Op-ed: The National Malaise: Taking Things for Granted

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President Barrow

Guest Editorial: Madi Jobarteh 

The Gambia is governed based on the 1997 Constitution in conjunction with other laws. In the governance of the Gambia all public officials and citizens are expected to uphold the principles, standards, processes, and objectives of not only the Constitution and national laws but also regional and international instruments, norms, and standards. On being elected or appointed to public office, the President, and all public officials, before assuming their position swear to an oath of office to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the Gambia without fear or favor, ill-will or affection.

The Constitution and laws of the Gambia are instruments in which the rights, duties and benefits of citizens are stipulated and guaranteed. These Constitution and laws also give authority, powers, and obligations to public officials to perform functions that are meant to respect, protect, and fulfill these constitutional and legal rights of citizens. Hence whatever the President and public officials say or do in their official capacity must be perceived, interpreted, and checked against the terms of the Constitution and national laws, as well as regional and international laws ratified by the Gambia.

The words, decisions and actions of public officials have far-reaching impact on the lives of citizens and the overall governance of the country. The words and the decisions they make can incite hatred and violence. Their actions or inaction can cost lives. By a stroke of a pen or by passing a law or by detaining a suspect, a public official’s decision can lead to people gaining or losing livelihoods, rights, and opportunities. This is why it is therefore pertinent that citizens do not take the utterances, decisions and actions of public officials for granted.

Unfortunately, in the Gambia, it is common for people to take the words, decisions, and actions of public officials for granted. Either we claim they are clueless, paranoid, or irrelevant. Yet these public officials continue to make impactful statements to the detriment of the unity, rights, opportunities and security of citizens and the country. The examples are uncountable if we care to learn from history.

For example, when Yaya Jammeh was shouting that he had ‘Allah’s Bank’ we took it for granted only to allow him to plunder our wealth. When he said he could cure HIV/AIDS, we allowed him to kill patients. When he said Mile 2 prisons was his “Five Star Hotel” we allowed him to throw anyone in there. When he said he would bury citizens six feet deep, we allowed him to create the Junglers only to execute citizens as he liked!

Today, we also hear current president Adama Barrow claiming that he owns the police and the military. He claims to own public schools, hospitals, and public institutions. He has called on his supporters to fight and he will stand by them. He has ridiculed Gambian diaspora, journalists, activists, and opposition politicians as irrelevant, useless, criminals, and unpatriotic. Still citizens take those comments for granted.

Because of these unlawful and unethical words, decisions and actions of Yaya Jammeh and Adama Barrow, we also see and hear their ministers, surrogates, and supporters take it upon themselves to release insults and caricature against opponents and anyone who disagrees with them. Just like during the Jammeh regime, today we also see how the police take it upon themselves to arrest and detain anyone or deny citizens the right to protest without any legal or tangible reason, and we take it for granted that the police can do so. These public officials and their supporters promote tribalism and bigotry without any fear or caution simply because they know that no one will hold them accountable.

It is because of the general attitude of taking things for granted that this country is in such a mess. The comments by Barrow on his recent country tour are a case in point. Not only has he directed derogatory remarks towards his political opponents, but he also brought in the name of a Gambian community, the Narr community, to chastise his opponents.

A ‘Narr shop’ or a Fula or Jola, Mandinka or Serere shop is not a negative phrase. If a Wolof owns a shop one can call that shop a ‘Wolof shop’. But what is unacceptable is for one to use the name of that shop negatively to ridicule opponents. There is nothing wrong with a Narr shop. One may liken or associate a political bureau with a ‘shop’. But when you qualify that shop as Narr or Wolof shop or with any ethnic group just to ridicule someone else then one has crossed the boundaries of free speech and plunged into an indecent political talk.

Sadly, for the Gambia these unlawful and unethical comments are brushed aside. By doing so we are quietly entrenching discrimination, injustice, and division. More seriously we are empowering elected and appointed public officials to undermine the Constitution and the peace and unity of the country.

We have enough lessons to know this. It is such unchecked comments that eventually led Yaya Jammeh to insult the Mandinka in June 2016 in a rally in Talinding. Well before that insult, he had been insulting the Jola, Wolof and other ethnic groups while also insulting and caricaturing opposition leaders, women, and business leaders, including journalists who he called “illegitimate sons of Africa!”

The words, decisions, and actions of public officials and indeed all politicians matter. They must not be taken lightly. It is these words, decisions and actions of public officials and politicians that led to the Rwanda Genocide. The Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi regime in Germany came out of the words, decisions and actions of public officials and political leaders at the time. The abuse of power, human rights violations, and corruption in the government are the result of their words, decisions, and actions.

For that matter, citizens must be interested and concerned about the words, decisions and actions of public officials and politicians. Power belongs to the people, but it is entrusted to individuals who are either elected or appointed to public office. Hence how they manage that power of the people must be checked lest we allow irreparable damage when that power is abused and misused. Check their words, decisions, and actions to know how they are managing the power entrusted to them.

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