An Essay in Defence of a Values Politics in The Gambia
It may seem to the Gambian political and chattering classes that the problems facing our country are solely to do with a lack of leadership, an absence of proper institutions, a shortage of honest and decent public officials, no sound policies, the prevalence of corruption and theft of state resources, or bad governance alone. This could well be the case, but it is merely a symptom of an overall malaise. In this essay, I will attempt to argue that at the core of our problems in The Gambia is the lack of a values-based politics. I will proffer that values are the very determinants of our choices and inform our priorities and actions. Values define the way we see others and how we position ourselves in a complex society of competing interests. Values also underpin our essence and our core and so, define our destiny as a country, and how the rest of the world sees us. I will show how countries that subscribe to a values-based politics tend to succeed, while those that do not, appear not to do well, or worse, fail.
Let me begin by asking us to ponder a series of questions and to bear them in mind throughout the course of this essay: What are Gambian values? Do they exist? If so, where do they come from? Who defines what they are? Most importantly, do those values further the interests of the republic?
Speaking to the older residents of Banjul, they often paint a picture of a by-gone-era when they say that the city was competently run. They recall a time when the streets were well-maintained, clean, and the pedestrian sidewalks were paved. They remember how orderly everything seemed to be. Indeed, who could ever forget those black-and-white images of the main thoroughfare, later to be christened Independence Drive? But, of course, that entire golden era of a civilised metropolis happened during the colonial era when the British ruled the roost. Older ‘Banjulians’ decry the fact that, fast-forward, and today’s Banjul is a microcosm of today’s Gambia – a chaotic, filthy, smelly, neglected, and mosquito-infested hellhole, almost unfit for human inhabitation. So, why does it appear to be the case that the country seemingly prospered and flourished when foreigners were in charge and appeared to fail once we took over the running of our own affairs? I would posit that the dereliction, dilapidation, and deterioration of Banjul and the country, did not occur overnight or by accident – it happened by careful design. The design shaped by the absence of a values-based politics.
I do not think Gambians wake up every morning and say to themselves, ‘I am going to do my utmost to undermine my country in every anti-social way I can imagine!’ But because values are at the core of who we are, they form the basis of the choices we make – consciously or not. When Gambians engage in corruption at the highest levels of the government, for example, they are reflecting the values they themselves hold. Those values include the absence of any moral scruples and a lack of sincere patriotism. A patriot loves his or her country and will not steal from it. The dictionary defines a patriot as: ‘one who defends or is zealous for his country’s prosperity, freedom or rights…’ so being a patriot is incompatible with the theft of state resources.
The looting of public funds is not a victimless crime. Someone somewhere is paying for it… whether it be the taxpayers in donor countries, or the state, we are all the poorer for such acts of theft. The fact that the current minister of health, in an appearance before the National Assembly, lamented the wanton theft of state resources in his department’s fight against COVID-19, and the ensuing deafening silence from fellow ministers, or indeed the president himself, was very telling indeed. The value system we lack is what permits those in office to think that economic crimes have no impact on society at large, or perhaps they just do not care. A man or woman with values flowing through their veins would instinctively understand that the privileged position in which they find themselves is one which bestows a fiduciary responsibility. That as a loyal servant of the state, our values should mean that we understand we have been temporarily entrusted with the honourable management of the state’s resources. So, for a government minister to allege theft within a government department, and for that administration to do absolutely nothing about it is not just an example of a teachable moment lost, it is also tantamount to state-sanctioning of corruption.
Values-based politics should matter because pilfering from the state has real-life consequences. The current crisis brought on by the COVID pandemic is the most vivid illustration of how the theft of state funds can lead to loss of lives. The lack of resources through theft takes food literally away from the mouths of children. It lowers the life prospects for the nation’s future leaders. When state coffers are looted through corruption and malfeasance, that good school can never be built. That great specialist hospital will never come to fruition. That child may never fulfil their God-given potential because their parents cannot afford a balanced diet. Studies show that as children get older, they need good nutrition to aid in the growth of their brains. There is also scientific evidence to suggest a link between proper brain development and future success in life. Little wonder therefore that underfed children will go on to underachieve and have their life chances drastically diminished – all because a government official had no values and chose to be dishonest.
