Gambian Youth and Partisan Politics: Apathy or Resistance?

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“People get the government they deserve” Alexis de Tocqueville  

Elections

Since the restoration of multiparty politics in 1996, elections in The Gambia have been flawed by worryingly low voter turnout, especially among the youth. Although there is no data on the number of young people between the ages of 18-35 that voted or otherwise, one can argue that a great majority of young people in Gambia do not vote despite their demographic advantage. The issue could be linked to a lack of interest or seeming discontent with Gambian politics and as such, resisting the whole political establishment.

The figures in the previous presidential and parliamentary elections vividly describe this phenomenon. Presidential elections usually register higher voter turnout than parliamentary elections. For instance, during the Presidential election of 1996, the voter turnout was 80%. A 9.71% increase (89.71%) was recorded in 2001.

In 2006, this figure declined to 58.58% and in 2011, it rose again to 82.55%. In 2006, a percentage larger than those who voted for the incumbent APRC did not vote. The increased in 2011 elections could be attributed to the intensive nationwide youth voter education campaigns that were carried out by youth groups such as National Youth Parliament.

The parliamentary figures on the other hand are at an all-time low. The 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2012 turnouts were 73.2%, 56.38%, 41.70%, and 19.44% respectively.  The primary explanation for the low turnout in 2007 and 2012 could be attributed to electoral boycotts by the United Democratic Party (UDP). In 2011, apart from the National Reconciliation Party (NRP), all other parties boycotted the parliamentary and local government elections.

With yet another electoral cycle in the horizon, will the trend continue or will young people vote for change?

In 2011, I presented a paper Political Apathy Amongst Gambian Youth: Case Study of Youth in Serekunda at the Senior Student Research Colloquium organized by the School of Arts and Sciences, The University of The Gambia. The paper which surveyed a group of 100 youth between 18-35 years, was presented just a day before the 2011 Presidential election. The aim was to search for better answers to identify and understand the problem of youth political apathy in The Gambia and how it affects the country’s democratization process. The idea was informed by the fact that about 65% of The Gambia’s population is made up of young people between 18-35 years of age. Yet, the same group shows all signs of “lack of interest” in their own welfare, or so I thought and concluded.

While doing the research, I was also engaged in youth voter education as part of my American Corner Project (Young Gambian Leadership Program). Within a period of two months, the program, funded by the American Embassy, was able to organize several radio talk shows led by young people targeting their peers. At the same time also, the National Youth Parliament was engaged in an intensive voter education project targeting young people across the country. The outcome of all these efforts resulted in a higher voter turnout than the 2006 Presidential elections.

The outcome of the 2011 Presidential elections, in terms of voter turnout, showed a different picture to what I had observed in my paper that Gambian youth lack interest in politics. Today, I am revisiting the same phenomenon as we approach another election year. This time, with a wider perspective and a more critical outlook on Gambian youth and politics as informed by years of interaction both online and at home. As such, I posited that the low voter turnout is not as a result of lack of interest in politics, rather it is both a conscious and subconscious strategy by young people to protest against the political system in place.

With the current political climate in The Gambia that curtails certain fundamental rights, also forcing many into self-censorship, many young people do not see the need to vote. They do not even believe that their votes count. They are convinced that voting will not change the situation nor will it remove the APRC from power. They fear that Jammeh will not step down even if defeated.

This lack of trust in our political system was not just developed in a day; it grew from perceived irregularities in the entire political machinery from lack of press freedom, APRC usage of state resources, the lack of a solid alternative to Jammeh, a weak and divided opposition, a lack of trust in the Independent Electoral Commission, unlevelled playing field, low civic education, domination of politics by older generation, lack of opportunities for young people within political parties, to the notion of rigging of election results.

However, I am not very convinced that rigging of votes takes place in The Gambia. I observed the last elections and I have seen the way ballot boxes are arranged and votes counted afterwards. Equally, the presence of party representatives makes it less likely for such to happen. Elections in The Gambia are lost and won during the voter registration process. I will discuss this perhaps in my next blog.

Young people are faced with a dilemma of who to vote for. Most of the youth that I interacted with want to see a change of government, bringing in one that protects and respects their basic freedom, one that creates an enabling environment filled with dignified jobs, accessible and affordable tertiary education among many other things.  Above all they want to see a democratic Gambia. However, they are not convinced by all the politicians in place. In fact, none has a tangible plan for all these.  President Jammeh is not good enough but who to replace him with is the predicament.

