Our Political Contract: Back to Civics
As a field researcher; interviewing and immersing yourself with the people on the ground, gives you a different perspective on things. Well, at least that was my case in The Gambia. Before my visit in 2015 - watching afar from my so called American understanding of politics, it never made sense to me why anyone would and could support the Jammeh regime. Notwithstanding, talking to people on the ground - I got a political awakening. I got to understand that, in The Gambia, we are dealing with a Western system of government, which a great deal of our people do not fully comprehend.
Essentially, we have the three branches of government: the Executive (Presidency), Judiciary (Courts), and Legislature (Parliament), donned by a periwigged Speaker. We have the courts, elections, a constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion. Theoretically, we have every appearance of being a democratic, constitutional state — and no reality. The understanding between the citizenry and the state -- the political contract -- is so absurd - it is almost breathtaking.
After fifty one years of bad governance, a subpar education system, sanctification of our leaders, an economic and political decadence belonging to a bygone era - it is about time that we go back to the drawing board and try to educate, sensitize, from the formative years and beyond, the underpinnings of civic duty and responsibility. We do not only need to change the way we engage the powers-that-be and institutions of power - but we also need a total reset and, in the process, do a lot of unlearning, as well.
For five decades or so, we lack the proper understanding of our structures and our relationship with the state, the political contract between us, the citizenry, and the government. The presidency is not seen from the prism of "the president works for me" and that he or she is just a servant of the people, nothing more than that. Unfortunately, we see the presidency from the point of view of a monarch (Burr, Mansa), someone placed there by the man above. As a case in point, outgoing president -- Jammeh -- has abused this and treated the presidency and the country as his own personal fiefdom, as a result, looting, destroying, undermining the basic tenets of the Republic. .
The populace, high ranking government officials, especially the members of Parliament, like a good many of the population, are byproducts of this system. Almost all of them bought into this fallacy, to the point, where they are just rubber stamps, passive spectators. Instead of challenging the executive and representing the interests of their constituents - they are just bunch of “Yes, Sir” folks, collecting our tax Dalasis. Consequently, when you hear the Chief of Defense Staff - who is paid from our taxpayer Dalasis - say that the president is the one paying him, thus, he has to be loyal to him; you are left to wonder why and how did we get here? How could someone at the top of Gambian power say that the president is paying his salary?
How is it that a good many of the people I met in my travels - who receive crops and fertilizers during the rainy season from the president; bags of sugar and rice during festivities; sporadic doling of our monies to the “kompins, kafos” - think that the president is doing them favors by giving them their money in token rations? Sadly, to these people, this, essentially, fulfills the contract between them and the state (president) -- sporadic rations and patronage. Unbeknownst to them that the president actually works for them and that he's actually using their money to do these things; and that he's not doing them any favors.
By way of contrast - democracy is a perpetual struggle which is not realized in one, two, or even three generations; but a process that could sometimes take a century or so to be a realized. For instance - the United States, which is argued to be the greatest democracy on earth, for a century or so - was a colossal disappointment, an experiment which—by its own standards of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—failed miserably. So, there is hope and optimism, especially given the new lease of life following the recent presidential election.
The Gambia, like most fledgling democracies, would not be expected to achieve such tomorrow - and like most countries - is going to hit a lot of bumpy roads. Because The Gambia is the product of imperfect humans. However, I do think that it is imperative for the governed to understand the contract they have with their government; and this could be advanced immensely by civic education and duty. Without a doubt, this should be a top priority for the incoming government.
Therefore, in the new Gambia, our leaders should know that we owe them nothing - that we, the people, hired them to do a job - and that they should be honored and appreciative of that. In the new Gambia, the security officials should know that they are not getting paid by our tax Dalasis to set-up unnecessary checkpoints, torturing, arbitrarily arresting, harassing their patrons, but serve the people. In the new Gambia, the parliamentarians should be challenged by their constituents - to serve in their best interest rather than be at the beck and call of the president. In the new Gambia, the government would finally belong to the governed. And, in the new Gambia, the political contract would, in the not so distant future, hopefully hinge on the consent of an informed citizenry. This new Gambia gives me a lot to be hopeful about!