Monday, June 17, 2024

Ethical Morass

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OPINION

By Cherno Baba Jallow

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In 2022, a closely-held secret in President Adama Barrow’s Administration or a part of it, finally leapt into the public consciousness: that some senior members of Barrow’s cabinet had been, unbeknownst to the public, allocated lands that belonged to the state. With the tacit approval of the then Local Government and Lands Minister Alhaji Musa Drammeh, these state ministers helped themselves to the lands like a group of famished souls would a box of pizza slices. Each one took one.

“I will not return that land,’’ Ebrima Sillah, then Information, Communication and Infrastructure Minister, told The Point. He justified his ownership on the basis of time-travelled tradition —- that both Presidents Dawda Kairaba Jawara and Yahya Jammeh had allowed land allocations to ministers and other government officials. But Sillah also saw the Bijilo land transfer as a ‘’compensation’’ for the loss of his Tanji plot to the government. Which government? Better still, who decided on the compensation terms? How were they decided?

When government leaders secretly take over public lands and get away with it, it’s easy imagining what else they could do to advance their own interests at the expense of the nation’s. Now Barrow —— the President himself —— has allegedly gotten in on the action. He went for prime real estate: the official residence of the Chief Justice, a government property located in a plush section of Fajara. Opposition leader Ousainou Darboe made the charge at a press conference a few days ago.

Two years ago, public anger over the secret land allocations in Bijilo quickly dissipated. The nation went back to sleep as usual. Passivity on the part of constituents can embolden the duplicity of those in leadership. But the point is not whether Gambians are naturally weak in holding their leaders accountable. Or are oblivious to the mischievousness of the government. Or are too blinded by partisanship and tribalism to advocate for the national interest.

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The point is whether a president has the right to allocate himself what belongs to the state. Barrow turning a blind eye to, encouraging even, Cabinet ministers divvying up public property is a serious matter. But the president’s willful participation in similar dealings takes the deviousness to a new height. Neither Barrow nor his surrogates have confirmed or denied Darboe’s allegations. Hamat Bah, the Lands and Local Government Minister, asked for more time to respond to the allegations. They are not talking. They are stonewalling.

This is telling.

What is also telling is this: Barrow’s governing style, an unappetizing mix of incompetence and indifference, has made a mockery of the sanctity of ethics in the conduct of government business. Of the three presidencies, Barrow’s has been the most ethically-challenged in Gambian history. Rules of convention and etiquette don’t apply. Or are easily sidestepped because the system’s fragility provides a strong incentive to double-dealing and deceit by those entrusted with the management of national affairs.

Time was, and not too long ago, dictatorship ran rampant in The Gambia. The power —- or rather the authoritarianism —- of one man (Yahya Jammeh), forced out of his acolytes’ dual allegiances: to him and to their duties to the state. He alone could be corrupt and steal from the national treasury. He alone could flout the rules and get away with it. The rest faced the risks of dismissal or imprisonment. Or worse.

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Jammeh was a systemic stress test for The Gambia. On human rights and freedoms and a liberal political climate, the results were appalling. But on national security, and more importantly, on the efficient functioning of the bureaucracy, the country was on a firmer footing. But the fear of the retributive tendencies of a leader is neither an incentive to efficiency for those under him nor a precaution against their wrongful conduct. It takes a system —- a system of governance based on laws and regulations, checks and balances, dissent and consent, moral and ethical leadership, a.k.a. democracy, to advance the public good as normally understood.

Democracy has returned to The Gambia, and with it, human rights and freedoms. The rule of law, too. But what is seriously lacking is ethical conduct in the arena of governance. Our leaders have shown a disdain for integrity and openness in the governing process. They go about things secretly, caring less about betraying their own consciences and flouting the rules on conflict of interest.

Consider the $200, 000 the OIC handed to members of the Gambian Justice Ministry for prosecuting the Rohingya case against Myanmar. They shared the money amongst themselves. Consider also the $40 million government payout to media groups and Barrow’s clemency to murderers and rapists. These undertakings raise serious ethical concerns about fairness, honesty and transparency. In a strong democracy, parliamentary inquiries would come fast and furious.

Gambian democracy isn’t there —- yet. But the real frustration right now is having a president unbothered by the convulsions of impropriety around him. And he is contributing to it. If Barrow will not rescue himself from the edge of the cliff, then Gambians should take their country back from him. It’s perfectly fine that democracy gives them the choice and the possibility to act accordingly.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Fatu Network’s editorial stance.

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