“After Italy became a unified nation, in 1861, Massimo d’Azeglio, a Piedmontese statesman and novelist, is said to have commented, “Now that there is an Italy, it will be necessary to make the Italians.”
In 2016, as Jammeh’s hold on power loosened and he became increasingly desperate, a beautiful process began to unfold. Without any central coordination, group after group – religious organizations, civil society orgs, NGOs, well-known individuals – visited the embattled President, or released statements, advising him to step aside and accept the defeat.
As Jammeh lashed out and rallied his troops in a last wild gamble, this was what protected the Gambia, leaving him increasingly boxed in, his paths closing until only one was left to take: exile and a national sigh of relief.
It was as clear an expression of the Gambian people’s power, united, like anything in our history.
Jammeh protected his person and power with armed men and armoured cars, brute force, iron chains and concrete holding cells. As his hold on power became more assured, he learnt to harness the other government branches to his will. He filled Parliament with his cronies and installed judges he could control in the judicial branch.
Now that we are free of him, how will our new democracy protect itself? This is the most pressing question of all and of far more important than who we elect next. For if we are interrupted yet again, another dictatorship forcefully inserted into our history, all the labour of the last few years would have been for nought.
What if we agreed on a set of principles that every citizen took to be the true foundation of our national experiment and insisted on in all our dealings with present and future Governments? What if there was a set of starting assumptions that we could all agree on, a manifesto of the askan itself, that would insulate us against bad leaders, encourage the good kind, and protect our commonwealth from the selfish and the opportunistic?
Islam is built atop five pillars. I have always imagined them as giant marble structures in a Great Hall, supporting a wide and expansive ceiling of faith, under which the ummah gather for protection.
What if we borrowed this idea and applied it to our democracy? Which pillars would hold it up and endure? I have been thinking about this for a while, and below is a list I came up with. Of course, it is open to debate and suggestions, but I hope it can form the foundation of whatever we end up with.
The first pillar is the pillar of term limits.
It periodically reinjects vitality into our body politic. It allows for the proliferation of new ideas, new ways of looking at things and puts fresh brains to work on the thorny problems that face us as a nation.
And it limits damage: Jammeh for 10 years would have been far less destructive than Jammeh for 22.
This is something no leader will give us willingly – everyone who enters State House will do everything they can to stay in it for as long as possible. It is something we will have to demand as a people. For this one thing, we will have to set aside party loyalties and old enmities, and come together, so that we might separate again but in a better configuration.
The second pillar is the pillar of decentralization. Power must no longer be concentrated so heavily in the person of our elected President. Yes, it may be more frustrating to rule when you no longer wield absolute and final authority and cannot make unilateral decisions, but that is the whole point. Democracy is meant to be slow and deliberative. Each policy that our government implements touches potentially millions of lives – the process cannot be rushed and done right.
Reducing the executive’s power also reduces the size of the prize it presents to no longer be such a juicy target, tempting soldiers and attracting coups. And it severely constrains the next would-be dictator who comes to power, reducing the harm they can do.
The third pillar is the pillar of boiler – communion in Olof. The first two pillars were expectations of our leaders; this one expects us, the askan.
While the executive’s power lies in one person, our own lies in numbers, we must be like the melentaan. A single ant is nothing – a neneh could step on it, and it would die. But working together, they build anthills, complex structures that house their young and provide shelter from the elements.
This is how we brought down Jammeh without firing a single shot. That was not a fluke; it is, in fact, the nature of the power we possess when we act together, arm in arm, putting national interest first.
And we must understand as a society that if the State touches any single one of us illegally, it is as if it had touched each and every one of us at the same time.
If any one of us is targeted unjustly by the State, we must all close ranks and defend them, give them all the support they need, no matter how much we disagree with them politically. Saying you don’t care about UDP supporters being harassed and imprisoned because you are APRC and your party is in power is shortsighted: when a UDP government runs the country, what will protect you and your party?