For the longest, we have focused our attention on President Jammeh and his government, and ignored the opposition. The reason why many young people do not vote is not entirely dependent on Jammeh. See, Jammeh has been in power for about 22 years and all that time, he has the same people to compete against. Ousainou Darboe has been at the helm of United Democratic Party (UDP) for 22 years; likewise, Hamat Bah for National Reconciliation Party (NRP). Although, Halifa Sallah and Sidi Jatta have been “alternating” the leadership of People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) they have been in the game for far too long. Structurally, one can argue that PDOIS differ from all other parties.

However, the point here is that all political leaders have over stayed. Political parties in The Gambia are undemocratic, highly personalized and are properties of the leadership. About 90% of party finances come from party leaders. The one who foots the bill dictates the direction of the party.  Secondly, it seems like opposition parties do not understand what their role in the political process is. They can hardly initiate a program of their own; instead, they heavily depend on the blunders that Jammeh makes to eventually release simple statements of opposition. Some think the whole idea of an opposition is just to oppose anything the government does or says. That is not enough. We deserve more.

I would also like to highlight the failure of the opposition parties to unite and put forward a single candidate. Since 2001, young people both in The Gambia and the diaspora have been calling for such. An attempt was made in 2006, but failed just before nomination. Since then all we see from opposition parties is rhetoric and more of it. If the goal of contesting in election is to remove Jammeh, then a divided opposition will never succeed. I am not saying that any single candidate will remove Jammeh automatically, but I believe it will serve as a motivation factor and make life easier for the undecided youth voters.

All the points mentioned above and many other counts as deterrent factors to youth engagement in partisan politics especially during voting. I have received many questions from young people on why they should get a voters card and even vote. To me these young people do not lack interest. They are just not convinced that their votes will make a difference. I have not formulated a convincing answer yet, but I hope those that are thinking of not voting will reconsider. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “voting is the corner stone for political action.” If one wants a change of government, the only platform provided for you legitimately is election. Make it count.

We have been crying for far too long about the closed political space in The Gambia, the human rights violations, unemployment, illegal migration etc. December 1st  2016 should be decisive moment. It should show our concern as young people, or we can just not vote and allow the system to continue. Here is the catch. In 2006, the number of people that didn’t vote at all was way more than those that voted for Jammeh. Maybe if all the young people had voted, there could have been a change of government. 2006 is gone. 2016 is another opportunity to make changes. Not voting will keep Jammeh in power; voting and not voting for him will remove him.

The choice is yours to make. You may refuse to vote and the system continues, or choose to vote and bring about change. We can blame Jammeh all we want, we can point blame fingers to others for our own predicament. However, our destiny is in our own hands. What we should now know is that change doesn’t come on a silver platter. If we desire it, we must follow the democratic ways by voting, and voting for change. Remember “people get the government they deserve.”

 

Muslim Elders Again…

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The Gambia is slowly drifting from what it used to be – the exemplary state that respects and protects the religious and cultural rights of every citizen.

Apart from the so-called Jihads that were fought in the mid-1800s, I have never heard or seen Gambians fighting over what language one speaks or what religion or method one uses to worship God. Although a majority Muslim country, religion has never played a central part in our politics and I see no reason why it should now. Those that tried to use Islam (Muslim Congress Party) were defeated by the forces of secularism. I M Garba Jahumpa and Sheikh Omar Faye, both Muslims, were defeated in the 1947 Bathurst Council election by Edward Francis Small, a Christian.

One may argue that the reason Jahumpa named his party the Muslim Congress Party was to attract Muslim voters. Our First President Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara was a Christian once in his life. His conversion back to Islam was seen by many as a political move, but I see it more as a personal choice. In fact, he won elections while still a Christian.

The point I am trying to make here is that our elders were never concerned with what religion one follows. Possibly, they saw both Islam and Christianity as foreign. These may explain the numerous interfaith marriages that existed and continue to exist in The Gambia.

The tradition of celebrating every feast together, be it Muslim or Christian, and the bonds of friendship and kinship that have been built between young Muslims and Christians are evident. I do not need to mention this; we all know what I am talking about.

Recently, What’s On Gambia posted on its Facebook page a picture of the Imam Ratib of Banjul and the Bishop of the Catholic Church shaking hands. The picture, to all Gambians, represents a deep inseparable bond that existed for more than a century.  Now, we will watch and see this immeasurable tradition that united our people and country be washed away by a single individual’s greed for power. One who knows nothing about the religion he claims. It is worrying.

