By Cherno Baba Jallow
“Governors are appointed, councils are elected,’’ Talib Bensouda, who recently won re-election as mayor of the Kanifing Municipal Council, once said in a speech. “Councils should not report to governors; councils report to the people,’’ he added.
Perfectly stated. Democracy is the will of the people. The people, that is, gets to decide who decides for them. In The Gambia, people have a say in who their local government councillors and chairpersons are, but not who becomes their governor.
Mayor Bensouda’s position on this matter comes from the heart. He is both puzzled by and anguished over a local government system deliberately catering to a minister and governors at the expense of local councils, the legitimate custodians of power and authority.
Predicting the future in politics is an ill-conceived leap into uncertain territory, but it’s probable that if he became president, Bensouda would champion significant changes to the way governorships are attained or run in The Gambia. He would ask for demarcation lines between what governors could do and not do as agents of central government. He would come up with ways to revamp local councils, protecting them from the intrusive and dictatorial abuse of governors and local government ministers. And he would call for the hiring and firing of governors be done by the people, not the president. Making governors elected officials, and hence accountable to the people, would remove one of the last anomalies of Gambian democracy.
A reform in local government is key. But this issue deserves a sustained presence in the public imagination, and up until public opinion assents to, and legislative reforms downstream from, it.
So Bensouda’s re-election means he gets to stay for five more years, and with it, a chance to build on his political capital and flesh out his ideas on the management of government affairs. He won re-election not because he had an “impressive” first term —- he didn’t; it was a mix-bag —— but rather because of his political charm and his lofty ambitions to bring ameliorative changes to the conditions of his constituents.
Bensouda’s essence isn’t really anchored in his past, his last five years in office. It is in his future, in the strong belief that he has the potential to be a great leader, a trailblazer in Gambian politics. His United Democratic Party should take a closer look at him for a potential leader and a challenger for the presidency in 2026.
At the moment, Bensouda is riding a crest of urban popularity. He gets wide berth among those displeased with President Adama Barrow’s juvenile incompetency, turned off by Ousainou Darboe’s political hubris and incensed at Halifa Sallah’s stubborn inflexibility. He is young, eloquent and compelling. He exudes a tranquil bearing, far removed from the disorderliness of Gambian politics and the clangor of its discourse.
Going into his sixth year in office, Bensouda is accumulating executive experience, a good start for a sojourn into the presidency. He is the kind of a leader the UDP needs to broaden its reach, to smoothen its rough edges and to help make a compelling case against Barrow in 2026.
In the 2022 presidential election, three thunderclaps sank Darboe’s candidacy: he flaunted an aura of invincibility aligned with smug superiority, he had a (huge) likability problem and he had (zero) elective-office experience. The last two matter because they fundamentally matter to voters in deciding for and against those seeking to run the affairs of state. They won’t vote for politicians they don’t like. And they are leery of voting for those without the faintest of experience in running things. Darboe was and still is well-liked by his supporters. But he struggles to find love from the rest of the electorate. He has been running for the presidency since 1996, but the electorate, excluding the UDP members, sees his lack of elective-office experience as an embarrassing, unsettling even, omission in his suitability for representative leadership.
The UDP is still unwilling to acknowledge or admit it publicly, that it has a leadership problem. So, it indulges itself in the self-perpetuating canard of a “stolen’’ election. The party would save itself a lot of precious time if it, among other things, concentrated on finding a replacement for its perennially-losing candidate. That would help it abandon its long-running, if constraining, culture of supine idolization and inflamed resentment. It would also, for once, bring to the fore of the party, an “ordinary’’ candidate —— a candidate in the mold of those seeking elective office by dints of ideas and persuasive abilities, and not by the cults of their personalities.
Those candidates shouldn’t be hard to find within the UDP. Consider Bensouda, Mayor Rohey Malick Lowe, Chairman Yankuba Darboe and Chairman Landing Sanneh. These young leaders are organically growing, and from the bottom-up. They are grinding it out, tackling the knots and bolts of constituent matters, something Darboe has never done throughout his political career.
Forged out of the embers of a quasi-military dictatorship in 1996, the UDP arrived on the scene at a highly unpropitious time: constitutionalism was dead and buried, democracy was in full retreat and a young military leader (then-Captain Yahya Jammeh), having already enjoyed the saccharine taste of power, was beginning to force himself onto the political scene, plotting an overwhelming control of the country’s future. With the ruling party, the PPP, banned and with an opposition scene dotted with fledgling parties, Jammeh was poised for a comprehensive dominance of the soon-to-be-revived phase of multiparty politics. But the UDP’s emergence helped prevent that, and to the country’s benefit.
The UDP’s strongest asset in its 27-year lifespan, a common denominator in the longevity of political parties, has been its fortitude, the staying power inherent in mass movements. The party’s character is moored in the firmness of resolve of its members. But it lacks a leader with a Jawarasque charm and eloquence, his first-rate political skills, his ability to inspire even those on the other side and his capacious understanding of the fine details of electoral politics. Darboe has been in politics for 27 years, but it has never been his true vocation in life.
A few years hence, and all political things held equal, the UDP will be presented with another opportunity to show if it really wants to govern the country with young and fresh hands (read: Bensouda, et al). Or if it is still determined to gift Darboe the presidency as compensation for “his years of suffering for The Gambia.’’