Emma Emeozor, [email protected], @Emekaili
Certainly, it is too soon for Gambia to be thrown into another era of political crisis, barely three years after democracy was enthroned following the forced exit of former President Yahya Jammeh.
The dramatic exit of Jammeh after 22 years of misrule was made possible through the intervention of the Economic Community of West Africa State (ECOWAS) and the Nigerian government. The successful inauguration of his successor, Adama Barrow heralded a new dawn in the country’s chequered history. The thinking at the time was that Gambia will become an example of an African country where pseudo-democracy eventually gave way to true democracy.
The new political template created by the emergence of Barrow raised the hope of the people. For the first time, Gambians were beginning to have confidence in themselves, they were beginning to believe true democracy can work in their country, they were beginning to believe that the country will bounce back to life.
The crisis brewing now over Barrow’s bid for ‘tenure elongation’ is therefore worrisome. Last week, protesters under the aegis of ‘Three Years Jotna (Three years is enough)’ movement, stormed the streets of the capital, Banjul, beating drums of war as they called on the president to honour his promise to stay in office for only three years.
This development is an unnecessary distraction and must be addressed with the seriousness it deserves not only by Gambians but also by ECOWAS, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and other well meaning African leaders. Gambian political leaders need to be to in unequivocal terms ‘Crisis Jotna (Crisis is enough).’
It is instructive that Barrow won the election on December 26 but was sworn in, first in Senegal on January 19, 2017 before he returned to Gambia in February. This was because of the tense atmosphere created by the recalcitrance of Jammeh after he refused to concede defeat. ECOWAS and the international community took the initiative to save the country from armed conflict.
The ‘Three Years Jotna (Three years is enough)’ movement has demanded the president end his tenure on January 19, 2020, a request he is not willing to accept. Expectedly, he has supporters who believe he has not violated any law if he decides to stay in office for five years, so long it is in tandem with the provisions of the constitution. What this means is that there is a sharp split in the coalition that sacked Jammeh through the ballot box.
More disturbing is the backlash the crisis could have on the country. If not carefully handled, the country may be thrown into another gruelling period of political anarchy, a development that Jammeh may likely seize on and make dangerous incursion into the country’s politics. And the West African country of 1.99 million people may become a laughing stock in the international community.
Barrow came as a ‘redeemer.’This he must bear in mind always. He hit the road with strong promises to revise the dwindling fortunes of the people. The revival of the economy and the enthronement of true democracy were cardinal in his manifesto. He left no one in doubt that he was up to the challenge. He warmed his way into the hearts of the people following the inauguration of the ‘Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission’ to address wrongs committed by the tyranny of Jammeh’s administration and unite the country.
Perhaps, the enthusiastic response of the people to his emergence may have made the president to forget easily that he was a child of circumstance. Indeed, he was more of a John the Baptist who had come to clear the way for another spiritual leader.
It must be noted that Barrow did not contest and win the election under his declared party, the United Democratic Party (UDP). The party was in tatters with some of its leaders thrown into prison by Jammeh. Rather, he contested and won the election under the platform of ‘Coalition 2016,’ following an agreement was reached by members. Under the agreement, Barrow had the mandate to be in office for three years only.
The agreement demands that he organise general elections at the expiration of the three years. Interestingly, he did not approve the agreement under duress. Of course, what was uppermost in the minds of the coalition members was the desire to uproot and throw Jammeh out of the presidential villa. Thus, every member was ready to make sacrifice. Barrow made a sacrifice by agreeing to limit his tenure to three years instead of the five years stated in the constitution.
As the three years draws near, the president appears to be sweeping the agreement under the carpet. Having tasted power, he has become fascinated by its allure. As if he has been in slumber, he has suddenly realized that the country’s constitution allows a president to remain in office for five years.
Therefore, he wants to complete the five years approved by the constitution to the chagrin of the coalition leaders. He is pulling the strings, using the influence of the presidency to ensure the coalition agreement is jettisoned.
