By Manifesto of the People
Having gained independence for as many decades, the Year 2016 has found the Gambia at a critical juncture, socially, economically and politically. When the people went into a referendum for the first time on 10th November 1965 the question was whether the country should shed off the yoke of the British Empire on our heads so that we become sovereign people. Until then sovereignty of the Gambia did not lie in the people of the Gambia, but in a distant monarch in England. For lack of civic awareness of the masses coupled with political bickering between the PPP and the opposition, that vote failed to usher the country into a new era. Five years later, on 22nd April 1970 the same question was put before Gambians in a second referendum and the people voted yes. On 24th April 1970 the country gained independence as a sovereign republic in which the sovereignty of the country is resided in the people and from whom the state derives its legitimacy.
The question that each and every Gambia must ask is why did we seek to be independent in the first place? Why didn’t Gambians allow the British to continue to colonize the country? Why didn’t the people allow the country to be a dominion under British Empire until today, but chose to sever that relationship in 1970? The simple answer to these questions is that Gambians wanted to be a sovereign people. Period. We wanted to rule ourselves based on our own ideas, laws and institutions.
But what are sovereignty and a sovereign citizen? Sovereignty literally means supreme power or authority. In the context of nations and governance, supreme power could be represented by an individual or a group of individuals as in a monarch or royal family. But sovereignty could also be represented in the people of the nation, individually and collectively. Thus in whomever sovereignty lies, it simply means the will of the custodian of sovereignty prevails in that society. In monarchies, it is the will of the king. In republics like the Gambia, sovereignty lies in the citizens of the country. This is why Section 2 of the Gambia constitution states that the sovereignty of the Gambia resides in the people and all organs of the state derive their legitimacy from the people. This effectively means it is the people’s will that rules supreme in the affairs of the nation, hence a republic.
But to break this further down, we must be able to tangibly point to the elements of sovereignty in a society. Up until 1970, Gambians pay tax. Yet Gambians do not elect a parliament or a president to decide how the tax money was to be utilized. The country only had a city council in Banjul in which only few Banjulians qualify to be elected by Banjulians. Secondly there were several laws in place such as sedition laws that restrict the rights of the people to free speech, movement, association and assembly. There were effectively no means in which Gambians could determine how their country was run. Gambians lacked the ability to hold the colonial government to account and ensure transparency. This was because there were no institutions and processes open to the people to engage with the state to demand the protection of their rights or demand the provision of basic social services. There were no opportunities to enable Gambians acquire the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to uplift themselves professionally and productively in all aspects of human endeavor. It could be recalled that in 1920, the Father of Gambian Independence, Edward Francis Small rallied the masses around the battle cry of ‘No taxation without representation’. He led that struggle precisely to gain sovereignty for the people to determine the manner in which tax money was to be spent. Thus what colonial domination showed was that Gambians were not sovereign because the will of the people was not supreme in determining the way the country was managed. Gambians were therefore mere subjects. In light of the foregoing, it could therefore be concluded that the purpose of independence was merely to restore and protect the sovereignty of Gambians. Independence in essence means each and every Gambian is an individual sovereign person, and their collective sovereignty determines the independence and sovereignty of the country.
The indicators of our sovereignty are therefore that we have a constitution that has been created by the will of the people to govern the way and manner public resources and affairs are to be managed. The constitution sets out the rights and responsibilities and the benefits citizens have to enjoy. The constitution identified a state and sets out its obligation to respect and protect those rights and fulfill our needs and benefits as citizens. This means citizens have the right and the power to elect their own representatives from among themselves to implement that constitution through a set of other laws, institutions and processes which collectively constitute what is called the rule of law. The state is managed by fellow Gambians who have the competence to do so and appointed through a process that is based on merit through a transparent and competitive process. Among the key responsibilities of citizens is to abide by the law and pay tax to the State so that the state can deliver the public goods and services that citizens need to enjoy. The State also has obligation to create the enabling environment to enable all citizens to access opportunities and exercise their abilities to create wealth and earn a decent living in the country.
