A few days after the results of the December 2016 elections were announced by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and after the initial euphoria of the unexpected Jammeh concession speech wore off, I turned my irrational (it did not feel like that at the time) exuberance off and my policy wonkiness mood on, to summon all the cerebral power that I could muster and began to churn out a few policy papers for the new incoming government. Mind you, no one had asked me to, but somehow it suddenly dawned upon me that the newly elected incoming government was anything but prepared for government. I submitted these papers anyway, by hand, to one of the coalition leaders at the start of my Christmas holidays a few weeks later in Banjul, by which time Jammeh had retracted his speech and the impasse was in full swing. The rest as they say, is history.
The first policy paper I submitted was a terms of reference for the incoming administration to set up an Economic Advisory Council during the transition. The preamble reads:
“On December 1, Gambians voted in President-elect Adama Barrow and the Coalition Parties to replace the Jammeh administration that has been in power for the last 22 years. The new administration will take office by February 1, 2017 and will inherit an economy that is in a critical state. The latest economic data set is dire, characterized by public debt levels of 108% of GDP, official reserves of less than three months of import cover in early 2016, interest payments on debt consumed 40% of public revenues in 2015 up from 25% in 2013 and inflation is projected to be over 6% in 2016.
Therefore, the first priority of the incoming government is to stabilize the economy by putting in place the necessary measures to ensure the economy can absorb potential exogenous and endogenous shocks and then to set the economic conditions for growth that would lead to job creation and poverty reduction.
To be ready to respond to this challenge on Day 1 of his administration, the President-elect and his team would like to establish an Economic Advisory Council that (i) would draw up an Economic Plan that proposes a series of measures that can be taken immediately to (a) stabilize the economy, (b) create jobs, (c) provide public services and (d) put the country on a sound economic footing for sustained poverty reduction, and (ii) propose a list of vetted names to fill critical technical leadership roles in the economic team. The Economic Plan would define the President-elect’s agenda for the public and quickly respond to the mood in the country after the election period.”
But they were too busy divvying up portfolios to do what is standard best practice for incoming governments, which is to set up transitory structures and teams to enhance their operational readiness from Day 1 in office, which is what I was advising them, for free, to do. The impasse had nothing to do with their lack of preparedness, it was a convenient excuse. It now appears that they could care less about we, the people they were about to lead. This is where they started to go wrong, and this is because of the politics we have.
The politics we have
The politics we practice in The Gambia is directly responsible for the current economic and health crisis we find ourselves in and our overall poor level of development outcome. Our political system is one that leads to a race to the bottom in terms of not encouraging and courting the best and the brightest among us to run for political office. For a small country like ours, we are overwhelmingly blessed with some of the most talented, skilled, and professionally qualified people you will find anywhere on earth. Whether it is in academia, or in international development agencies, or in retail, corporate, investment banking, or in major international companies or public service institutions, you will find Gambians doing great things and in leading roles. But the sad thing is, very few of them would ever think of or let alone run for political office back home. It is as if our political system is designed to keep them away. Instead, our system encourages and rewards the most callous, corrupt, poorly educated non-performers and discredited set of has-beens with our most sacred and strategic positions of leadership. Regrettably, there is an endless supply of this lot as well. And they shamelessly walk the corridors of power with an “I don’t care, what are you going to do about it” attitude. While there are a few good and hardworking professionals in the system who are doing the right thing, sadly, there are few out of this lot who should know better but betray the cause and do the same insidious things. This is the one that is hard to stomach the most because it feels like a kick in the gut to the country.
Furthermore, our political system is designed and practiced to take advantage of our poor rural communities, whom our political leaders, by their inept and failed leadership over the years, have not only kept poor, but have sunken them further and deeper into generational poverty. Cycle after cycle, politicians appeal to them canvassing their votes along tribal lines, taking advantage of identity politics. Given that our rural communities often come together along tribal and cultural lines, mostly as a safety -net mechanism to offer individual members and households of the group a support structure to get through and to survive the harsh adverse poverty impacts caused by the failed policies of these shameless politicians who during an election cycle now turn up on their door steps offering only cheap wax ashobis, dry benachin and loud drumming. What could be more shameless and heartless? I dread to think.