Prior to his election, Barrow had presented himself as a humble, law abiding citizen, indeed as a man of honour. Now is the time for him to prove those enviable qualities. The question facing the president is: should he tow the path of morality or that of constitutionality. Put differently, should the president succumb to those who are emphasising ‘morality’ or those who are the focus should be on ‘legality.’
While ’morality’ frowns at the president’s attempt to renege on his promise to stay in office for only three years, he is finding solace in the ‘legality’ of the decision. So, the president is caught between the web of ‘morality’ and that of ‘legality (constitutionality).’ This is an interesting debate in a continent where presidential tenure elongation has become the norm.
On Thursday, the president of Guinea, Alpha Conde announced a plan to amend the constitution, apparently to include third term for the president. Currently, the constitution allows only two terms for the president.
Guinea has been embroiled in crisis since October 2019 when it became obvious that 81-year-old Conde wants to extend his tenure contrary to the provisions of the constitution. Conde is not alone. Power thirsty political leaders have always thrown African countries into political turmoil. This category of leaders employs all devious tactics’ to ensure the constitution of their countries is amended even when it is against popular opinion. Majority of these leaders are septuagenarians and octogenarians.
It has been argued severally that the African elite are part of the continent’s problems because they are either docile or are tied to the apron of corrupt and power hungry old politicians. African elite have not been able to muster courage to cut with past leaders and chart a new viable political manifesto that will lift the continent.
At 54, Barrow is African elite. Much is expected from him and he knows. In an interview with Al Jazeera shortly after his election, he said: “We promised to do a lot of things, including electoral reforms. We will look at everything and avoid making any mistake to arrive at a final document. “We want the democratic process to be very smooth in the future. We want a level playing field for every politician in the future, that is our goal. We need laws that will favour everybody.”
His words were clear indication that he has an understanding of the political factors that had stalled the development and growth of his country. That being the case, it is unimaginable that the president chose to circumvent the moral obligation he owes ‘Coalition 2016’ that brought him into power. By this singular act, he has betrayed the trust the people repose on him as president.
Already, he is displaying the same political character of Jammeh. After the 1994 coup which brought Jammeh to power, the erstwhile leader entrenched himself in power through overt and covert means. All Jammeh needed to silence the opposition was the control of the army and its machineries.
But the political tide has changed. It may be a herculean task for Barrow to compel the army to back him with respect to the brewing crisis. Whatever be his argument, suffice to say that ‘morality’ is a core ingredient of democracy. A politician who is not morally upright cannot make a good leader. And this is the bane of Africa.
African leaders have the habit of hiding under the cloak of ‘legality’ to trample on their moral obligation to the people. And this is usually when they realize that towing the path of morality would rob them of their selfish ambition.
Africa is in daring need of young astute leaders who will lead by example and not leaders who preach what they don’t practice. Barrow has the opportunity of being a shining leader not only for Gambians but for the entire continent the way revolutionary and former president of Burkina Faso, the late Thomas Sankara was. Thirty-two years after Sankara’s assassination, African youth still honour him for his courage and forthrightness in tackling the socio-political and economic problems of his country. He was selfless.
Barrow must not allow his vested interest to blind him nor must he allow himself to be swayed by political charlatans into taking the wrong decision at this trying period in the history of Gambia. He must not forget too soon the pains of the country under Jammeh’s rule. Gambia must be allowed to recuperate as quickly as possible. It cannot afford another long-drawn political battle.
Barrow must tow the path of honour which demands that morality prevails over constitutionality in the debate on three years or five years in office. The current peace in Gambia is a product of the tireless effort of ECOWAS. Ditto Barrow’s presidency. ECOWAS was firm in its decision to support the presidency of Barrow as it was the only way the organization felt it could sanitise the country’s political atmosphere.
Therefore, it will be most disappointing if ECOWAS sit tight and watch Gambia slide into another era of political conflict. The organization must not only be on the alert but must be ready to deploy efforts to stall any breakdown of law and order. More importantly, it must be seen to be telling the president the truth, no matter how bitter it may sound to him. The tomorrow of Gambia and Gambians is more important than the parochial interest of any individual, no matter how highly placed.