As we get closer and closer towards the next presidential elections of 2016, it is getting ever clearer that left to our opposition politicians alone, the prospect of an electoral alliance for coalition building is now bleak than years ago. Then division within the Gambian political opposition was bipolar but now it is at least tri-polar. Five years ago there was no talk of boycotting elections, now the opposition parties that are in the boycott wagon have to take hard look at the political realities on the ground before deciding on what to do next. How to wriggle out of the boycott traps itself is a possible source of further inter-party discord.
The past three years have seen many of president Jammeh’s atrocities , like the illegal killing of the nine prisoners, the estrangement with the European Union and the Commonwealth, disruptions of last month’s Eid festival celebrations, the sharp value dwindling of the Dalasi and hard times it evokes in its wake, turning many former supporters away from him; but more and more people are turning out to work for free on his private farms, bigger and bigger crowds come out in the streets to look at his passing motorcades and he is bestowed with greater titles by the Muslim clergy.
It is this failure by the opposition to demonstrate its capacity in coalition building that is reducing the hopes of peaceful political change through the ballot in the minds of more and more Gambians, making them turn all the more towards the option of the bullet.
Just like the scare for coup is never far from the paranoiac mind of President Yahya Jamnneh it is becoming the same for an increasing number of ordinary Gambians.
Just like the average citizen, though for different reasons, President Jammeh himself never stops expecting a coup all the time. All these because of the madness of his style of rule, the rapacious nature of his kleptocratic reign and the regular humiliation of the Gambia Armed Forces with rude dismissals, arrests, and over pre-occupation menial tasks for Jammeh privately.
Whatever the case maybe the specter of coup d’états has always hung over and about the Jammeh regime since its inception twenty years ago. The regime itself came to power through a coup of junior officers and as they say what goes around comes around. Secondly the GAF itself was conceived about twenty-five years ago with the protection of the structures of power in mind, and not the country’s territorial sovereignty. To add on these, as an organization GAF has gone through some rather turbulent times under Jammeh’s reign, starting with the horrific killings of November 1994 which are still to be properly investigated digested and put to rest. Apart from Baboucarr Jatta no GAF leader has retired from the position gracefully. Many have been detained or dismissed before parting with the army. Another thing that has raised the possibilities of coup d’états in The Gambia is Jammeh’s autocratic and predatory style of rule which has been practicing an unrestrained policy of Jolanization of GAF in recruiting, promotions and postings. Among members of the GAF today it is the Jola-speaking grouping against all others many of who feel like outsiders. The Jammeh-regime’s sense of security rests on the fidelity of the Jola-speaking members of the army who may turn out to be the its biggest surprise. A coup from non-Jola elements in the army may come out of frustration and pursuit of retribution, while that from Jola-speakers may come out of the desire to copy-cat and do like he did and just out of simple hunger for power. According to the stories that came out of the military tribunal that tried the military officers responsible for the alleged March 2006 coup attempt, there were Jola-speaking elements involved just like there were non-Jola elements who helped suppressed it.
Finally he Gambia Armed Forces has, over the years, been institutionally destabilized by the inclusion of elements from the rebel southern Senegalese MFDC secessionists and the setting up of unofficial parallel rebel detachments under the president’s direct persona; command. This has helped blur the lines of sub-institutional demarcations, the chain of command and the apportioning of functions.
During the course of the terror against student demonstrations in April 2000 a contingent of MFDC rebels were reported to have been on the verge of marching in to help protect the Jammeh government. Six years later after Gambian soldiers helped the Salifu Sadio faction defeat the Magne Diame faction of the rebel MFDC, members of Sadio’s faction jointly interrogated captured members of the defeated faction, together with the NIA. These, according to sworn court statements made by some of the captured men in July 2007 at a Banjul Magistrate’s court.
All these gives the possibilities, prospects and possible outcomes very difficult to determine amidst growing tendency by many Gambians to doubt at the possibilities of bringing about political changes peacefully and constitutionally in the country. More and more Gambians are beginning to turn to coup d’etate as the only road to national salvation but as shown above as things currently stand the variables that go to make the equation of a military coup in The Gambia are too many and too unpredictable to grasp.
