Opinion: Beyond Our NPP’s Baptism of Fire, Who Controls The Gambia’s 6th Legislature?
By Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu
“And do not lose hope in the mercy of Allah, for no one loses hope in Allah’s mercy except those with no faith.” (Quran, Surat Yusuf. 12:87).
Retrospectively, the Gambian National Assembly election of Saturday, 9th April 2022 was a natural baptism of fire for my young party, the National People’s Party (NPP) by the voters. All serious organizations go through such formative challenges in their respective evolutions. Before elaborating on this “kunliyo with fire”, I find it interesting the way countless people are playing the surprise card over the outcome of the legislative election and the subsequent composition of our new parliament. I for one saw that coming as nothing surprises me in Gambian politics. The National Assembly Members (NAMs) of our 6thLegislature did not fall from the sky since they are from Gambian communities. Those who voted and the ones who chose to stay home are equally responsible for the new legislative outlook. As a progressive democrat and moderate thinker, I respect the decision of Gambian voters and will live with the colourful National Assembly they gave us for this five-year term. Congratulations to all those who are part of the new Legislature and respect to those who ran as candidates but could not enter parliament. “To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” Baron de Montesquieu.
Crucially, on the 9th April 2022, politically active Gambians with valid voters’ cards elected 53 members for 6th session of the legislative branch of the Gambian State. Known officially as the National Assembly, this important body is composed of 58 members. In addition to the elected 53, the President of The Republic has, according to section 88 (b) of the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia, the prerogative to nominate 5 members. The Speaker and Deputy Speaker are elected from the nominated ones.
Officially, results from the statutory Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) showed that the ruling National People’s Party (NPP) of President Adama Barrow won 18 seats, the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) got 15, Independent candidates secured 12 and the National Reconciliation Party (NRP) returned with 4. As for the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), voters gave it 2 seats, the People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) equally got 2, the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP), Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC), Citizens Alliance (CA) and Gambia For All (GFA) got zero each.
Subsequently, NPP 18 + 5 Nominated Members + NRP 4 + APRC 2 give the NPP-led alliance 29 seats and with realignments from the Independent NAMs’ bench, NPP can get the majority needed to pass bills and other motions. As for the opposition camp, there is no binding agreement yet between them at the time of writing this commentary for one to assume that they can have a formidable voting bloc that can make life difficult for the Executive branch of the state. There are 12 Independent NAMs who will be swaying between NPP and the main opposition groups based on the prevailing circumstances and interests. Some would side with NPP, others would be with UDP, there will be abstentions and a few would remain independent throughout their five-year term. Even with a working agreement, there will be no guarantee that the opposition NAMs and the Independent ones would always vote with one voice as the dynamics of parliamentary politics are fluid.
Moreover, with the modification of rules, National Assembly Members (NAMs) can change their minds with or without party pressure. History they say, repeats itself in many ways. In the 5thlegislature, both UDP and GDC expelled NAMs from their parties who sided with President Barrow. Those NAMs kept their seats till the 9th April 2022 when voters decided their fates. In the case of Ya Kumba Jaiteh versus the Clerk, Speaker of the National Assembly, the Attorney General et al, a precedent was set for even nominated NAMs to resist the influence of their appointing authorities and still complete their terms in office.
Historically, Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, author from the European Renaissance era taught us that “politics have no relation to morals.” Politics being a game of shifting interests and not of morality, political parties should not be complacent. All NAMs are de facto “independent” in their voting patterns in parliament. They can vacate their seats if they resign, when a resolution from the National Assembly for their dismissal is supported by at least two-third majority vote, in the event of death, when recalled by the voters in their constituencies or if the National Assembly is dissolved through a gazetted state of emergency. Getting someone into the National Assembly is easier than getting him or her out before the expiry of his or her five-year term. This security of tenure gives NAMs some leverage over both the Executive and Judiciary.
