Gambia’s Checkered Transition: A Blueprint for  Democratic Change


By: Abdoulaye Saine

Anthology of An Exiled African Dissident: A Diaspora Movement that Toppled a Government and Exiled a Dictator. By Mathew K. Jallow: Archway Publishing, Bloomington, Indiana, 2020, Pp., 293 (US$ 19.99).

The Gambia in Transition: Toward A New Constitutional Order, Satnag Nabaneh, Adem Abebe and Gaye Sowe (Eds.): Pretoria University Law Press, Pinetown Printers, South Africa, 2022, Pp. 354 (obtain a free copy from publishers).

Mathew Jallow has written a riveting book that is personal, historiographic, and unapologetic. It is a walk through the politically turbulent and murderous Jammeh years in the Gambia (1994-2016). Jallow, a seasoned journalist, and political activist with a background in political science, paints a horrid picture of pervasive political and economic malfeasance in Gambia and Africa. Formative political awareness came early to young Jallow during the heady post-independence 1960s, influenced by writings of Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral and Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong). His friends and colleagues at Yundum College, called him “Mao,” in recognition of his revolutionary potential and ideological affinity to the great Chinese leader.

With a mix of short newspaper articles, commentaries and essays, Jallow skillfully captures Gambia’s troubled political landscape: (1994-2016). He comments critically on regional and continental issues of the day, including letters to prominent African politicians- imploring them and world leaders to sanction Gambia’s dictator, “rapist,” and “murderer.” Predictably, Jallow is unrelenting in his criticism of Jammeh, Gambia’s enabling and compromised political elite, intellectuals and a continent mired in political decay, corruption, and opportunism.

Unconstrained by strict academic expectations, Jallow freely weaves in and out of the 1994 Coup D’etat, the November 1994 murders of innocent soldiers, student massacres, prisoner executions, “witch hunts,” to culminate in the 2016 presidential elections and its aftermath- all couched against a backdrop of commentaries on Africa, African “leadership,” failed promises, and unfulfilled dreams.

There is a drawback to Jallow’s mix of well-structured essays, newspaper articles and commentaries, all combined. The format disrupted the flow of the book, which although generally well written, was marred by not knowing which subject matter to follow. And, partly because of the different writing genres, possibly aimed at different audiences, the language and writing sometimes came off forced, and wordy. Many will find, Anthology of An Exiled African Dissident, erudite, honest, capturing as it does an important epoch of Gambia, and Africa’s political histories as it highlights myriad governance, human rights, and economic challenges that remain following Jammeh’s exile. At this juncture, Jallow provided a crucial substantive bridge to:

The Gambia in TransitionToward A New Constitutional Order, which takes off exactly where Jallow’s Anthology ends. The volume is divided into three thematic parts: (1) Constitution Making and Human Rights Protection; (2) Governance and Democracy Building Processes; (3) Cross Cutting Perspectives, with five, three, and three chapters, respectively.

The introductory chapter by the editors sets both the organization and substantive content of chapters that follow- what results are coherently organized, well-argued chapters that speak to one another- not an easy feat. Chapter two is a lucid expose on various Constitutions from the Colonial 1946, 1970 and 1997 Constitutions, and the latter’s draconian elements. Logically, chapters three and four make the strong case for Constitutional Design in Post-Jammeh Gambia, with added guarantees for Media Freedoms.

Chapter five is a compelling call for social, cultural and economic rights- a call that was lost though rekindled following the end of the cold war. Chapter six critically interrogates women’s political participation, as it poses the perennial question: one step forward or two back? Chapter seven builds on the previous chapter to advocate for a more inclusive electoral system to ensure inclusivity that allows for wider popular political participation. The connective tissue and theme of strengthening institutional legal frameworks, is balanced in chapter eight by arguments for further inclusion of civil society so as to deepen participation and democracy itself.

A comparative-case study on Mauritius is the focus of chapter nine, which offers important lessons for ethnic group(s) representation in Gambia. Against a background of gross violations of human rights under Jammeh, chapter ten highlights the urgent need for transitional justice; built around principles with proposed mechanisms for justice delivery and acceleration in chapter eleven. The chapter holds out the example of South Africa, as a model for Gambia to adopt. The last chapter succinctly draws out major themes of the volume, while outlining important legal recommendations and modalities for writing a new Constitution for Gambia. This is an important and convincing “People’s Appeal” the volume makes.

This is a path-breaking book by a younger generation of mostly legal and political Gambian scholars that offer a well thought out blueprint for a future democratic Gambia- built on a firm foundation: fundamental freedoms, group, cultural, and economic rights and social equality. It is comprehensive, well-written, and draws heavily, as well as extends the political science and legal literatures on “democratic transitions,” and “constitution building.” And, while its primary focus is Gambia, it has a strong comparative political and legal thrust that could prove useful for other countries. It is bold in its stance and raises more importantly the centrality of “economic rights” in “democratization,” that is, “economic democracy.”

Though representing different genres- one from a personal standpoint, and the other more research focused, the two volumes focus on similar themes and speak to one another. They are driven by a strong commitment to a new democratic dispensation, predicated on the rule of law, and social justice in Gambia, and elsewhere.

Unrestrained by the strictures of social and legal research protocols, Jallow vents his dismay over staggering “ineptitude,” and “mediocrity” in Gambia and Africa. Editors, and authors of the volume, on the other hand, express similar but muted concerns. There is room for both genres, and combined makes for informative and interesting reading. Policy makers, scholars and students alike have important theoretical and empirical lessons to glean from both volumes. This is especially so for: The Gambia in Transition.

Abdoulaye Saine

Sulayman S. Nyang and Lamin O. Sanneh Institute for Social Research & Justice

Kerr Sering, The Gambia


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