Do We, Gambians, Deserve Our Own Country?
In January 2017, President Yahya Jammeh abandoned office and the country, following his fateful loss to Adama Barrow in the December 2016 elections. Amid the euphoria, I said to my friends that the big challenge we faced as a nation was to prove that we deserve the change.
Four and a half years later, I am asking myself two questions: have we, Gambians, shown that we deserve the change, and do we deserve our own country?
When we gained our Independence from Britain in 1965, many Gambians looked with hope toward a future of progress, peace, and prosperity (as our Coat of Arms says). We were ready to take our destiny into our hands, and despite doubts about our viability as a country, we forged on.
In 1970, we became a Republic with a President replacing the Queen of England as our Head of State.
Amid much larger, more populous, more powerful, and richer African countries, The Gambia carved out a niche for herself. Our brand was of political stability, democratic values, peace, and good neighborliness. Despite many challenges, our country became a respected member of the international community, and Gambians enjoy relatively decent lives, especially when compared to many other Africans suffering deprivation or dying from endless civil wars.
The Gambian economy grew, with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increasing from $44.2 million in 1966 to $1.8 billion in 2019. Similarly, life expectancy at birth increased from 34.1 years in 1965 to 62.1 years in 2019, and women’s health dramatically improved, with the maternal mortality rate declining from 932 per 100,000 live births in 2000, to 597 in 2017.
Despite these gains, The Gambia still has many problems such as poverty, and youth unemployment. In 2015/16 48.6% of people in the country were poor and youth unemployment reached 36% in 2012. Youths, who should be an asset, are now a ticking bomb.
The political development of The Gambia also faced challenges and hit dead ends. In 1981, the much-vaunted multi-party democracy in the country was shocked by an abortive coup attempt in which many lives were lost, and for the first time in our history, we had mass graves. And we thought we are a peaceful people.
The Gambia jumped from the frying pan to the fire in 1994 when President Jawara was overthrown by a military coup led by then Captain Yahya Jammeh. The coup ushered in 22 years of brutal dictatorship during which, as revealed in the public hearings by the TRRC, former president Jammeh killed, maimed, and illegally imprisoned people from all walks of life. Jammeh also looted national coffers and treated public resources as his personal own.
It was thus reasonable to expect in early 2017 that Gambians would learn from Jammeh’s terrible 22-year rule. Sadly, we have not, and have failed to demonstrate that we deserve the peaceful change that resulted in Jammeh’s downfall.
If anything, Gambians continue to exhibit traits they had during Jammeh’s rule, and which hinder national development.
Perhaps the most important of these traits is a weak national identity, especially when compared to, say, Senegal. This issue is terribly important because lack of national identity hinders national development and democracy, and threatens peace — internally, and between countries.
The lack of a strong Gambian national identity manifests itself in how we relate to the State and each other, and often in a non-constructive manner. For example, Gambian leaders and elites have, since Independence, been more obsessed with keeping their positions and perks (e.g. government and project vehicles) than working for the national interest.
Individuals with a weak sense of national identity are prone to see issues through the lens of their ethnicity. This, coupled with ignorance, illiteracy, poverty, and patronage politics means that many people vote based on their ethnic affiliations, and not on the merits and demerits of the issues. Such hyper-ethnicism divides people and increases prospects for civil strife, insecurity, and instability.
In the lead-up to presidential and National Assembly elections later this year, Gambians should remember that ethnic politics has been the main driver of ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia and Myanmar.
A weak national identity also means that Gambians often put their personal interests before the national interest. This makes it easy for them to justify (at least in their minds) their corruption, and abuse of public resources. This mentality is so entrenched in the Gambian psyche that many will consider you foolish if you refuse to engage in corrupt practices, and insist on being clean.
With citizens like these, it is time to ask if we, Gambians, deserve a country of our own. Clearly, we cannot return the country to someone, or contemplate a definite date in reply to an old lady who was said to ask, “when is Independence going to end?” We must mend our ways, and start building the Gambia of people committed to the national interest or face the horrible prospect of losing our country.
As far-fetched as the idea of losing The Gambia is, history is full of countries that are no more. In 2014, the Russian Federation annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine, and despite the huffing and puffing, Crimea remains in its firm grip. Other independent countries which also have ceased to exist include Tibet, Czechoslovakia, the USSR, and Yugoslavia. Closer to home, the Kingdoms of Saloum and Kaabu (which lasted for 466 years, and 807 years, respectively) both ultimately crumbled, mainly because of ethnic divisions.
The last time The Gambia came close to extinction was in 1982 when it went into the Senegambia Confederation with Senegal. Although The Gambia wriggled out of the Confederation, it is safe to assume that Senegalese learned their lesson. The next time they wade into The Gambia to put down civil strife they might annex it, and turn a deaf ear to international public opinion.
After all, who will defend a rowdy, poor, and small country with about 2 million people led by incompetent and selfish leaders?
You are warned.
Katim S. Touray
International development consultant, and writer on technology and global issues.