Therefore, political party leaders and surrogates should celebrate with reason and not emotions. With the backlog of reforms at our hand, I hope the new National Assembly Members will work with the Executive branch of Barrow’s Government towards the improvement of the welfare of Gambians. American historian W. E. B. Du Bois reminds us that “the ruling of men is the effort to direct the individual actions of many persons toward some end. This end theoretically should be the greatest good of all, but no human group has ever reached this ideal because of ignorance and selfishness.” We pray that the principle of Checks and Balances is not trampled up by the trashing feet of partisan politics. To minimise noise and delay tactics, the leaders of the ruling majority and opposition minority blocs would need good diplomatic skills to mobilise the various NAMs through the all-party caucuses of the Legislature that engage the Executive branch in discussing bills before the main plenary debates.
To the question “who controls the 6th Legislature or National Assembly?” The answer is: two entities. The first entity is His Excellency President Adama Barrow. He has the powers to veto bills of the National Assembly by refusing to sign them into law. With the elaborate Executive powers vested in President Barrow, he has the wherewithal to check-mate the Legislature.
The Gambian voters as second entity control the National Assembly with their votes or collective bargaining groups. NAMs can cross-carpet, challenge their political patrons or behave otherwise and still stay in parliament but the voters in their constituencies have the final say on their longevity in the house. “In politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight” says Joseph Chamberlain, liberal British statesman. The euphoria over the new National Assembly will give way to real politics since alliances are not holy unions carved in stones but fluid constructs with oscillating obsolescence.
Diagnostically, my NPP family at home and in the Diasporashould consider the National Assembly election of 9th April 2022 as an organic baptism of fire for our young party but not the end of life. The teething problems of NPP started immediately after the launch of the party on Saturday, 30thJanuary 2020 and got compounded during the parliamentary election in 2022. The results from Banjul to Kiang are official and based on feedbacks from our “Bolongkono” or Upper River Region (URR), voters appreciated and admired President Barrow’s work hence they ignored the contested candidate selection processes and voted for the NPP. Both Banjul and URR enjoyed massive infrastructural development projects from President Barrow but differed in the parliamentary elections.
Notwithstanding, this humbling political experience gives us the chance to engage in honest internal family dialogues to further institutionalize and consolidate our young political party and as well, remain credible before Gambians. On 4th December 2021, Gambian voters overwhelming gave the NPP Secretary General and Party Leader, President Barrow the second term under our NPP ticket. This means the Office of The President which is the only electable office in the powerful Executive branch of the Government as well as the functions of Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of The Republic of The Gambia, are entrusted to our NPP founder, Adama Barrow. This voter trust comes with responsibility and people will hold us accountable for both the successes and failures of the government of the day.
I am part of the President Barrow Team or as one social media commentator teased me “Barrow’s Boy.” My political home is where President Adama Barrow will be and I have vested interests in seeing that the Barrow Presidency succeeds in meeting the common aspirations of Gambians.
If we are to help President Adama Barrow consolidate his agenda and legacy for the betterment of Gambians, we must avoid situations that could reduce our NPP into a scapegoat of political loss while others milk the fat national cows. Our indigenous Gambian wisdom admonishes us that when siblings fight, an outsider will enjoy their inheritance. Similar parable has it that a successful child is claimed by everyone but a failed child is dumped on the mother. This is evident in our last two general elections. When our NPP leader, President Barrow won the presidential election of 4th December 2021, many entities claimed credit for that victory while the disappointing performance in the National Assembly elections of 9th April 2022 is being blamed solely on NPP. We can embrace unity and reconciliation albeit cautiously as the road to “political” hell is paved with good intentions. My modified emphasis from the timeless idiom of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, patron of the Knights Templar.
The upcoming Council, Mayoral and Ward elections could be even tougher than both the concluded Presidential and National Assembly elections. For any political entity that controls the grassroots will be on sound footing of voter mobilization for the next 2026 electoral cycle. Those who want to become ward counsellors, area council chairmen and women or municipal mayors in 2023 should start now. I understand the NPP grassroots are calling for Congresses at National, Regional, District, Ward and Diaspora levels to reinvigorate the Party before the Local Government Elections.
