Post-2016 – our country’s democracy roared after two decades of being tamed and trimmed in the hands of Yahya Jammeh and his accomplices. Today the lion country of The Gambia is at a critical juncture. It is the duty and responsibility of every citizen to contribute to advancing the new democratic dispensation to make the lion fit for purpose.
To that end, as a passionate citizen and active advocate for democratic norms and values, I have decided to strengthen the teeth of our lion democracy so that it can bite proper to serve, defend and provide for its people by setting up a commission on political debates ( CPD), which is tasked with the responsibility to organize and preside over presidential debates among aspiring candidates seeking the highest office of the land, debates among National Assembly hopefuls, would-be Mayors and Mayoress, and even councillors. In short, the CDP is serving as the shop steward of debate in the country, providing a platform where people who are aiming to govern us would be tested for the interest of the common good.
I am incredibly pleased that, together with my team, we have registered some progress and co-operation with many political parties in the country. In the 2016 presidential election, a high watermark in our country’s struggle against dictatorship, many party leaders warmly responded positively to our invitation, taking part in the first-ever presidential debate organized in our country. Halifa Sallah, always eager and enthused to engage in political discourse, was put up by the coalition. He was able to set out his stall to the voters present, and the wider electorate. The GDC, the new kids on the electoral block as it were, made use of our platform. They outlined their policies and programmes, and engaged in the nuts and bolts of debates. That they took part made it all the more important, because they put the APRC, the only party that boycotted it, in an indefensible position. Under huge influence from then party leader and president, Jammeh, they treated the whole exercise with disdain and contempt. We ploughed on regardless, organizing what was hailed as a thumping success by democratic-loving institutions both here in the Gambia and abroad.
In the end, the parties that made the best use of our platform were electorally rewarded. I am not for once pretending that the refusal of the APRC to take part in the 2016 presidential debate cost them the presidency. But it was symptomatic and consistent with the inadequate way they treated our democratic institutions then.
I want to see a democratic Gambia where passionate, credible political arguments, deep political discussions and an incisive cut-and-thrust political debate would be the order of the day. If there is a better way to secure the long-term future of the country that is the path we must plot on.
Since I started actively taking part in politics, I have seen all political parties, whether UDP, APRC, GDC, PDOIS, PPP, NRP, as integral to our democratic dispensation. They all offer different things to the electorate. Like a business environment, the more the players the more competition, innovation, and game-upping, all of which benefit the consumer. In this case, the electorate! That is why, as a radio host on Capital FM’s Civic Education programme from 2014-16, I invited all political party leaders and representatives to air their views. Myself as host and the listeners, always the wisest, held them accountable on their views. To make the platform bigger, I came up with the Peoples’ Platform TV Show to have a selection of audience members, weighed carefully to represent all political party supporters, to engage directly with our politicians at the American Corner, Kairaba Avenue. My first guest was the UDP leader, Ousainu Darboe, who had a healthy exchange of views with people. Halifa Sallah was a regular guest on my Capital FM political talk show. Together with organizing a presidential debate in 2016, my team and I also organized a successful Mayoral debate in 2017.
Now that we are a free democratic country I want us to aim bigger and better. Insofar as I can see, there is no obstructionist on the political stage in the country. All the political party leaders currently strutting the stage made use of the presidential debate last time around. My message to them: let us stick at it, and do it all over again in 2021. On the 25th April 2019, we are officially launching the CPD, with an eye on organizing a proper presidential debate in 2021 and beyond. All the important stakeholders, ranging from the Gambia Press Union GPU, National Youth Council, European Union, and Westminster Center, among others, are on board. All the political parties, important partners in the process and outcome, are invited with an open heart and mind to play ball with us to make this an important success.
We owe it to our electorate to co-operate and work together for a proper presidential debate. The debates are like a job interview. In the real world, if you applied for a job you have to be subject to an interview to determine your suitability. In the presidential election, the debates are the job interview, where candidates would be assessed for the top job—no excuses, no boycott, and no pussy-footing this time. Let all political leaders comply. It is a win-win for all: the politicians, our democracy and the electorate.
We plan to make it a two-part debate of one hour each. The first session would be divided into two parts: domestic policy and foreign affairs, and the second would be entirely in local languages. The format is a matter that we will be hammering out with all party representatives, if and when the moment comes. This is a big moment for our democracy, and I make a personal appeal to all political parties: for the sake of decent democracy, grab this opportunity with both hands.
Bakary Fatty is The Executive Director of Commission on Political Debates (CPD).