In Search of The Gambian Character
From where I sit, the acceptance of an anonymous donation of fifty-seven pickup trucks by members of the National Assembly, channeled through President Barrow, was a troubling sign of the lack of judgment of our elected officials, with few exceptions.
It was also an early indication of the latent corruption in the executive branch. The recent furor over the payment of a ten thousand Dalasi monthly stipend to some UDP members confirmed, if anything, that a compromised legislature – the branch of government closest to the people – cannot adequately protect our liberty and ensure democratic accountability.
That President Barrow and the legislators have been able to get away with this behavior thus far is a sad reflection of, as it stands, the Gambian character, or lack thereof. Excuse my moral scolding. But I must continue: has not the leader of the UDP and his supporters vociferously defended, excused and justified Barrow’s vehicle “donation?” Stunningly, those same partisans now decry Barrow’s cash payments. What, may I ask, is different ethically between the two incidents to provoke such varied reactions? Hypocrisy, goes the saying, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.
To make matters worse, Honorable Darboe, in a fit of misguided loyalty, encouraged Barrow to jettison the coalition agreement’s three-year transition term. He acted dismissively, as if the authors of the accord were unaware of the five-year presidential term in the Constitution. The Vice-President doubled down and threatened to take legal action if President Barrow was held to a three- year term. Thus, the guardrails erected to ensure a disciplined and effective transition were greatly weakened.
When asked by the journalist Omar Wally how he could reconcile his recent proclamation of a food emergency for the country with the profligate travel expenditure of President Barrow, the Vice-President responded that he would need to inquire if the private jet was leased by Barrow himself or the government.
While I understand the political jockeying by the two UDP protagonists, and the Vice-President’s momentary tactical disadvantage, these are uncharacteristic political and moral lapses of immense proportions and reason enough that the truth and the national interests – which should be focused on reform and renewal — must not become a casualty of this internecine tussle.
To say that I was deeply disappointed is to admit that I held the Vice-President to much higher ethical standards than the President. He has sacrificed much professionally and personally in a long and honorable struggle for freedom. But his actions have consequences.
Is it any wonder that an emboldened President Barrow, buoyed by his political “godfather’s” blessing, would now want to ride roughshod over any one who dares to contest his nomination as the UDP candidate in the next presidential election? Unfazed by public outcry for answers, he stayed put over the large sum of money remitted to the account of the First Lady’s Foundation. And this is only what we have public knowledge of. The belated attempt by the Minister of Information to explain the source of these funds is a fairy tale, only one less credible than the Saudi Arabian fairy tale on the disappearance of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
At least that tale has a Prince. It is tempting to regard Barrow’s behavior as UDP’s just reward, but that would be shortsighted. For this goes further than intra-party politics, and strikes at the heart of our nascent democracy, with implications for national institutions and our fragile political culture. A President disinclined to follow his own party’s rules, and whose ethical lapses are boundless, cannot be expected to be scrupulous in abiding by the Constitution and the nation’s laws. We all now have a stake in restraining this naked power grab run amok.
With our zeal for the New Gambia, we seemed to have forgotten what it was that got us here in the first place.
To watch the daily parade of Gambia’s leaders and political elite appear before the Janneh Commission is to witness a procession of alibis and abdications. Surely, these are not all bad people. Yet I cannot help but feel that something has gone awry in our public comportment; something inside has dissolved, succumbed to cynicism and a habit we have developed for indulging helplessness. There is scant moral fortitude. Only look around. The nations that we admire, that we seek to emulate are not perfect, but never are they built upon cultural decay and maintained through moral faint-heartedness. A nation that holds Imam Baba Leigh in equal esteem with the Imams of the Supreme Islamic Council – who gave succor and legitimacy to Jammeh – or regards them as interchangeable, lacks moral depth or self-reflection. A well-functioning society, besides the law, employs moral reproach to sustain, encourage, and elevate what is good in all of us over what is corrupting.
When, on the other hand, unsavory fixers of the Jammeh regime sit at the right hand of Barrow, the President may speak with little moral authority. In case you think these lapses of character are a recent phenomenon, I would remind you that President Jawara, after three decades in power, was persuaded from resigning (if he meant to do so), by PPP stalwarts based on the quaint idea that he was indispensable to the nation. The graveyards, De Gaulle remarked, are full of indispensable people. The failure of leadership has been the rule at pivotal moments in our history, those moments precisely when we needed leaders who were high-minded. It appears that in discharging the duties of high public office, we tend towards personal gain and the absence of moral courage — the courage to do what is right for the country.
As a small, close-knit community, the theory goes, we are conditioned to “maslaha,” to want to get along and avoid tension. After all, how can one be disagreeable or judgmental with a fellow citizen if he is a friend, relative, acquaintance, or neighbor you may encounter or socialize with? If we accept the premise, it should too work the other way around. We should be restrained from the misuse of public resources, incentivized to further the national interest or inhibited in flaunting ill-gotten gains. But we know this is not the case. So, we practice a distorted situational ethics by excusing behaviors in some that we condemn in others. We remember an African proverb, that the gorgeous dress of a thief is not a garment of honor. In Gambia, such garments are worn with considerable flourish, eliciting not scorn, but adulation.
There is an apt Wolof proverb for this: Nit ku amul jomm, amul dara (A person without honor does not have anything). I have a long-held fantasy that one day, I will wake up to the news that a prominent public official has resigned on a matter of principle. Perhaps — just perhaps — that will begin a cultural shift towards a new ethos of public service infused with radical truthfulness. So, as we inaugurate the TRRC and CRC, let us reflect on what it means to be a Gambian. What values do we want to carry with us? A constitution is only as good as the cultural and societal values of the people it is meant to serve. It does not work in the opposite direction. As the American Justice Scalia once said: every banana republic has a Bill of Rights. To build the Gambia we want, we must be true to ourselves.
There are no short cuts. Character, Integrity, Principle, Courage: they all matter!
By Cherno M. Njie, Austin, Texas