The constitution protects everyone – no matter how odious we find their political opinions – or it protects no one.
Of course, it would be naive to pretend that the State should never exercise its monopoly on violence. There’s a reason we have security forces, after all: to ensure our nation’s territorial integrity and to keep peace and order so every Gambian can live without fear and sleep soundly. But we must always insist on this: any violence enacted by the State must be proportional, justified, and well-documented. Even more important, it needs to be a last resort after every other effort has been exhausted.
The fourth pillar is the pillar of transparency. We pay for the work – we have the right to see how it is being done: how else can we evaluate the ones we elect? Transparency is not just a nice thing to have; it is an integral part of our democratic process.
One of how Jammeh built his dictatorship was by drawing a veil over the State’s workings. He alone knew how everything fit together; those who worked for him knew only what they needed to know to further his schemes; everyone else was forbidden from even asking any questions – the NIA made sure of that.
It is a testament to how successful he was at implementing this system that the TRRC revelations have been so shocking to the average Gambian. We knew he killed, but not at such scale and with such brutal indifference. We knew he and his wife stole, but not with such breathtaking audacity. It must never again be this easy for a President or any other elected official to hide what they’re doing from our eyes, the crimes they’re committing and how they’re selling off our country to the highest bidders.
And true transparency doesn’t begin and end with the State putting out press releases at its leisure. It includes new laws that will allow any citizen to request non-classified information from the Government about its workings and receive a response promptly. It includes forcing all candidates running for office – including the incumbent – to participate in public debates outlining their vision and their policies. It includes establishing an independent polling body that measures public opinion, a feedback mechanism that the State and any other interested party can use to figure out what matters to us at any point in time, instead of only during election years.
The fifth pillar is the pillar of dissent. Jammeh branded his political opponent’s enemies’ enemies and his diaspora critics people who hated the Gambia and wanted to see the country destroyed.
But dissenting opinions are the fertilizers that let our democracy flourish. They make the difference between an empty, barren field of nyahh; and a well-tended garden in which a thousand different flowers bloom, colourfully explosive in their variety yet still rooted in the same soil.
This is why opposition parties are not only necessary but crucial to our national project. And this is why we need to bring them back into the fold, instead of the position Jammeh consigned them to outsiders, flinging mud over the fence into the compound, seeking only to yaaha.
In Britain, both the party in power and the opposition serve Her Majesty’s government, working within the constitutional system to achieve their aims. I have always liked this idea of a common root from which party branches spread, each seeking its own way to the light but all joined at the base.
We have no monarch, of course, but we have something else far more powerful and enduring: the idea of the Gambia, the improbable nation, and her history: the erasure of tribal boundaries at her birth, merging us all into one polity; the fight for Independence, cutting the umbilical cord that had held us back since the coming of the toubab, restricting our movement and perpetually threatening to choke us; the uncertainty of ’81, our very cohesiveness as a nation at stake; the long years of hardship and sorrow under Jammeh; and all the other things the askan has been through together, as patient and enduring as the river that is our tormaa, outlasting slavery and colonialism and even the man who swore he would rule for a billion years.
It is to this idea of Gambian-ness that we must always return, our source and our guide.
These pillars taken together form the askan manifesto; I expect you, dear reader, to have your own ideas about what such a manifesto should contain, some different from mine, some developing them further. I wished only to supply a form, and let your collective imaginations fill out its substance.
We will disagree on the details of such a manifesto, of course. The important thing is that we agree on the need for one, as the founding document of a new Gambia. Something every Gambian keeps close to their heart and passes on to their children, no matter who is in power.
It will be a national musluwaaye, a self-protection system that will safeguard the askan no matter what kind of President we have: good, bad, or merely incompetent. Future leaders can change the constitution to benefit themselves; amendments will be made later years after that; our manifesto must remain constant and overrule even the constitution when that document is inevitably corrupted again, as it was during Jammeh’s reign.
And no matter what, we must never forget: We are the askan, and the Gambia is our birthright.