Ours is a system that uses religion as another blunt tool to further bludgeon our fault lines even more, by compromising a good number of our religious leaders to the point where they are unable to speak truth to power as the holy books they are supposed to espouse, demands of them. Instead, they mislead our people through their silence or by their mistruths, half-truths and misinterpretations of holy scripture to fit a particular narrative that supports the paymasters to whom they acquiesce for the few pieces of shekel they gather from under their table and ounces of myrrh they wrap-up from the top of the table.
Ours is a system that ensures our gay and lesbian sons and daughters, brothers and sisters (yes, “bad” news my people, they are here and they are us) remain in perpetual hiding in fear of their lives because of the violence that awaits them if they dare to publicly hint at who they are inside. This is because some of our pathetic political and religious leaders conveniently hide behind warped interpretations of religious and cultural norms, instead of affording them equal protection under the law as human beings, standing up for them and defending their rights as peace loving Gambians to be free to be who they are. I am NOT advocating for same-sex marriage so please will the most sanctimonious amongst us spare me your hate. Our LGBT community is us, are us, our people. What I am advocating for is their equal protection and safeguards under the laws of The Gambia.
In their next breath, these same religious and political leaders will shamelessly ignore these same religious and cultural norms that they use to deny equal protection to our LGBT Gambian community, defend and refuse to condemn those who rape our women and our young girls. Also, they will openly enjoy the economic proceeds of their children that they know are engaging in the drug trade in Europe and elsewhere, because they bring home the bacon.
The notion of separation of religion and state is as alien to our political system as honor and integrity are devoid of it. Have you heard our religious leaders seize the microphone and call on our dear leader to come out and speak to us his people at this our greatest hour of our need? Maybe you have, but I have not.
Even more appalling, ours is a system that encourages our political leaders to exploit the perceived calmness and unwillingness of our people to protest in the face of repeated political folly and crises, and then to ramp up even more political folly and crises, trusting that “dara du si gaina”. Jammeh was the master of this. He did not start up being the evil serial human rights violator that he was in his later years in power. But, because he understood the psyche of the Gambian people which is predicated on an anathema to even the slightest form of peaceful protest, he would escalate his human rights violations and brazen theft of our treasury, one step and one day at a time, knowing very well the peaceful nature of our people would allow him to get away with it unscathed each time.
Barrow too has learned this practice to precision and has become the latest master abuser of it. If in January this year most of the people (rather than the very few that did) had stepped out onto the streets demanding that he keep his word to step down at the end of three years he had committed to, he would have been out by now and perhaps the ongoing corona crisis at the disastrous level it now is, might have been averted. But Barrow also knew very well the psyche of the Gambian people and that they would not come out. Complain (ngunu-ngunu) in private they might, but come out onto the streets in peaceful protest they will not. And how many other times has he upped the ante since then? A lot!
Here are the most egregious. Eight months later, the NPP is up and running with its own TV station, buses, motorcycles and all the other paraphernalia needed to be a political juggernaut, and no one is asking where the NPP is getting its money from. Apparently, our dear leader can set up a political party with such efficiency and precision. Now, if only he could run the country so effectively as well and with such fervor, we would all be the better for it and there would have been no need for me to write this piece.
Meanwhile, the erstwhile Minister of Communications who tormented us to no end during the December 2016 impasse that ultimately sent tens of thousands of our fellow citizens into exile across the border including Barrow himself to safety in Dakar, is not only back from the plush green forests of Equatorial Guinea, but is also back at State House. You cannot make this stuff up. And when he is not at State House, he is apparently busy traversing the length and breadth of the country for the NPP, selling our rural poor the same crap that has kept them in poverty for decades. What gall? What gall! Has he no shame?
Lest I forget, talks of Jammeh coming back are no longer whispered in the vous and campeh kais of old, but the idea has now moved out of the realm of the impossible to mainstream politics and from being probable to possible to likely. This rapid transition has been aided and abetted by the usual NPP and APRC suspects who openly in our media forums have been demanding his safe right of return, thereby beautifully sanitizing its previous toxicity from the minds of ordinary Gambians. If you keep repeating something evil, ad nauseum, sooner or later, in the minds of most people, it becomes an acceptable norm. This is happening even while the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) is still on and his victims are testifying. The very TRRC that is supposedly a cornerstone of the flagship transitional justice system that Barrow himself set up and commissioned and wants us to note down as one of his major achievements in office. I have no more words on this one other than to say that when you have to count a program you clearly don’t believe in and work to discredit with all this talk of Jammeh’s return from your camp, as one of your major achievements, it is easy for all to see that you really don’t have that many achievements to speak of. So please spare us all the talk of the transitional justice program as one of your major achievements. The one who really believed in the transitional justice program and all its elements and championed them has since left your government, probably in disgust at your willingness to entertain the idea of Jammeh’s safe return for your selfish political expediency. I guess this must be a factor in his calculus to leave. I said I guess.