Coup d’état has for long being the standard method of regime-change in post-independence Africa. The failures of governance of post-colonial African states even led some observers to see coup d’état as necessary evil, when it helped put end to decades of misrule and facilitates transition to democracy, development and national reconciliation. Certainly Tumane Touray’s coup in Mali, which put an end to decades of Mousa Traore dictatorship and opened the way for democratization and rapid economic growth, cannot be put into the same category as Lansana Conte’s decades of autocratic stagnancy in Guinea Conakry. But both Conte and Traore were men of their times and perfect illustrations of the prototypes of military men who took over power after the failures, real or imagined, of the first leaders of the immediate post-independence African states. Both took over from visionary leaders whose hatred for the colonial past had sent them into the embrace of Eastern Bloc countries embroiled in the Cold War that was being waged against the West. In response the West resorted to all sorts of plots to remove such men from power and with the ferocity of French imperialist policy of that the time both Sekou Toure of Guinea and Modibo Keita of Mali were practically in something like a state of siege and felt they could do away with constitutional order and ran very repressive administrations.
But the military men who replaced them hardly did any better and, on top of this, were without the visions, ideologies or prescriptive systems of ideas that gave mobilizational capacities and hope for future prosperity to the masses, however distant. This was the story around almost all of West Africa. Perhaps only Senegal and The Gambia escaped this fate, in the first perhaps because of the presence of French troops and in the later, perhaps just due to what may be called historical chance. But can it really be due to the phenomenon of chance, or are we calling it chance simply because we cannot explain it properly?
The Gambia itself is an existential aberration as shown by its odd geo-politics, its tiny size and small population and the enclave-mentality of its leaders. When the rest of Africa goes north, Gambia has the habit of going south. When Africa was a sea of dictatorial states The Gambia remained an island of stability and political pluralism, “the Switzerland of Africa.” But now, at the time of the so called Second Liberation and African Renaissance when Africa is under the sway of a tide of democratization, the Gambia goes against the tide with surging autocracy and one man at the helm, reminding one of the Idi Amins, Bokassas and Macias Nguemas. Is a coup d’état against such a regime not a legitimate act of the Second Liberation?
Many disagree with such an argument seeing two problems with it. First, there is the principled position that whatever the motives of a coup, the extra-constitutional transfer of and claim to power, is inherently corrupting of governance and inconsistent with constitutional rule. Then there is the problem that those who assumed power through coups have amply demonstrated their incompetence, by mismanaging the economies of their countries and destroying the social fabric of people and their nation states.
But despite this, coup has not fully disappeared from Africa’s political landscape.
The most recent coups d’état in Mauritania August 2008, Guinea December 2008 and Madagascar March 2009 have resulted in regimes that are struggling to govern amidst uncertainty, insecurity and isolation. The coupists in Mauritania rushed to hold controversial elections to legitimize their hold on power. There have been further attempts in recent years to seize power through force or other unconstitutional means in the Central African Republic (CAR), Guinea-Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire, Sao Tome & Principe and in The Gambia itself in March 2006, if the official version of what transpired is to be accepted.
Yet if these events might suggest that Africa is witnessing a resurgence of coups, another trend is equally visible, regional and continental efforts in the wake of such actions to find effective solutions via mediations.
According to those opposed to all coups, no matter by whom, all coups or attempted coups are wrong. The African Union (AU) swiftly condemned the coups in Mauritania, Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau; demanded the immediate “restoration of the legitimate, constitutional and democratic institutions” of the three countries; and suspended their membership of the AU. All this demonstrates that Africa is no longer tolerant of such unconstitutional roads to power. The African people have clearly spoken, through their continental body, that they have no desire for and cannot any longer tolerate unconstitutional changes of government, they argue.
