By Dr. Foday J. Darboe
The fault lines that run across the Gambia are deeply rooted in the incompetence of leadership, and this deficiency has percolated deep into the strata of the Gambia’s various governmental structures. An accountable, effective, and competent leader with extraordinary charisma and skills is critical to Gambia’s overall development. Great leaders are those who rise to the occasion to calm the storms during crisis and enhance the progress of development of their countries. President Barrow—the accidental president—is neither competent nor capable of rising to the occasion. Further, Barrow has increasingly surrounded himself with third-grade advisors with no experience or formal training in policy-making, and the increasing rise of his alliances with grifters taking advantage of government incompetence is downright appalling.
At his inauguration as president on February 18, 2017, in response to the Gambia’s history of dictatorship and to revitalize the country’s moribund economy, President Barrow pledged to usher in a new era of multi-party democracy and a new framework for socio-economic development. Nonetheless, the democratic wave that swept the Gambia in 2017 ushered in no amelioration of the economic cataclysm that most Gambians faced. After over two decades of dictatorship, Gambians widely welcomed and embraced President Barrow and the coalition government; however, President Barrow has failed to create policies that benefit the average Gambian’s well-being. Rather, he is busy safeguarding his individual interests over public interest and has prioritized short-term expediency over long-term benefit.
The question we ought to ask is: Can the Gambia be saved from itself? Barrow’s recent dealings have been dominated by attempts to revert to the old norm of corruption and power consolidation. Evidently, President Barrow is becoming blind to the imperative to create an effective national project for post-Jammeh reform, one that focuses on building a robust state that is capable of economic, political, and social transformation. The National Development Plan (NDP) for 2018-2021, meanwhile, is not exhaustive enough to address many of our economic woes. The NDP is replete with lofty targets, but the lack of a clear execution strategy, combined with insufficient funds and perpetual corruption, will hinder its aim.
Every Gambian should be fretful about the directions in which our country is headed. For decades, Gambians nurtured Yahya Jammeh and built a personality cult around him, which emboldened him to further undermine any checks on his power. Gambians are presently steering President Barrow along the same path. Examples of this concern are evident in three turning points that occurred within the last year: (1) the dismissal of several coalition members, (2) bribery of some parliament members, and (3) the notion that journalists should undergo screening at the State Intelligence Service (SIS).
In light of this present, it is imperative that we analyze the historical characteristics of Africa’s “strongman syndrome” and their uncanny and unscrupulous ability to stay in office for decades. Doing so will help us to better understand how the three turning points mentioned above came about and how the Gambia can save herself from another corrupt dictatorship.
Regarding the dismissal of several coalition members, the influence of most of President Barrow’s original cabinet members is rapidly disintegrating, or they have been transferred to low-level positions. Barrow has also surrounded himself with the same people who enabled and emboldened former President Yahya Jammeh. Thus, President Barrow’s inner circle is replete with minions whose allegiances are essentially based on patronage. It appears that President Barrow is slowly trailing in Yahya Jammeh’s footsteps. During his tenure in office—Jammeh gradually weeded out many political and military leaders, and this opened the door to human rights violations and corruption. Jammeh did all of this unchallenged, which allowed him to consolidate his power. President Barrow is embarking on a similar strategy, and this could crystalize his power, which could erode key government institutions.
Concerning the bribery scandal involving several parliamentarians, President Barrow has taken a chapter from Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni’s playbook. Museveni is known to pay off lawmakers to pass laws that favor him. Barrow’s strategy is no different. Barrow’s sole intention in bribing lawmakers was to consolidate his power and prolong his tenure in office. In fact, this practice is the modus operandi of many dictators in Africa. The reality is that Barrow is not fully interested in uplifting the average Gambian’s well-being.
Requiring journalists to undergo screenings at the SIS, meanwhile, is the antithesis of the democratic principles of a free press and unadulterated information. One of the first actions of any aspiring “strongman” is to regulate or suppress the free flow of information—as doing so halts potential criticism.
These three turning points underscore my point: President Barrow is looking more like a “strongman” every day, or perhaps is testing the waters to determine whether he can get away with filling this all-too-traditional role.
By some measures, former president Yahya Jammeh and President Barrow are different, but they have several characteristics in common. Barrow will not be capable of committing the villainous practice of killing political opponents, but if he keeps going at the present rate, we may see the Gambia back in a dictatorship and experiencing widespread corruption. The lesson is straightforward: Gambians should reflect on the most effective ways to put Barrow on notice and hold him accountable for failing to deliver on the promises he made.
For these reasons, the entire governmental structure needs to be bulldozed—yes, a “system change” is seriously needed in the Gambia—a “system change” that espouses checks and balances and the separation of power. Otherwise, there is no hope for the Gambia. Given what is at stake, it is morally incumbent upon all of us to stay alert and engaged.
The Gambia deserves a new wave, and I hope it will be a peaceful one.