Barrow at One: The Opportunities

By Saul Saidykhan

Where there are big challenges,

there are great opportunities.

As I alluded to in Part One, the cardinal objective of Barrow’s leadership should be to lay a solid foundation that successive governments could follow to deepen the tenets and pillars of democracy at all levels of government from national to local. Barrow must work hard to strengthen institutions and mechanisms that will grow democratic norms, culture, and way of life in tandem with the constitution, rule of law, and our traditional values. The focal point for Barrow’s attention in this drive to build strong institutions should be on the behavior of executives at all levels of public administration, the legislature, judiciary, political parties, civil society, media, labor unions, professional associations, and Regulatory bodies. This is in line with the professional Management concept of “tone at the top”. If the person at the head of an organization SHOWS or DEMONSTRATES that he/she won’t tolerate graft or indiscipline, the underlings will straighten up. Conversely, if that person sends the message that such behavior is ok, nothing else matters. No genius policy or plan can save such an organization from ruin.

There won’t be good democratic governance unless we strengthen our institutions and processes meant to curb the common human crave for illegitimate power, greed, and the tendency to engage in graft and corruption -all of which vices we are very familiar with in our national life.  The Gambian experience thus far is one of disappointment and betrayal because the story of Gambian leadership overall in the last five decades is reflective of undesirable traits we could do without. Indeed, the vices cited are the common characteristics of the people that have led Gambian public institutions. Consequently, the ordinary Gambian has come to believe and accept that politicians generally, and most public servants are greedy, and love unchecked power. Very few leaders at any branch or tier of government, (and this is true of the Gambian private sector as well), are inspiring.

Good governance can be achieved only when we have institutions and mechanisms that work independently and effectively across the board to check and sanction waywardness, misconduct, and the abuse of the rights of others.

Barrow’s greatest advantage is he has fifty-two years of history to draw from thanks to two important teachers – DK Jawara and Yahya Jammeh, who are in some fundamental ways, polar opposites.  Jawara was like a sleepy pilot who simply couldn’t stay alert long enough to decipher the signs of looming danger on the horizon. Worse, he was a terrible judge of character, who clearly seemed incapable of seeing through phony flattery. He assumed everyone will voluntarily play by the established rules of the Public Service. Beginning in the late-70s, one public entity after another (all Monopolies)  started floundering due to mismanagement and or corruption: -Gambia Utilities Corporation (GUC), Gambia River Transport (GRT) , Gambia Produce Marketing Board (GPMB) Gambia National Trading Corporation (GNTC), Gambia Ports Authority (GPA), Gambia  Libyan Arab Public Transport Corporation (GLAPTC), Gambia Commercial and Development Bank (GCDB), Gambia National Insurance Company (GNIC) Gambia Cooperative Union (GCU/Coops), the Public Works Department (PWD.) By 1984, every single one of these corporations or entity was in serious financial trouble. Yet Jawara seemed clueless until the Briton Woods folks who lent us the start-up capital for some of these entities showed up and demanded drastic and bitter changes. But even then, none of the key criminals that destroyed these corporations were prosecuted, jailed, or even sacked from their jobs. Many actually kept their jobs until they completely ruined the Cash Cows they led. Jawara had a tough time firing anyone. He was being called the Sutura person who “gets along with everyone” and “does not like to embarrass anyone.” Enter the painful Economic Recovery Program-ERP in 1985. The amazing thing is, the leaders of almost all these public entities were doing fabulously well for themselves during this period. In short, their personal fortunes were inversely related to those of the public entities they ran: the worse the corporations did, the larger their managers’ personal wealth grew. However, if you notice this paradox, you’re better off keeping mute, because someone will jump on you with insulting adjectives for raising questions about this obvious anomaly.  It’s no accident that the Gambia Ports Authority (GPA) is the lone survivor. For that, we have to thank nature that bless us with the Atlantic Ocean. Otherwise, the GPA would have gone down the same way as the others thirty years ago. The level of mismanagement and corruption there was just as bad as anywhere else. We therefore need to be careful about romanticizing the Jawara era. Anyway, Barrow has very valuable lessons to learn from Jawara.

Then came Yahya Jammeh. No two people can be more different than DK Jawara and Yahya Jammeh. Whereas Jawara personally followed laws, protocols, rules, and regulations to the letter as he did as a Director in the colonial civil service, Jammeh took the term of “my government” literally. From low level public servants, to resources at the Central bank and those collected by public entities in their daily operations, to foreign aid and business opportunities, Yahya Jammeh believed it was his exclusive right to determine who gets what in the country. With the resolve that every public servant and business person must owe him the obligation of loyalty, he set out to get rid of any public servant he suspects might be disagreeable to his ways, and to deny any business person who doesn’t play ball government business.  In Jammeh’s expressed view, the Gambia was his, and if there is any opportunity to be had – be that in employment or business, it’s his sole prerogative to give. And to enforce his twisted views of government, he relied on a terror network of security, judicial, and political operatives.  Out went Due Process, justice, and competence in Gambian public life. This is a synopsis of the Jammeh madness we’re still reeling from.

Needless to say, President Barrow has very valuable lessons to learn from Yahya Jammeh as well. Since none of his two predecessors delivered what Gambians want, Barrow’s task is to adopt a style that strikes a balance between the two extremes preceding him while tapping into new and ingenious ways of creating jobs, wealth, and opportunities for Gambians in a secure environment.

The starting point for Barrow is to harvest low-hanging fruits expeditiously. No one from the Jammeh era who lacks the BASIC qualification for high public office -civil or security, should be retained. Currently, too many of these characters still serve as Permanent Secretaries, General Managers, Managing Directors, Directors, Generals, Colonels, Majors, and so on in government. Barrow needs to stop the foot-dragging and replace these people. Especially because some are active saboteurs.

The experience of both Jawara and Jammeh shows that when the president allows incompetent or corrupt people to ruin public entities, it’s he that people will blame when he’s no longer in power regardless of how much praise they heap on him at the time. We saw a painful example of this behavior only weeks ago when the one Gambian who benefited most financially from Yahya Jammeh’s reign went before the Janneh Commission and not only completely disowned his erstwhile benefactor, he trashed him by calling him ugly names. This is less than a year after Jammeh’s fall from grace! If Barrow allows himself to be used and misled as his two predecessors, he has only himself to blame.

Other opportunities lie in areas like seeking quick justice for victims of Jammeh’s brigandage, and creating a whole new paradigm for the Gambia. That, because the one incontestable fact about Gambian national life is, the development model we’ve been pursuing that concentrated our resources in a small part of the Atlantic corridor hasn’t worked for us in fifty-two years. It’s time for Barrow to seize the opportunity his Super majority in Parliament (the reliable support of the UDP and NRP) offers him to chart a new course for the Gambia that is more progressive, equitable, and sustainable in the long term. With the right policies, we should be able to build a contented nation that is food-secure, healthy, educated, and stable. I can’t think of a better time to jump start this project than now.

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