The holders of the anti-coup view do not water down the question into a bullet or ballot dichotomy, they see it in the context of the challenges and achievements of the process of constitutional-building in contemporary Africa. In doing so they try to ask how will Africans get to the point when they can say coups are now a thing of the past. Meanwhile what role can constitutions play in protecting African states from regime-change through coup-making? If Africa continues to consistently deny unconstitutional transfers of power the chance to succeed, what new governance norms will emerge around the constitution-building process? They think at the heart of this process is the attempt to bolster a country’s constitution and its practical legitimacy.
Since the end of the Cold War most regime-changes in Africa have been conducted through constitutional means, they note, and the constitution has become the most common path to power. Elections have replaced coup or revolution as the basis for reform. In some other cases (such as Kenya) regime change without constitutional change has remained incomplete and volatile. The example of Zimbabwe makes clear that regime change will have a much better chance of being peacefully implemented and taking root if it were done on the basis of a substantive new constitutional pact.
Hence, the hypothesis of successful and peaceful regime change by constitutional means is being largely vindicated, as they see it. This is not because constitutionalism is not prone to crisis but because it has been seen to be better at taming the struggle for power and managing crises.
Anti-coupists think the real African choice for regime change is via the constitution. It is not that constitutions by themselves cause successful and peaceful regime-change, but rather that by their nature they contribute to making it a real possibility and then a probable reality. In this sense, constitutions are integral to the answer to the question about when Africa will make a definitive end to the occurrence of coup d’états.
Most contemporary African constitutions provide the citizen with the power to choose his or her leaders in free and fair elections through the entrenchment of a bill of rights. Most also put the military and the security forces generally under the control of civilian authorities, with a responsibility loyally to obey political decisions and uphold the constitution.
The results of such constitution-making in Africa have included the spread of greater public awareness: of the nature of constitutional principles; of the sense of social ownership of a process that has fostered a plurality of political voices, actors and forces; and of the need to avoid the danger of democratically and constitutionally elected executives seeking to manipulate constitutions by, for example, overstaying or extending term-limits.
Constitution-building is about the systemic strengthening of constitution-based institutions and processes. But the people of a country that seeks to build a new constitution after repeated experience of violent regime-overthrow already have grounds for skepticism. An echo of the pro-coup argument cited above may even be heard: that in light of the lived experience of serious conflict and/or the failed ideals of earlier constitutions, the idea of building a constitution sounds irrelevant or abstract.
Yet these very same experiences largely shape the motivation for constitutional reforms. In this respect, the quality of a constitution and its practical legitimacy for all actors is vital to its endurance and ability to withstand threats. In francophone Africa, five of the nine countries that since 1988 have held national conferences to agree constitutional changes subsequently experienced successful regime-change; in Anglophone Africa, almost all national dialogues succeeded in securing constitutional term-limits for the elected executive with The Gambia again standing out as the despicable exception.
A constitution cannot be expected to act as a panacea for all political problems. Many constitutions were negotiated by parties locked in a sort of entrenched political stalemate, where despite their unequal power neither could hope to exert long-term domination over the other. These constitutions were primarily designed to protect and then reinforce democratic change, by allowing those who already held power without democratic legitimacy to risk ceding it. Yet they were also written in a way that could clearly envisage a wider transformation of the state based on accommodating competing interests in shared visions of reality.
Today, there are more practical options available for constitution-builders in Africa than was the case at the time of independence or during the left-right divide of the cold-war era. These options are propelling a new constitutionalism that is concerned with classic themes (governance, rule of law, human rights and stability) but as much with other issues that have more recently emerged onto the agenda (political inclusion, diversity, cultural safety, eradicating corruption, environmental regeneration, justice, livelihood, HIV/Aids, Ebola prevention, religious radicalism, and food security, civilian control over the military, etc).
This highlights the point that the process and outcome of constitution-building are not matters of form alone, but extend to the nature of the constitution in the eyes of its national ownership.
