Sunday, May 18, 2014

"I was told so" is not enough

Note:  This blog post is unusually long and necessarily so. Debunking urban myths is not an easy task, especially myths concocted  over 40 years ago.
President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, President Bill Clinton murdered Vince Foster, 9/11 was an inside job, the Holocaust did not happen are a few of the craziest urban myths that made their way, and embedded into the consciousness of many anti-Obama, anti-Clinton, anti-Big Government and anti-Semites around the world.

We can add a favorite Gambian urban myth concocted by died-hard opponents of the administration of Sir Dawda. These are members of a group of Gambians who have tried and failed with Kukoi.  They continued their effort through the electoral system they despised at every turn and at every attempt to be elected to either the State House or the national parliament.  Their failure then was attributed falsely to the absence of an Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

When they finally succeeded in helping overthrow a legally-elected government, their candidate established an IEC and he was "elected" president in the most rigged election in Gambia's history.  Now that we have an IEC, I guess we can say Gambia is a democracy.  We are learning the bitter way that the establishment of an IEC and fair elections are two mutually exclusive propositions - to have one does not necessarily mean the other follows.

The children of Jawara's Ministers, and those of members of the privileged class were awarded scholarships to the United Kingdom and the United States while the rest were sent to African universities or not at all, was the favorite urban myth concocted by the opposition, a spurious claim that unfortunately went unchallenged by the PPP.

To speak of Gambians in such targeted fashion is not only repugnant, it is degrading to children in this category because they are Gambians and students first, and thus entitled to compete for scholarship just like everyone else.  But since they have been targeted by opponents of the Jawara regime for political ends, I am forced to follow the same first and

It is unfortunate that his vicious myth took root.  And once firmly planted in the bosom of the Jammeh regime with the help of the anti-Jawara movement who by 1994, have become staunch supporters of Jammeh, himself a product of the same underground opposition movement, the lie was transformed into the Gambian version of the "Truther" Movement i.e. transforming a myth into reality.

Jammeh, of course, found great propaganda value in this and similar urban myths propagated by the anti-Jawara movement, especially among the youth.  He was able to use it to his advantage by suggesting to Gambian youth that their support will guarantee a reversal of what they falsely labeled as a hideous trend.  It has, indeed, been reversed, but to the detriment of those he promised scholarships.  He also failed them on the employment front when Gambia is faced with over 60% of youth unemployment under Jammeh.

Inevitably, the facts did not support the myth.  When asked to provide data to substantiate their claims, a blank is drawn.  The leaders of anti-Jawara movement are allergic to data and statistics ( a favorite of a favorite follower would put it). Instead, they'd rather rely on their very fertile imaginative minds to continue disseminating falsehood even in old age.  The unfortunate consequence of their dogged pursuit of false propaganda to gain political power is to continue to spread myths.  One would have thought that the so-called intellectual wing of this shadowy group would provide data, statistics and/or empirical evidence to back their claims.

Scholarship programs under Jawara regime were broadly of three kinds (i) government scholarship (ii) agency-sponsored and (iii) project-based.  Government scholarship provisions up to 1988 were never in excess of D100,000 - D200,000 (dalasi exchange rate of D1 : $2.) annually, barely enough to support a dozen Gambian students in African universities, but not enough to support one student in America.

Therefore, not a single Gambian student was supported by "government scholarship" to an American university while I was at Education.  The cost was prohibitive.  I am being categorical here because I was Secretary of the Scholarship Advisory Board under the Ministry of Education for four of the six years I worked there.  To say government scholarships were awarded to sons and daughters of Jawara's ministers or senior members of his administration for that matter, is factually incorrect.

I again invite evidence.  For any one, deserving or undeserving student named, I will name ten from humble backgrounds who benefited from Government scholarships to Fourah Bay, Legon, Nsukka renamed University of Nigeria, Lagos, Dakar and Makerere, and ended up contributing immensely to the social and economic development of The Gambia.  The biggest names in Gambia public service and administration did not come from Harvard or Cambridge.  They came from these great African universities on government scholarships.

Those students who went to Dakar with government scholarships, soon secured the more 'lucrative' scholarship from the French government.  Again, I am cracking my brain to name a single son or daughter of Jawara's ministers who secured one of these scholarship, however repulsive the idea is to single them out because their parents were Ministers or high level officials who worked hard, contributed immensely Gambia's development .

