A Year On: What’s the Direction of Barrow’s Ark?

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A few days ago, Gambia’s new leader finally landed in Banjul a year after his dramatic accession to the throne following a political tsunami that had a billion-year dictator packed and left.  Mr. Barrow creatively and innovatively used a campaign slogan that ordinary Gambians found easier to associate with. He took advantage of the country’s deeply religious connection and hatched a slogan that asked citizens to emancipate themselves by joining Prophet Noah’s Ark. This Ark is familiar to both Gambian Muslims and Christians as history would tell us it salvaged Noah’s people from a devastating deluge that was sparing anyone but those who refused to get onboard.  The Ark’s door was open to anyone who wanted to be saved.  Just like Noah’s people, Barrow thought The Gambia was in a similar situation. He had asked Gambians to board the Ark to avoid an engulfing flood that was sure to be drowning only the brute leader and his followers. At the time, The Gambia was at a dangerous crossroad, held hostage by an enduring dictator who wanted to create his dynasty and in fact build castles in the skies. Freedom was restricted, liberty seized, opportunities squeezed, and Gambians just lived a state of despondency.  Citizens were at best arrested and at worst disappeared eternally without trace at the behest of a man who had always been agonised as if he was bereft of a proper childhood.  Rallying Gambians against these crimes, Barrow promised that his Ark would salvage Gambians and anchor them on safe shores where freedoms, liberties and prosperity would be the order of the day.

One year into this voyage, what is the direction of an Ark that took off with great optimism on December 1st? Sailing through the post-dictatorship waves, Gambians have mixed reactions when it comes to assessing a year of the voyage.  To many a people, the Barrow government has delivered a lot under very difficult circumstances. The argument is that the coalition government inherited a country with only a two-month reserve; a highly polarized and heavily indebted nation whose institutional systems have been broken to a near irreparability.  They claim that the administration has created a freer environment where freedoms and liberties are guaranteed.  The press is writing headlines of their choices and the airwaves are entertaining civil discourses that hold the government accountable to the people. Social media is open for public discourse on issues that matter and people are just generally freely expressing their divergent views without any fear 0f government reprisal.  That government has shown commitment to repealing retrogressive laws that limit fundamental freedoms and even concede some in some cases.  That government has embarked on critical democratic reforms that would mark a significant departure from the past.  Such reforms, they claim, include the process of ensuring that the co-equal branches of the government – Executive, Judiciary, and Legislature – function collaboratively but independently of each other.  Key on such reforms, they trumpet, also include some pertinent pieces of legislations that show the government committing itself to establishing a Human Right Commission (HRC), a Truth, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (TRRC), and a Constitution Review Committee (CRC).  They claim a Human Rights Commission will ensure that citizens’ human rights are protected and not trampled upon by the powers that be. They claim a Truth, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission will ensure that the long-yearned justice is delivered to countless number of Gambians who were victimised by Jammeh and his cohorts.  Significantly, they rejoice that the Constitutional Review Committee will holistically look at the current 1997 constitution and make recommendations for a complete new state script that will usher in a Third Republic.  One cannot also talk to the Barrow disciples without them reminding you of how fast the country moved to repair its broken international relations.  At the time of Jammeh’s demise, The Gambia technically adopted an isolationism policy. The country was disconnected with the rest of the world because Jammeh was so paranoid that he thought his potential downfall would not be plotted by his own people but external forces. Even Gambia’s closest neighbour, Senegal, had a very distasteful tie with Banjul. Banjul isolated itself from the rest of sub-regional capitals and Gambia was virtually on its own. Jammeh pulled the nation out of key international organisations, notably, International Criminal Court (ICC) and Commonwealth. But a year into this voyage, Barrow pundits say international relations have been restored and Gambia plugged itself back into the community of nations. They say ICC membership withdrawal is cancelled and the process to rejoin the Commonwealth is in full swing, and that Banjul has now gained a good reputation on the international front. The Barrow Baifaals would provide you with a long list of accomplishments, including the provision of vital foreign aid needed to recover Gambian economy.

What Barrow Critics Think

The other side of the political divide holds diametrically opposing views.  A year into this voyage, they claim that the Coalition government only succeeded in a regime change and has not yet done any practical move to divorce from the norms that characterised Jammeh’s decades rule. They criticised Barrow’s administration for hastily tabled a legislation on an age limit clause to allow one of them take charge but slow in presenting a bill that will ensure that no future Gambian president serves more than two terms in office.  They claim that politicians are beginning to live fat on corruption and continue to ignore the provision of vital basic amenities.  For example, they decry the erratic power supply and insisted that a government that has been in power for a year has no excuse not to improve situations for a sector as vital as the energy. They are afraid that the government might not do much to protect citizens’ rights, especially the freedom to assemble and express opinion as guaranteed by Section 25 of the 1997 Constitution. They give the #occupywestfield power protest permit denial saga as a classic example of this, and stress that, that sort of attitude of the government cannot be condoned in new nation that freed itself from the brutal jaws of dictatorship. They advocate for stronger institutions that will hold the state machinery accountable and vow never to allow The Gambia degenerate into the past circumstances. This and many more are claimed against the new status quo.

Way forward

But going forward, the Barrow administration must seize all of the opportunities that present themselves.  This government needs to prioritise key sectors and quickly work on implementing the needed reforms that will propel our nation.  Without delay, the government must match its words with actions. One of the most important bills I personally think should be set in motion is that of TERM LIMITS so that never again will anyone Gambian politician perpetuate him/herself in power. The government must prioritise the health sector and ensures that hospitals and health centers are stocked with vital drugs and live-saving equipment.  It is traumatic to see a lot of Gambians helplessly lying on stretches in health facilities, enduring sicknesses that are treatable and curable. I cannot still get my head around the fact that Gambians would still have to travel to Senegal for treatable sicknesses. To date, this country has no MRI system for advanced diagnosis.  What could be more important to any government than ensuring that Gambians have access to proper diagnosis and treatment? How does any government that is serious about development neglect the health of its citizens? It’s not this government’s fault for the current problems in the health sector, but it must prioritise it. Education too must be prioritised to ensuring that when 12,000 Gambians sit the West African Senior School Certificate Examinations, it is not just 500 that will have a minimum University of The Gambia requirement.  Power sector must be revolutionised to match our development aspirations.  Fact is, nothing works in the absent of power – health, education, investment and so on. Finally, institutions must be built and strengthened such that Gambians wouldn’t care if there are weak leaders governing them.

Congratulations Gambia and a Happy Democratic Anniversary!

Hatab Fadera is a Third-Year Student at the School of Journalism and Digital Media of the University of The Gambia