Monday, October 14, 2013

Gambia's changing governance equation

The Arab Spring was widely seen as providing the necessary springboard for democratic governance and a galvanizing factor for the rest of Africa to emulate. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were seen as the templates for African democratic resurgence. Instead, the overthrow of dictatorships across northern Africa unleashed al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) which led to the temporary occupation of half of the territory of Mali until the French military recaptures lost territory but not before the local populations were traumatized, holy places vandalized and the historic city of Timbuktu ravaged.

The spillage of the terror activities could be felt in neighboring Senegal, and the fear is it has seeped into The Gambia where the dictatorship, accused of arms and drug trafficking, has dug its heels deeper following protests again an increasingly unpopular government.   After 19 years of autocratic rule that saw increasing use of violently repressive methods to stay in power, a new model seems to be emerging in the case of the Gambia where the pressure is being applied from outside the country, as opposed to from within.

This model is borne out of necessity because of the successful institutionalization of extra-judicial executions, torture, disappearances, imprisonments and forced exiles.  A traumatized population that has effectively been neutered, incapable of launching any form of protest in the absence of active political parties that are willing to take the lead.  This scenario is changing due, in part, to the dissidents in the diaspora using highly visible venues like the United Nations Headquarters and the Gambian Embassy Building in Washington DC to stage their protest against the government in Banjul.

Democratic change does not come through occasional protests.  Rather, it comes through sustained pressure for reform, not only in the human rights sphere, but must also be tied to the frustration of Gambians over high food and fuel prices, jobs, lack of electricity and other socioeconomic demands for maximum impact.   It is, therefore, imperative that the protests against the Jammeh regime in New York and Washington not only be sustained but be expanded to other cities within the United States and in London, Stockholm, Brussels and beyond with a strong economic message.

Dissident groups have found the single most powerful ally in the internet that has been used to such devastating effect that laws are being promulgated ever so frequently in a desperate attempt to keep the population as uninformed as possible. The Jammeh regime was unable to prevent the protests against him being photographed and videoed which were instantaneously posted on youtube for Gambians to watch as events unfold despite two recently passed internet laws designed to limit access.   Facebook and twitter provided added ammunition in the protesters armory.  It didn't take Jammeh long to realize that the tables have turned, and that the technological advantage enjoyed by the dissidents is being effectively utilized to their advantage.  An insular and highly secretive regime is now forced to respond to youtube videos seen around the world about issues that they once wouldn't discuss publicly, and most importantly could not report inaccurately without being challenged with video evidence.

The absence of an effective and dynamic civil society in The Gambia, unlike what obtains in neighboring Senegal, Benin, Ghana, Mali and Nigeria, has effectively stifled any attempt to push for reform.  Gambian civil societies, however dormant and ineffective they are present, are receiving moral and supplemental support from the likes of Amnesty International ( both their London and Dakar offices ) and Ghana's Prof. Kwame Karikari's Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).  The Democratic Union of Gambian Activists, Washington DC ( DUGA - DC ) and other civil groups strewn across America and led by Gambian dissidents have provided the impetus needed to spur other groups into action.

It is expected that political parties will seize the occasion not only to join in the protest against the dictator but to articulate a new vision for The Gambia which is an absolute necessity.   Gambian institutions that are indispensable in the running of a modern state have all been destroyed by the dictatorship.   The economy which used to be the pride of the region even when it was the smallest has been mismanaged, the state treasury looted and the judiciary corrupted.  A blueprint is needed as to how to rebuild these vital institutions.

There is no doubt that the political equation is changing for reasons beyond the political activism of the civil organizations outside the Gambia.  The donor community, specifically the European Union (EU) has contributed significantly to the rapid transformation of the relationship between the dictatorship and the EU which has started demanding that the government becomes more accountable to the citizenry and to those who help pay the bills.  The power of purse is being felt within government as aid is withheld in exchange for more transparency and accountability in the areas of economic management, human rights, democracy and the rule of law.  It is hoped that the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and African Development Bank will emulate the European Union in this regard. 

Meanwhile, Gambian civil society organizations based outside The Gambia, in collaboration with their international partners, must continue to exert pressure on a regime that is increasingly isolated as a result of its poor democratic and human rights record. External agitations and pressures must necessarily be complemented by internal political activism, the leadership of which must be provided by political parties and members of civic society for the people to join in.  Otherwise, the transformation we are witnessing will taper off fairly soon providing space for the dictatorship to reassert its repressive power against the people.