By Sheriff Kora
Shortly after the elections in 1996 following the transition period and the return to democracy, one of the interesting past times I shared with a few of my colleagues from Gambia High School was going to the National Assembly to follow parliamentary proceedings. As young students of government we didn’t fully understand all the dynamics and logistics of the house, but we were always very fascinated by the work of the democracy we witnessed.
Some of the shining stars that caught our interest at the time were none other than the honorable Sedia Jatta, Halifa Sallah, Hamat Bah and the late Eddie Sallah of Sami. Although of different parties and different ideological leanings to some respect, the commonality in these parliamentarians was their radical candor and rigidity in following the proper procedures and rules of the House. Being a stickler to rules and procedure, Mr. Halifa Sallah in particular found himself at gridlock with the then Speaker Wadda and the rest of the house.
I have a vivid recollection of that January evening in 1997 when Mr. Halifa Sallah declined to take oath until after the President declared the house open. This created a heated banter to the point of Sallah being escorted out of that August Assembly. I and a few of my disgruntled colleagues marched out of parliament to show solidarity with Halifa’s plight. Sticking to his convictions and standing up for what’s right against the APRC bigwigs made him an immediate hero in our young minds. That incident was my first experience with civil disobedience, but certainly wouldn’t be my last of seeing honorable Sallah ruffling feathers with speakers of the House.
The events that transpired between Mr. Halifa Sallah and Speaker Denton a few days ago, certainly evoked memories of the good old days when I sang his glory in the National Assembly. However, now that I’m wiser, I choose my battles well. Whilst I refrained from drawing daggers in a battle of which I know very little, I have cautiously followed the commentaries online.
Having had the chance to listen to the audio recording of the exchange between honorable Sallah and Speaker Denton this morning, I was torn between disbelief and utter rage at how low we’ve allowed ourselves to become. Unlike the past, I am less sympathetic to the cause and conduct of honorable Sallah. What is expected of an astute political leader is composure and a public display of emotional intelligence when faced with the most difficult and challenging situation. Allowing one’s emotions to betray his or her conscience is a sign of poor emotional leadership. The unfortunate incident and the bandwagoning we saw at the National Assembly is a total failure in leadership and a betrayal of the public trust.
The original intent of separation of powers and checks and balances is to generate and sustain a creative tension between the three organs of government – the executive, legislature and the judiciary. The Gambia National Assembly has oversight powers over the executive branch and in the exercise of this power can summon a government official to ask for relevant documents or information in order to enable it (the legislator) to make evidence based decision on matters of the state. Thus, it was totally right for the members of the House to ask Mr. Amadou Sanneh for more information on the loan agreement between The Gambia government and the government of the People’s Republic of China. After all, as a democratically elected government, what we expect is to promote transparency and an open system of governance.
The claim presented to the Speaker by honorable Sallah that Mr. Amadou Sanneh was accusing the MP was unsubstantiated and very baseless. Unless the audio from was doctored, honorable Amadou Sanneh was addressing the House in his capacity as minister and an advocate of the executive. National Assemblies are not convened to hold tea parties but to hold formal dialogue and debates towards political action and compromise. The creative tension that exists between the different branches under the principles of checks and balances calls for such exchanges. It is the duty of the minister to give a detailed cost – benefit analysis of the loan agreement for the members of the parliament to understand and to probe him for more information where necessary. His role is to inform them, get their buy in in order to minimize resistance to support the loan agreement. There are many budgeting tactics used by public administrators to achieve exactly what Mr. Sanneh was doing. It was not rude neither was it accusatory. I support the motion to furnish the House with the documents bearing the full loan agreement, but overall, Mr. Amadou Sanneh was very professional, open, and respectful in his speech.
Lest some of the critics forget basic civics, the Speaker of the House is the administrative head of the National Assembly and in this role presides over the sitting of the House and has the power to enforce all the rules of the House which includes recognizing MP’s to the floor to speak, suspending MP’s where necessary or adjoining legislative sessions. Every member of the House is expected to be well acquainted with the duties and powers of the Speaker. However, the events of last week clearly shows there’s either an attempt at flagrant lawlessness or there’s an urgent need for orientation in the National Assembly. Whatever the case, no Speaker of the House of Assembly of The Gambia – man or woman – should be subjected to the level of public disrespect Speaker Denton was forced to endure. If Mr. Sanneh was indeed accusing the MP’s as alleged by some, there are certainly rules and procedures through which to resolve such matters. Accosting the Speaker with condescending words or boorish defiance just delegitimatizes one’s claim no matter what it.
The speaker throwing an MP out is nothing new or exclusive to Gambia. It happens in many parliaments around the world. Madam Denton has powers conferred on her to suspend or kick out any MP who disrupts a session or shows unruly behavior in parliament. For a sitting Gambian MP to flout the orders of the Speaker of the House in addition disrespects the orders of the Sergeant at Arms is not only a personal problem but should be seen as a national disgrace that deserves the attention and sober reflection of all genuine Gambians. This is not politics, it is about what example we set for our children. This is about what expectations our leaders set for themselves to be measured against.
Some have argued online that the Speaker is only a nominated member and not an elected member. That is true, but so what? She is a nominated member through a constitutional process approved by the same voters who elected the sitting MP’s in the House. Being a nominated member does not take away the fact that Madam Denton is still the Speaker of the House and in fact the second in line to be the President of The Gambia should the President and Vice President die. So to those analysts and Gambia experts who minimize the importance of the office of the Speaker, please do yourself a favor and reflect on the above lines for a minute. Most importantly, when two elephants fight, it’s only the grass that suffers. With all the fury and defiance, no one emerged a winner in this battle. If anything, this avoidable and unnecessary fracas only tainted the image of our National Assembly, debasing us to the lowest level of maturity and tolerance in our legislative discourse. Why?