The active participation of citizens in political decision-making processes is viewed as an important factor in thriving democracies. It has been realized that electing officials into political positions is not enough to guarantee a functional democracy but rather it is important to maintain the continued and active participation of the citizenry in political processes. Civil Society is viewed as an institution that makes it possible for the citizenry to play an active role in sustained political decision making and therefore regarded by practitioners and researchers as a fundamental element of democracy.
However, civil society as a concept is broad and could mean many different things and therefore needs clarification. According to Kumar (1993), civil society has several layers of meaning which makes it an appeal. Edwards (2004: 2) observes that it is “the big idea on everyone’s lips” and Merkel and Lauth (1998: 7) note that despite its popularity, there is a lack of a universal definition besides the idea that it is an “arena of voluntary, uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes, and values”. A peruse of the literature reveals that the concept of civil society contains diverse elements that are both complex and contentious. In the classical age, civil society was viewed to be akin to the state (Keane 1988, 36). By the second part of the eighteenth century, writers including Thomas Paine and Adam Fergusson ushered in a shift in the concept of civil society, differentiating it from the state (Keane 1988). Essentially, civil society became viewed as being both complementary and counter to state powers. It became understood as a mechanism against political excesses (Bratton 1994, 3-54).
John Locke is credited to be the first modern philosopher to emphasize the understanding of civil society as being distinct from the state. Locke viewed civil society as a body which protects individual rights and properties against state excesses. Charles de Montesquieu in his work of (De l’esprit des Lois 1748) distinguishes the two as playing different regulatory roles – the political society (relations between governments and its people) and civil society (relations between populations). G. W. Friedrich Hegel perceived civil society as a creation of bourgeoisie controlled economy which created two spheres of family and state. Hegel held the view that civil society includes all actors in the society that have no direct dependence on the state machinery. He opined that civil society is usually in conflict with the burghers (citizens) who mostly follow personal interests and therefore civil society must be regulated by a strong state that acts in the “universal interest of the population”.
John Keane however, opposes the relation between civil society and economic development. He views the separation of civil society from the state as a result of political development that sought to use civil society as a counteracting body to curtail state despotism. In his work on De la Democratique en Amerique, Tocqueville emphasizes the role of independent associations as civil society that promotes principles that defend and protect against potential authoritarian and tyrannical regimes. Associations also provide a balance that prevents a monopoly of power (Keane 1988, 60). Antonio Gramsci saw civil society as part of the state superstructure but with differing functions. His view was that the state maintained capitalist dominion through the use of coercion and force, while civil society operated through dialogue, thereby making civil society a part of the system that does not use coercion consent.
From the above, one could see that the concept of civil society had gone through phases of changes ranging from being equated with the state to viewing them as opposing forces and changed from an economic understanding to one of politics. Despite these variations, some similarities help in the understanding of civil society.
For this article, I shall define civil society as “a sphere of voluntary action that is distinct from the state, political, private, and economic spheres, keeping in mind that in practice the boundaries between these sectors are often complex and blurred. It consists of a large and diverse set of voluntary organisations that are not purely driven by private or economic interests, are autonomously organised, and interact in the public sphere. Thus, civil society is independent of the state and the political sphere, but it is oriented toward and closely with them” (Spurk 2010: 8-9). They include NGOs, human rights groups, faith-based groups, ethnic-based associations, trade unions among others (Omach 2014).
There are different contexts in which civil society has been debated and prominent among these is how it consolidates democracy. Civil society is, however, largely considered an ultimately western concept stirring the debate as to whether its tenets can be applied to countries of different democratic and economic settings (Lewis 2002; Harniet-Sievers 2005). In Western Europe, civil society stemmed from demands for political participation and human and civil rights to the emergence of social movements of farmers and churches. This was followed by the emergence of movements for women’s liberation including movements for ecology, peace, and students, thereby expanding the scope and manifestations of civil society (Lauth 2003, 229). In Eastern Europe, civil societies are credited for playing a huge part in instituting democratic structures by overcoming autocratic regimes (Merkel 1999, 397-441).
For Africa however, there ensued the argument of the applicability of a western concept of civil society, the contention being that Africa lacked an autonomous self-confident citizenry (Spurk 2010, 11; Lewis 2002). It is argued that a colonial legacy that favoured a few elites and left the greater population under traditional despotic rule created only a patrimonial political environment with no room for civil society propagation of participatory governance, a trend which continues even after independence (Lewis 2002, 567-577; Maina 1998, 135-137).
Contrarily, others hold the view that civil society can be applied in Africa given that they consider actors that are not part of the state as being civil society (Harneit-Sievers 2005,2). Michael Bratton (1994) also argues that civil society exists in Africa citing the roles it played in the transition from authoritarian to democratic rules in Zambia and Kenya. He outlines three different dimensions of material, organisational and ideological. The first being economic crisis prompting the emergence of self-help groups and popular protests, the second applying to existing organisations that evolve into civil society and the latter involves the ordinary workforce like teachers and other state employees, who join protests for change.
Within the African setting, it is typical that independent thinkers often navigate between civil society and politics as and when it suits them (Bratton 1994, 57; Merkel and Lauth 1998). It is a contention by many authors that civil society in Africa has a limited influence on democracy because the organisations are often fragmented and the links with the political systems weak (Pinkney 2003: 104-105; Schmidt 2000: 321-323). Could this be the case with civil societies in The Gambia?
