COMMENTARY:TANGO Conversations about ‘The Gambia We Want’

Friday, March 02, 2018

Building Efficient, Transparent and Accountable Governance System through Citizen Empowerment and Participation and Harnessing Social Capital for National Development

I am very much delighted to be here today to give a statement on this all important topic namely, Building Efficient, Transparent and Accountable Governance System through Citizen Empowerment and Participation and Harnessing Social Capital for National Development. I must confess that the topic is quite demanding, but I promise to do my best to share with you the little I know on it. Therefore, for the sensitivity of this theme and all that it entails, I crave your indulgence as I break the theme down into manageable bits. I will begin with a brief discussion of the prevailing atmosphere. Next, I will dilate on what I have ventured to label as ‘Harnessing Social Capital for National Development’ and then relate this concept to “Building Efficient, Transparent and Accountable Governance System through Citizen Empowerment and Participation”.

I should hasten to mention that the main focus of my deliberation is on The Gambia. However, I shall, when necessary, factor in parallel situations in Africa, south of the Sahara.

As living witnesses, we have seen an Africa, The Gambia not being an exception, where the poverty of public provisioning, absence of good (enough) governance, and the sluggish pace in the institutionalization of democracy have become a normal abnormality before public eye. It is probably relevant to note that during the 22 years of dictatorship in this country, majority of the country’s intellectual community either fled from persecution or seemingly demonstrated no commitment to grasp the basic concepts of the theory of democracy, or more crucially, the concept of democratic governance. Thus, it is important to observe that our country is still struggling to redress the moral turpitude left behind by the 22 long years of dictatorship.

My deliberation today shall be a response to this deficit. I argue that a society where governance and public institutions are glued together with social capital, that society is likely to develop in an organic way.

As members of society who have seen yesterday, and living today, we are in a privileged position to make prescriptions and proscriptions for a better tomorrow. Therefore, I strongly believe that this august assembly of ladies and gentlemen of integrity and wisdom would bear me witness that this is what is needed to move The Gambia forward.

We must first of all begin with a review of the concept of social capital in the context of public governance. Social capital refers to the internal social and cultural coherence of society, the norms and values that govern interactions among people and the institutions in which they are embedded. Social capital is the glue that holds societies together and without which there can be no economic growth or human well-being. Without social capital, society at large will collapse. For the purpose of this discussion, we might analyze the theme under civic engagement, political equality, solidarity, trust, tolerance, and associations as social structures of cooperation.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, politics has been largely organized hierarchically and is often more narrowly shaped by personal advantage as well as tribal inclinations. Thus, it appears safe to argue that the culture of personal rule and bureaucratic despotism is yet to be fully discarded in favour of generative politics. It is this generative politics which has made the West, since the Second World War, practise public governance as a form of collective deliberation on shared concerns or issues at stake in society.

This concept of civic engagement is broadened to include individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern. Given this definition, it is apparent that not all public affairs stakeholders are, in a manner of speaking, civically engaged. A parent joining a school governing board, a citizen actively participating in the mayor’s public budget speech, voting in local and national elections, and so on, would be good examples of civic engagement in this regard. Equally important to the concept of civic engagement is the feeling of belonging to and ownership of the political, social and economic communities.

The Gambia, like many other Sub-Saharan African countries, appears to need a lot more of systematic civic education exercises than are currently available largely through the efforts of NGOs and religious organizations. It is worthy to note that the core mission of civic education is to develop competent citizens who have the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to participate responsibly and effectively in the political and civic life of a democracy. Such citizens often participate in their communities through membership in voluntary civil associations like the one we are witnessing today.

We are all living witnesses to the fact that there is no evidence that the growing body of educated Gambians is being trained especially in the virtues of collaboration beyond the basic bonds of ethnic communities. Even today, there are speculations that some major political parties in Sub-Saharan Africa are organized around tribal lines and are more reflective of regional groupings rather than ideological stands.

So, what should be done to curb this malaise? It becomes paramount for society to be structured in such a way as to create closure in the social network. This will ensure that all actors are connected in a way that facilitates the imposition of obligations as well as sanctions on all members. It is evident that this becomes practically impossible when communities are divided on ethnic, regional and religious lines.

Although many will claim that political equality is not an issue in The Gambia, it is important at this point that we conceptualize political equality beyond the more commonly accepted liberal notion of frequent and regular elections held under universal suffrage. Whereas the legal provisions enabling this kind of political participation is important, it is argued here that more is needed to encourage genuine political engagement amongst the citizenry that would supersede the undercurrents of ethnicity and other social norms that might threaten the workings of a full-blown universally accepted-type of democracy. For example, violent conduct during elections often serves to disenfranchise the vulnerable such as women and thus denies them political equality in practice.

Overall, Sub-Saharan Africa has had stable and reliable support for the executive. But, on other measures of political effectiveness such as voter turnout, political rioting, and political deaths, the performance has largely been found wanting. In the new era of multiparty politics, Sub-Saharan African political entrepreneurs have mostly failed to organize citizens beyond tribal lines into coherent political parties with succinctly articulated ideologies. In fact, in many instances, the politicians have intentionally retreated to their ethnic cocoons to garner support and supplement political organizations.

Many scholars today, hold the view that other than the political party organization structure, there is no substantial difference in the manifestos of the variety of major political parties; and that, it is easy to see that religious affiliations and tribal backgrounds of the political party top bras have political ramifications in sub-Saharan African political parties.

Colletta and Cullen (2000) argue further that even when these ethno-political parties give back their differences to remove a common enemy, they soon fall apart as a result of internal conflicts, making the mobilization of national unity very difficult if not impossible to attain. In the course of these conflicts, norms and values essential for collective action are destroyed, thereby making post-conflict reconciliation increasingly difficult.

By all indications, the social capital debate places civic society on a high pedestal. The main function of social capital in this case will be to facilitate the exchange of information via social networks to lower individual transaction costs and hence produce an aggregate surplus value at societal level.

Thus, the relationship between community solidarity and transaction costs becomes quite evident. Communities that are close-knit due to the abundance of social capital would tend to develop low transaction costs as most expenses that would be incurred as exchange costs are mediated by the existence of reciprocal trusts. On the contrary if the elite were corrupt, the ordinary people resorted to contraband trade and other informal trading activities that evaded the ravenous appetite of the appropriative state.

As argued earlier, tribalism is another major bane to the effective accumulation of social capital. It is deleterious (harmful) to national well-being since tribal movements thrive on ethnic group conformism and loyalties that pulverize horizontal loyalties crucial to young nations. Moreover, where tribal loyalties entail implicit attachments to traditional values and institutions, these may at times be irreconcilable with the requirements of modern social progress.

Civil associations contribute to the effectiveness and stability of governments in many ways. It is necessary for the efficient functioning of democracy to have institutions that serve to: reanimate its beliefs, purify its mores, regulate its movements, and modify them according to circumstances.

It becomes unfortunate that at the height of single party dictatorship in certain Sub-Saharan African countries, many intellectuals were forced to seek refuge abroad either to escape imprisonment or for dear life. Those who could not be convinced to join the ruling elite often sought and found refuge abroad. This has led to the brain drain that has culminated in the emergence of a civil society bereft of effective organizational capacity.

To be continued

Prof Pierre Gomez
Associate Professor of Comparative Literature
Dean, School of Arts and Sciences
The University of The Gambia