Going forward, we need to examine some circumstances around the last presidential and parliamentary elections to guide us. I will not dwell into the internal challenges of our NPP here in public as we will address them in our various family meetings. I would just review three (3) external factors.
The first factor is the phenomenal change in voter mindset. The saying “makoyi ngha baraka” Mandinka for “help me to get blessed” is captured by voters as the new raison d’ entre for participatory politics. The perception from voters is that once politicians get elected they forget their campaign promises and would focus on improving the welfare of their families and friends hence the people see voter inducement as a kind down payment from our commonwealth. They will enjoy the campaign money, wear the party or candidate T-shirts, join the ambiance of the moving crowds, eat and dance at the political events, collect the “ashobis” and shout across various social media platforms for particular politicians but on Election Day will vote for different ones. A number of Gambian presidential and national assembly candidates who were carried away by the crowds and money politics failed to read the evolved minds of voters.
Secondly, the crass inducement politics of the first republic and the fear-based divide-and-rule strategy of the second republic are no longer tolerated by voters who tested their liberties as of 2016. The abysmal performances of the two former ruling parties at the polls are a testimony of the fact that voters are now forward-looking. Gambian voters of 2022 are not the same as those of 2016, 1996 or 1992. Politicians who insist on the blanket reapplication of the raw politics of the past Jawara and Jammeh systems while ignoring the evolutions of voter demographics and mentality will be committing political self-strangulation as voters are now brutally unforgiving. Before 2016, Gambian voters were disillusioned and felt that change through the ballot box was impossible. They have been emboldened by the elections of December 2016, December 2021 and April 2022 with the firm conviction that they can indeed effect seismic changes in power politics.
Third factor is that the silent majority is the real king-making voter bloc that many politicians are not seeing well. Immediately after the presidential election of 4th December 2021 in which the silent majority throughout The Gambia massively backed President Barrow, there was a subtle message out there that NPP-led alliance should not be given a stable absolute majority in the National Assembly as the fear factor of the Jammeh years could lead to “civilian dictatorship.” Perhaps out of excitement or oversight, neither the strategists of NPP nor the members of the NPP-led alliance could come up with an effective political communication strategy to counter this narrative that an eventual NPP absolute majority in the National Assembly would lead to another dictatorship.
The adage that “information is power” is timeless and in this Information Age, shouting, reacting to adversaries or denying the reality can be counterproductive. In political communication, deciphering the subtle and coded messages of voters and citizenscan be life-saving.
Who ever thought that PPP would have zero seats in Gambian elections and APRC will celebrate 2 parliamentary seats asachievement? The huge number of independent NAMs is a protest action of Gambian of voters who are no longer accepting infantilization from politicians. As Jean-Jacques Rousseauwarns “I have never thought, for my part, that man’s freedom consists in his being able to do whatever he wills, but that he should not, by any human power, be forced to do what is against his will.”
We the NPP are fortunate that voters have warned us in good time then to be forewarned is to be forearmed. We can learn from our mistakes and the shortcomings of other political entities towards our revitalization as a formidable and admirable powerhouse of Gambian politics. Let us not forget the fact that we can no longer afford the luxury of dilly-dallying tabula rasa legislative reforms and socio-economic transformations that Gambians are yearning.
Finally, with Executive Powers vested in President Adama Barrow according to section 76 of our 1997 Constitution, I believe he will learn from the experience of 2017-2022 by having his “Plan B” and remaining vigilant. As in the German saying attributed to Vladimir Lenin, former President of the defunct Soviet Union “trust is good but control is better.”All registered political parties in The Gambia with constitutions and manifestoes want to occupy the Presidency and dominate the legislature in one way or the other. Any serious politician who denies this fact will be dishonest to himself/herself and the voters. “Politics is a war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”Mao Zedong, former supreme leader of China.
*Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu, writing in accordance with sections 7 (d), 25 and 26 of the 1997 Constitution of The Republic of The Gambia.