It was with some bemusement that I read Madi Jobarteh’s newspaper piece, Requirements for President require the highest qualification, in The Standard newspaper, published on 8 August 2018. Mr. Jobarteh’s thesis is that the current educational threshold for presidential candidates, a WASSCE certificate, is too low, given the intellectual demands of the office, therefore the threshold ought to be upgraded to a Bachelor’s degree. He rightly points out that, in no other top executive office would you have such a low threshold. Why, then, should we apply such lowly criterion to the highest political office in the land?
Whether this is ‘intellectual coxcombry’, or a romanticisation of the degree or the presidency, such ideas have been doing the rounds in intellectual circles in much of Africa since Independence. But the fact remains that there is no straightforward correlation between educational attainment and political achievement. Both experience and research have shown that people with more formal education do not necessarily make better political leaders. One of the juiciest ironies of Mr. Jobarteh’s piece is his observation that the “United States has become a world power and a success case today because they had a president called George Washington and Abraham Lincoln whose believe in the rights and progress of their citizens was unquestionable”. All quite, quite true, of course. But neither of the great men mentioned had a university degree. Lincoln had a stint at what one of his biographers calls a “blab” school, “where you chanted your lessons and no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond ‘readin, writin, and cipherin’”. From this ‘blab’ embedding, he would go on to “work the rivers, slaughter hogs, split rails, become village postmaster, surveyor and lawyer”. He even had the spare time to become president.
Lincoln was self-taught, and in politics, history is full of the likes of him. Britain’s Churchill is another who readily come s to mind. And in more recent times, John Major got to number 10 Downing Street without having gone through the university gates. In a recent University of Chicago study using cross-national data, the researchers consistently found that “college-educated leaders perform about the same as or worse than leaders with less formal education”. However one might acquire what Mr. Jobarteh calls ‘technical capacity’, it is pretty clear that the university is neither the only nor the surest way to acquire it.
In an essay titled ‘Political Judgement’, the late Oxford philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, argues that political judgement is the outstanding capacity of successful statesmen (and women). And he defines political judgement as “Practical wisdom, practical reason, perhaps a sense of what will ‘work’, and what will not. It is a capacity, in the first place, for synthesis rather than analysis, for knowledge in the sense in which trainers know their animals, or parents their children, or conductors their orchestras, as opposed to that in which chemists know the contents of their test tubes, or mathematicians know the rules that their symbols obey.” In other words, political judgement is an art, not a science. And the main ingredients of this artistic furnace are the imagination and a moral sense. A political commentator, referring recently to the former British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, said “He is very bright but not very wise”. A Jobarteh-esque president might very well be a Boris Johnson – a high IQ moral vacuum; or what the British novelist, Martin Amis, calls ‘a high IQ moron’. “In the last resort,” De Gaulle once wrote, “a [political] decision has a moral element.”
Madi Jobarteh was simply brilliant in bringing up this topic for discussion. With the Constitutional Review Commission about to convene, I’m sure the paper qualification argument will feature as one of the talking points in the national debate.
He was appointed executive secretary of the TRRC, I think, in February 2018. And until about a week or so ago, I had not read in any of the national newspapers anything expressing objections to his appointment. But last week all that changed. A bit like waiting for a bus: you wait for one for a very long time – and suddenly three appear. In a single day in a single newspaper, three articles appeared holding a similar banner: they all impugn the sagacity of Dr. Baba Galleh Jallow’s appointment. And, I think, fuel was added to the fire, with the appointment of Alagie Barrow as director of research. What appears to have stirred the ire, belatedly, is that Dr. Jallow is conflicted: having been a victim of Jammeh’s, he cannot now be a member of the body that is to sit in judgement of Jammeh. I am not sure about the extent of his victimhood, but I am virtually certain that one would be hard put to find a man or woman of such caliber who has not been victimized or compromised in one form or another by Jammeh over the 22 years. We have to draw the line somewhere to keep the small pool of available talent in, rather than pissing on them in the name of some conceptual purity, that is tone deaf to our existential particulars. Dr. Jallow is a highly educated man and, as one of the articles confessed, an admiringly principled man. The conflict of interest these people have espied is chimerical. I do not see any conflict – only a good deal of interests. I have read nothing in the articles to persuade me of Dr. Jallow’s unsuitability for the position.
In as much as we believe that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, it must be said that the current spree of fault-finding, pompous pontification, and gratuitous boorishness in the public space is turning this healthy vigilance into a kind of cynical watchfulness. President Barrow (God bless the poor fellow) has been the butt-end of many tasteless jokes, and some have even made a name for themselves on account of the insults they hurl at him: to call Barrow ‘clueless’ is not a reasoned argument. The 19th Century English essayist, William Hazlitt, once observed that “we find a set of persons who pride themselves on being plain-spoken people, that is, who blurt out everything disagreeable to your face, by way of wounding your feelings and relieving their own, and this they call honesty”. If they do not call it honesty, they call it analysis. In the 1980’s, president Jawara used a term to refer to such persons: he called them ‘pseudo-intellectuals’, and the Gambia today boasts an accomplished ensemble of such charlatans. These people, wholly self-appointed intellectuals, thinking that they are in the knowledge loop, are actually not as clued-up as they would like to believe. They are simply picking on President Barrow. Small men like to pick on people they perceive as smaller than themselves. It is the oldest trick in human psychology. When we voted into office the Coalition, with President Barrow at the helm, we knew that he had no political experience. But no one batted an eyelid at the time. We knew that getting rid of Yaya Jammmeh was the national priority. It seems a bit rich for us now to start blaming him for his lack of political experience. One must be from planet Zog to believe that president Barrow could have been doing any better than he is doing right now. A tattered civil service and a bloated and inefficient public sector, and much else, which were part of Barrow’s inheritance from Jammeh, are hardly the resources to effect the transformation we so impatiently wish to see. The recent spate of worker sit-ins, and protests, and the demands for resignations, the communal violence in a few trouble spots around the country – all these bespeak an attitude of freedom that the country does not need right now. Whatever Barrow does, someone or some faction will find some fault in it. But that is not the problem: when we come out with cutlasses in hand and want to impose our will on the state – that is the problem. In democracies the courts decide; not people taking the law into their own hands.
We are a convalescing nation, and wobbling as a convalescent might. Let us steady the nerves, firmly secured in the belief that this is just a phase, and as day follows night, we will evolve beyond it, however imperfectly. In the mean time, let us, in Teju Cole’s phrase, be “productively disagreeable”.