, there was not a common, identifiable politician that Gambians could associate with, thus creating a political vacuum that give birth to various competing forces and competing agendas.
Secondly, in the context of elections, peace and security considerations superseded all others as a determining factor in the decision-making process of the electorate. In an ironical twist of history, Gambians elected a soldier over a civilian. In a somewhat distorted thinking, Gambians judged that the soldier was well-positioned to provide needed peace and security to the country. The macho façade displayed by Yaya is eventually contrasted to the docile nature of the main opposition leader… Ousainou Darbo.
Finally, One of the hard truths of the 2001 elections is that there existed too many political parties, with little or no real ideological or programmatic differences amongst them, with hindsight of what happened in 1996. All of the parties in their manifestoes expressed their commitment to the three pillars of democracy: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. The only noticeable difference lay in the personalities who ran the party.
This brings us to a sober realization and thus the need and formation of an alliance. The ideals of the alliance and our reservations.
Reading the Memorandum of understanding signed by the parties that constitute NADD, I was left with the impression that the signatories to this historic document have come to grasp the fact that:
1. They need to pull their merger resources together to challenge a behemoth that is APRC.
2. Elections do not guarantee democracy.
3. Democracy is a complex process of institution building, development of a liberal political culture and traditions, an uninhibited growth of free speech, an unfettered development of the press, and respect for not only the rule, but the due process of law. In addition, there are others who have argued that a successful democracy must have a stable “middle class,” strong civil institutions and a literate population. A strong middle-class, they argue, would be well placed to govern and manage civil institutions, and also pay taxes. Whereas a literate population would be educated enough about the issues, and could form alliances based on interests.
Clearly the theories of governance and adherence to freedom as ascribed to in the MOU are principled and heart warming. So what you may ask is NADD missing? (Playing the devil’s advocate here). Two words… A backbone and a fearless leader. They can’t let the ruling government pretend to be the sole bearers of truths or claim to have monopoly over ideas, security and the social well being of the electorate. They need to get out there and let the electorate know that a country drowning in debt and in need of healing cannot afford to re-elect the very people responsible for that predicament.
Yeah … the Gambian electorate as Cherno Baba espouses in this article, has to take some of the blame. However in a population with as high an illiteracy rate as the Gambia, I will surmise that the role of the opposition in putting forward an aggressive and popular leader with broad appeal and the capacity to transcend ethnic, regional, religious, or professional lines will be the defining factor come 2006.