Now that The Gambia’s twenty-two year tyrant has finally relinquished power and exited the country, making way for a new political dispensation to take root under the leadership of President Adama Barrow, numerous challenges will present themselves in the process of rebuilding a nation that has been economically, socially and politically ruined, the extent of which is difficult to determine. How long it will take to resuscitate the economy and to put our development agenda back on track is anybody’s guess. Once the euphoria about the demise of a dictator has died down, the new administration we will have to face the realities squarely and address them expeditiously to win the people’s confidence.
Concerns are already being expressed about the new President’s preparedness and capability to extricate the country from its present position and lead it to where it should have been twenty-two years ago. The numerous, diverse, and high expectations of the Gambian people, in the aftermath of almost a quarter of a century of misrule by Jammeh, will weigh heavily on the shoulders of President Barrow in the short three-year transition rule of the Coalition. Meeting them all within this short period is, indeed, a tall and impossible order. I do not think people expect him to solve all the country’s problems within the three-year transition period, but there are certain issues he must address, if not immediately, as quickly as possible.
As a people, we need to start thinking critically about the way forward by asking critical questions such as: What are major challenges or issues that the new government will face? What plans have the Coalition formulated to deal with the developmental challenges that the three-year transition will be faced with? What will be the priorities of the new government?
My take on the first question is that the Barrow government will have to deal with the issues of security, peace and stability; national reconciliation and unity; constitutional and institutional reforms; individual rights and freedoms; media freedom; good governance; economic transformation; people’s attitudes and public discipline. However, the question is which should be top of the agenda as all of them are extremely important and need urgent attention.
Ensuring national security, stability and peace
The most urgent issue that President Barrow should deal with is that of ensuring the security and stability of the nation, and that peace reigns. If security and stability are to be ensured, the security apparatus which Jammeh created, composed largely of his own ethnic group to assure his security and continued grip on power for as long as he lived, which thrived on his financial and material largesse, must be dismantled forthwith or reformed as quickly as possible, especially the National Intelligence Agency.
For his own security, which is paramount, President Barrow should not inherit a security apparatus whose loyalty is questionable and cannot be guaranteed. A new and robust team of well-trained and disciplined security specialists should be put in place, immediately, to provide the protection that he needs as President; personnel who should understand that their allegiance is not to the person, but to the office of Head of State.
One of the things that ensuring national security would entail is a thorough review of the strength and composition of the army, with a view to making it more professional and responsive to its raison d’etre. Not only is our army too large in comparison to our population, but it appears to be full of recruits who are not Gambian citizens and Jammeh loyalists. In this regard, assistance could be sought from Nigeria, Ghana, or ECOWAS.
I want to suggest that, for as long as is necessary, a small contingent of the ECOWAS forces presently in the country, be retained to ensure national stability, peace and security. Its presence would be a deterrent to any potential threats or disruptive and destabilizing plans that diehard supporters of the ousted government might be considering or harboring.
Fostering national unity and patriotism
Another major challenge that President Barrow will have to deal with, as quickly as possible, is that of fostering and maintaining national cohesion and patriotism, as it is obvious that there is deep ethnic and political division which has been fuelled by Jammeh, pre- and post-election. Bringing people together to work for the country’s development is a sine qua non and achieving this is not going to be easy.
Constantly appealing to and assuring the populace that they will be treated equally, as enshrined in the Constitution, is something that President Barrow will have to do as a way of bringing the people together. He will need to take to the airwaves, especially on GRTS, on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis, to speak to the nation about what he is doing and what his aspirations are, and to reassure people of his commitment to their welfare and to the development of the nation, so as to continue to gain their understanding of and support for his endeavors to rebuild a socially-fractured and economically-ruined country. The National Civic Education Commission has a key role to play in fostering understanding and unity among the population and should go about this task without delay.
For national unity to flourish there must be peace and justice. President Barrow has intimated that a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be established, which is imperative, to enable the truth to be determined and for justice to be dispensed accordingly in order to heal the nation. This body should not be a witch-hunting apparatus, but one that seeks to heal the wounds that have been inflicted on the society by the excesses of the erstwhile dictatorship. How soon such an outfit will be created is one question, and who will constitute this body is another.
I would like to suggest that the Commission be constituted within the first 100 days of the new administration, and that it be composed of fearless, principled, morally upright, forthright, honest, incorruptible, and respected senior citizens. Selection of the Commission’s members should not be rushed. Prospective candidates should be thoroughly vetted before being commissioned.
Institutional reforms and good governance
One of the most difficult challenges that President Barrow will have to contend with will be the reforming of government institutions and making them more efficient and accountable. His predecessor ruined our institutional structures, administrative system and emasculated our governance and judicial processes by putting people with minimum or no professional knowledge, experience and expertise in key positions. The leadership in many of our public and quasi-government institutions can be likened to ‘square pegs in round holes’, which has resulted in dysfunctional establishments and a paralyzed government.
Rebuilding a civil service, which was once the envy of other countries for its efficiency, will not be a mean endeavor. The civil service needs to be trimmed to make it more efficient and cost-effective. Institutional reform would require carrying out thorough institutional audits to determine their relevance, efficiency, capacity, staffing and overall management. Government being the largest employer needs to be trim and efficient and not carry deadwood. Most government institutions are overloaded with half-baked and unproductive personnel who should be weeded out, an action that, undoubtedly, will not go down well with those affected. But it is inevitable, in the interest of a leaner and more efficiency and cost-effective government. To conduct such an exercise, the new Government should seek bilateral or multilateral technical assistance from our traditional partners within the shortest possible time.