Elections vs. Sovereignty
Thus forty six years down the line, it should be obvious to any sovereign Gambian that indeed the country did not fight to end colonialism and become a sovereign independent nation only to have one of its citizens sit on the heads of the rest of us as a Super Gambian. Otherwise the citizens could as well just allow the British to continue to colonize the Gambia forever. The question now is how have Gambians managed their sovereignty over this period until today? Have the representatives that the people continuously elect since independence served to protect and expand the sovereignty of the people or used the national instrument, i.e. the state to shrink and subvert citizenship sovereignty? This is the fundamental question that must be addressed in order to determine whether at this crucial juncture Gambians should consider going to elections first on December 1 or should find other means to restore their sovereignty first. The evidence on the ground so far points to the fact that the sovereignty of the citizens of the country has been facing massive erosion since independence. That erosion of sovereignty requires urgent salvation if the country is to avoid plunging into a fratricidal conflict as has been witnessed in many similar scenarios around Africa and other places.
First Republic and Sovereignty
Since the introduction of presidential elections in the Gambia in 1982, former Pres. Jawara had won each and every election. In 1982, he won by 72%. In 1987 he won by 61.74% and in 1992 Jawara won by 58.5%. The reasons for the continuous landside victory of Jawara were evidently not because he had protected and expanded the sovereignty of Gambians. Rather Pres. Jawara’s government had failed to ever empower Gambians to become sovereign citizens with knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as set out by the law. During the first republic, there were no attempts to politically educate Gambians to understand their worth as citizens. Rather Jawara merely allowed misconceived socio-cultural and religious ideas to hold sway over a largely laid-back populace. The necessary legal and institutional changes necessary to transform independence from merely a state sovereignty into national sovereignty were not conceived much less conducted. There was never an attempt to embark on a cultural revolution to weed out oppressive, exploitative and backward cultural beliefs and practices that held the people back, especially in ensuring an active and informed popular participation by the masses. Jawara essentially allowed the status quo to continue as he basked in the conservative culture of his people.
The failure of the regime to produce an enlightened populace and a transparent and accountable governance environment therefore resulted to the unending election victory of Jawara. But at the same time, this quagmire was also eating into the fabric of the state and society such that public institutions were getting weaker while the incidence of corruption and oppressive tendencies were building up as the years go by. Thus by the end of the first decade of independence, it was obvious that the Gambian nation-state was no more well positioned to adequately address the needs and aspirations of the people. The first indication of this was to come at the end of the first decade of independence when in 1981 a band of armed criminals led the late Kukoi Samba Sanyang invaded the country in an insurrection that claimed hundreds of lives. The economic malaise that ensued led to the government seeking bailouts in the form of the Economic Recovery Program (ERP) from 1980-85 to be followed by the Program for Sustainable Development (PSD: 1985-90). These interventions meant that the government had to hand itself over to the Breton Woods institutions for salvation, clearly indicating that indeed Pres. Jawara lacked the capacity to manage the economy of the country, hence his regime’s failure to protect the sovereignty of citizens. These structural adjustment programs did not do anything other than impose dire economic conditions on the people through retrenchment of workers, introduction of user fees for public services, cutting down of public spending, privatization of national assets, and accepting capital flight within the wider framework of a grossly irresponsible economic liberalization program. These measures generated more poverty, inequality and corruption in which cost of living became more acute while social services remain expensive and unavailable for most citizens as hopelessness continued to grip the society. In the circumstances, it is not strange therefore that the country had to experience a military coup in 1994.
Second Republic and Sovereignty
The 1994 coup was received with optimism, even though many people were cautious and apprehensive while a significant few responded to it with outright rejection. These responses could all be well appreciated for a number of reasons. First, it was clear that it will take a long time, if ever that elections will remove PPP and Jawara from the presidency. Even the new kids on the block, PDOIS that emerged in 1986 with a lot of promise of a new brand of enlightened politics was struggling to acquire a single seat back then. In the 1987 parliamentary elections PDOIS gained only 0.98% with no seat, and in the 1992 presidential election Sidia Jatta obtained only 5.24% while the party pulled just 2.30% in the parliamentary election with no seat.
