Understanding The Gambian Political Landscape

Like everywhere else across Africa, Gambians resisted the imposition of alien values and morals on their societies. The institution of colonialism was resisted in all its forms and manifestations; even in such subtleties as refusing to enroll one’s kids in schools. People never willingly surrender their sovereignty to any person or authority without certain considerations; concessions that the colonizers were unwilling to make and so they used brute force, barbarity and political brinkmanship to maintain their rule.

The likes of Musa Molloh, Sait Matty Bah, Maba Jahu Bah, Foday Kaba Dumbuya, Foday Kombo Sillah etc. were all resisting the imposition of what in their view was an immoral culture in the guise of ‘democracy’. A system that was instituted by not only refusing to acknowledge  existing institutions and systems, but proceeded to systematically try to erase them and replace them with what in the view of the oppressed were  immoral laws devoid of any culture.

One thing that is notable amongst these figures of resistance is that they were educated in different schools of thought promoting different value systems from their western counterparts. They saw colonialism for what it was; exploitation. These men were the architects of what became known as the “Soninke-Marabout Wars”. Of course, in typical invader fashion, these men were branded ‘Jihadists’ to poison people’s minds against them and in the process help further the colonial agenda. Sadly today we look at them in our institutions of learning through the lens of the oppressors and carry on the narrative of religious zealots when in fact their fight was to resist attempts to dilute the culture with alien concepts that only serves to promote foreign (minority) domination. 
Beyond The Gambia into other regions of West Africa, the likes of Umar Taal, Uthman Dan Fodio, Samori Toure, Sheikh Ahmad Bamba, etc. were all notable figures in this struggle for self-determination and resistance to colonialism. 

Of all the earliest resistance leaders to colonialism, the overwhelming majority of them were Muslim scholars and clerics influenced by their world view as shaped by Islam and culture. Gaining scholarship from Islamic institutions in a wide range of subjects, they were armed with alternative world views as evidenced by centuries of a dominant Islamic culture from Asia to the Mediterranean. These people will not submit to the exploitative agenda of the colonialists whose roots can be traced to Europe’s Feudal societies without a fight.

The feudal system privileges a few and oppresses the masses, and from experience the colonizers knew it is always resisted. Knowing full well that such resistance will continue, the colonizers adapted and gave privileges to a few individuals and portrayed the illusion of ‘representation’ and ‘inclusion’. The philosophy behind the crafting of the ‘colony’ and the ‘protectorate’ was nothing short of an apartheid system. Those in the colony had certain privileges, they and their privileged positions were used to pacify the majority in the ‘protectorate’ from agitating for change and representation. Privileges like access to ‘education’ through which could be earned a job in the lowest echelons of colonial administration; having representation in the governance system, and being considered a ‘citizen’ of Her Majesty’s realm were all part of the package. Those in the protectorate, fellow citizens of the territory referred to as The Gambia, were labeled as ‘subjects’; unworthy of any of the privileges accorded the ‘citizens’.

Sadly, and unfortunately for all, the ‘political class’ were perfectly at ease with this dispensation. They viewed their fellow country men and women the same way the invaders did; less deserving of the privileges accorded to them. The sole exception to this in the case of the Gambia was Edward Francis Small who was less of a politician and more of a trade unionist who traveled the length and breadth of the country agitating for workers’ rights and campaigning on his platform of ‘no taxation without representation’.

This was our ‘democratic’ culture that we inherited. Those who sat in a classroom; can make their case in a language the invader understood without the need for a translator stood between the system and the masses only advocating for his share and not the masses. That sense of entitlement and loathing for the commoner who was only seen as an agitator, shaped the political mindset of many and still manifests in various forms. The believe that the tendency for conservative and traditionalist leanings of the majority makes them deserving of being lorded over by the ‘educated elite’ who are always ‘progressive’ leaning and by default believe that they can think for the masses and know what’s best for them. After all, the majority are not ‘educated’ enough to make informed choices. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this manifests in how we sideline the masses, talk about them instead of to them and generally view their concerns as backward and not progressive enough.  In this era of the internet and social media, one needs only to follow the discussions centered around our politics and society to see that the yardstick used to determine what is progressive or democratic is always, without exception the democratic standards of the most advanced nations of the world – The West. Who knows what those standards are? – ‘The elite’. Never mind the values of the ‘illiterate’. there is nothing wrong in aspiring to be like the perceived best.

In the midst of that apartheid system of sorts, the protectorate natives resident in the colony for commerce and labor purposes, who still maintained very strong ties with their kin in the hinterland, coalesced and advocated for the inclusion of their part of the country in the decision making process. This did not settle well with the administrators or those who claimed exclusivity in politics up to that point. The weight behind any candidate endorsed by the protectorate was certain victory at any polls; the people’s voice will be heard. This move by the “Protectorate People’ to storm the political scene brought to the political forefront a protectorate native Dawda Kairaba Jawara. Their inevitable success spelled doom for the privileged and so all attempts to maintain the status quo was made to no avail; when the inevitable was evident accusations of tribalism were levied, but the people would not be deterred. Their concerns will finally be heard and their majority voice will be represented by one of their own. 

What Mr. Jawara’s emergence and ascension to political power will prove was that marginalized people (who are always the majority) were not as politically unaware as they are often portrayed to be. For the longest time, the protectorate people are viewed as uncivil, uncultured and uneducated, especially in political matters. Even today, provincial people are taunted for varied reasons but mainly because ‘city’ dwellers view them as not smart (modern) enough. For that reason, the ‘educated’ see their world view as more deserving of controlling the narrative thereby falling into the same trap as the early politicians. Although the protectorate/colony divide has been bridged with expanded access to education, in the new dispensation, the ‘educated’ took on the role of the old colony ‘citizen’ and designated the provincial dweller as the‘illiterate’ fellow citizens who should take on the role of the old‘subjects’. The battle for democratic institution rages on, and as always; the ‘illiterate’ controls the narrative because of their majority status.

When the military emerged on the scene of Gambian politics, to increase their chances of success, they banned all politicians and political activity. When the ban on political activity was lifted, all but two politicians of the old era were allowed to continue operations. In the midst of this disenfranchisement and alienation of those citizens who hoped for a return to democratic representation and welcoming back their silenced leaders; an unlikely candidate rose to the scene. Lawyer Ousainou Darboe, like Sir Dawda before him, became that candidate around whom most of the disenfranchised citizens would rally. The emergence of the UDP and its leadership filled a vacuum for them and they showed their appreciation with their loyalty to the party.

The embrace of Darboe is just a trend, and for the foreseeable future, only those politicians who understand this political culture will earn the trust and loyalty of the majority of the citizens. The rest can cry foul along tribal, regional, or religious lines but the fact remains that the Gambian people are generally appreciative and will remain loyal to those who sympathize with their needs in tangible ways.


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