By Ndey Tapha Sosseh
Life begins at 40 as the saying goes. While this idiom holds true for many situations and individuals this does not hold true for The Gambia. Instead of bursting into a new life in 2005 when The Gambia celebrated its 40th independence anniversary celebrations the country witnessed a spiraling downwards into a quagmire of decadence, insecurity, hopelessness and helplessness, inequality and total unaccountability. Supporters of the Jammeh government will be quick to jump into the defense by pointing to the many infrastructural developments that have taken place such as schools, hospitals, bridges, GRTS and the University of The Gambia.
However, it is not only the Jammehists that will make such assertions but worst still Civil Society Organisations in the Gambia have jumped on the bandwagon of extolling the development efforts of The Gambia. At what cost? One must ask. These infrastructural developments are not without a price and indeed they have cost the people dearly as I will attempt to highlight.
Sustainable development has not kept pace with accelerated growth. Rapid expansion of the education system has not been matched with quality. Children are leaving school unable to read or write. According to the Country Status Report of The Gambia 2011 “pupils’ learning outcomes are generally very poor at all levels and deficiencies are apparent as of the first primary grades and few students attain the National Test Assessment requirements. In addition post primary results are scarcely better and have barely improved since 2002. At the Grade 12 final examination (WASSCE) only 3.2% of the candidates achieved a credit in mathematics in 2008/09. And half failed to obtain a single credit and only 11% achieved credits in five or more subjects”.
This represents a huge waste of resources not only on the part of the state but of families as the opportunity costs are enormous. While children could have acquired skills through informal or non-formal learning in the home or community and at the same time support the family through working in the household or farm they have lost out on this opportunity and not gained from being in school. They join the ranks of the growing unemployed youth as they do not have the educational qualifications, knowledge or skills to be self-employed or employed.
The health facilities tell a sad story of under-staffing and lack of adequate equipment, drugs. Simple pain killers have to be bought from private pharmacies. Even in-patients have to buy their prescription drugs which are kept by the staff on duty in the unfortunate event when the patient passes away. In the case of severe illnesses and accidents the patients have to be referred to Dakar or abroad. The much lauded hospitals are white elephants and are hospitals only in name for the quality of care leaves much to be desired.
Electricity blackouts are the order of the day in spite of President Jammeh’s long standing promise that they would be a thing of the past. Jammeh hoodwinked people by claiming to bring in new generators and despite the pomp and ceremony of getting them installed the generators showed their true age by mal-functioning. The Brikama plant also did not live up to expectations and in-spite of a 30% hike on electricity bills the situation remains untenable.
The roads both old and new have declined into dilapidated structures with massive potholes that poses huge road safety hazards for road users. The stagnant and repugnant water is also a major health concern as they are a harbor for mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies. In Banjul the sewage system mixes with the water giving out odours posing a threat to respiratory tract and skin infections. Vehicles that ply the roads suffer frequent breakdowns due to damages of vehicle parts.
The biggest fiasco is the vandalizing of the Banjul/Barra ferries. The new ferries that were acclaimed to revolutionize the ferry crossing by reducing the travel time from 30 minutes to 15 minutes have turned out to be the biggest hoax of the century. The 27 year old ferries acquired from—Greece at the cost of millions of Euros were anything but new. Instead of enhancing the ferry services they have contributed to destroying the existing ferries as no maintenance was carried on the Banjul, Barra, Kanilai and Johe ferries thus making them unseaworthy and a threat to human security.
The promised shortened and safe journey has now become an unpredictable and dangerous ferry crossing as the travel time which can take anything between 1-8 hours is dictated by the vagaries of the sea. In addition you cannot guarantee a safe landing as the recent events have shown. Previous warnings went unheeded, falling on deaf ears and many senior officials of the GPA management who condoned the falsifications of the government by lending credence to the cock and bull story of the new ferries that weren’t are now facing trumped up charges of economic charges. Where does accountability lie? This does not take into consideration the costs of the new landing sites built to accommodate the reconditioned new ferries and of dredging the sand.
In terms of governance, the democratic deficit is apparent in the perceived lack of accountability and to the lack of participation of ordinary citizens in the decision making processes. Divergent voices are quelled mercilessly thus creating an atmosphere of fear and pretence that all is well when it is not. Instead of holding government accountable for the provision of services and for the use of public resources they would rather keep quiet or play pretence by telling sugar coated lies and give thanks and awards to the very person is causing their misery.
“The Gambia no problem” has now become a country with huge problems. People hope for change but will not initiate the steps that will bring back meaningful change. They want others to fight their battles. They await Senegal, the West and the ICC to take them out of their misery. Instead of holding the government to account the government that they elected they seek redress from elsewhere.
For the Independence of The Gambia to be a reality and not just a mirage for the ordinary Gambian, each and every Gambian must be able to independently hold opinions, freely and openly associate themselves with political and civil society groups of their choice; ordinary Gambians must walk freely without the fear of being arbitrarily arrested, abducted, detained or even killed.
For the Independence of The Gambia to be a reality poor Gambians who try to eke out a living through begging, petty trade, unskilled work and informal sector activities should not be subjected to harassment, intimidation, arrests and other forms of degrading treatment in the name of tax collection. Instead of abusing and criminalizing the poor and vulnerable, Government should put in place concrete measures to ensure that poverty is eradicated in The Gambia and that all Gambians live a life of dignity.