A potent contemporary aspect of the successful constitutional democracy now being consolidated in countries such as Cape Verde Islands, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa is the desire for a measure of constitutionalism that will also re-energize society. Indeed, many citizens view their new constitution as a possible instrument in the improvement of economic livelihoods. Constitutions have addressed this aspiration in several ways: by recognizing economic and social rights, by designing new institutions to enforce such rights, and by enabling powers of initiative at local and grassroots level under some form of democratic framework such as an elected chief or local government. The link between culture and economics is important; cultural organization at a local level, for example, can also determine political behavior and economic pursuits. This link has been seriously underestimated by economic theory as understood by the West. Based on such theories for example, it is difficult to understand why Fula-speaking people from Futa dominate the retail trade in Gambian urban and peri-urban centers; why Sarahule-speaking Gambians hold the lead in the diamond trade, residential landlordism , estate development or why Badibounkas are so entrepreneurial compared to other Gambians. These are some examples of socio-cultural traits that have not been fully captured by modern economic theories or analytical tools. If this be so in the area of economics it is probably also true in the areas of politics.
The new constitutions have tried to multiply the spaces for politics and allow for more actors as a means of making political pluralism work and politics less dangerous. The success here lies in establishing the constitution as the only accepted roadmap to power. The promise is that regimes that come to power constitutionally will enjoy legitimacy, security and even regional support to drive their agenda. In this respect Madagascar’s crisis in 2008/2009 is in vivid contrast to its relatively peaceful regime-change effected through elections in 2001 and a court decision in 2002: a precedent that needs to be recalled.
Constitution-building has also aimed at transforming the state, to make its different components more active and thus able to deal with modern social, economic and cultural problems. This makes the demands placed on new constitutions – in addition to the requirements of democratic transition – even heavier and more numerous. The biggest tests are still to come; and the experience of seeing how constitutions cope with these challenges will teach further lessons about what kind of constitutions are needed in Africa.
Many there are who think the consensual nature of the new African constitutions lowers the underlying risks of coups in the emerging political environment. Africa needs more constitution-builders and greater constitutional knowledge in order to realize the promise of its new instruments, they say.
But the problem is that few African states take the constitution as some form of social contract between the state and citizens. Those that do so are generally more concerned about that part of the constitution that safeguards the interest of the state and the obligation of citizens than that which proclaims the responsibilities of government and the rights of citizens. The so called Second Liberation did not necessarily evolve from the internal dynamics of African countries but largely from, as already mentioned, the cessation of the system of global hostilities of the Cold War. It was not the movement of the marginalized masses, organized peasantry, students’ unions that brought about the democratization process of the last decades in the African continent and enhanced constitution building. So it can be said that there is, generally on the continent, a lack of social ownership of the process and the constitutions that it produced in the various countries. The one example that stands above it all is the building of the constitution of post-Apartheid South Africa where it came as a result of negotiated settlement between the different stakeholders and interest groups. It is when citizens, aroused and organized with articulated needs and aspirations participate fully in the constitutional building process, it is only then that they can act as stakeholders to the process and are prepared to defend the constitution.
Gambians could be said to have only partly participated in the making of the 1971 constitution. In fact when it was first presented to them in a referendum about a year earlier they had rejected the first Republican constitutional draft for reasons that are yet to be fully established. The 1997 Second Republican constitution was the one with the widest mass participation but when it’s watered-down version that stripped it off the presidential term-limit and other clauses came for voting it was presented as a choice between it or a continuation of the fascistic “transition” rule.
In fact before the drafting of the 1997 constitution the military junta was entertaining the Gaddafi-inspired idea of a no- party state without any regular elections. The thuggish July 22nd Movement campaigned vehemently against the holding of any elections. But pressure from the international community, especially that of donors, forced the junta to scrap that idea altogether. But the idea was only scrapped on paper. In reality the soldiers decided on maintaining the idea of a one-party state but have it dressed in democratic clothing. Junta leader Jammeh and some of his men “resigned” from the army in order to civilianize themselves. A new political party, with the acronym of its name, APRC, deliberate coined to remind people of the AFPRC, Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council behind it. The nomenclature sought to stress on continuity with junta rule rather than change for civilian democratic governance. Here in lies the problem with what we can call dogmatic constitutionalism and even the whole idea of a Second Liberation and African Renaissance.