The statements issued by the new rulers, i.e. the military junta greatly inspired many in the country especially when the leader of the group described themselves as soldiers with a difference. Jammeh went further to declare that they would effect necessary legal and institutional changes through a program of rectification, which will ensure that no Gambian ever rules the country for more than 10 years. Jawara was severely lambasted for presiding over a corrupt and inefficient regime in which poverty and inequality became the lot of the people. Jammeh therefore promised a new era of transparency, accountability and probity. For the first time, one could therefore conclude that there was that unique opportunity to indeed restore the sovereignty of the citizens and position the country on a path of good governance and sustainable development in one generation. The hopes of a better Gambia were further cemented by the fact that the young rulers were young Gambians from very poor backgrounds like the majority of the citizens and therefore people expected their unbending loyalty and commitment to the deepest aspirations of the masses. The fact that the junta leader himself was closely associated with the ruling elite as a security officer at State House lend credence to other analysis that he directly witnessed and experienced enough that indeed he would make true his words for a better democratic Gambia.
State of National Sovereignty
What has been proven so far unfortunately is that the sovereignty of the Gambian since independence until 2016 remains trampled upon. National sovereignty has been hijacked and subverted by the state in both the first and second republics to the point that elections have become a convenient method to continue to legitimize the seizure of sovereignty. Where the state and its officers were required by law and the country’s political dispensation to serve the masses of the people, Gambians rather continue to witness the overbearing and predatory nature of the state to the detriment of the rights of citizens. The continuous high taxes, and poor delivery of social services and coupled with the inability of the state to subject itself to public scrutiny and lack of fulfillment of the needs of the people, all point to the dwindling nature of national sovereignty. The incidence of arbitrary arrests, torture and killings perpetuated by the state have become all too common that a culture of fear and impunity prevails over the heads of the people. The derogatory remarks by Pres. Jammeh against the various ethnic groups of the Gambia has reached alarming proportions that it is clear that the country faces a looming genocide sooner than later. Yet in the Gambian constitution, and entire chapter on fundamental rights and freedoms have been entrenched as the foundation of the sovereignty of citizens.
In simple democratic and republican principle, the state is a tool of the people. The very concept of the state in the context of a democratic republic means the institutions and officials of the state are nothing other than the servants of the people in which by law and practice the state cannot be seen to injure the people in any way. The role of the state is merely to implement the wishes of the people. This is why in the constitution and all other laws, there are unambiguous provisions that clearly create checks and balances to ensure that state institutions and officers are seen to abide by the rule of law that ensures transparency, accountability, and responsiveness. In this way, not only is the state tamed, but also made more efficient and effective, while ensuring that there is the necessary open space for an empowered citizenry to continue to actively participate in the management of the affairs of the nation.
From the foregoing, it is now evident that since independence the Gambia has failed to produce a sovereign citizen that has the capacity to create a restrained state that submits to the will of the people. In the circumstances, going to elections in December will not only fail to restore that sovereignty of the people, rather it will only serve to further entrench a state that will continue to bastardize national sovereignty with impunity. The task therefore is how Gambians need to mobilize to end the current regime with a view to ushering in a new dispensation in which the sovereignty of citizens is supreme.
Elections will further injure National Sovereignty
Gambian people must be aware that there is no possibility for the victory of the opposition in any elections so long as the current political climate prevails. The evidence is all too clear for all to see. Since the advent of the second republic, President Jammeh has won all the presidential elections in smart fashion: 1996: 55.77%. 2001: 52.84%. 2006: 67.33%. 2011: 71.54%. The unfavorable conditions that compelled the opposition to boycott the 2012 parliamentary elections have become more acute today than ever before. Not only has the regime drastically changed the laws to make the playing field more unfavorable, but the consistent incidence of arbitrary arrest, detention, imprisonment, torture and killing of opposition elements have become more prevalent in the run-up to the elections more than ever before. Since the 2011 presidential elections, there is no opposition party that did not have its members subjected to all forms of harassment and intimidation. The space to freely exercise political activities has become more risky and restricted for the opposition. These actions and the laws in place have therefore not only weakened the opposition individually and collectively, but also are the factors responsible for the growing disunity and mistrust among the opposition.
