Actualizing the family nation requires that we reassess the nature of political relationships in our country with a view to relocating political power from the state to the people where it rightfully belongs. And since our present government sees itself as a nation builder perched on top of the social pyramid and wielding all power, we need to revisit the idea of nation building itself with a view to exposing its contradictions and replacing it with the idea of state building. We may begin by asking why is it that while “nation building” is part and parcel of independent Africa’s political vocabulary, we never hear it in France, Britain, Portugal, Germany, and Belgium from where it originated and which had the lion’s share of colonies in Africa?
The simple answer to this question is that nation building is what colonialism claimed to be doing in Africa; it is not what European governments were doing then or will ever think of doing in their own countries. And it is certainly not what independent African governments should be claiming to do in our countries. Within European imperial culture, the concept and practice of nation building betrayed Empire’s assumption that colonized peoples were utterly different and therefore inferior to the colonizers. This assumption was visible in the idea of the “civilizing mission” or “the white man’s burden” in which the Europeans claimed they were colonizing others in order to deliver them from the darkness of their indigenous cultures into the light of western civilization. France picked and chose those colonized peoples she considered worthy of being accepted into a superior French culture through her famous policy of assimilation. In Portuguese Africa, one was assimilado only after many years of self-acculturation through education, dress, speech and table manners, among other things. Britain, on the other hand, decided that Africans were best civilized and “developed” under the “subject leadership” of their own traditional and neo-traditional rulers (warrant chiefs) through their so-called indirect rule. European cultures were considered superior spaces for which only a select few may aspire and for which all colonized peoples needed to be grateful. Colonized cultures were debased and dismissed out of hand as the ways of a savage and backward people. Those who would not readily accept the dominant ideologies of imperial politics and religion were either written off as irredeemable children of the devil or forcefully pacified. This element of coercive pacification is inherent in the concept of nation building, which suggests an all-powerful or totalitarian state claiming to know what is best for the nation and forcefully prescribing development projects for the nation, whether the people like it or not. Under a politics of nation building, especially as practiced by what we have called the prezidom, the nation itself is hardly ever allowed to contribute anything of substance to its own political evolution and welfare. That right was exclusively reserved and monopolized by the all-powerful, all-knowing prezidom.
It is interesting to note that during the colonial period when European colonizers were nation building in Africa, the practice had long gone extinct in European societies. The idea of nation building, of an all-powerful government perched on top of the social pyramid, whip in hand and presuming to build the nation below from those heights was unthinkable in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe. Western society had long recognized, accepted or been forced to accept that it is nations (people) that build states (governments), not the other way round. The concept of nation building itself was passé in Europe, but it remained a friendly ghost of long dead medieval cultures that could conveniently be resurrected and visited upon colonized peoples. It was a curious practice of imperial power to use laws and other draconian instruments of rule on colonized peoples that they dared not even imagined in their own societies. Long dead censorship laws and emergency measures were resurrected from the dusty cemeteries of European political culture and imposed upon colonized peoples. And since imperial power saw no contradiction in nation building in colonized societies, they simply passed their ghost political culture on to our “independent” African leaders, for whom it is now a favorite hobby horse because it offers ample justification for authoritarianism. In the name of nation building, one party states are declared, life presidencies proclaimed, military coups staged, and self-defeating “dictatorships for development” imposed. If the people don’t like it they can go to hell.
It is a tragic fact of African history that the three or so generations of independent African leaders have either failed or refused to see that there is something inherently wrong with nation building. Today, the fully formed prezidom continues to insist on building the nation by force, whether the people like it or not. It refuses to acknowledge that this is exactly what the colonial state did too. Much like today’s African citizens, colonial subjects were expected to be grateful and bow to His Imperial Majesty’s Government for bringing them development whether they liked it or not. The only difference between our imperial majesty of the colonial days and our present imperial majesty is that the colonial governor is now an all-knowing, all-powerful African who has no imperial throne or empowered citizens to fear and could therefore do anything and everything he likes with the lives and resources of the people; and if they don’t like it they can go to hell. Rather than move away from the harsh and brass character of Bula Matari, the breaker of rocks, as Crawford Young calls the colonial state, African leaders gladly embraced and practiced it through a variety of oppressive regimes often worse than Bula Matari’s. The culture of dissent that fueled African nationalism, that was tolerated by the colonial state and that brought independence to Africans is now criminalized. Unlike the dreadful Bula Matari, the independent African prezidom brooks no opposition to its power. Political opponents and critics of the leader are pounced upon, roughed up, killed or sent to prison on specious charges, through a coterie of sinister shadow state institutions – political thugs, nitadi “intelligence” agencies, and mercenary judges, magistrates and prosecutors for whom what matters is not the rule of law, truth or justice, but the word and the pleasure of the president, the likes of our famous Mokati Mansa, the breaker of persons. Clearly, a leadership specializes in the breaking of human beings cannot claim to be building a nation because human beings are the very foundation of human progress.
