From Prezidom to Family Nation
By Baba Galleh Jallow
Unlike Africa’s current nation-state system, the chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires that existed in precolonial Africa had fluid boundaries that expanded or contracted depending on the power or weakness of their central governments. Some of them had wise rulers who treated their subjects in a kind and caring manner. Some had cruel and unwise rulers who terrorized their subjects, at their own peril of course. European imperialism disrupted these traditional African political formations, redrew the map of Africa, and invented a coterie of colonies that morphed into Africa’s current nation-state system at independence. Ironically, in some parts of Africa today, the nation-state is ruled as if it were a precolonial African kingdom and its citizens treated like the subjects of an unwise and cruel ruler of the precolonial sort.
It is a sad truth that in certain African countries, the president’s name evokes images of brutality and instills fear in the hearts of citizens. Some African heads of state have in effect molded themselves into what we might call “a prezidom” – part constitutional president of a nation-state, part absolutist ruler of a precolonial kingdom. The prezidom is always confused because it finds that it cannot be a constitutional president and an absolute monarch at the same time. The dilemma is often expressed in random pseudo-constitutional and neo-absolutist utterances that bear little resemblance to reality. It is as if the prezidom is perpetually trying and failing to turn into an unreal political creature in the nation-state. Nevertheless, it forcefully assumes the “right” to own the country and everybody’s lives with it. Under the prezidom the sovereign citizens of a nation-state are subjectified, their voices are stifled, their choices proscribed, and ultimately, their human dignity nullified.
But while the majority of Africans are chillingly compliant in the face of the strange prezidom, a significant minority recognizes and detests its outrageous injustices and is determined to fight it, if necessary through the use of force. The ubiquity of the prezidom in Africa explains why the continent has had such a large number of military coups, attempted coups and putsches since independence. Yet, the African prezidom habitually fails to admit or address the causes of these violent outbursts. A string of vitriolic rhetoric always follows these abortive coups, spiced with hostile threats of hell and damnation for anyone who dares to challenge the prezidom or question its claim to personal ownership of the country, and its “right” to do as it pleases with the lives of the people. In The Gambia, the citizens are frequently reminded that the prezidom will be prezidom for as long as it likes, and if they don’t like it they can go to hell. One man assumes the “right” to own a country shared by millions and to do with the lives of everybody else as he pleases, and damn the consequences. Injustice assumes the “right” to be justice, and damn the consequences. No wonder some Gambians are so angry that they are advocating the right to own guns in a post-Jammeh Gambia.
Commenting on one of my recent pieces published on Kairo News, “Maxs” a Gambian justifiably angry at the Jammeh prezidom’s unjust treatment of Imam Cherno Gassama wrote: “I wish Gambians are armed like Americans so that citizens will be able to defend themselves against the tyrant and its oppressive forces. The next government must ensure that there is legislation which gives the right to every citizen to bear arms as USA’s second amendment right does. This will ensure that never in the history of our country will we have a tyrant as a leader who will oppress citizens.” He wrote that the best way to “empower defenceless and oppressed people is to empower them to bear arms to protect themselves from excessive abuse of tyrannical government. I believe if Mr. Gassama was armed, he will not be kidnapped without fighting back. . . . Until then we are a nation of cowards . . . .” Of course, no one can blame “Maxs” for being angry. Why should Imam Gassama be arbitrarily arrested and locked up for eight months without charges, without trial, without any public explanation, and without access to his family? It seems as if in its interactions with Imam Gassama, the Jammeh prezidom treated him as if he were a lifeless object to be simply picked up and dumped in jail, without any regard to his humanity or his status as the respected Imam of a whole community. Political activities of this nature naturally make some people feel that an eye for an eye is a fair policy, even though it makes everybody blind.
While I fully respected his right to his opinion on gun ownership in post-Jammeh Gambia, I could not help responding in a short thank you note to “Maxs” that in my opinion, the Jammeh era should not be followed by a gun culture of the American kind, but by a culture of enlightened and empowered citizenship in which the government knows itself to be and operates as a diligent and respectful child of the nation, beholden to the wishes of its parents, the people; all of the people. What Gambians should aspire to is not the American gun culture, but a culture of peace, political civility, and unity in diversity whose defining characteristic will be respect for the human person, the inviolable sanctity of human dignity and the rule of law, and in which no tyranny is possible because the people are politically enlightened and empowered, and will remove their government through popular power if it fails. Yes, many Gambians are afraid of the Jammeh presidom; but that is not because they are a nation of cowards, but because they have not recognized and assumed their real status as the supreme power in the land. A politically enlightened and empowered people will not allow themselves to be oppressed. Dictatorship, especially of the famous “developmental” kind cannot persist in a politically enlightened and empowered society. The people will make you jippo, and if you don’t like it you can try going to heaven.
We recall that as part of its report to the AFPRC, the National Consultative Committee had recommended the establishment of a civic education council to help raise the political awareness of the Gambian people. Since he had “accepted” the NCC’s recommendations, Jammeh duly appointed a civic education council without any serious thought or planning. No wonder within a very short period, the so-called civic education council died an unnatural death: it simply stopped talking and disappeared. The planning and implementation of a serious civic education institution cannot be left in the hands of any single person; it has to be a collective, well thought-out and ongoing process of experimentation and exploration. It will require serious reflection and brainstorming by a panel of social scientists, humanists, economists, and other experts. Happily, there exists a wealth of Gambianist expertise that could be tapped to do the job.