And then there is the saga of the billions of dalasis of corona relief gone “puff” just like that and wait, not one penny of it spent so far to functionally renovate and strengthen our hospitals across the country. And when the virus parks itself here in our communities and is killing our mums and dads and all those we love; our dear leader will not speak to us in our most sacred hour of need. Well why would he, when he knows that our people will do what they do best, and that is bite their tongue, stay home and “maslaha bey aduna tooki”.
These are only the highlights of the first eight months of Barrow’s 2020. I hate to see what a second Barrow term will look like. God, please spare us.
Also, our political system is one that makes it easier to use money stolen from the public purse to buy votes rather than to provide first class public schools for the people and their children whose votes they seek to buy. Ours is a system where the language you speak is more important than the message you speak. Ours is a system where we celebrate our political leaders who have stolen from us even though we know they have stolen from us. Then after we elect them into office, we line up in droves at their offices in Banjul and homes in the Hamptons and shires of Fajara, Bijilo, Brusubi and Brufut Heights, to ask them for fish money, to prostitute our wives and our sisters for more fish money or for school fees to pay for our children in the poor quality public secondary schools in our neighborhoods. The very same schools that produce poor results and graduate our children without the skills they need to compete and be successful, because of poorly trained teachers who cannot even pass a grade 9 exam in english and math set to international standards and where a good number of our male teachers are busy having affairs with their student girls in school in exchange for “good” grades, and that is when they are not raping or impregnating them.
Ours is a system that ensures our political elite parade their SUVs and other expensive government owned vehicles over the weekend and late at night, while the rest of us wallow in flooded streets, in the dark, with no water supply and in mosquito and rodent infested neighborhoods. Ours is a system where rapists and child molesters of the most vile kind and those who use their vehicles as murderous missiles on our crowded and poorly designed and maintained roads, bribe our police or use their connections in our judicial system to deny their victims the justice they deserve and seek.
Ours is a system that castigates a dissenting public voice like mine and many others, as enemies of the state and who must not be trusted to work with, when in fact, what the system is really scared of is that we, who are speaking up, will inspire and give rise to more voices who will call them out as the ultimate charlatans that they are and bring them all down.
This is what the politics that we have, has produced in terms of development outcomes alone
In 2018, at its annual meetings in Bali, Indonesia, the World Bank as part of its Human Capital project, launched the Human Capital Index (HCI). The HCI measures the amount of human capital that a child born today can expect to attain by age 18. It conveys the productivity of the next generation of workers compared to a benchmark of complete education and full health. It is constructed for 157 countries and ranges between 0 and 1. An economy in which a child born today can expect to achieve complete education and full health will score a value of 1 on the index.
The HCI assigns Singapore the highest score of 0.88, Chad the lowest score of 0.29 and The Gambia’s score of 0.40 is ranked at 130 out of 157. By comparison, Senegal’s HCI score is 0.42, Rwanda’s is 0.37 and Afghanistan’s is 0.39. This simply means that a child born in The Gambia today will be 40 percent as productive when she grows up as she could be if she enjoyed complete education and full health. This means that Gambians must achieve much higher levels of human capital that is reflective of the degree to which they are equipped with advanced cognitive and socio-behavioral skills to prepare for the economy and jobs of the future, in a world that will continue to experience rapid technological advances.
Diving deeper into the weeds of the data of our Human Development Indicators, the World Bank in its May 2020 Systematic Country Diagnostic (SCD) report for The Gambia, states “The education sector faces challenges in terms of access and quality. Findings from the HCI suggest that in all three domains linked to the access and quality of education, The Gambia falls into the bottom quartile of a global distribution. With less than eight years of schooling and low-test scores, a child in The Gambia is expected to benefit from less than five years of learning-adjusted years of school. An Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) assessment in 2007 revealed low reading scores, and the government has since been conducting lower grade teacher training to improve literacy skills. More recent EGRA tests showed significant improvements in knowledge of letter sounds and word recognition. However, reading comprehension is still low. The EGRA 2016 shows that on average students in grades one through three answered only one out of five reading comprehension questions correctly.
