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For a productive national discourse, let’s call a spade a spade

Dr Ousman Gajigo
Dr Ousman Gajigo

By Dr. Ousman Gajigo

Most of you would have noticed my choice of words in my last article on why Adama Barrow ought to leave the presidency in 3 years. In trying to discuss issues of national importance, clear communication is important. Euphemisms have their role but they should not get in the way of a message, particularly when the consequences are of high importance for the country. Every single word of that article was consciously and carefully chosen. We must be clear that Adama Barrow lied to the Gambian people.

There is a clear difference between gratuitous insults and calling out individuals for deliberate failure to honour their words when the results are consequential. To insult any individual just for the sake of being insolent is counter-productive. However, an insult that is perceived in the course of making a clear and valid point may be unfortunate but a necessary collateral damage. Just like every human being deserves some basic respect, no single individual is also above reproach. Whether it is a poor farmer in the village or a president in the State House.

If one were to call the President a ‘bastard’, that would constitute not only an unnecessary insult, but it would also not help illuminate any particular issue or position he or his government stands for. That would be an insult for the sole purpose of inflicting emotional injury or achieving emotional satisfaction. While people may have freedom of speech, such needless insults do not bring clarity and therefore cannot have any productive effect in political discourse.

It is abundantly clear that there is a clear distinction between the above and pointing out that the president lied to Gambian people by initially indicating that he would rule for 3 years and now deciding otherwise. Pointing out this falsehood is an important part of holding politicians to their word. For the sake of our advancement, politicians need to understand that there are consequences for promising one thing and doing the opposite. Conscious avoidance of sugar-coating terms is in fact a necessary part of holding people to account. There is no need to rhetorically entangle oneself in euphemisms when the appropriate vocabulary is a simple word with a clear meaning. If the offending politician perceives an insult in the process, so be it. That comes with the territory. Nobody is forced to get into politics.

On top of that, the president has been giving one false reason after another that are insulting to the intelligence of the Gambian people. Each of the responses he has given so far are unacceptable reasons when he could easily utter the real truth.

The first excuse Adama Barrow and his enablers floated was that the constitution would not allow the government to rule for three years. I guess Barrow forgot that one of his first actions as President was amending some age limits within that very constitution. It was known to Barrow and other members of the coalition that presidential mandates are 5 years. The five-year period is a man-made rule that can be amended, not some supernatural rule that is beyond human modification. Furthermore, the fluid period of a transmission is the natural moment to correct faulty systems from the previous regime, which includes the constitution. Moreover, there is nothing in the constitution that prevents the president from stepping down in 3 years.

The latest false excuse being Barrow and some supporters made is that the MOU between the parties was not signed. This claim is made to suggest that the failure to sign the MOU somehow invalidates the three-year promise. This is patently false. The MOU was not a legal contract between Adama Barrow and the country, and therefore its signing does not negate the promise he made to the country. Adama Barrow made his promise to the Gambian electorate on several occasions and in different venues. When he was repeating the promise, he was aware of the fact that the MOU was not signed. To bring up the issue of not signing is an attempt to detract the Gambian people from a blatant lie.

Furthermore, there was at least one aspect of the unsigned MOU that Adama Barrow observed, conveniently. Specifically, Adama Barrow resigned from UDP to become an independent so that, as the flag-bearer, he would symbolically represent all parties and avoid the appearance of being an emissary of one particular one. If not for the conditions for the MOU, why did Adama Barrow resign from the UDP?

A leader who wants to command respect must be true to his word. The country as a whole will reap the negative consequences if we start to give a pass to leaders simply because traditionally, we are supposed to refrain from using certain words against elders or leaders. If political leaders start to believe that they will not be called to account for past promises they have made simply by the virtue of the positions they hold or their age, we will be opening the door of the political arena to all sorts of opportunistic charlatans that will be having fun at our expense. After all, age is no cure for dishonesty or opportunistic behavior.

Concerns about perceived insults come in two main forms. One is from supporters of Barrow whose actual motive is to shut down any criticism of the president, while concerns can also come from well-meaning individuals who simply believe that any insult to a leader goes against tradition. The former is transparently self-serving, and so it is best ignored. This latter group, while well intentioned, is highly misguided. It is position based on the belief that all traditions must be followed, without a thought to the consequences. More relevantly, observing this particular tradition would mean being stuck in the same political doldrum when we should urgently be seeking avenues to advance for the first time since independence.

Respect and reverence are earned. Just because one occupies the State House does not mean one can enjoy the protection of tradition even as one makes a mockery of what it means to have a relationship of trust between leadership and the electorate. To blatantly lie about what was promised without having the decency to go before the population and being truthful about the real reason is to forfeit the respect or reverence that would have been naturally conferred. Blindly following traditions even as it allows lying politicians to wiggle out of responsibilities means nothing except to demonstrate the triumph of form over substance.

I strongly urge Gambians not to shy away from using the right word when the situation calls for it. Give respect where is due or where it is earned, and choose your words carefully. I for one will continue to do so because it is the right thing to do. I would rather run the risk of using unpleasant words to engage in productive discourse than to let leaders swindle us by employing equivocations in some misguided sense of observing pointless decorum.

Ousman Gajigo is an economist. He has held positions with the African Development Bank, the UN, the World Bank and Columbia University. He holds a PhD in development economics. He is currently an international consultant and also runs a farm in The Gambia.


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