Our value system should be at the core of our state and other institutions. The Gambian value system should demand that white collar crime and indeed any other crime be prosecuted and punished by law. In the United States, for example, official mail sent by government agencies carry the following inscription: ‘For official business. Penalty for private use $300.00’. I highlight this simple example to demonstrate that even in the wealthiest nation on earth, the value system indicates an intolerance for individuals abusing their privileged positions… meanwhile in The Gambia, we find government vehicles, paid for, fuelled, and maintained by the taxpayer, at private functions well after working hours. In the United Kingdom – the fifth wealthiest country in the world – it is not unusual to see senior government ministers and officials using public transport on their way to and from work or walking to Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. Again, the value system is clear that public officials are not above the citizens they serve, and no one is above the law – not even the lawmakers themselves… meanwhile in The Gambia, the presidency gives away cars to National Assembly Members claiming that the cars are from ‘donors’ who dare not speak their name! National Assembly Members in turn accept the cars and life goes on. So, what are our values? Indeed, do we have any? The Gambia is unique in that it is one of a few places where the electorate happily doles out power to elected officials and then deifies them! The failure to hold power to account is the sign of a value system in tatters.
Values clearly matter and inform our behaviour because Gambians resident in the West can be some of the most law-abiding individuals. By my totally unscientific reckoning, I have never seen a Gambian throw litter out of a moving car onto an American freeway – I have seen a so-called ‘semesta’ do that in The Gambia. I also have never seen a Gambian decide to ease themselves on the roadside in England – I have seen a so-called ‘diasporan’ do that in The Gambia. During the holy month of Ramadan or Lent, I am yet to spot a Gambian spit on the sidewalks of a western city! So, it begs the question – why do these behaviours seem to be only acceptable at home? To put our values under the spotlight, all one must do is pay close attention to what happens in the country around December every year, when those living in the West – who’ve finally secured their foreign passports, green cards, leaves to remain, advance paroles, etc., through fair means or foul – descend upon the country to flaunt their material demonstrations of ‘success’ to the adoring and awe-struck locals! So, whether it is the wearing of fur on a flight from Europe into hot and sunny Yundum, or the rolling of ‘rs’ or the use of ‘y’all’ at every opportunity to remind people in ‘Gemb-e-yerr’ that you are ‘not from herre’, these Gambian-Westerners lay it on. As early as landing at Yundum, you can hear them complaining of cues at passport control – as if they had never been in a cue in their lives! Having spent nearly thirty years interacting with Gambians in the West, I know from first-hand experience that their socio-economic and education status do not mirror that which is on display for all to see in The Gambia in December. Sadly, the Gambian value system such as it is, rewards materialism and false pretences, over competence and hard work, little wonder therefore that mediocrity is celebrated and elevated in the Gambian value system.
The West has clear values principles in place that underpin societal rules and norms, and that govern our interaction with each other. Such values include tolerance, respect for public property, social cohesion, and the rule of law. That is not to say the West is a flawless oasis of decency – far from it – but there are rules that govern behaviour from the prime minister or the president to the dustbin collector.
Materialism is yet another core value with far-reaching and undesirable consequences. The current Gambian value system equates material wealth with respect, status, and societal prestige, no matter how that wealth is attained. I have heard stories of Gambians involved in the drugs trade in Germany, using the proceeds to send their parents to Mecca to perform the Hajj. It is the desire for materialism and desperation that is fuelling the so-called ‘backway’ to Europe, as young people, failed by their government risk treks across the desert and the high seas to try their chances on the doorsteps of the European Union as beggars. A big part of this is driven by images of perceived ‘wealth’ and ‘success’, banded around by Gambians on the Internet.
Our system of values, if ever it existed, has failed abjectly. In a country that professes to be deeply religious, with Muslims and Christians claiming to love God yet hating their fellow man, the most evil and vile practices seem to be what the bulk of society values. It still has not occurred to anyone that if the ‘serring’ or ‘marabout’ really had the power to project into the future to determine the trajectory of the lives of others, that his own life would’ve been the first to benefit from such an insight. The hypocrisy of the religious classes on all sides is palpable, which again, puts our values as a people into serious question. When dictatorship was thriving, where were the faith leaders? Where were the imams, the priests, and bishops? Did they possess the moral courage to stand up to injustice and tyranny? No. They opted for the easy way out. They either sided with the regime or maintained a Trappist vow of silence – both of which were a colossal betrayal of their faith. Countries far less ‘religious’ than ours prosper because their values of ethics, morality, and decency transcend religiosity – you do the right thing because it is right in and of itself.
In conclusion, a values-based politics should be at the heart of public life in The Gambia. It would mean that corruption would be a thing of the past. The wrong values of materialism egged on by poverty, are ultimately poisonous for us as a country. We should have values which underpin our society, and anchor us in a rules-based system. Tomorrow’s generation is being failed and short-changed by today’s self-serving robbers. For the republic to survive, there must be an end to corruption. The two cannot coexist. Either corruption destroys the state, or the state destroys corruption. It is our values that will eventually inform which of those two options we take.
Esau Williams is a journalist, and a scholar of philosophy and political science. He holds degrees in Philosophy and Politics with Philosophy from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, and Royal Holloway, University of London, respectively. He is completing a third degree in International Political Economy at King’s College London.