The SCD, goes on to say “Access to education is lower in The Gambia than the SSA average across all levels of education and most categories, and access rates to primary education stagnated between 2010 and 2015. The gross enrollment ratio (GER) marginally decreased from 90 percent to 87 percent, compared to the SSA average of 102 percent. The rate of primary-school-age children who were out of school (7–12 years) increased from 27 percent to 30 percent. This represents about 100,000 out-of-school children, 95 percent of whom never went to school, and the remaining 5 percent dropped out of the system. Access to secondary schooling is even lower, with a GER of 62 percent in the upper basic school (UBS) and 44 percent in the senior secondary school (SSS). The out-of-school rate for UBS is high at 30 percent, with 80 percent of the children having never attended school. The rate is even higher for SSS (43 percent). Access to the postsecondary school is 7 percent, lower than the SSA average of 10 percent. “
With respect to health the SCD, reports “ government health expenditures constitute 1.1 percent of GDP, below the recommended 15 percent as agreed in the 2001 Abuja Declaration…..The high disease burden resulting from the combination of poverty and inadequate health care compromises the welfare of The Gambians and reduces productivity and obstructs human development”.
The story with agriculture, infrastructure, the economy, jobs, etc. are just as bad or worse. On poverty overall, the headline from the SCD is “Almost half of The Gambia’s population lives in absolute poverty, with most of the poor in urban areas”. In 2015, 48.6 percent of Gambians lived below the national poverty line. In the Greater Banjul Area—which includes the local government areas (LGAs) of Banjul and Kanifing, the country’s hub for key economic activities—the poverty rate was about 17 percent, compared to 41 percent in other urban areas. Poverty rates were highest in rural areas, at 70 percent”.
So, our politics has clearly produced pathetic results that have systematically and critically harmed us and our country and will continue to do so, unless we change. As the saying goes, when in a hole, the first thing you must do, is to stop digging.
Why leadership Matters
So, finally in August 2020, Gambians of all political hue and stripes and none at all, alike, are waking up to what should have been an undeniable and inescapable truth that who we have at the head of our government does matter. It did not have to take the botched response of the Barrow administration to the coronavirus pandemic for us to figure this out.
The indiscriminate nature of the multiple deaths that are occurring almost on an hourly basis it often seems at times, is exposing our country’s broken health care system that is barely fit for animal care let alone human care. We did not need the World Bank SCD to tell us that. Fair minds can agree that this government has deliberately refused to fix the public health care facilities, even as recently as March this year when funds were allocated to prepare for the COVID-19 onslaught that we are experiencing now. Therefore, we have been left unable to respond to the full-blown health crisis we find ourselves in and that appears to be projecting us into a humanitarian crisis unless immediate decisive action is taken by our leaders, who by all reasonable analysis have abandoned us.
Did it have to take the death of so many people in such a short time, who are being buried in a manner totally at odds with our cultural and religious rites for us to finally wake up when the state of our development overall should have done the job a long time ago. Did it have to take so much pain and suffering for us to realize that Barrow is neither the leader we want nor need at this critical hour who can take us to the place we want to get to. He is taking us somewhere alright (to the cliff’s edge), but it is not the place we deserve or want to be.
I have heard so many excuses over the past three years trying to explain away why things are the way they are. You have probably heard them too.
Here are the most common. No, it is not him, it is his advisers. To which I always say, “who appointed them and who brought back the Jammeh crowd as if no other capable set of Gambians exist? And if they are not serving him well, why not get rid of them”. Another excuse – “well, it is the coalition members who let him and us down”. My response, “well true, but, so why did he stay beyond the three years?” Another one – “he has never worked in government or been in a position of leadership before, so he does not know”. My response: “So, what the hell is he doing there and why is he trying to stay in power at all costs beyond the next election?” My last, favorite and most-telling excuse of them all, wait for it – “at least he gave us peace and freedom”. I always need to take a depth breath or two to compose myself before I respond to this one, well, “ hell no, he did not do that, we, together, did that and gifted this to ourselves”.
Now you can begin to see why the coronavirus took one good look at us, and said, “let’s go get those boggers in Gambia”. I know, this would be funny if it were not so deadly.
The fundamental reason for the government to exist is obvious, and that is to provide for our collective security and well-being in ways we cannot do individually, for ourselves. True, a leader cannot do everything. We are individually responsible for the decisions we make and the actions we take. Likewise, there are certain things that only the government can do, that we cannot do on our own.