History has taught us that independence, democracy and good governance are not handed on a silver platter but rather fought for or demanded. In The Gambia, the demand for independence gained greater attention after the successful strike of The Gambia Workers Union in 1960. However, after independence, there is little literature on CSO engagement in promoting democracy, good governance and protection of human rights. Notwithstanding, the founding of The Association of Non-Governmental Organizations in the Gambia (TANGO) in 1983 implied that there were some NGOs which had been engaged in these areas. The TANGO website indicates that “TANGO’s members play key roles in areas such as health, education, women’s empowerment, agriculture and credit, as well as small enterprises development projects such as vegetable gardening, food processing and similar activities. Members also engage in peacebuilding activities, and the promotion of human rights and good governance” (http://www.tango.gm/about-tango/). I suppose we can rate their performance with how well human rights and good governance prevailed during both the Jawara and Jammeh regimes.
I dare say that during the Jammeh regime, CSOs either completely avoided engaging in these issues or played a very minimal role in promoting them. However, following the defeat of Jammeh in the 2016 elections and his subsequent attempt to hold on to power we saw not only a rise of existing CSOs but also the birth of new ones, all demanding that Jammeh respect the will of the people; prominent among them was #GAMBIA HAS DECIDED. After The Gambia Bar Association denounced the actions of Jammeh, several other Civil Society organisations like the student union, lecturers of University of Gambia and many other NGO’s had the impetus to make statements demanding Jammeh to respect the results of the election.
The myriad of drama that involved Jammeh’s exit and Barrow’s assumption to power has since not abated. First, the much-celebrated coalition began to show cracks when UDP, NRP and GMC chose to enter the National Assembly Elections through a Tactical Alliance. This was followed by the hastened change of the constitutional provision on the appointment of a Vice President to suit a particular individual. Whether it was because CSOs were still dazed from Jammeh’s exit or still recovering from the hangover of it, what’s obvious is the fact that the act was not seriously challenged.
In March 2017, CLIMATE WATCH- and GREEN-UP GAMBIA protested against the destruction of Monkey Park but today, the International Conference Centre sits there with majestic nonchalance. In November 2017, we saw the rise of #OCCUPY WESTFIELD which protested against the failures of NAWEC. Alieu Bah a young, intelligent activist received so much social media bashing from the people he sought to represent that he took a sabbatical for some time. He has re-emerged from hibernation in what looks to be a convert into PDOIS.
The Occupy Westfield movement died a slow death and in June 2018 #DAFA DOI emerged to protest the killings of youths in Faraba Banta. This movement too declined into oblivion whilst its leader Killa Ace, another young activist got caught up with the law and now seems to have thrown in the towel on activism. #THREE YEARS JOTNA emerged in 2019 with an aim to have President Barrow honour the Coalition Agreement. To counter this movement emerged #FIVE YEARS JOTUT. Some members of the former are currently fighting a lawsuit whilst the latter seems to have disappeared.
Notwithstanding these sad stories, I must admit that UNDP, as well as some national and international NGOs, are engaging the government in promoting democracy, good governance and respect for Human Rights. The downside is that most of these are donor-funded and largely dictated. The Transitional Justice efforts through the TRRC, CRC and SSR are heavily foreign-funded and one is yet to see an absolute commitment by the government to ensure their success. CSOs involved in these processes seem drawn more by the money than a genuine want to make a difference.
Activism is one word that is seriously prostituted in the Gambia with many people calling themselves activists of some sort – we have a plethora of Gender Activists, Human Rights Activists, Political Activists, Environmental Activists, Social Media Activists, Gislen ma Activists etc. who make a cacophony of noises with no clear tune, and are not able account for any successes.
Certain individuals stand out for their continued stance and outspokenness in fighting for democracy, good governance and respect for human rights. Madi Jobarteh has become a champion activist although his long missives have for some become some sort of broken record. I respect and admire his resilience but I suggest he changes tact. Although this post falls short of that, I encourage that he delivers his message with a KISS – Keep It Simple and Short. Long essays are a turn off for most who need to read them. Other people who are doing great include Nyang Njie, Musa Bah (The Watchman) and a few others. Some like Bokar Sey, Sankareh, Sankanu and others have been sucked into the system or have become comfortable with the status quo. This gives weight to the assertion of (Bratton 1994, 57; Merkel and Lauth 1998) that in Africa “it is typical that independent thinkers often navigate between civil society and political as and when it suits them”.
What is obvious, however, is the fact that as much as the government is doing its best to serve the Gambian people well, it remains imperfect and needs reminding and prompting. The National Assembly may be doing its part as we have seen recently but coordinated CSO response is needed for greater improvement. Gambia needs a very strong and vibrant society if it must occupy its fair place in acting in the interest of the people against government’s inadequacies and excesses. The Gambia is one the poorest countries of the world where even after 53 years of independence, we are aid dependent, not food self-sufficient, struggle with basic necessities like water and electricity. Our healthcare system is horrible; our security sector is needing the SSR scalpel, our education system has become a liability …… the list goes on.
While the masses suffer ever increasingly, our government officials drive fancy 4WD cars, own multiple plush homes and are detached from the realities of the common man. Yet, if one genuinely tries to hold them accountable, some of us who share the same plight speak up in defence of them not in a bid to uphold the truth but in blind support stemming from political, tribal and other irrelevant affiliations. Governments often come to power ready to do good but the trappings of power tend to derail some. For our good and their good, we must all do what we can to steer them on the course for which we put them in power. This is what every good and patriotic citizen should do and please do not tell me because I’m a police officer, I can’t say this.