Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Gambia and Tribal Politics: Are the minorities politically under-represented?

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‘’Differences between self and others are normatively irrelevant and that what counts is that they are both selves entitled to equality’’.

The verdict is still out on the effects of tribal politics on minorities’ political representation in the Gambia. On one hand, there is a view that tribal politics is inimical to equal political representation. On the other hand, it is an acceptable fact that most political parties in the Gambia are built on tribal alignments that are necessary in a democratic society. That is to say, tribal politics can hardly be eliminated in Gambians politics, what seems crucial is to get the right measures necessary to promote minorities’ participation in public decision making process as well as politics.

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Historically’ major political parties in Gambia had successfully deployed tribal card to gain political advantage over their opponents. For instance, at inception, the PPP’s strategic defence of Mandinka custom was designed to build consensus in the rural areas, so as to bolster its support base. The party smartly embedded itself in the hierarchies of local power by working closely with prominent residents and local authorities who were either Mandinkas or first settlers.

In this way, it gained the trust of the people as well as their votes to sustain   ‘popular enthusiasm.’ While  the UP  was endorsed by the  Fulas and the Serrahuls  in Fullado,   it’s machinery could not  withstand the formidable  forces of PPP’s patronages  that  were  constructed on  social alignments of Mandinkas and  Wollofs. This, in part had contributed to the demise of the UP. It was in complete disarray to galvanize support after heavy elections defeats.

NCP, a by-product of PPP’s fragmentation never managed to position itself as a serious contender given its limited resources to mobilise any significant support. In the case of APRC, a party overwhelmingly supported by the Jolas, it also built coalition of supporters from other tribes. However, this line of support was more sporadic than consistent in one tribe. Its election defeat was undoubtedly self-inflicted as its leadership paid total disregards to basic principle of governance; that might have served as a ‘turn off’ for the millennial voters. While I accept the point that PPP was a successful political actor, its approach to reinvigorate its support base can be seen tribally biased, because it was targeted to specific groups. Despite this, its governments were relative representative of the community they served given their ethnic mix. But there can be no doubt its strategy to attain political power had caused rifts in some communities. Yet, it cannot be said if these divisions were so entrenched to fuel any ethnic conflicts because we continue to live in harmony. Perhaps, our inter-connection is partly responsible for our smiling coast character that nurtures patience and tolerance.

 As The Gambia is constituted of different tribes with their distinct cultural and values, naturally there are bound to be minority and majority tribe that are expected to co-exist for collective good. At times there will be conflicts of competing interests resulting from groups’ attempt to pursue individual objective in order to maintain their cultural identity. In my judgement, government should adopt pluralistic approach with good-faith negations to resolve conflicts of competing interests. Pluralism is an extension of Kant’s moral and political thought which requires finding a plausible and legitimate way to reconcile and harmonise unity and diversity’’.

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It articulates a notion that different cultural groups can co-exist by recognising each other distinctiveness, at the same time work together for ‘collective goods’. In this sense it is seen as systems of values that are not necessary hostile to each other. Pluralistic democracy allows individuals to be best encouraged to develop and pursue a plan of their own life. This is the path the new government is envisioned to take in order to embrace inclusive democracy. It may be self-defeating if we failed to recognise our distinct cultures and provide conducive environment that imbue tolerance and broad mindedness for all citizens to pursue their aspiration on equal footing.

 What is also imperative is the proponents of competing interests be politically empowered to participate equally in the decision making process of the government. This may be achieved by proportionate allocation of power within government’s institution such as the executive and judiciary to minorities. Substantive democracy is more than mere holding of periodical elections; it entails a balance distribution of power within the public institutions.

Let me make a point here, the new government appointments so far reflect the diversity of the Gambian society. So the notion that these appointments are tribally biased is a flimsy argument. Our democracy is at infantry stage it requires time and resources to attain full proportional representation. It is important that, those appointed to key public offices have the required competencies and the integrity to perform such function in order to propel the ‘virtually bankrupt Gambia’ to prosperity.

It is worth noting that under- representation is prevalence even in well-established western democracies such as US and UK given that there is a prerequisite requirement for candidacy for certain public offices. What needs to be done is to deploy special legislative measures that promote proportional representation so as to cure the under-representation of minorities as well as women. For example, the government could legislate for percentage allocation of cabinet positions in respect of all ethnic groups. Reasonable electoral threshold could also be deployed to make the legislature proportionally representative of all parties. These measures are more likely to promote pluralistic democracy if implementation is not politicised.

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Obviously, there is a danger of tokenism when government try to tackle entrenched inequalities by appointing minorities in key political positions. Such approach seems likely to benefit the political elites who may be out of touch with the reality of living local. Rightly so, there must be concerted efforts that are targeted to improve social mobility in deprived communities with involvement of civil society and NGOs to bring out real change. This might effectively mitigate the historic inequalities that have been endured by these communities for decades.

It is contrary to the principle of equality to allow majoritarian rule to abrogate minorities’ political participation. Democracy does not necessary mean majority views must always prevail. Moreover, states are under international obligation to take active measures in order to cure the democratic deficit in accordance with universal suffrage. With this in mind, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; in its Plan of Action: Protection and Empowerment of Minorities has highlighted the need for states to tackle ‘democratic deficits’, by promoting effective participation of minorities in the political process so as to correct the power imbalances within states.

Major political parties could also do more to increase representation of minorities in their respective parties, by introducing measures such as quotas and positive discrimination in order to promote diversity of the political community. Such measures are in line with international law as long as they are objective and reasonable.

Decentralisation of power from central has been effective in promoting the political participation of minorities in decision-making process. For example, the devolved powers in Scotland and Wales have been instrumental in empowering the national minorities in UK. This model seems ideal for the Gambia given the way in which the tribes are dispersed tend to correspond with the geography of a defined divisional administrative area. In this way, the power decentralised to the divisional authorities will undoubtedly enhance the political participation of the local population.

Indeed, mirror representation seems the best way forward for now. But for better community relations, we must create a political culture in which everyone is able and willing to represent one another regardless of one’s ethnicity. ‘Individual ought to treat one another as ends in themselves not as means’.

Therefore, minorities’ political participation must be enhanced constitutionally to cure the under-representation of the political community. Such is in line with ideals of liberalism. There can be no democracy without pluralism; equality and proportionality are important moral and political value that may guide the new government in its efforts to meet the aspirations of all citizens. The government is on the right path as it stands.

Forward with the New Gambia!!

Written by Solo S Demba

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