Agency scholarships were those awarded to students who met the specific agency's criteria, primarily comprised of educational attainment.  These included organizations like African Scholarship Program for American Universities (ASPAU), International Institute of Education (IIE) and I will include university-based scholarship programs.  American education was never a popular pursuit in former British colonies in Africa in the 60s to the mid-70s and some would say to the mid-80s.

It was not uncommon for Gambians to be seen, literally being forced, kicking and screaming to compete for an ASPAU or IIE scholarships to the United States because it was instilled in all of us by our British teachers that American education was inferior. Those who finally went for them were not sons and daughter of Jawara's ministers but sons and daughters of farmers, fishermen and cattle herders from Barra to Basse. Yes, there were Banjulians as well as rural folks, and of all tribes.  It is a lie perpetuated by opponents of the Jawara regime who cannot still provide proof.

Of course, the anti-Jawara will not tell you that it was not until the late 70s or early 80s that Gambians started going to the US for further studies, and every single one did so without the benefit of a government scholarship.  They were all 'can do' students, working all night and attending classes all day.  They are doing it to this day, flipping burgers, pumping gas and many other rotten odd jobs to get through school.

Those of us who bucked the trend and came to America in the 60s were less than a dozen and we knew where everyone was.  Most came on ASPAU, IIE or similar Foundation scholarship programs, and the rest of came through private scholarships from high schools that recruited African students on full scholarship. At the time, Gambians did not clamor for American education as the opponents of the Jawara regime would like you to believe.

The third category of scholarship is generally attached to projects financed by loan or grant.  Except in extremely rear cases, these scholarships and training programs are specific to the project, be it agriculture, education or infrastructure.  The eligibility requirements are usually specified in the project document that have been appraised and endorsed by other parties - the donor and government.  Any candidate selected under this category will undergo a vetting process to satisfy the requirements stipulated in the project document. There's little chance for any shenanigans and favoritism because the recipient is almost always someone already working in a job that is related or specific to the project.

Cost of education in Britain and the United States has always been the reason why government preferred directing its scholarship program to African universities. Government can train half a dozen to a dozen students in an African university for the price of one student in a top flight US or British university.  It was one of the most cost-effective measures that the Scholarship Committee adopted.  And to berate African universities like Fourah Bay College, Legon and Makerere is to be ignorant of the fact that the greatest Gambian public servants, administrators, educators and scholars had their grounding in these and similar institutions.

As a favorite teacher of mine used to say, its more about the student than the university.  It is amazing that the revolutionary vanguard is still blaming their favorite boogieman - Sir Dawda Jawara - to their personal failings even after they succeeded in helping overthrow his constitutionally elected government almost twenty years ago.

Until the overthrow if the Jawara regime, students from well-to-do families were mostly sponsored by their parents to the UK.  Very few families to this day can afford sending their kids to the US and the UK simply because it is expensive, even for the American.  It was never a fact that the sons and daughters of Jawara's ministers went to British and American universities.  I have been asking for the anti-Jawara movement to come forward with empirical evidence to show that their claim is not spurious, and all I am getting is "I was told so" or "I heard it somewhere". Well, that is not good enough. You either put up or shut up.

All said, I will be the last to claim perfection in fairness or otherwise under Jawara.  Scholarship Advisory Committee Members were "lobbied" by friends, family and colleagues, and at times 'discretionary and arbitrary' means were employed in some rear cases when the competition was close between two students. Even in these cases, the Committee had gone back to Finance to seek supplementary funding to accommodate an extra deserving student or two.  At least, Jawara's system was fairer and more transparent.

By contrast what did Jammeh do after seizing power?   He transferred the Scholarship Advisory Committee to his office, and to this day no one knows who gets what, how much and to what schools.  The very same folks who are still yapping about the scholarship myth are very silent about scholarships under Jammeh.

Oh, by the way, the latest from Jawara's opponents is that Gambia was not democratic under Jawara.  It was, according to one, "a semblance of democracy" because there was no "IEC" and that Jawara ran an "incompetent civil service."  Both claims are laughable but, nonetheless, are new attempts at historical revisionism that will add to their long list of tales or as we like to refer to them as urban myths.  I guess urban myths don't really die, just like great Army Generals, they simply fade away.  After all, there is still a high number of Americans who still believe President Obama was born in Kenya, even after he presented his original birth certificate.