Monday, December 9, 2013

The other half of Gambia's problems

First Ladies, like presidents, come in different shades, sizes and shapes, and most importantly different levels of dedication and commitment to the human condition.  Some countries are luckier than others in their share of First Ladies. There are countries blessed with empathetic ones who's interest is to bring voice to the voiceless, be they the poor, the powerless, the young and defenseless.

In short, First Ladies are usually associated with, and lend their names to, the good works of charities and other non profit organizations that exist to compliment, supplement or fill a need otherwise ignored by government.  Some have been very good at publicizing a cause or a set of causes that would otherwise go unnoticed or continue to rest at the bottom of the list of the national priorities list that society and thus government would otherwise ignore.

Proximity to the single most powerful public official in the country and chief influencer of public policy is the single biggest advantage of First Ladies outside of the obvious fact that they are married ( France is a rare exception ) to the head of state or government.  With the right set of values and interests, First Ladies have been known to influence even world events through their spouses even if they are unelected.

At the top of any First Lady's job description is a definable cause which she's committed to and ready to promote and advocate for.  As the Chief Advocate of a cause, she must also possess some minimum level of communication skills to advocate, publicize, help educate the public and lobby for it.  The First Lady must also be prepared to sell her agenda nationally through the media and by interacting with the citizenry using grassroots organizations.

In developing, as well as developed countries, successful advocacy without employing these methods hardly succeed.  Television extravaganzas alone, including internationally-sanctioned ones Mrs. Jammeh seem to favor, are not enough because television viewing is limited to few urban centers that can boast of few hours of electricity rationing per week.  She must take her message to the people, in the villages, in government and non-governmental agencies, at the State House. Gambia's First Lady is challenged in may of these requirements that makes an effective, supportive and caring First Lady.

Zainab Suma Jammeh is Moroccan.  I am of the personal opinion that nationality of the First Lady should not matter within or without the African context.  What matters, however, is, at least, to have a working knowledge of the official language of the Gambia which is English.  A good or reasonable command of one of the local languages certainly helps.  Mrs. Jammeh is neither fluent in the English language nor does she speak any of the local languages.  She speaks French, and barely.  There lies a major problem.

All of the above deficiencies in her resume as enumerated here would have been been ameliorated, had she shown interest in, and cared about, The Gambia and Gambians. There's no evidence that she has ever retained a Jola or Mandinka or Wolof tutor to help learn the local languages, and neither has she ever been seen or heard in public trying to utter a sentence or two in any of them.  Gambians do feel insulted by it.

This woman has been around almost as long as the Jammeh regime, and yet she is hardly known or seen in The Gambia. The tellers at Bloomingdale's Louis Vuitton store and Nordstrom at Tysons Corner see more of her than the Director of Social Welfare, in charge of children's welfare or the Executive Secretary of the Women's Bureau despite claims that she's interested in the welfare of Gambia's children and women.  Granted, every New Year's she's seen on television awarding a certificate and cash prize to the first baby born on that day sponsored by her "Operation Save a Baby" that she characterized as "a charitable outfit" in a speech purportedly given at the Paris Summit on Peace and Security in Africa.

The truth is Gambia's First Lady has very little interest in and affinity for Gambia or anything Gambian.  Her food is cooked by Moroccans and non-Gambians.  She's driven around Washington and Northern Virginia by Moroccans.  Even her babysitters are imported from the Near or Far East.  All of her business associates are either Moroccans or Lebanese with businesses not in The Gambia but in Rabat, Casablanca, Fez, Conakry, Nairobi and Dubai.

Some of her husband's business associates have been shown to have Hezbollah connections.  She appears to despise anything Gambian and avoids them at all cost. She is hardly in The Gambia.  She's more or less an absentee First Lady.  She shows up, as she did last week at the Peace and Security Summit in Paris, in international gatherings, submits her prepared statement for the record which is then reprinted in the government mouthpiece in Banjul for public consumption before she sets off on her jet-setting ways to the US and the Gulf States.  

Instead of Gambia benefiting through her advocacy, it is us Gambians who are subsidizing her extravagant lifestyle.  She has a jet at her disposal to satisfy her appetite for travels to the U.S.  She's in Washington DC every month to shop and for medical treatment for her two children.*  She flies to Rabat and Nairobi to manage an aircraft leasing company whose ownership is still to be confirmed, and when it is confirm will help explain the three planes parked at the Banjul International Airport as hub.  Navy personnel in Banjul have also claimed that some of the patrol boats procured by Taiwan as part of its foreign aid package to Banjul, meant for patrolling Gambian shores have found their way into Moroccan waters and are being operated in private hands.

The Gambia deserves better.  Gambia needs a First Lady who will promote peace, oppose executions including extrajudicial ones, condemn torture and work to stamp out corruption, and not one who is engaged in vanity, conspicuous consumption and in practices unbecoming the First Lady of one of the poorest countries on earth.


* Figures have just been provided on the First lady's travels to Washington DC this year.  She's made 17 trips in all to date with still 3 weeks to go in the year.  In two months this year, she traveled to Washington about thrice in the month with 2 aides and 2 security.  Normally her entourage comprises 17-19 persons.  She travels by private by charter or state-owned jets.