Countries that have done well and/or are doing well, without exception, are the ones that had and/or have good leaders at certain critical times in their history. When I was a boy going to school and growing up on the streets of Banjul and Fajara in the 70s and early 80s, the countries that we were told were the ones to emulate in terms of development were the western ones ( e.g. Britain, France, United States, etc). For me, the problem with this “western” model of development, has always been that it took these countries a couple of centuries to develop, which is way too long to develop in today’s world. Their development really kicked off with the industrial revolution powered by the invention of the steam engine and the use of electricity at an industrial scale in the 18th and 19th centuries, followed and financed by the creation of the capitalist financial markets in the early 20th century mostly (even though the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is much older), and not forgetting the incalculable economic benefit of slave labor and colonialism. So, this cannot be the model to follow. We need to find solutions that leap frog’s development and there are many such examples.
For example, some of the countries from the far east, such as Singapore and Korea and the United Arab Emirates from the middle east to name a few. What they all had is strong and competent leaders. Singapore, at independence in 1965, which is the same year, we were independent, was a poverty-stricken country, threatened to be swallowed up by Malaysia, its much bigger neighbor. What Singapore had was a leader in Lee Kuan Yew who was strong, placed a high premium on top-quality education, excellence, control of corruption and laser-like delivery of economic and development plans, that ultimately propelled Singapore from a developing third world country to a first world developed country in a generation. Korea migrated from being a World Bank borrower to propel its economy into one of the largest economies in the world fueled by high valued exports, strong domestic savings and investments in public services, environmental protection and infrastructure, all in the last thirty years or so. The UAE, a complete desert only a short 25 years ago, has also been transformed in a generation to what it is now, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi being ultra-modern oases. Take New Zealand that has gone 100 days without COVID-19 community transmission. Rwanda has become that country in Africa that is leading the way, and is truly the pays des milles collines. What one thing do all these countries and the many others who have gone on to do well, have in common? In one word. Leadership. This is what having good leadership can achieve; countries can be transformed from developing to develop in one generation. We can do the same in The Gambia, provided we have the right leadership.
Leadership matters because it sets the tone for the governance of the country, how its citizens feel about the country, relate to each other as one large community rather than just a subset of silo-communities, and how they demonstrate their patriotism of their country. The tone the leader sets also influences how the international community, institutional and other professional investors and even the diaspora think about the country, do business with the country, the seriousness by which they take the country and how they sell and speak of the country. The tone set by the leader determines the confidence everyone internal and external has in the country. A leader must love his/her country and must put the interest of the country he or she is privileged to lead above every other interest, including their own. And this sometimes means, a leader is willing and able to leave office, at any time, if that is what is in the best interest of the country. No one around the world takes our country seriously. I am sure, we can all agree on this. We have lowered the bar too much.
Leadership matters because as we have seen with the situation our country is now in with COVID-19, we need a leader who is able to take the lead in times of trouble and when things go wrong, as they will and must from time to time, and speak to us, to appeal to us to rise above our own narrow interests, to bring us together, to explain to us so we understand, own and share and help implement the government’s plans. Leadership matters because we need someone who can inspire, assemble, lead and coordinate a multi-talented team of professionals in all areas, that can develop and implement the policies, strategies and plans needed to protect us and to develop our country, and to ultimately end impunity and deliver us from poverty.
Leadership matters because we need someone at the apex of our country, who can take full responsibility for fixing our broken institutions, systems, and processes to deliver for us all. This is important because we need a leader who first sees the problem, strongly supports those who he has appointed to fix our problems and then holds them accountable. As individuals we are also responsible within the institutions we work in or interact with. When individually we do not do what we should, then someone has to hold us accountable, and when they do not because of the political system we have, the system will continue to be broken and will rot. I often hear the nice sounding phrase “we want strong institutions not strong men” that always gets a standing ovation. True, but it takes good leaders to build strong institutions. You cannot build strong institutions without good and effective leadership. And sometimes, strong institutions must be challenged, and you need good and effective leaders to do just that. It took the leadership of President Johnson to finally get the Voting Rights Act passed in the US Congress (strong institution) in 1965 going against his political interest to lose the southern states for the Democrats, till this day. Without the strong and effective leader at 1600 Penn Ave that Johnson was, the marches and sacrifices of Martin and John and others would have been productive, until a much later date perhaps, because sometimes, strong institutions do not do the right thing. We have a relatively strong National Assembly now, but have they held Barrow to account, even at this crucial hour when COVID-19 is ravaging our system and killing us, and he will not speak to us? Maybe they will. I truly hope so.
