Women of Substance

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May God Save Dear Little Gambia Part 1

By Saul Saidykhan

Less than two weeks ago, the female trailblazer, Dr. Isatou Touray caused considerable buzz both within and outside The Gambia by announcing her candidature as an Independent in the country’s presidential poll slated for this December. Perhaps not surprising, much of the excitement revolves around the novelty of her gender and the artificial barriers she has broken. However, while these are great achievements for Gambian women in particular and African women in general, what is lost in this hysteria is the crucial fact that Dr. Touray is eminently qualified for the position she is seeking unlike the current occupant and most of the male candidates competing against her in opposition to the same loony tyrant we have in control in Gambia today!

I have advocated severally in the past for Gambians to place a premium on Standards by assessing potential leaders base on their “Skills Set” or” Body of Work” (a combination of academic and or professional experience and antecedents.) This is not a guarantee that we’ll always have a good leader, but at the very least, this will mitigate the risk that a country like The Gambia takes in electing a new leader. The worst thing The Gambia can do to itself is allow another semi-literate predatory hustler to weasel his or her way to power after Yaya Jammeh. If that happens, it will take the country literally a whole century to recover from the damage the country would have suffered since 1994!

Exactly twenty years ago last month - in August 1996, I wrote an article in which I argued fervently that the then AFPRC Chairman Yaya Jammeh and his entire team lacked the “education, experience, and foresight to run the Gambia.” And that if allowed to lead Gambia, the consequences would be dire. Today, there are very few right thinking Gambians that will belabor this point. But at the time, I couldn’t even get the article published in a Gambian paper which I contacted for reasons I’d rather not rehash. (Those curious can google the Gambia-L archives for this article which I posted there in 1999.)

I am no clairvoyant. I’m merely a life-long student of history and world politics. After a while, connecting dots, and recognizing warning signs of impending scams and trouble become second nature.  What has genuinely surprise me is that supposedly intelligent Gambians are surprise that a semi-literate buffoon like Yaya Jammeh has messed up the Gambia the way he has. I have told some in person and I repeat here: what the heck do you expect to happen when you let a monkey play with a cigarette lighter? Seriously!  

I hope and pray that someday Bob Marley will be declared a saint for being the first to recognize “educated fools” among the wider African family. Or maybe it’s just hypocrisy…

When we were growing up in the PPP era, there was at least a regular process established and followed as a standard when it comes to the public service. One cannot advance to the higher echelon of the civil service without a certain minimum level of education and or experience. For instance, to be Divisional Commissioner, you have to serve a certain number of years in the public service after graduating from university though the Gambia had none of its own. Same goes for Director, Under-Secretary, Permanent Secretary, or higher. In certain cases, specialized professional certifications are required. Overall, the Standards were adhered to.

Even for the basic starting levels of the civil service, Radio Gambia carried daily announcements that went something like: “Applications are invited from suitably qualified Gambians to fill the vacant post of so and so … at the ministry of so and so; The criteria/requirement for the job are listed; And finally, the MOST important point: Candidates without the minimum requirements will NOT be considered!

Yaya Jammeh has long gotten rid of all these standards for obvious reasons! For evidence of his self-centered motivation, let’s recall the case of one of his kinsmen Alieu Jammeh who he appointed to head The Gambia Customs agency over ten years ago. When some young reporter dared ask Alieu if he is up to the job he was handed on a silver platter, Alieu without thinking about the implication of his answer blurted out: ”even the president is not qualified for his position.” Ditto! Poor Alieu was quickly withdrawn from that appointment only to be transferred to another national institution.

You see, one of the biggest tragedies of the Yaya Jammeh legacy is that there isn’t any minimum requirement for any public service position -however high, anymore. Jammeh has dragged the bar so low that even actual school drop-outs and all manner of semi-literate predators now think they can rule or misgovern Gambians just like he Yaya Jammeh is doing.   This is a direct result of the attitude he embodies that Standards don’t matter. This is very dangerous. Unless we stand up to this, we will pay for this ignorance for generations to come! Sadly, though, many Gambians seem to embrace such nonsense instead. This explains why you hear seemingly sensible Gambians say they don’t care who becomes president. Nothing scares me more than hearing such rubbish.

You see, at face value, the idea that any normal adult Gambian can run for president sounds progressive and egalitarian, and reflective of a just society that values all its citizens. Until one pulls back and mull the issue just a tiny bit. When one does that, it becomes obvious that it is a bad -nay, make that ASININE idea precisely because it is more faithful to romanticized ideals of fairness or lack thereof than it is to assuaging the peculiarities of our particular context.

Here is the painful reality about our Gambia: it is still a country that is non-industrial, non-technological, and has weak institutions characterized by no Checks and Balances. To compound our problems, government is not only the biggest employer of labor, it is also the biggest client any private business in the country could have. Given these facts, ask any professional who knows anything about Assurance and Attestation services, and they’ll tell you that the MOST important element in changing the organizational culture in such an environment – especially given the history of lax ethics and outright criminality we’ve had in our national government is the “Tone at the top.” In other words, the person in charge! So Gambians that discount the irrelevance of the president’s personality really don’t understand their own country.

In industrialized-technological societies, citizens have wide choices in terms of employment, food and other life styles. Most people work independent of government and more importantly the gestation period between changes in government policy and its impact on the population tend to be very long with the law always placing the burden on the government to protect citizens against the ill-effects of its policy changes.  On the other hand, in countries like The Gambia, the reality is different. The decision taken by the president on Monday directly impacts the life of most Gambians on Wednesday of that same week! There is no cushion or support from any government agency. Unlike industrialized-technological societies where people go to the market once every two months or so, Gambians go to the market every day! And the price of basic foodstuff keeps changing daily.  We buy petrol not by gallons but by liters because we cannot afford to. The list of harsh realities of Gambian life goes on.  And it doesn’t matter who is in charge of making such impactful decisions in our country?  What in the world is wrong with so many so-called educated Gambians?

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