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First it was just a simple statement declaring The Gambia an Islamic State, ignoring the stipulations within our sovereign law (the Constitution). He even threatened to change the national flag that existed way before he came to life. Some of us laughed and said this will never happen. Foroyaa came up with all the legalities and the steps needed to effect these changes and concluded that it will never happen and any attempt to implement such a change will be resisted by PDOIS. UDP also made similar observations and comments.

The only reason given by Jammeh, which still seems valid to him, is that such a move will further distance us from our colonial past. The only thing that can separate us from our colonial past is economic growth and youth empowerment, respect for human rights and freedom to worship God in whatever way one chooses.

Treat citizens as what they are: citizens and owners of The Gambia. It is not by removing The Gambia from the Commonwealth; neither is it declaring The Gambia an Islamic State that can distance us from our colonial past. There are certain things in life one cannot change. Ironically, Jammeh still uses the colonial language to make all these declarations. Funny, isn’t it?

Secondly, there is now an Executive Directive forcing all female civil servants to cover their hair at work. During the declaration/pronouncement of The Gambia as an Islamic State, Jammeh clearly stated that he did not appoint anyone to be the police of the Islamic State; that no dress code would be imposed, and that the changes will not affect non-Muslims in The Gambia.

Barely three weeks later, a directive contained in a Memo is being circulated, forcing all female civil servants (non-Muslims included) to cover their hair while at work. What would follow this? All men, to cut their trousers, no more jeans or “changals” for ladies, no boyfriend or girlfriend business, no more parties, no music, no school for girls, no women drivers, no more work for the women (only to stay at home and to be provided for by the men) and every other thing.

In fact add no December party and close the airport for tourism. Forget about the thousands of people employed by the tourism industry. All these might sound funny and utopian, but one thing I have come to realize especially watching ‘The Game of Thrones’ is that no one should take the word of a “Mad King” Lightly.

Presently, we are at a stage where the so-called Muslim elders are rushing to State House to support this illogical move, helping to “legitimise” it. What will follow next? The Council of Chiefs, then Governors, then Alkalos, Yai Compins (maybe not them because they will be at home), Youth Movements, then the security service organize a march pass to support (no music for them because it will be banned already).

With all the wrong things going on in my beloved country, I have never been this frustrated. Not even my arrest, detention and six months of going to court. I always say that all other challenges were just short term challenges that will be overcome in no time. Now, this one sickens me. As a historian, I see all these as a challenge to centuries of deeply entrenched traditions giving way to a new, manipulated system that might break us apart and entrench the small, poor and highly indebted country to abysmal poverty.  I am all for progress and change when necessary, but this is no positive change and it has no place in our progress as a young nation.

The visit by the Muslim elders to State House as reported by Daily Observer has clearly shown that Jammeh and his cabinet have no idea whatsoever of what they are talking about or doing. Interestingly, I was shocked when the Vice President asked the Muslim elders to do more research on what it takes to becoming an Islamic State. Paradoxically, the Supreme Islamic Council Leader said that “the dividing line between an Islamic State and a Non Islamic State is very thin…. If there will be a difference, it will be that an Islamic republic law will strengthen the other existing laws of the country.”

Now, let us assume that Imam Touray is a very learned scholar. Indeed he is. He went to State House to support a declaration and at the same time informed the sycophants that there is no difference in practice between an Islamic State and a Non Islamic State. Perhaps like other delegates, they were fascinated by the possible name change and only that.

Since 1994, the Muslim elders have always legitimized and lent credence to the actions of Jammeh by showing support and pushing them on the wrong side of history. They have ignored all the basic teachings of Islam and sided with Jammeh in every wrong step he takes.

The most recent incident is the 2012 execution of the nine inmates. They have been insulted, threatened and bribed to keep quiet. The reason could be fear or greed. I see more of greed than fear. Those leaders that were brave enough like Baba Leigh and Ba Kawsu were shunned by the same religious scholars before they were arrested and detained. If these very people will be the guardian of the “Islamic State of Gambia”, it is better we sell the country kuneka uti for deka ak lor def.

Generally, I see all this as a wider campaign to entrench Jammeh further into the presidency and serve as a vehicle to becoming a “King” ( See my upcoming blog Jammeh’s Islamic State Declaration: A Pan African Vision or a Step to Monarchism?).