We have argued before that Gambians can attain the political enlightenment and empowerment they need through the agency of the nation as school, the Nation School, whose primary goal will be to transform small Gambia into one big family, a Family Nation. The Nation School project will facilitate the honest political education of all Gambians, young and old, enhance a healthy culture of civility on all matters of general public interest, and promote the idea and enhance the transformation of our small country into one big traditional Gambian family, a Family Nation, in which the people are the parents, the government the children. Inevitably, transforming Gambia into a Nation School and Family Nation requires an enlightened leadership, a state that will serve not only as a government, but also as a professional, dedicated and well organized educational institution whose primary role is to facilitate and enhance the rigorous political education of the people. Through a sustained process of proper political enlightenment and empowerment, Gambians will learn to assume their rightful status as the ultimate custodians of political power and authority in the land, and the government will learn to assume its proper status as a loyal servant, not an all-powerful master of the people.
The fact that most Gambians have not attained any level of formal western education is not an obstacle to their proper political education. Because some Gambians cannot read the constitution in English does not mean that they cannot understand its provisions if these are carefully explained to them in their own languages. They will fully understand every section, every subsection, every clause, and every nuance of their country’s constitution if these are carefully explained to them in their own languages. They will understand the doctrines of popular sovereignty, parliamentary democracy, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the writ of habeas corpus and any other jurisprudential concept or legal instrument affecting their lives, if these are carefully explained to them in their own languages by well qualified professionals.
Gambians need no foreign language to understand that President and Mansa (king) are similar concepts but totally incompatible institutions. They can be easily made to understand that Mansa – whether of the babili sort or the njatigi sort – is as extinct as the Ninki Nanka, even though there are frequent reported sightings of a similar creature bellowing fire from its mouth and nostrils across the country. Gambians need no foreign language to understand that long ago, independence ended the colonial Mansa Kunda and replaced it with a Nation State in which the people are more powerful than their government. Their compliant Mansa mentality and all its damaging baggage can be rectified by exposing and explaining the chronic anomaly between current political realities and outdated political practices and perceptions that the prezidom willfully perpetuates in order to hang on to power.
Gambians need no foreign language to understand that the police man has no right to slap them, or to stop their car, seize their driver’s license, and go sit angrily somewhere waiting for some begging and a bribe. Gambians need to understand that all monies spent by their government come from their own pockets, not the government’s; from taxes they pay, loans contracted in their names, which they and their progeny have to repay, gifts given to them through their government, or contracts signed and deals made in their name. The nation school project can effectively educate our people on these and all other matters political they need to know, in their own languages, and in a manner that would enhance their political enlightenment and empowerment, and lead to the transformation of our small Gambia into one big Gambian family, a Family Nation in which the people are the parents, the government the children.
One has a sense that the nation school project can be implemented through an Institute for Gambian Studies. Staffed by suitably qualified professionals and faculty, this Institute will design and offer courses on Gambian Studies to both university students in a classroom setting and to the entire nation via regular live programs on national radio and television. Through the Institute for Gambian Studies, the entire country can be transformed into an open university in which Gambians are continuously educated on both domestic and international issues according to a well-designed curriculum, well-structured syllabi and a sustained process of lectures and discussions on national radio and television, and at community forums. Gambians will be given lessons on their national constitution, on the concepts of citizenship and the rule of law, on the nature of the nation-state – its historical roots, its philosophical foundations, the limits of state power and authority - and on many other issues. Through the agency of the nation school, Gambian society will be transformed into one big family of relatives who may disagree or even quarrel and fight over politics, but who will always observe the highest standards of fair play and civility on all matters of general public concern.
All Gambian children should also be effectively socialized in the political culture of empowered citizenship in the nation-state from as early an age as may be considered suitable. In addition to being taught at the college and adult national levels, Gambian Studies should be made compulsory at all elementary and secondary schools, public and private. Gambian children should graduate from high school with a reasonable knowledge of their national constitution and the basic laws governing their lives, their rights and responsibilities as citizens. They should graduate with a reasonable knowledge of the concepts of parliamentary democracy, the separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, term limits for the presidency, and respect for human rights and the rule of law. Of course, for all Gambian children to be politically educated there will need to be a system of free and compulsory education in The Gambia. And there can be that, at least through high school, if the country’s resources, however limited, are channeled in the proper direction.
We are confident that well-meaning international organizations and various centers and institutes for constitutional studies and peace and democracy studies around the world will be only too happy and willing to assist in building the kind of new society we envisage. If Gambia declares itself a Nation School and is seen to be genuinely aspiring towards becoming a Family Nation, we will have a rich fund of international goodwill and support to draw upon. Organizations like the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the National Democratic Institute are just a few among many whose resources may be tapped to fund the Nation School and Family Nation projects. Of course, we recognize the very important need to preserve our cherished cultural norms, values and identities from undue erosion by the influx of “foreign cultural influences”. But we also know that what we aspire to is the enhancement of human dignity, which is as native to Gambians as it is to every human community.