For the Independence of The Gambia to be a reality, Gambian children should not be subjected to accidents and death whilst scrambling and crawling for biscuits, food and money, turned to scavengers by the “Child Friendly” President Jammeh who’s family is busy globetrotting, wining and dining in the world’s finest restaurants; Gambian children should not go to bed hungry, die of malnutrition, malaria and other curable diseases when President Jammeh and his family travel abroad for treatment; Gambian children should not graduate from secondary school unable to read and write, with no prospective of a brighter future.
For the Independence of The Gambia to be a reality, Gambian youth should not have to take the risk of seeking greener pastures by any means necessary to escape unemployment, debilitating poverty and oppression, in the process subjecting themselves to slavery, abuse, prostitution and death because the Government has not provided the enabling environment for youth participation in the national development process.
Gambian youth should be independent and critical thinkers who know the true meaning of “loyalty and patriotism”. Public shows and displays of affection by running, jumping, dancing, and praise singing in front of President Jammeh’s motorcades; distorting their true feelings is in no way a measure or indicator of patriotism. They are better off demanding for training, employment, security, access to adequate health care and inclusion in decision making processes.
The government should encourage the youth to take advantage of and use new technologies to seek information, knowledge and to enhance their skills, rather than barring and or limiting their access to and use of social media, Skype and other internet voice over protocols to express themselves.
For the Independence of The Gambia to be a reality, Gambian women should be emancipated enough to stand up, speak up, participate in decision making processes and not be limited to a cheering, clapping, dancing and ashobi wearing group for President Jammeh. Gambian women whose fathers, brothers, husbands and sons are abducted, detained, tortured, executed, tried and convicted on flimsy charges should be able to stand up publicly and associate themselves to seek redress without fear of reprisals, persecution, sacking and unnecessary harassment. Gambian women should not subject themselves to the pretend game of “patriotism and loyalty” and be satisfied with token recognition by appointment of a few Gambian women and President Jammeh who claims to be a friend of Gambian women when he is destroying our homes and the very fabric of our society.
Gambian women, who constitute more than half of our population should not be subjected to violence because of their gender and suffer in silence, they should not die whilst giving birth to a child whilst the First Lady Zeinab Jammeh travels to the USA to give birth; infertile women and HIV/AIDS patients should not be subjected to degrading public treatment under the guise of traditional treatment but should be treated with dignity and in confidence.
For our Independence to be a reality, Gambian religious leaders should be able to use their pulpits to spread the word of God and speak truth to power, not be detained, tortured and sent to exile, merely for interpreting religious texts and speaking truth to power. Our religious leaders should have the faith, courage and wisdom to stand by the religious beliefs and teachings that there is none greater than God.
For our Independence to be a reality, the Gambian opposition, journalists, the media and persons with divergent voices and interests must be able to have a platform to openly express themselves without fear of unnecessary harassment, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, closure of their premises, and deliberate attempts by the State machinery to instill fear and label them as ‘Enemies of the State’, ‘Unpatriotic Gambians’, ‘Unscrupulous Gambians’ bent on destabilizing and or tarnishing the image of The Gambia. Patriotism is not measured by loyalty to an individual, a political party or a Government. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a Patriot as a person who loves their country and, if necessary, will fight for it.
For our Independence to be a reality, the Gambia Government must be willing to open up and hold genuine dialogue with not only the poor and excluded but those with the opposition, the media and persons with divergent voices and interests.
For our Independence to be a reality, there must be a separation of powers – the Gambian judiciary must be independent with due respect for all Constitutional provisions for the appointment and removal of judges and staff of the judiciary. Judges and magistrates should be impartial and decide independently and objectively on all cases without fear or favor; the Parliament must be able to carry out its oversight functions, rather than continue its thoughtless, shameful and illogical acts of playing the role of defender and promoter of the senseless plundering and looting of the people’s land by President Jammeh, rubber stamping all proposals and decisions taken by the executive with no thought of the implications on the lives of Gambians.
For our Independence to be a reality, the leadership must put in place security sector reforms that seek to enhance the capacities of the Police, clearly demarcate the responsibilities, ambit and role of the army, the NIA, the NDEA. Illegal and mercenary groups under the fictitious names such as the black black, jugglers and various other detention centers and torture machines should be immediately dismantled and perpetrators of abductions, detentions, torture and extra judicial executions should be brought to book.
For our Independence to be a reality, Gambian civil servants and public officials should be able to go to work every day, knowing that they have security of tenure instead of being afraid of frivolous charges that could come their way for merely asking the right questions, being witnesses to one of several gaffes of either President Jammeh or one of his cohorts. The Government of The Gambia and high ranking civil servants should stop embellishing the truth and painting The Gambia as some sort of utopia were the grass is greener and life is perfect. The leadership should stop appointing square pegs in round holes and stop the hiring, firing and recycling of public officials. To ensure progress and restore the past glory of the Gambian civil service, the very many qualified Gambians, able and willing to serve their country if only they would be given the chance, space and liberty to do so should be given the opportunity to stay and contribute to the very many challenges of nation building, in the process putting a halt to the high rate of brain drain.
Life is far from perfect and rosy in The Gambia. A country is only as good as its people. If the people live in constant poverty, fear, voicelessness and helplessness, with their minds enslaved and subjugated, then Independence in The Gambia is not a reality. The sooner the Gambia Government accepts and faces the day to day realities of ordinary Gambians, the sooner our leaders and officials will be able to start working on concrete and visible steps to ensure real Independence.