By: Madi Jobarteh
It was the Hon. Frantz Fanon who said that each generation must discover its mission, to either fulfill or betray. Right now this is the fundamental challenge facing the current generation of National Assembly Members of the Gambia as they are placed face to face with a set of electoral proposals for the good of the Gambia. For these generation of honourable men and women to fulfill or betray this most important mission that directly determines the health and strength or otherwise of the Gambian Democracy, they must be first reminded of the role and function of the National Assembly.
What is a National Assembly?
Originally called Parliament, the National Assembly derives from the concept of representation and participation of citizens in the management of the affairs and resources of an independent democratic society. Because the entire nation cannot sit together to dialogue and decide their daily and ongoing affairs of life, citizens are therefore constituted into constituencies with each and every one indentifying a representative through elections to a public place for discussion of the issues of the people. In fact Parliament emanates from the French word, Parler, which is to speak, and ‘parlement’ meaning discussion. Thus a parliament is a forum for expression of ideas, as opinions and facts for the good of society. It is not a place of fists and throwing stones. A parliament is the highest expression of the self determination and independence of a people. It embodies the sovereignty and the power of the people, hence the parliament is the highest and the most important and most powerful institution in any democratic society. A parliament is not merely to pass laws, but in fact it is the parliament that sanitizes the State and society through activities and processes that ensure transparency, accountability, probity and responsiveness. In a democracy, it is the parliament, apart from the Almighty People that serves as the last frontier for the defense of the rights and needs of the people.
The Executive and the Judiciary as the two other arms of the State and equally important as they are, yet derive their survival and development from the Parliament. The Executive can only decide the use of public resources and the operations of public institutions that protect the rights and serve the needs of the people but based first on the approval of the parliament to which they are accountable on behalf of the people. Appointments in the Judiciary and the security of tenure of its officers are guaranteed and endorsed primarily by the parliament in a democracy. It is when the fundamentals of the existence of the nation are at stake that the parliament hands over the authority and power to decide to the Almighty People, hence referendum. Thus in a democracy, only the people are beyond and above the parliament. It is necessary therefore that National Assembly Members realize the value and strength of the Parliament in the way and manner they engage with the other sectors of the State and society.
The Track Record of the National Assembly
I will not belabour the impact of these proposals if they stand. This has been well laid out by one of the best sons of the land, Mr. Njundu Drammeh in his recent article on this subject. He says,
“The amendments to the electoral law, if passed would, I think, only give those with economic power the free rein to dominate our body politics. And where economic power controls political power, democracy is in danger. The result: the rule of the rich; the misery of the poor. Remember, our shout for self rule was underpinned by the message “no taxation without representation”, a recognition of people power, voice and sovereignty. Further, it would deny the country the opportunity to benefit from the talents and imaginations of those who would want to enter but are barred because they are “financially poor”.
In light of the foregoing it is necessary for one to remind the National Assembly Members of the path they have been taking so far which continues to impact on the lives of our people. Over the years, this august body has taken numerous decisions that border on the very existence of this country, and therefore they must perceive these new electoral proposals from that perspective and of the legacy they wish to stamp on the pages of history.
In democracy there are three indispensable elements that can make or break society in the way and manner they are managed.
- The Constitution and related laws,
- The Budget
The Constitution and Laws
Over the years the National Assembly has created laws either as amendments to the constitution or other laws or the creation of more laws as acts of parliament that have fundamentally impacted on democracy in the country. Among the fundamental life-changing amendments made include Section 48(3) which removed absolute majority for winning a presidential election to simple majority. The Assembly also amended Section 58 and 59 on the appointment of chiefs and alkalolu by the president and minister responsible for local governments respectively as opposed to through direct election. The National Assembly also amended Section 72 removing the barrier on ministers from engaging in business. The Assembly also went further to amend Section 96 that gives power to the president to dissolve parliament anytime he or she deems fit and call for snap elections. The lawmakers have even amended Section 91 to make a member lose his or her seat when sacked by the party on whose ticket it won the seat. Various other amendments to the criminal code, the newspaper act, and the information act have severely restricted the space for democratic engagement hence retard national development.