Coalition is no Option
In light of the foregoing, the idea of a coalition therefore is not only farfetched but also a farce. This is because the idea of primaries is a luxury given our circumstances and a complex exercise that the country cannot afford at the moment. Meanwhile the idea of a UDP-led coalition is totally unpalatable to the rest of the parties. None of the parties are ready for a simple and direct form of coalition. Thus in the circumstances, coalition is no option. But where the opposition did in fact succeed to coalesce, it is evident that the incumbent will not watch over a smooth victory for the opposition without seeking to heavily manipulate the election including annulling the results even before they are announced. But where this is even not possible and the opposition did actually win the election, no Gambian must be in illusion to imagine that Yaya Jammeh will concede defeat and hand over power to his opponent. It is clear that he will have to be pushed over for the people to take over power. Given the above, there is need to therefore critically review the situation as to whether election is what is the best option now, or a regrouping of the opposition to lead the masses to demand the resignation of this regime for a new Gambia to be established.
Not Just To Boycott, But…
In my assessment, the opposition must abandon their parochial and unhelpful attitudes and begin to realize the bigger picture of a united Gambia against tyranny. The opposition must demonstrate resolve and unity to call on Pres. Jammeh to resign now for the creation of a third republic. The issue is not just to boycott, but what is to follow the boycott so as to ensure a clear regime change. The circumstances in the country right now make an election boycott a powerful tool that must be taken advantage of. Thus what should the opposition do in the context of a boycott?
First and foremost, all opposition elements must be united in their resolve and demand that pres. Jammeh steps down now. Secondly, the opposition must garner the cooperation and support of the international community for this objective, while at the same time leading Gambians in a series of peaceful non-cooperative measures against the regime. This includes abandoning all interests and activities for elections. The opposition must engage ECOWAS, AU, UN, US, EU and individual African, European and other governments to assist in their demand that the Gambia government led by Yaya Jammeh resign. This includes direct and vigorous engagement to ask him to step down and seek refuge in a third country. But also, foreign governments must be encouraged to impose drastic sanctions on key regime figures such as travel bans, assets freeze, name and shame as well as isolating the regime. Inside the country, opposition leaders must hold joint public rallies and communicate to citizens by all means to highlight the reasons for the boycott of the elections and an isolation of the regime. Citizens must be reminded that the Gambia, according to the constitution is supposed to be a democracy but Yaya Jammeh has transformed the country into a police state by his continuous flouting and violations of laws, institutions and rights with impunity. All efforts must be made to communicate to citizens to understand that the boycott is the only available avenue to prevent conflict and ensure a peaceful and democratic change of regime. Citizens must be made to understand that a boycott saves the country while elections potentially lead to violent conflict both in pre-and-post election periods. These are the measures that will prevent a civil war in the Gambia and bring about peaceful change that will restore the sovereignty of the Gambian citizen.
The effect of these actions is that the regime cannot continue to contend with the internal and external isolation for long. Such action will seek to undermine the very foundation of the regime in the country as it pricks the conscience of fellow Gambians, who are in support of this regime, especially those in strategic positions. Sooner or later, Gambians will notice these officers and supporters of the regime gradually abandon and distance themselves from the government and Pres. Jammeh. Coupled with international pressure, Jammeh will be forced to come to his sense that indeed a way out, albeit negotiated, is the best option for him.
Failure to address this matter in anyway other than boycotting the elections and shunning the regime in all ways would not only further the destruction of the sovereignty of Gambians, but in actual fact the opposition will only be endangering their own lives and the lives of each and every Gambian. This regime has lost all credibility. Pres. Jammeh lacks the competence and integrity to manage the state. Pres. Jammeh and his regime have committed uncountable atrocities that he is beyond repair. To engage him as a legitimate head of state is a travesty of justice and truth, and a disregard of the lives and rights of Gambians. Pres. Jammeh has lost the legal and political legitimacy to govern. Any Gambian who holds a contrary view is either ignorant or dishonest or both. The time to act is now.