In the light of the tampering with our Constitution by Jammeh’s cronies in the National Assembly to favor his machinations, this sacrosanct document needs to be reconstructed and fine-tuned, as soon as possible, to ensure that it fully addresses and serves the collective interests of the Gambian people and does not provide room for future manipulation.
We the electorate should be awakened to the fact that the caliber of legislators we now have are not what the new Gambia should have, so come the elections, we should vote in highly educated people with integrity, who will ensure the Legislature’s significance, independence and national standing and respect, and not be a mere rubber stamp of the ruling party.
Putting the right persons in the right places
It should be recalled that President Barrow has said he had constituted a ‘Think-Tank’ to identify the most suitable individuals to fill key positions in his government, and to formulate a realistic socio-economic development blueprint for the next three years. Who are these ‘thinkers’? The Gambian people need to know who they are to judge if they are the most appropriate to undertake these crucial tasks. The country is not short of ‘thinkers’ with brilliant ideas, it’s a question of looking for them and bringing them on board.
In his quest to bring on board ‘the brightest and the best’ and to have the ‘best person for the job’, a roster of Gambians with the requisite academic credentials and expertise must be compiled and a shortlist of potential candidates for the respective positions made, who would then be invited for talks regarding their willingness to serve their nation in that capacity during the transition period. There are a lot of highly-educated, experienced, competent and capable Gambians, in and out of the country, who are ready to serve their country in a capacity that is commensurate with their expertise, if called upon.
The composition of Barrow’s Cabinet and appointments to ambassadorial and top positions will be a test case. Apart from choosing the most competent, people will be watching keenly to see if his choices will be representative of and in proportion to the ethnic, religious and gender mix of the country. Eyebrows will be raised and mistrust will set-in if appointments to such positions are disproportionate. If the Cabinet and top appointments are not balanced, fostering cohesion among the populace would be difficult to realize.
It should be underlined that appointments to top positions should be based on merit, not on political affiliation, or the extent to which one was involved in the election campaign, or how close to or supportive one was of the President during this period. If we take the United States, for example, President Trump’s nominees for cabinet positions are not people who were in the vanguard of his election campaign, but people who are deemed highly-qualified, competent, and capable and with a good track record of success, ready to serve their country in these positions.
Being aspirants to the presidency, I am of the opinion that none of the leaders of the parties that make up the Coalition should hold office in Barrow’s government. Having different political agendas, holding cabinet or key positions in the three-year transition government would be a conflict of interest. Their primary role should be to provide the oversight necessary for the smooth and orderly transition.
Guaranteeing individual rights and related freedoms
In his interview with BBC in Dakar on Saturday, January 21, President Barrow stressed that under his watch, the press will not be muzzled, freedom of expression will be assured and information will be allowed to flow freely, as people should be well informed of happenings in the country, if progress and development are to be achieved.
Assuring press and individual freedoms means the immediate repeal of the draconian laws that were enacted by Jammeh in this regard. The private radio stations that were banned from broadcasting should immediately be permitted to resume their services to the public and be given space to mount programs that would enable the enlightenment of the public on issues of common interest, and provide a platform for constructive public debate and exchange on pertinent national issues.
One crucial thing that the Gambian people have to know is the agreements that were reached by the Coalition regarding the transition years. What happens after three years of the Barrow presidency? Information can no longer be monopolized or hoarded. The Gambian people are now very conscious of their rights and responsibilities, and poised to claim and exercise them accordingly in the new political dispensation. They can no longer be taken for granted. Transparency and accountability will be demanded by the people.
Changing public attitudes and instilling discipline in Gambians
Changing people’s negative habits and attitudes is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. As long as Gambians, especially public servants, maintain the attitudes they have towards ‘government’ and the bad habits they demonstrate in offices and public places, the road to transforming our country will remain long and winding.
Government should no longer be seen as the President and his administration, or the political party that is at the helm and controls power and makes decisions, but as we the people, and this should be ingrained in our psyche. Those at the helm are simply chosen to lead the way. Without people, there is no government.
With the dawn of this new political climate, bringing with it tremendous challenges and opportunities for the new government to chart the country in the right direction to a prosperous future, we the people should play a very active and determined role in shaping our destiny. Although the primary responsibility of transforming the country’s economy, its institutions, and changing the mind set and attitudes of the population lies with President Barrow, we as a people have a greater role to play by supporting him all the way.
At this critical moment, and all throughout his tenure, President Barrow must be wary of sycophants and some of the people he is surrounded by as they have a hidden personal agenda. What President Barrow needs is a ‘team of advisers’ composed of specialists in the key areas of development – agriculture, health, education, economics, infrastructure, environment – to advise him on policy matters. This team should not exclude people with the competence who once served under Jammeh as their knowledge and experience could serve the new dispensation well. The potential contributions to the rebirth and rebuilding of our country by such professionals should not be ignored or dismissed. We are all in this together.
Making our country better and more prosperous for its citizenry is a collective responsibility. We have to put aside our personal interests, our ethnic, religious and political differences, unite as one people, as our Constitution enjoins us, make the necessary sacrifices and work for the progress, peace and prosperity of our beloved homeland. The going will not be easy, but with the continued support of our traditional bilateral and multilateral partners, the task of rebuilding a tattered country will be far less daunting. In the words of the erstwhile African rock band, Osibisa, “We will get there. Heaven knows how we will get there, we know we will”.
God bless our beloved country.
Burang Goree-Ndiaye, an Assistant Professor at University of The Gambia, holds a Ph.D. in Education and has been in this field all his professional life spanning almost five decades.