Its concept of democratic rule, as understood in the West, is too schematic and the dynamics of the process itself too dependent on the carrot and the stick of the international community. Within such parameters tyrants like President Jammeh in weak societies and states like The Gambia , can, by deceit, feign a democratic facade as cover for absolute tyranny. President Jammeh has become so successful in this venture that through absolute control over the state’s means of violence, fraudulent but impressive electoral system and the erection of an all-embracive system of patronage, he can hold on to power for as he himself keeps saying “for decades to come.” Apart from maintaining the façade of multiparty democracy inherited from the First Republic, Jammeh and his lackeys introduced new instruments of democracy and accountability such as a so called Independent Electoral Commission, an institution of the Ombudsman and several other make-believe instruments and processes more for the show than for real. And the mercurial Gambian autocrat, perhaps due to the massive political illiteracy among his subject citizens and international community, too easily carried away by the over-schematic nature of the way they ascribe or deny recognition to the status of democracy, was able to take many for a long ride.
Now however, many Gambians are not only off the back of that ride, but are getting all the more disillusioned with the choice of the ballot as a way of taking back their country from the grip of a mentally sick but extremely grabby autocrat and more and more of them are beginning to opt for “by any means necessary,” including armed insurrection or military takeover. President Jammeh and the dispensation he presides over in The Gambia leave many Gambians with fewer and fewer options, it looks like.
The more I observe this in the thoughts and expressions of ever more numbers of my compatriots, I feel it my duty to raise the alarm bells.
True, when a regime makes it a habit of breaking the stipulated words of a state’s constitution, and the regime gives no chance for citizens to peacefully sought redress via the instruments of the law and courts, then citizens have not only the right, but also the moral duty, to remove that regime by any means necessary. When going for such ventures, humans everywhere, want to take the most feasible of all the necessary means. The most feasible here meaning the least lost of lives, properties, pain or suffocation, for everyone, even those of the tyrant and his lackeys included.
But there are two fundamental forms of violence that must be recognized and separated here. There is the violence of the masses, organized and championed by its leaders on the one hand, and there is the violence carried by an isolated group of conspirators done in the name of the masses and supposedly on their behalf, on the other hand.
Out of the first type is the Fanonian violence that is claimed to have a cleansing effect on the soul of the people and from which a new nation is reborn, a nation never to be trampled upon again by any future tyrant.
Out of the second only a new form of tyranny can emerge, like the so called July 22nd revolution itself.
We now stand as Gambians at a crucial time in our history when we must boldly and directly take matters of our national affairs into our own hands or allow the Jammeh autocracy or another band of adventurers push the nation into the abyss of blood bath and national disintegration.
The coming 2016 presidential election will see the first generation of Gambians born under the Jammeh rule reaching the voting age. They will have come to the voting age without any direct experience of the First Republic. Born under the totalitarian rule, many of them would be lacking in any other experience to compare with the harsh realities of the Jammeh autocracy. Opposition politicians who should have helped orientate this new batch of electorates are yet to be able to present any credible political alternative. They are unable to show any glitter of light in the tunnel of hope, for better education and job opportunities, better healthcare facilities and better means of livelihoods.
The opposition political leaders today are not able to even convince the masses of electorate, much less the new batch of electorates that they can even match the corrupt and inept Jammeh autocracy. Herein lies the threat of coup which increasingly looms over us.
The most effective guarantee against coup is the removal of the Jammeh regime either by the ballot or by mass-based, mass-organized violence of citizens. The more we continue to be disappointed by the opposition political leadership, the closer we get to the violent alternative and the less the opposition is united the nearer we are to the hijacking of this violence by tiny groups of conspirators.
If we continued to be betrayed by the opposition politicians, we must begin to look at the option of forgetting them altogether and mobilizing ourselves militant groups of citizens determined to take our affairs into our own hands.
Culled from the Gambia Journal file