Let us stop making excuses for our leaders. The office of president and all other high public offices of state must be held by competent, qualified, honest, and able persons who are ready to put country above self and able to lead. Fortunately, there are plenty of Gambians at home and abroad who can step up and offer this kind of leadership, but until we change our politics, they will not enter politics.
How do we get leaders we want?
The answer in my view is as simple as it is complicated. We need to change our politics. Saying this, is where the simplicity ends. It will take a short-term approach and a long-term approach. But unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time to wait for the long-term approach. Our poor cannot wait. The end of impunity cannot be deferred.
The long-term approach consists of educating our people, developing, and strengthening our institutions and above all else, changing our hearts and opening our minds. These are generational changes, time we do not have. There might not be a country left by the time we get there.
In the short term, the greatest leverage is with the political parties and their leaders, and with we the people.
Do our political leaders have the political courage to change course and abandon the ways of old? Can they organize their parties, so they move away from being the private properties of their leaders (cult) to ones that position themselves to be governments in waiting? If the Barrow government were to fall now, is there a political party that is ready to step into government now and lead and be effective from day one? I think not. This much is evident because with the precipitous arrival of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, neither the government nor a single opposition party had a plan ready to go, or a leader able to step up to calm and reassure a very weary population. This is telling and extremely worrying.
Can our political parties campaign on issues rather than use divisive practices that only lead to the disaster we have now? Can they tell the people how they are going to improve their schools, provide better quality health care and jobs, close the infrastructure gap and grow the economy, or will they seek to buy their votes, campaign on tribal, ethnic, religious and other fault lines?
Will our political parties make it a race to the top through the quality of the candidates they bring in or keep making it a race to the bottom fueled by their sycophants on motorcycles dressed in party colors dishing out wads of cash in village after village that still look the same 50 years after independence and will look the same 100 years from now, with no electricity or water supply or good school or good hospital?
It does not have to be this way. We have seen this movie before. It does not end well. We are witnessing the effects now with dead bodies overwhelming our mortuaries to the extent that makeshift refrigerated containers have been ferried in from the Banjul Port to relieve the pressure.
I appeal to all political parties to widen their horizons by appealing to talented Gambians to join your ranks and then for you to support them, campaign for them and with them, telling your people your ideas and plans for them. Let it be a campaign of ideas and plans and leadership abilities and not of smallness and divisiveness.
However, the biggest role to get the leaders we want, rests with “we the people”. Yes, with you reading this and with me writing it on a late hot Sunday night in August. When new candidates emerge, particularly if they are women, will we continue to lob sexist, sexual and other derogatory remarks, and innuendo on them from the comfort zones of our Facebook pages and comments? Will we question the authenticity of their Gambian nationality because they do not have a name that you identify with, or because they speak with a funny accent or do not speak your ethnic language? Will you instead focus your inquisition on their development plans, their character, their leadership skills, their experience and how they want to govern you? How we the people answer these questions, will strongly influence the quality of people who enter and stay in politics. How we respond to a different kind of entrant will determine the quality of leadership we get. If we remain open minded to change, and focus only on the quality and ability of those who seek to lead, and not revert to the old ways of doing politics, we will finally get the leader we deserve, the leader who can ensure we also develop in a generation. What we the people demand in the next election, we will get.
So, let’s get rid of the old system and our poor and non-performing leaders, and pick the leader we want and deserve, and return to our promise.
By my estimate, I have spent about eight hours cumulatively with President Barrow over the past three and a half years, having met with him on at least seven separate occasions that I can remember, four of which were just him and I, two were with his advisers present and once when I presented my development plans to a sub-cabinet meeting that he chaired. So, I think, for someone who does not work for him nor is a government official, I have a pretty strong basis to form a credible opinion of how I see him. So here goes.
He is really a likeable guy who got chosen for a job he did not want at the start (that changed quickly when he got into office and the adulation and trappings of the office got the better of him) and was woefully ill-prepared for and to have at this crucial point in our country’s history. He still wants to do well, be liked and to be the one who sets The Gambia on the path to development. He has a cursory understanding of all the issues he faces and what he might have to do to address them. He is aware of his shortcomings and that drives his over caution, his dithering and his inability for effective decision making. For a president who had the entire world not only rooting for him but also, supporting him with endless supply of funds and expertise, he really was set up to succeed.
