I still remember watching it on GRTS: Jammeh, seated at the head of a wooden table, around him various cabinet ministers and other government officials, the camera trained dead-centre on him: his white “waramba”, his showy kurus.
He is talking about Eid prayers, his latest pet peeve – he has decided that he alone will set Eid dates for the whole country. If anyone doesn’t like it, he threatens, they can leave this country.
And then those five words that summarized Jammeh and the way in which he had come to regard our Presidency: “dayka bi maa ko moom!” I own this country! And, as if to emphasize how far we had fallen, the people around him applauded.
Getting rid of Jammeh and his dictatorship gave our democracy the shot in the arm it needed.
But since then we have spent much of our time working within the system he built, picking up and using his tools: fighting over who should ascend to fill the vacancy he left, who cabinet positions are doled out to, like gifts – yet the underlying system he left us remains unchanged.
This is a pity, for in truth right now we are limited only by our imagination.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the structure of our democracy, and the starting assumptions we all hold about it, without question.
That it should be a monolithic structure, with one person at its head. That this person is justified in doing anything to protect their power. That leaders are legitimate no matter how they arrive at State House, through the ballot or the gun.
That our President is like a shepherd, and we are like cattle: to be guided and punished when we step out of line, unable to make any decisions for ourselves as a people. That our entire government apparatus – including our treasury – is at the President’s disposal, and he is justified in making his friends and family unimaginably wealthy. That he has the right to clamp down violently on political opposition and use State resources to advance his political career.
And yet, examined more closely, these assumptions turn out to be like the dalasi: they only continue to hold value because of our collective belief in them.
So what if we believed something different?
There are other ways of being a country, after all, ways that might actually suit our national project better.
We use the language of democracy to describe our political system, but it is in fact closer to a monarchy, with an attached parliament and judiciary. We have separate branches of government that act as checks on each other, all perfectly balanced, only in theory. In practice, the office of the Presidency is so powerful it in fact subsumes all the other branches.
And this power doesn’t begin and end at State House. It also includes control of the vast, lumbering bureaucracy of the Gambia Government, the employer with the most employees in the country, its footprint so big it takes a huge chunk of our national budget just to keep it running.
With our taxes, we pay for salaries and allowances, travel and per diem and office space and stationery and security and upkeep. And that’s before we even get to the waste of corruption, an extra tax we are forced to pay in almost every interaction we have with the State, one that never makes it to government coffers but only to individuals, and yet still comes out of our paychecks.
And we get so little back in return.
Visiting government offices for any kind of document – from a passport to a driver’s license – is an exercise in frustration, sometimes taking weeks for even the most basic function, unless you know someone or are willing to grease a few palms.
Our leaders hold lavish, self-promoting ceremonies for new roads; yet have no plans for their maintenance, until comes “nawett” they peel off the ground and become filled with potholes, more useless than the dirt paths they replaced. And this is emblematic of infrastructure projects in general: look at Denton bridge, look at the ferry system. The Gambia Government continues to jealously safeguard its monopoly on the sale of power and water and continues to fail to provide a stable supply of either to the Gambian population.
And it doesn’t end at our borders. Our failures as a country follow us when we travel, like a bad odour in your house that you take along with you when you leave, causing strangers to cross the road to avoid you.
We are treated with suspicion and disrespect at every airport, and that’s if they even let us in, to begin with: most countries will not allow us to even board a plane to them without first subjecting us to a long and arduous visa application process, one that feels completely arbitrary and affords us no appeal.
And yet almost everyone wants to leave: some for employment; some for education; all in search of a better life. Our youths continue to die at Sea and waste away in foreign camps, as they attempt to flee this country because they’ve become resigned to the fact that they just cannot make it here.
Whatever we’ve been doing since Independence, obviously hasn’t worked for the vast majority of our people.
Perhaps, then, it is time to tear down the current system and replace it with something radically different. Old wine in new bottles, the saying goes, with the implicit assumption that the problem is the wine: if we got new wine things would get better.
But what if we abandoned the wine and the bottles; the cellar in which they are stored; and even the house containing the cellar itself, emerging into an open field in which we could build anything we want.
And then, with this newfound freedom, what if we started at the top, by dismantling the office of the Presidency?
Since Independence we have lived through one coup after another, each executed by a different group of people at a different time; but all having the same goal: the seizure of the power of the Presidency.
So it’s not just about reducing the power of the person we elect to lead, attractive as that already is. It is also a response to the fact that all coups are aimed at gaining the same prize.
So why don’t we get rid of that prize?
But what would we replace it with?
We already have the rudiments in place: the country’s seven divisions, each led by an administrative head. In most ways these elected officials are closer to the people than our President, their political fortunes far more dependent on keeping their constituents happy, pushing them to work much harder to stay in office.
We have all seen the developments in KMC, for example, outpacing what we see at a national level. This is not attributable only to a difference in leadership competence; there is also the fact that the set of problems the KMC mayor has to solve are at a much smaller – and therefore more manageable – scale than the problems the President, with the whole nation under his care, faces.