It is a strange paradox that the African prezidom practices a politics of hostility and insults that the oppressive colonial state would have been ashamed to practice. Post-colonial African states of the Mokati Mansa sort thrive on a politics of divide and rule more sinister than Bula Matari’s: it polarizes and breaks societies and communities into distinct and potentially hostile political factions – with those supporting the ruling party enjoying freedom from oppression, and those supporting other parties being constantly criminalized and persecuted. No matter what they do, supporters of the government (the blue boys?) are portrayed as faultless angels even if they beat people to death or burn somebody’s property down. Non-supporters of the government meanwhile, are called donkeys, denied their agency and rights, and often violently struck down. Individual lives are broken and families shattered in the name of a national security that literally renders the nation increasingly insecure. It is as if Mokati Mansa wishes to freeze time, to keep things the way they are for a million years. No, Mokati Mansa: change is the law of nature, and change will happen, whether you like it or not. Trying to prevent change from happening is like trying to run away from tomorrow. So hard luck sir.
Gambians deserve a politics of national unity, not a politics of divisiveness and mutual hostility. Gambians deserve a politics of kindness and friendship, not a politics of cruelty and enmity. Gambians say no to the politics of Mokati Mansa and yes to a politics in which every one considers everyone else and treats everyone else like relatives in the same extended family. In such a society, the president and entire leadership of the country will see themselves merely as trustworthy children chosen by the majority of the people to oversee the proper and orderly conduct of family affairs.
Of course, Mokati Mansa cannot oversee the transformation of our country into a family-nation. That will require a leadership that will be eager to teach but also eager to learn and to drink of the public wisdom; a leadership that will not behave like the infallible and hostile lord and master of the people, perched on top of the social pyramid and forcing dry chunks of “development” down our throats, whether we like it or not. The kind of intellectual and moral energy needed to actualize the family nation can only be generated in an environment of healthy civility and mutual respect between government and people, and among all members of society, regardless of status or political and religious affiliation. Certainly, because all human beings love to be treated with respect, Gambians will not be averse to the idea of universal mutual respect. They will especially cherish the honor of being treated like respected parents and relatives wherever they go, especially at police and military check points where they are currently treated like the helpless subjects of an alien despotism. And they will certainly cherish the privilege of treating government officials of all ranks – from the president to the court clerk – as their loving children and siblings. All this, of course, is conceivable only in an environment in which the rule of law is judiciously observed and enforced. The state as the child of the nation does not mean that the laws of the land will be left unenforced. It merely means that there will be no unjust laws or Mokati Mansa, only just laws that will be fully respected and obeyed by everyone, especially the president.
Abolishing the politics of Mokati Mansa and bringing about the kind of positive fundamental transformation we need in our country will take more than a mere change of individual political leaders or governments. It demands a fundamental transformation of our national mindset itself – our political culture, a formidable but surmountable challenge for the nation school. The type of positive and sustainable political transformation we need requires a homegrown, cohesive, and workable political philosophy whose tenets and principles will readily be understood by all citizens. We believe that a philosophy of the family nation, of the nation as one big family can work well in The Gambia. Alongside an ongoing no to the politics of Mokati Mansa, there should be conscious and well-coordinated efforts at transposing traditional Gambian family values onto our political institutions and practices. If government officials and civil servants understand themselves to be and are seen by the people as the disciplined children of a family nation, they will be constrained to do things that will have adverse effects on the country. We can transform our nation into one big family to which every citizen belongs, not through nation building of the Mokati Mansa sort, but through an evolving process of enlightenment and empowerment that will bring out the best of our collective consciousness and make the politics of civility the cornerstone of our political culture and our national life. We can start by saying no to Mokati Mansa now and no to any Mokati Mansa tendencies whenever they try to rear their ugly heads in our Family Nation.