The budget is the collective resources of the people of a nation to which we contribute directly and indirectly as taxes. The budget is also soured from loans and grants by the government in our name among other sources. While grants are charity but loans have to be paid. Thus the national budget is a sovereign national property which the state utilizes to empower public institutions to deliver social goods and services to our people, hence protect our rights and satisfy our needs, hence development. Apart from the constitution, the second most important national policy is our budget because the budget is the priority list of what a government intends to do or not for the people in fulfillment of its mandate. The leading national institution we have empowered to oversee the way and manner that budget is spent by the Executive is the National Assembly. The Executive cannot spend our money and resources anyhow it deems fit, but it has to obtain the necessary approval from the National Assembly and also account to the Assembly as to how it has used the money. Once again this confirms that the National Assembly is the most important national institution. But when we review the past five years, from 2010 to 2014, one can see that the National Assembly has performed rather questionably as manifested in the number of times and amount of money it provided to the Executive as supplementary budget. By law, the National Assembly receives the national estimates from the Executive as our annual budget to approve or not at least 30 days before the end of the year as per Section 152. But the law also provides for supplementary appropriation in the course of the year to meet up gaps or undertake new projects or address unforeseen circumstances not originally planned in the annual budget. However the way and manner supplementary budgets must be approved must undergo tight scrutiny. But when we consider the way the Assembly has performed in this regard it raises the question as to whether they have subjected the issue of supplementary appropriation to adequate scrutiny. Here is the list of supplementary budgets over the years:
- Supplementary Budget 2010 – 100 million dalasi
- Supplementary Budget 2011 – 220 million dalasi
- Supplementary Budget 2012 – 471 million dalasi
- Supplementary Budget 2013 – 300 million dalasi
- Supplementary Budget 2014 – 1.1 billion dalasi
The Constitution and the budget are not only the two most important national policies that lay the foundation and guidance upon which the State will protect our rights and satisfy our needs, but also the sanctity of the constitution and the judicious management of the budget lie squarely in the hands of the National Assembly. When members are aware of this, then they will realize that ultimately what makes our democracy healthy and strong is when we have a constitution that respects and protects our fundamental rights and a budget that fulfills our needs with both of them under the firm protection of the National Assembly. A constitution has two purposes. First it identifies the rights that citizens enjoy in a particular society. Next, it identifies the obligations of the State to respect, protect and fulfill those rights as spelt out in the constitution. Then the budget comes into play to enable the State to use resources to fulfill those rights of the people. This is when we say the government is fulfilling needs of citizens hence developing the country such as building roads, schools, hospitals, protecting our security and right to property among others.
But the question now comes as to who can therefore serve as our trustees to defend our constitution and manage our budget. Thus the third most important element in democracy is elections. This is because elections are not only a crisis management and peace building mechanism, but more importantly through elections we choose our leaders who will now be asked to defend our constitution and manage our budgets. Thus if any one understands the value and role of elections in a democracy, one would refrain from making the institution of elections and the process of elections anything but cumbersome, expensive, discriminatory or restricted. Election is about participation and representation as a means to serve the nation, i.e., to defend the constitution and manage the budget. Hence public election is not merely a single day activity as in voting day. No! Election is an ongoing, all year round, and daily concern because the fundamental value of election is accountability, without which rights will be violated with impunity and resources will be bastardized with impunity and national development will be retarded woefully. Public election therefore is the single most opportunity and power of the people to hold their leaders and the entire state to account. Hence what a ruling party does every day is a test as to whether it deserves to be elected or not again based on its defense of the constitution and its management of the budget. By this fact, it also tells if an opposition party is to be elected to replace the ruling party or not. So every day is election time even though the actual cast of ballots takes space once every five years as in our case.
When we mention constitution, always conceive it in terms of the obligations of the State to respect and protect the rights of citizens, while the budget must be conceived only in terms of the obligation of the State to fulfill the needs of citizens and attain national development.
In light of the above, these amendments must therefore be viewed in terms of whether they empower Gambians to obtain the best leaders. But also do they offer Gambians the ability to hold their leaders to account. Furthermore, do these amendments make our democracy more participatory and representative, thereby further strengthening national governance and enhancing national development. But more importantly, National Assembly Members must see the matter as whether they are laying down a good track record or not for posterity and the day of reckoning.
I wish to remind National Assembly Members about the words of that Great Patriot Amilcar Cabral who in the heat of the war of liberation against the barbaric Portuguese colonialism insisted that our people must be led by our best sons and daughters, noting that the struggle needs an enlightened leadership that upholds highest levels of values and standards of service, honesty and patriotism. Earlier, it was another Great Patriot Kwame Nkrumah who, confronted with the mission of African liberation and unification, noted that Africa needs a new type of citizen to execute this mission.
“Africa needs a new type of citizen, a dedicated, modest, honest, informed man and woman who submerges self in service to the nation and mankind. A man and woman who abhors greed and detests vanity. A new type of man and woman whose humility is his and her strength and whose integrity is his and her greatness.”
Our National Assembly Members are national leaders. Just as Cabral and Nkrumah, you too have a mission to fulfill or betray. A mission that will determine whether you are the best sons and daughters of our people or not in the way you fulfill or betray this mission.
One thing is clear though. You shall never say you have not been told.
Now you can debate and vote.