The growing campaign by dissident groups in the diaspora, the continued pressure from the international community, particularly European Union, and major human rights organizations, as well as the recent proactive approach adopted by Gambian opposition parties all threaten Jammeh’s survival directly or indirectly.

Hence, the best possible approach to solidify his position and attract support from Arab donors and Gambian Muslims is by playing the religion card. Will he succeed in transforming the Gambia into an Islamic State or will his move receive the same fate as the Muslim Congress Party? It is a decision to be made by Gambians. I prefer the present condition and will do all I can to resist any change.

Religion is a matter of individual choice. Declaring The Gambia an Islamic State will not develop the country or take Gambians to paradise. A Ticket to paradise depends on the individual and not the State. The sooner Jammeh realizes his role as a mere president and mortal, the better for The Gambia.

A president must be responsible and make responsible statements that will promote unity amidst diversity. Religious leaders must always adhere to the doctrine and not be used by anyone for any purpose, especially on “contradictory issues risky to social order of society.” Young people must continue to educate themselves so as not to be used by any individual for whatever purpose. Undeniably, this whole project is not about Islam; it is about Jammeh. The sooner we realize that as a people, the better for all of us.

 

P.S

I know it has been ages since I posted something on this blog. Since I am not on the ground to engage in civic education as I used to do in the previous elections, I will use this blog to share my thoughts on the upcoming elections. The idea is to engage mostly young Gambians to debate and change the present narrative of our country. I will talk on all the necessities of the upcoming election from finance, youth and women engagement, political parties and election observation. I will also be on Twitter and Facebook. Let us make best use of social media to share our thoughts and help educate each other for country and God.

Thoughts on Gambian Politics

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“Immaturity and eccentricity is worst than inefficiency”

What is wrong with our politicians? The insults and name-calling are just unfortunate. It seems we have lost our moral values to politics. Yes, our politicians are losing it, judging from what has been published in the newspapers and what is yet to be published. Ironically, some just open their mouths,uttering statements with absolutely no substance. Well, shouldn’t we expect them to say sensible things in normal circumstances? It is despicable. We must stop and think. How far and where do we want to take these irrelevant personal attacks?

The unfortunate thing is when our beloved nation is faced with so many issues that need political solutions, which are neglected by our politicians,who choose to resort to the personal attacks diverting attention from the real issues. Personally, I am more concerned about issues that improve the lives of the general citizenry, male, female young or old and not some sort of immorality displays, further delaying our progress as a nation. We have a lot to discuss and work for. We have the growing number of unemployed youth, increase in poverty, violence against women and an increasing crime rate. I can’t leave out the obvious alienation of the young people from the decision making process. It is high time our politicians stop all the gibberish and look at the real issues at hand.

A nation of 1.8million can’t afford to be derailed by a few people with personal issues. The interest of the nation should, at all times, be put forward instead of this so-called “patriotic contest”. We all have a responsibility. As much as we want to develop, we must understand that there will be divergent views from different people in the different sectors. As such, we should be accommodative and look at others not as enemies of progress but people who have different world views that deserve to be respected. I think this is what our culture has taught us. As we claim “patriotism” we must not forget that we are taught to be humble and respect one another. Actually, it seems we are just hovering on wasteland with no branches to hold unto.Due to the immaturity of the politics practiced in this country, it is now very likely and almost acceptable for older people to receive disrespectful and sometimes obscene remarks from opponents young enough to be their grand-kids. It is disheartening. We must remember that what holds us together as a nation is far stronger than our individual differences. Li lu jara baaye hel la.

Waking up from our peaceful slumber, the first thing we see on the papers are people from both sides entrusted with responsibilities, insulting one another just because they have different perspectives on issues of national concern. Insulting someone does not determine how much love you have for the country as compared to the recipient of your unnecessary lashings. We must stop seeing each other as enemies and know that we all are working towards the same goals but using different routes. The ruling party as well as the alternative parties (prefer that to opposition because of the negative connotation associated with the word “opposition”) should respect each other. We must stop being a nuisance and start addressing our problems in an objective manner. It’s high time we started talking about issues that can change and help the country progress.

