Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Constitution should not have mandated "Dialogue with the People Tour"

Jammeh on the "towering mountain top" 
Gambian pundits are quick to remind readers that "Dialogue with Farmers Tour" successor to "Meet with the Farmers Tour" is a constitutionally mandated event that the President of the Republic is sworn to undertake, at least, once every year.

The leader of the largest opposition party, Ousainou Darboe while praising the Constitutional Review Committee for "doing a good job" of  inserting the clause in the Constitution, he, however, lamented at the fact that Jammeh "has...somehow misused, and made [the tour] a campaign tour with the Yayi Compins, mobilizers; the sort of gathering you find at mass rallies."

The problem we find wrong with the UDP leader's complaint is in trying to draw the line between apolitical campaign and political one in the Gambian context, given the nature of these types of tours which originated from Sir Dawda's administration and borne out of necessity of a decade-long drought of the 1970s and early 1980s.  The "tour" was originally designed to meet the farmers, and to explain evolving government policy as the drought conditions persisted.

Consequently, most of the policies relating to the environment had their roots in the Meet the Farmers Tour, culminating in the "Banjul Declaration" of 1977, pledging the government of Sir Dawda "to conserve to now and posterity as wide a spectrum as possible of our remaining fauna and flora".  Even then, politics reared its ugly head but not as overtly as the "Dialogue with the People" which broadened the audience to include other non-farmer issues, increasing the propensity to politicize the event.  Indeed, it has now evolved into a blatantly political campaign event with, as Ousinaou Darboe described it, " Yayi Compins, mobilizers" in tow.

Section 222, paragraph 15 provides that the president undertakes a "nation-wide tour at least twice a year in order to familiarize himself or herself with current conditions and the effect of government policies."  The intent of the clause may be well-meaning but the rationale is flawed., and we have seen in the past 20 years the provision has been abused - an abuse that has grossly contributed to the skewed political landscape at a huge cost to the national treasury that led an astute observer of Gambian politics to succinctly remark that the dialogue has become a "gross abuse of state funds to promote a political party."

As we have noted previously in our Facebook page, the Dialogue is no longer a dialogue.  It has become a monologue, a one-man-show, Yaya Jammeh's show.  You hardly see or hear farmers occupy center stage with their problems.  If the tour was mandated for the purposes of the president to familiarize himself with current conditions and the effect of government policies, the center piece of the tour should always be the farmer and/or the rural folk.  The opposite is, of course, the case.

The Dialogue tour has become The Jammeh Show.  The stage is managed well to screen speakers, or more appropriately 'praise singers'.  Anything question that reveals the incompetence of the regime and that is deemed as embarrassing to the regime is not entertained.  For example, ferry services have been unavailable for the people of Nuimi for several weeks but they dare not ask questions as to why this is the case.  Instead, farmers are required to listen to the dictator's plans for his re-election campaign.

It is difficult to justify a constitutional clause such as the one in Sec.222, para 15 that mandates not one but two tours annually, given the cost of each tour which, by Jammeh's standards, requires 21-days, a minimum of a 300- vehicle convoy, and hundreds of "Yayi Compins" and political hacks.  It is unjustifiable in good times as in bad times, both from the standpoint of cost and its appropriateness as a means of assessing the impact of government policy.  The impact of government policy can be assessed without leaving State House.

The Office of the President is surrounded by advisers of all shades and hue, and inundated with reports from competent government agencies like the Central Bank, Finance Ministry and other specialized agencies like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund that give an accurate assessment of the state of the economy.

In short, leave the assessment to the bureaucrat and technical expertise, national and international, and the politics to the politicians.  Any tour of the provinces should be the responsibility of the politician to be funded by his political party and not the tax payer.  It was therefore a big mistake to have constitutionally mandated what turns out to be an all-expense-paid political campaign.