Since the removal of our corrupt and divisive dictator of twenty-two years there have been numerous calls for enfranchisement of the Gambian diaspora, specifically to enable Gambians abroad to vote in our future elections and better still, have representatives in our legislature. Probably very few people will argue against the idea of broadening our democratic participation. There have been numerous arguments in favor of allowing Gambians living abroad to vote in Gambian national elections and some go to the extent of citing our neighbor, Senegal, as an example of a country that allows and enables its citizens living abroad to vote in their national elections.
In the case of The Gambia, I will strongly urge us to take a serious look at the issues before we get ourselves into something that is definitely not our immediate and burning priority and will cost us more than the perceived benefits it will bring. We should be careful of what we wish for. Jammeh Kanilai, the divisive dictator, was vehemently against any idea of extending voting rights to Gambians living abroad for his own obvious selfish reasons. He knew majority of Gambian diaspora was opposed to him and his policies and what he stood for and the Gambian diaspora was going to vote against him in troves. Jammeh being no fool would not shoot himself in the foot by extending voting rights to Gambians living abroad. Flip the situation and Jammeh would have moved mountains to extend voting rights to Gambian diaspora if he believed that they were going to vote for him in majority.
However, even without the direct voting participation of Gambian diaspora, they were able to fully carry their weight in booting the divisive and brutal Kanilai dictator out. The amount of funds that flew to the opposition campaign from all over the world played a great part in financing the campaign against the dictator. Lest we forget, the diaspora did a lot of retail politics by calling family and friends, enlightening and urging them to vote against dictator Jammeh. Just to put this in perspective: A friend of mine whose aunt was a dead Jammeh supporter and was preparing to join Jammeh’s nomination entourage at the IEC offices, as she had always done in the past. She supported jammeh because according to her, her late father advised all his children to always support the Mansa/Bur of the day. My friend intervened with numerous telephone calls by educating this innocent woman about all that was wrong with Jammeh and his policies for The Gambia including Jammeh’s devilish impact on their own family members who were fired, jailed and divided by dictator over the years. When the innocent woman ‘got it’ she did not only quit supporting Jammeh but convinced other family members and friends to vote against him. This is to show that with or without direct voting participation, the Gambian diaspora can influence good governance in the country.
The Gambia, a country of two million people, is among the poorest people anywhere on the surface of the earth and have never been able to provide for itself for even a single year since independence in 1965. For the past fifty-four years we have never been able to even balance our budget without intervention of other countries and international organizations like the IMF. We have been basically depending on other people or countries to provide our three square meals every day since 1965 as a nation. If every year a large portion of our budget has to be provided by others in the form of grants etc. then we have not been able to independently take care of ourselves. Directly relating to this predicament is the fact that our elections have always been financed by others – grants from other countries and organizations. Are we going to use the meagre resources at our disposal to enfranchise Gambians spread all over the face of the globe? Is that our priority?
Logistics involved in conducting elections abroad for a small and poor country like the Gambia will be daunting compared to our capacity and the process could be prone to abuse. The embassies and consulates will play leading roles in executing those electoral processes. Since the day to day survival of those embassy staff is always at the mercy of the government of the day it should be easy to imagine where their loyalties lie and could take steps to influence the results in favor of the government of the day. Imagine elections being conducted with the involvement of Gambian diplomatic missions under Yaya Jammeh. What could we expect? Let us not fool ourselves, Yaya Jammeh is not an exception among Gambians. The current political leadership in the country has the potential to be abusive and irresponsible as its predecessor and without proper checks and balances and strong national institutions, future leaders could be even worse. Being small and poor, our beloved country does not have and cannot afford diplomatic missions everywhere. In fact the current number of embassies we have are too many for our capacity given how expensive it is to run a diplomatic mission or embassy. We should cut our coat according to our size and use our meagre resources to invest in the productive sectors of our economy if we do not want to continue to be spoon-fed for generations to come.
Even if we are given rights to vote abroad, a large portion of the Gambian disapora will still be left out because they will be too far from available pooling stations physically close to them. Will the IEC not have to build capacity and hire more people and fly them to conduct elections all over the world? Could those extra resources not be used to buy medicine and equipment for our hospitals or build simple food processing plants to add value to our agricultural produce?
There could be argument that our neighbor, Senegal, as well as some other African countries are already allowing their diaspora contingents to participate in their national elections. That is a very weak argument as it will be irresponsible to equate ourselves to Senegal. In the first place, Senegal has a population of 16 million which is eight times ours. Senegal has a GDP per capita of over a $1000 giving them a total GDP of more than $16 billion, while our GDP per capita is less than $500 leaving us with just a total GDP of less than $1 billion. Senegal can do a lot with that economic power. Senegal has well established democratic institutions since independence which has stood the test of time. Senegal has enjoyed continuous democratic transfer of power through free and fair elections without disruption for nearly six decades. There are institutional structures and checks and balances that allows a country like Senegal to extend enfranchisement to its citizens abroad without much logistical nightmare or abuse of the system.
What has work for the Gambia over the years has been the advantage of its small size and the introduction of ‘on-the-spot’ counting. We are in a unique situation to leverage this advantage and strengthen it so that neither current nor future administrations can tamper with it. Waiting for votes cast from different parts of the world will render our instant spot counting ineffective since votes cast from other parts of the world will have to be tallied and there is daylight difference between the Gambia and other parts of the world. The integrity of our overall electoral process and election results may be tainted by results from outside the country since the iron-clad control we now have over voting and vote counting using the ‘on-the-spot’ counting makes it almost impossible for any fraudulent camp to tamper with.
We need to strengthen the position of the IEC so that they can always live up to the spirit of their name of ‘independence’ and there by always maintain their impartiality. We can constitutionally protect this institution by making sure the appointment and possible removal of the head and other commissioners is not left in the hands of the executive but for example require the involvement of the parliament. This is based on the expectation that our new constitution will strengthen the position and protection of our other democratic institutions such as the composition and independence of the National Assembly, roles and institutions of traditional rulers such as chiefs and village heads. Let us remember “nobody gets everything he or she wants on this earth and giving up on diaspora voting for now may be something that we may have to consider collectively”.