So, I find myself in this very uncomfortable position of having to write this piece that is strongly critical of him. The reason I do so has no malicious intent or feeling of ill-will towards him, but is predicated on my strongly held conviction that he has failed us and that he must either step down now or at the very latest at the end of this five-year term. The way he has refused to come out and lead in the coronavirus response, has been the final deciding factor for me that he really cannot continue to lead us.
President Barrow must do some deep soul searching. He must ignore the advisers and other sycophants whispering in his ear, that he is the one, the God-given savior of the country. Pay them no mind, you are not, they would say the same thing to the devil if he waived a few greenbacks at them. They will ditch him the moment they know that he longer wields power and head towards the next person who is about to take office, simply because these people cannot survive without a government job and one for that matter that is not close to the occupant of state house, so they can continue to loot the treasury for their own benefit. They are not loyal to you or the country Mr. President, but only to the opportunity that you give them. Listen to your heart and your mind, you know you cannot do the job of running this country and able to solve the problems that we have, many caused by your own mistakes and inexperience.
If you step down now or next year, I believe most Gambians will say, you tried, you did your best and they will respect you, and you can freely stay in this country and enjoy the status of President-Emeritus. Not bad sounding eh? You can be a statesman that can travel the world and be called on for advice when things go wrong in other parts of Africa. Sometimes, the best decision a politician can take, is to ignore everyone, listen to their heart and head, and honorably walk off the stage. It is time to save us all, and to preserve some scope and space for historians to conclude that in the end, you did the honorable thing. It is not too late, until it is too late.
To the political parties and leaders vying to lead us, please respect us and let us not go back to the same old ways of doing things that have brought our country so soon after the 2016/17 impasse, to another point of failure, again. Our country can have a different trajectory provided you campaign only on ideas and plans based on the vision you have for this country. Tell us why you have what it takes to deliver this vision and who you will work with to get this work done. Drop the politics of what language you speak, the sound of your last name, whether you are male or female, what tribe or religion you belong to, what part of the country you are from and how much money you have. None of that ultimately matters to take us forward, but it does matter a great deal in bringing us down even further.
In this next election cycle, let us commit once and for all to open the political space to talented and qualified Gambians. Let us run a spirited and competitive campaign based on who is the best among us to lead us. And after the election, let us all join hands and collectively move forward and resolve to work with the one we would have elected, to write our future.
If we can muster the will to rally around our next leader, there is nothing we as a collective people cannot do or achieve. We owe our founders a return to the promise they made for us in 1965 when they guided us from that improbable nation, and not on the path to a humanitarian crisis or to a failed or fragile state that we are now on, but on a path to being that beacon of hope for all who seek the pursuit of happiness. More than that, we owe the next generation more than the last generation gave us. Let us get to work and set about bequeathing the next generation something to be proud of, which is, a Gambia highly developed and free of poverty. This must be our national dream.
In 2065, just 45 short years from now, when The Gambia will be 100 years old (yalla nange kor fekeh chi jama ak sutura), let history record for all time and have it forever etched in our hearts and of those who come after us, that ours was the generation that put The Gambia on course to claim the 21st Century. The future belongs to those who write it.
About the Author
James Orehmie Monday, a proud Gambian by birth and genealogy, likes to think of himself as an eternal optimist and a dreamer of sorts. His ultimate dream is a prosperous Gambia that is highly developed and at peace with her citizens. This is where his optimism is most tested. Otherwise, James, to many, Orehmie, to a few, is a trained engineer with a Master’s Degree in Structural Engineering from the University of Liverpool (1989), England. Professionally, in a career that spans more than 30 years, James has lived in Banjul, London, Washington DC, Bangkok and Dubai, locations from where he has worked on all areas of due diligence of large-scale infrastructure project finance, design, construction and management in developing and developed economies beginning in England and then across multiple countries in Africa, East Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific Islands. After 17 years at the World Bank, where he mostly worked to protect the environment and people from the adverse effects and outcomes of infrastructure projects, James retired early in July 2019. James Orehmie Monday dreams of being a master saxophonist and a chef cordon bleu of his own eponymous gourmet restaurants.