By Baba Galleh Jallow
It seems to me that one of the main reasons alternative parties fail to win elections in Africa is that they do not adequately connect with the ordinary voter. This is by no means an absolute generalizable, not a theory of electoral failure by alternative parties. It is simply to say that there might be ways to better connect with the ordinary voter which could be instrumental in showing them the true state of their political situation and therefore help muster more support and hopefully an electoral victory over entrenched regimes. This short piece is designed to highlight a few of the issues that alternative parties and leaders need to communicate to the ordinary voters. There are certain things that might be obvious to those active in day to day politics but might not be so obvious to the mass of African voters. Teasing out these issues and actively and aggressively addressing them could be very helpful in winning elections.
One tricky issue that alternative leaders and parties need to communicate to ordinary voters is the fact that kings (mansa) and kingdoms (mansa kunda) do not really exist within the framework of a constitutional environment, unless of course, they are constitutional monarchies. The perception that African presidents are mansa is a damaging obstacle in the way of Africa’s political transformation because a lot of people take it literally and associate it with a number of outdated conceptions of government that carry a lot of unproductive and stifling baggage. Key among these negative connotations is the entrenched perception in African cultures that opposing a sitting president is tantamount to opposing the will of God, who put the president in power. The fact that African political culture has remained largely unchanged from the precolonial through the colonial to the post-colonial period in Africa is as unfortunate as it is damaging to our aspirations for political advancement. Our alternative leaders must carefully think about this issue and frame it in terms that would convince people of the validity of their arguments while at the same time avoid the tricky possibility of challenging their belief in the idea that leaders are appointed by God. Of course, on the surface, and in a profoundly religious environment such as ours, suggesting that someone could become president without God’s will is a dangerous and potentially self-defeating endeavor. Nevertheless, the case must be made to the African voters that in a constitutional republic, presidents are not the same as mansas. The differences between precolonial kingdoms and constitutional republics need to be highlighted as precisely and meticulously as possible.
Where it is considered too difficult to address the issue of constitutional republic versus precolonial monarchy, our alternative leadership must nevertheless find a way of convincing the ordinary voter that being “mansa” does not mean literally owning the country. The reality that the country equally belongs to all citizens must be explained in clear and unambiguous terms. At the same time, it must be explained to the voters that being “mansa” does not give anyone the right to oppress their people with impunity. Verses from the Quran and the Bible need to be invoked in support of the idea that God hates oppressions and injustice. Where necessary, religious leaders and scholars should be invited to address this particular issue and demonstrate how there is a lot of specific evidence in our holy books that support the thesis that leaders should not be oppressors of their people. Since entrenched regimes openly manipulate religion to unjustly maintain their grip on power, there is nothing wrong with our alternative leaders calling upon religious leaders and scholars to debunk the myth of divine kingship in a constitutional republic. It should also be made clear that before the Europeans came to Africa, African mansas who oppressed their people were removed from power by the people. Because elections as we know them did not exist at the time, force was often used to effect a change of leadership. Now that elections are here, the people should be encouraged to exercise their power to remove their oppressive “mansa” through the ballot box.
A second message that needs to be tirelessly communicated to the people by our alternative leadership is best communicated in the form of a question: Why do we not hear of military coups and attempted coups in America, Britain, Italy and Germany? The choice of these particular countries is deliberate, informed by the fact that most Africans are more familiar with these countries than with most other Western countries. Having posed this question, our alternative leadership should then proceed to give as many good answers as possible. One that readily comes to mind is that in these countries, no single person can claim ownership of their country or cling indefinitely on to power. Specific examples should be given. For instance, since 1994 when Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh became president, America has had three presidents: Bill Clinton was president for eight years; George W. Bush was president for eight years; Barack Obama has been president for eight years. And America will have another president in 2017. Why should Yahya Jammeh insist on being president for twenty two years as if he personally owns Gambia, and even though Gambia is a constitutional republic, just like America? Another example is Britain: Since Yahya Jammeh became president in 1994, Britain has had six leaders: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameroon and now Theresa May. The point must strongly be communicated to the people that having regular changes of political leadership is one of the main reasons why the military in these countries do not seek to overthrow a sitting leader. It also means that no single leader can claim ownership of their country and represents an example of how people exercise their power to change their leaders on a regular basis. Closely tied to this reality is the constitutional doctrine or concept of the rule of law, which must also be carefully explained to our voters: namely that in a constitutional republic, no one is above the law and no one can break the law with impunity, even the president. Because the rule of law is respected in these countries, leaders cannot insist on staying in power beyond a certain period defined by law.