If we take the larger problem and break it down into sub-problems, each smaller in size, each with a different team working on it, suddenly the task of moving The Gambia forward doesn’t seem so daunting.
So the power of the Presidency, instead of being discarded, would instead diffuse downwards to these administrative heads: a council of equals, working together to set policy for both their constituents and also The Gambia at large.
You cannot take the State House if there is no State House to take. Imagine Jammeh’s march on Banjul in ’94, ending before it began because the seat of power had stopped being located in any one place, but instead had become distributed across the land.
It would be a new commonwealth, a Gambian one, an internal one; made up of voluntary bodies instead of colonized peoples.
It would also encourage innovation and experimentation. Let’s say the Lower River Division decides to try building its own local grid, to finally fix the power problems that have dogged us since the start. If it works it would both reduce the load on NAWEC – which means more supply for everyone else – and also provide a model for the other divisions to try out. Who knows – we might end up with a system of interconnected power grids, each in a different division, each backup for and supplementing the others, something far more durable than NAWEC’s grid could ever be.
These kinds of synergies are just not possible in a monolithic government where all power is concentrated at the top and flows downwards, and all national decisions are made by one man and his team.
We would not, of course, completely wipe out the central government. But its form would be dramatically different from what we have now.
Its responsibilities would be greatly reduced, leaving it in charge of only the things that need to be taken care of at a national level, things like defending our territorial integrity and enforcing our borders; the running of free and fair elections; international diplomacy and the upkeep of our embassies abroad; the collection of national taxes; and providing tools for coordination across the different local governments, to make sure their goals are aligned and not at odds with national goals.
This smaller set of responsibilities would finally let us do something we have needed to do for a while: significantly reduce the footprint of the Gambia Government and the size of its workforce, turning it into a leaner and far more efficient machine, stripped of all waste, well-oiled and with corruption drained from the system until only its dregs remain; and costing far less to run, the burden on the taxpayer massively reduced.
Our security forces would also change their form. Instead of a national standing army – one easy to commandeer and control, as Jammeh once did – each division would keep its own internal police force, as well as trained reserve troops who can be called up to form a national army if that ever becomes necessary; one that would be disbanded once it was no longer needed, reducing its potency as a weapon that can be turned against us, its owners.
And, instead of being under the purview of a single person, competent or not, decisions at the central government level would be made by the council of administrative heads, each representing the needs of their constituents but, in negotiating with each other on the implementation of policies, still advancing the national agenda.
Instead of a President who only communicates with voters during yearly “meet the people” tours – often political campaigns posing as listening sessions – we would have hyper-local government, each administrative head in direct and constant contact with their constituents, working on their specific and local problems.
The divisions would of course be internal, not fracturing into separate nations – to the outside world we would still be one Gambia, one people with a shared history and destiny.
A centralized system is easy to bring down: once you neutralize the head the rest is easily bent to your will. A distributed system is far more durable, and can also be designed to be self-healing, able to withstand and recover much faster from attacks, even sustained ones.
Imagine another Jammeh-like figure deciding he has a shot at taking power after we implement this system. To start with, he will have to decide which division to attack first – he cannot take them all at once: he has neither the manpower nor the logistical support.
So he chooses KMC, convinces a regiment of soldiers to follow him into executing a surprise attack; and they successfully take over, imprisoning the mayor and declaring martial law.
This is all they have achieved: they are in control of exactly 1/7th of our Government.
Communications go out, the other divisions know within the hour. They immediately convene a teleconference to decide what to do next. Banjul, the nearest one, declares a state of emergency, marshals its reserve troops and pours them all into the KMC division.
By evening the other divisions have also sent men: enough to outnumber the treasonous soldiers 6 to 1. By midnight they have recaptured KMC, neutered the rebels, rescued the mayor and his staff, and done it all with minimal bloodshed and no civilian casualties.
The next day GRTS announces that order has been restored, the rebels will be treated fairly but face the full force of the law, and citizens can go about their business without worry. For most Gambians, the coup will be just another news item, something to discuss over “anj” or “attaya”, instead of the complete upheaval of their lives that it would have meant under the old system.
There will be another Jammeh: there will always be opportunistic people who regard the Presidency as a gateway to unfathomable wealth and power – we cannot guard against that; what we _can_ do is take away the prize, the bait that lures men like him and the ones who benefit from their patronage.
You may not agree wholly or even in part with the ideas I’ve laid out here, you may doubt their feasibility. But you must agree that whatever we have been doing since Independence has not worked, not for the great majority of Gambians, who continue to live in abject poverty, spending their days dreaming of escape, and a relief that never arrives.
Perhaps, instead of just keep replacing the people who run the system, it is time to dismantle the system, and from the remaining parts fashion something new, something better.
[Next Week: Episode #3 – “The Baku, and The Furrnoe”: Portrait of a Gambian Housewife]