I know I may not be considered a relevant force in voicing out my concerns on this issue.,but I know that all political parties perform the same roles. The name of the parties might be different but the goals are all the same. The onus is on all parties to perform their roles to the letter. Parties, ruling or otherwise should be loyal to the citizenry. What we have seen lately is unfortunate.
We must move away from politics of personality and direct our energies on the real issues at hand. Politics of personality breeds nothing but hypocrisy and in a nation infested with hypocrisy, development will be farfetched. Dear compatriots, let us thus stop and reflect on what we owe ourselves and the generations yet unborn.

Youth Unemployment: A Cause for Concern

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Source: socialistparty.net

While people under 35 years of age represent more than half of the Gambian population, the needs of young people’s leadership development remain acute. Despite the challenges young people face in The Gambia, we are still presented with opportunities. Therefore, there is an urgent need to address the issue of unemployment both in the short and long term.

Statistically speaking, 69% of the population of The Gambia (1.5 million) live below the poverty line: less than 1 dollar a day (2003 estimates). The youth make up about 67% percent of the population and more than half of the work force. Unemployment rates within the ranks of the youth is estimated at over 40%. Therefore, if the youth make up about 67% of the population, more than half of them are not employed, which is worrisome.

Over the years, we have seen an increase in rural urban migration. In 2003, the estimated population of the Greater Banjul Area was at 55% of the total population of The Gambia, showing a highly urbanized population trend. Most of these people migrating to the urban centers are young men and women searching for better living conditions as opposed to that of their rural communities. Even though the issue of illegal migration has subsided in recent years, the number one driving force is still existent, unfortunately.

The number of unemployed youth in the Gambia is ascending, and as such, authorities should be alerted so as to take cautious action in order to prevent social strife. Our greatest challenge in The Gambia is to make future plans. Most people live by the day.Thus, these attitudes translate to the governance structure: planning basically caters for the present generation without considering the unborn ones. This might be due to the low human resource capacity of the country. However, as a nation growing, we must continuously cater for the unborn generation. After all, the great Olof Njie says ‘Elek dou anj dou rerr, wayi lou meuta seyda la‘. Therefore, there is a great need to train many young Gambians with the requisite knowledge to take on the challenges faced by the country.

Every year, the number of high school leavers remains acute and yet there is no corresponding job market for the thousands turned out by our Secondary Institutions. Most of these young people generally don’t seek employment immediately; instead they choose to further their studies in order to get a well paid job so as to take care of their families, most of whom are relatively poor. However,a great number of them end up dropping out because they can’t afford the expensive tuition fees charged by the tertiary institutions, both government and private. However, one should not be too naïve to ignore the relevance of institutions like The Gambia College, which provides free tertiary education to aspiring teachers, nurses, agricultural extension workers and public health officers. This has, for long, been helping in a way to curb the issue of pursuing higher education. Even though some people go to the college because they have no other option, it still helps in clearing the streets of unengaged young men and women.

Currently, the lack of substantial data is a major challenge as we don’t know the exact number of youth who are unemployed. The ready availability of data is vital for any nation’s progress as this helps policy makers to make informed choices. Hence, there is a need for the Central Bureau of Statistic to do more in gathering relevant information for the socio-economic development of The Gambia.
The government has, over the years, initiated projects to address the issue of unemployment. The creation of NYSS, GamJobs and NEDI is a clear manifestation. Nevertheless, one is tempted to ask how viable these institutions are in catering for the demands of the majority of the population? Most young people go to these institutions mainly because they lack the necessary skills to compete in other lucrative areas. Others enroll, knowing it would be easy to pass time elsewhere and not get noticed. Therefore, they employ their survival instincts to be anywhere. Some young people have also been absorbed in the various security services, which is a good thing. But how much more can they take?

We all know the consequences of not providing young people with the right environment and skills to pursue happiness. For a long time, we have seen the older generation heaping blame on the young people for not taking up the opportunities provided to them, and yet, the same people frustrate the efforts of these young people they criticise. Therefore, if we want to fight crime and improve the lives of young people, we must stop blaming them and start understanding them and their needs. I think that is what we lack in our quest for development in The Gambia. There should be thorough research and consultations with young people so as to tackle the issues at hand.

It is therefore, the responsibility of all stakeholders to assess, analyze and evaluate the problems and eventually, devise solutions to them. The Gambia depends on its human resources and we all smugly resort to the famous proverb, ‘the youth are the future leaders of tomorrow’. It is high time we realize that young people are actually leaders in the making and should, therefore, be equipped with the basic skills, knowledge, expertise and opportunities to enable them take up their responsibilities when the future finally comes.