Closely tied to why we do not hear of military coups in America, Britain, Italy and Germany is the broader question of why Africans are stuck in poverty and are always running to the West for economic salvation. Certainly, there are many complicated answers to this question. It is certainly not because Africans are less intelligent than Americans or Europeans. The extremely damaging myth that must be addressed is the notion that somehow, God made this world for white people and that Africans must be content to wait for the afterlife. This is also a tricky issue because it is so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of our people. Nevertheless, our alternative leadership must address this issue head on and remind voters that all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve and possess the same capacity for intelligence, growth and advancement. The key solution to Africa’s perennial economic stagnation in the face of the continent’s vast material resources must be directly linked to the fact that African leaders stifle the intellectual resources of their countries. Brilliant ideas are not appreciated. Ideas with the potential to move our countries forward are stifled through harsh and selfish regimes of oppression and censorship that jail, drive into exile or kill Africans with the potential to positively contribute to their countries’ socio-economic, cultural and political advancement. Thousands of African professionals serve Western societies and educate Western students while their own native societies and students remain stuck in socio-economic and political stagnation. African historians, economists, political scientists, and natural scientists research and produce knowledge on other countries rather than their own countries because entrenched regimes hate any idea that challenges their unjust claim to personal ownership of their countries. Consequently, our countries remain that much intellectually starved.
The case must strongly be made to the voters that no human being is infallible; that all human beings are likely to make mistakes and that people have the right, even the duty to point out harmful mistakes committed by their leaders and governments for the simple reason that these mistakes directly affect the lives and wellbeing of the people concerned. In the Western countries mentioned above, no president can order the arrest and detention or torture or killing of a journalist or opposition member or leader for merely protesting or pointing out that the government is wrong or has made a mistake, or for calling for electoral or any other form of reform. It must be made clear that people have the constitutional right to oppose their government. In the West, leaders and governments encourage and make use of the intellectual resources of their people, regardless of political orientation or persuasion. This fact must be strongly emphasized to the voters. And it must be strongly emphasized to the voters that while sembo leka buwo nyori, sembo buka banko nyori. Hakilo leka banko nyori. The people must be convinced that ideas, not guns and jails, are the building blocks of development and prosperity and that the West is so far ahead of Africa in terms of economic prosperity largely because they make use of their people’s ideas. Every invention comes from the minds of human beings, and white people are mere human beings just like us. We are stuck in the rut of poverty because our leaders do not encourage the active use of our people’s ideas. This is an important message that needs to be ceaselessly communicated to the African voters.
In essence then, a new approach needs to be adopted by our alternative leadership both during and outside of election periods: an approach that goes beyond simply criticizing incumbent regimes to addressing some of the myths surrounding political leadership in Africa. These myths include the damaging and outmoded notions of mansaya and mansa kunda which are deeply ingrained in our people’s collective consciousness. The religious belief that people cannot become leaders without God’s will is a tricky space to maneuver because in a deeply religious community such as ours, there is no way to convincingly refute it. However, showing how religion condemns oppressive and unjust leaders and citing the example of precolonial societies where oppressive and unjust leaders were removed by the people is a viable strategy of dealing with our sit-tight and obviously oppressive and unjust leaders. Equally important are attempts to draw comparisons between our countries and some Western countries like America and Britain which have had several leaders while we are still saddled with a same president who behaves as if he literally owns us and our country and has the power of life and death over every single individual in our society. Why the West prospers and Africa remains mired in debilitating poverty and conflict is another issue that must be addressed during political rallies and at every possible opportunity. The fact that we are stuck in a rut of poverty and developmental stagnation is directly tied to the fact that our leaders stifle our peoples’ intellectual energies and must also be persistently addressed. A direct and unmistakable connection must be made between the misery of the African people and the oppression and injustice of their leaders and governments. The African voter needs to be effectively persuaded and convinced that God is not to blame for their seemingly unending subjection to oppressive political and economic hardships.