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National Dialogue or National Farce?- Dr. Ousman Gajigo

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Dr. Ousman Gajigo, Economist formerly with ADB

By Dr. Ousman Gajigo

The country recently witnessed what has been billed as the “National Dialogue”. I have been thinking for days how to put my thoughts down on paper. It has been difficult. Not because there had been profound and thought-provoking discussions that dominated the events or that it led to outcomes far beyond anyexpectations. What has been difficult to square is watching the spectacle of so many political leaders confusing a mere show for a groundbreaking achievement. 

In undertaking national events, it is paramount to be objective-focused rather than being consumed by processes or sentimentality. Numerous commentaries unwittingly miss this point by reflexively commending the announcement of this event even without much thought to what concrete problems it can realistically address given our current reality. After all, if a mere gathering of political leaders is the antidote to our problems, we would have long ceased to being a poor country.

When stripped of all context, there is absolutely nothing objectionable about the idea of a dialogue between any two individuals or entities. So, the natural sentiment of most well-meaning people is to applaud such an idea in principle. But this very natural tendency is what makes it so easy for disingenuous individuals to pull the wool over people’s eyes. But just because an idea sounds good in abstract does not necessarily mean that it is a worthwhile undertaking in all contexts.

The first sign that this National Dialogue will not be substantive is the title: “Our Collective Responsibility in Preserving the Nation, Safeguarding the State, and Securing Our Resources”. This vagueness and seemingly all-encompassing nature in the title is the first glaring indication of the absence of any serious reflection on any meaningful goals that are being targeted. The framers of this title probably believe that the grander the title, the more impressive it will sound, and this will provide a camouflage for the absence of substance. 

The second sign was the cringing self-congratulatory claims that were sprinkled throughout the event. President Barrow and several others seem to be under the impression that the mere convening of this event was in itself an achievement. How low the bar has become. The one thing that is easy to do in The Gambia is to get Gambians to attend a gathering, whether it is for social, religious or political reasons. Any meeting called by the President or any government entity would be well attended even if the reason for the gathering is not communicated.  Indeed, many would be looking to attend even without an invitation.  So, what is remarkable about the mere convening of an event at the Statehouse?

The quality of most of the actual speeches delivered during the opening, starting with the President Barrow’s own quickly dispelled any hopes of that there will be any meaningful outcomes from the event.  The announcement of the possible creation of yet another committee for addressing obvious problems that should have been addressed without any grand ceremony is nothing but a sign of disingenuousness and lack of seriousness in general. 

The president stated that the key objective of the event was to “build a national consensus.” Let’s take that point seriously and address it. That goal is vague to the point of uselessness. Consensus on what? Moreover, what indications are there that the Adama Barrow regime is serious about building national consensus on important issues facing the country? The Barrow government had a bigger opportunity than any in the history of the country to rule and engender national consensus on many highly important issues. For instance, President Barrow came to power on the basis of a coalition that he did not create but was luckily positioned to benefit from. Yet, when he came to power, he systematically dismantled that coalition. The charade that the current government is a coalition is underscored by the fact that the only so-called oppositions in government are individuals such as Hamat Bah, Henry Gomez and former APRCfunctionaries that are more interested in having jobs than being driven by the nation’s development problems.  None of the real opposition, are in government even though they were in the coalition that brought Adama Barrow to power. 

Beyond the disintegration of the coalition, Adama Barrow’s government has shown no real seriousness towards consensus building. Nothing would signify consensus building more than undertaking a just transition to democracy by repudiating Yahya Jammeh, his party and his legacy, as well as seriously taking the recommendations of the Janneh Commission, the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) and the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). Yet, Adama Barrow’s government went into a coalition with the APRC party and retained key members of its ruling circle. The government has now completed its total disregard of the Janneh Commission through its opaque disposal of the Jammeh assets and disregarding of many its recommendations. The work of the CRC is now forgotten as the country continues to labor under the constitution created by Yahya Jammeh. Despite the TRRC concluding its activities years ago, no meaningful actions have been taken on its recommendations. Where is the national consensus?

The situation is no different when one looks at the day-to-dayactivities of the Barrow government. Another prime example is the central government’s long-running conflict with local governments that are headed by the opposition parties. Apart from the National Assembly, these local governments provide the best opportunity for consensus building when it comes to addressing national development. But despite the immense opportunity, we have not observed any collaborative endeavors from Adama Barrow’s central government. Where is the national consensus?

The whole event was not without substance but not due to any special effort by President Barrow and his government. Some of the opposition figures did deliver substantive speeches. Among them were BB Dabo and Halifa Sallah, who should be commended for their seriousness. Those excellent speeches notwithstanding, both BB Dabo and Halifa Sallah could have delivered those speeches outside of that event and have in fact delivered variations of those points in numerous other forums. 

So we come back to what the goal of the event was and what was actually achieved. Did president Barrow need to convene the so-called “national dialogue” event to get the viewpoints of the leaders of the various political parties in the 7th year of rule if he really meant it? What could those party leaders have said in the forum that was not known to him and his government if they had already prioritized the nation’s development? The task we have with national leadership in the Gambia is not an accounting of the problems but taking those national problems with the seriousness they deserve and address them with a real sense of purpose.

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