OPINION: The burden of hope

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The 3rd republic broke through the overcast rule of Jammeh, and released an extravagant rush of sunny feelings, which climaxed in an Independence Day celebrations that will reverberate through the decades. The significance of Independence Day 2017 is perhaps only comparable to that of the original, in 1965. Then as now, we un-burdened ourselves of political impositions which sought to milk the Gambia for all it was worth. Then as now, the sense that we have retrieved ownership of our country buoyed up national spirits, and sent feelings of joy soaring through the rafters. Then as now, expectations, heavy enough to pull down a Hercules, filled the in-tray of the in-coming government.

The French philosopher and novelist, Albert Camus, thought that hope was commandeered by failure. And on his reading, it’d appear that the crushing failure of the 2nd republic called forth this irrepressibly crackling hope we have now invested in the 3rd republic: my neighbour’s watchman reckons that everything is going to be all right, so he will not need to go the ‘back-way’, after all. The other day, in a taxi, I heard two women chatting excitedly, perhaps wishfully, about how the price of a bag of rice will soon come down to D500! And many of us, especially those who lost their loved ones under Jammeh’s regime, cherish the hope that, some day, past injustices will be redressed. But the one that took the biscuit, for me, was hearing of one petty thief suggesting to another that they should go steal a ram, because Yahya Jammeh wasn’t here anymore, and they could conduct their business without any interference from law and order. Genuine hope, wishful thinking, criminality, dreams of revenge, hopes of justice – all these, and God knows what else, have coalesced into a horribly mixed baggage of expectations that no rational agent can deliver. The imagined can always conjure up more than what reality can furnish. And we fill in the gaping deficit with disparagement and cynicism. 

Sometime after President Barrow had returned from Senegal, I sat with a few English friends, over dinner, at a restaurant in Kololi; and at some point in our conversation, I, perhaps buoyed up by the viral optimism sweeping through the nation, took off on a gushy rhapsody about the new Gambia and all the wonderful things the political change will bring. Half way through my ‘rhapsody of fire’, so to speak, amid sentence – the lights went off: a power cut. We all laughed, in the darkness. “Welcome to the new, old Gambia”, said one of them, cynically. The same one who, on the Saturday that Jammeh finally left, said to me, “this is the best set-settal the Gambia’s ever had!”

Later that evening, reflecting on the incident of the power cut, I couldn’t help seeing the whole thing as a kind of trope of the burden of hope. My unbridled optimism had been pulled up short by practical reality. In our current circumstances, it seems that one is immersed in the twin sensations of promise and despair: the promise of what lies ahead and the despair over the fact that it is not here yet. And lurking just behind the curtains is the more devilish anxiety: what kind of change, really, lies in store for us?  Hope, we are told, is a good breakfast but a bad supper. Disappointment stalks it every step of the way; for where there is no hope, there can never be any disappointment. The British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, fortified himself against disappointment by “building a soul upon the foundation of unyielding despair, and by so doing gain some measure of freedom from the burden of hope”.

Speaking at the oath-taking ceremony of the first batch of appointed ministers, the new minister of Foreign Affairs, Ousainou Darboe, acknowledged the enormous tasks before them, but remained beamingly upbeat on the new executive’s ability to deliver the goods. Exactly what goods they’d deliver wasn’t quite spelled out. The talk is of good governance, sound economic management, human rights, and so on; but how these abstractions will translate into public policy decisions remains to be seen.  “Good government is not grounded in abstract ideas but in concrete situations, and concrete situations are hard to grasp”; they have a spurious transparency: the reason why the best laid plans can sometimes yield woeful outcomes. Jammeh left the nation a “Nationalcrash”, and it will take, at least, a few years before we can even dust ourselves off. So the impatient, the politically naïve, the dreamers, wishful thinkers and the like, will form the first wave of the disappointed. And others will follow. The chattering commentariat, especially on social media, will provide the sound track, with their penny-a-liner analysis and wisdom.

The coalition-government is still trying to find its feet, a process that will take some time. There will be many mistakes, many false turns, swings and roundabouts. We can be understanding and yet be vigilant. We can, for instance, make the observation that reconciliation does not mean shoving uncomfortable truths under the rug and pretend that nothing happened. Inviting the grandees of the 2nd republic to our Independence Day celebration was one thing, but to have given them such centrality of seating, and spicing it up with a public introduction of the former Vice President, showed a glaring misjudgment of the mood of the country. The “booing” reaction made the point. Too much water has passed under the 22-year long bridge, and we cannot pretend otherwise. This touchy-feely reconciliation will not reconcile anything. Justice is the first condition of humanity, said Wole Soyinka; and we can extrapolate from his insight that any form of reconciliation we might achieve in this country will surely be based on what is JUST. Political judgement should not only be sound, but also brave, and savvy or worldly. And while we are at it, I wonder if the promise that president Barrow will step down after three years in office will be put on a statutory footing, once the new parliament has been constituted.

 President Jammeh had not grown into the vicious tyrant he became through his unaided strength so much as through our very own un-guardedness. Various national characteristics – “maslah’ (essentially a hybrid between cowardice and moral irresolution), an easy willingness to “bend the knee before the new born Majesty”, our inclination to practise virtue in expectation of an earthly recompense – have created a citizenry who are easy prey to corruption, manipulation, greed,  selfishness, and the allied disgraces. Democracy isn’t something that is usually given from above; rather, it is something often fought for from below. Its ultimate protection, therefore, depends on what is below. So the question is not “how did Yahya Jammeh turn into a dictator?”, but rather, “what kind of people will allow themselves to be ruled by such a man for so long?” We have as much to answer for as he does.

In an athletics relay race, conventional wisdom has it that, you hide your weakest link on the second leg; the very thing that the Gambia seems to have done in our political evolution thus far. Jawara had a brilliant start, never mind his shortcomings; Jammeh snatched the baton from him, promising to deliver us from “rampant corruption”, but ended up delivering us into rampant carnage. We wrestled back the baton from him, and handed it over to President Barrow. But now, how will Barrow run the 3rd leg, will the taste match the appetite, so to speak?

My answer will depend on what I think democracy is and what my expectations are. One of my favourite Churchillisms (quotes by Churchill) is this: “many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Democracy proceeds by persuasion, not coercion. Its gains are slow, mostly mixed and come piecemeal, not wholesale. Some of its outcomes can be as gladdening as they can be frustrating (compare Obama’s election to Trumps’s). And while it has made admirable strides in encouraging political equality, it has not been able to make similar strides in the direction of economic equality. If anything, democracy is process-based, not outcome-based. The theory is that if you get your processes right, then the prosperities will follow. But, as everyone knows, theory and reality have a funny relationship. One can superficially have ‘processes’ in place, but if attitudes and practices are not adapted to serve them, then the prosperities will always elude us. And when that happens we become disappointed with democracy, rather than with ourselves. A bit like the chap who, on reading about the horrible effects of smoking, decided to give up, not smoking but reading!

 I try not to look too far ahead, because I have been warned that “the chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time”. So, first things first: our public institutions have been virtually hollowed out of talent, and deformed beyond recognition. We must return the talent, and restore the institutions to their autonomous ideal. We must defend civil society and speak out against the abuses of power. Authority need not be authoritarian. And one would like to think that our recent experience has purged us of the servility, the opportunism, and that we have asserted “a fresh mode of self-realisation”, undergirded not by greed or the lust for power but simply by our commitment to a way of life. 

Momodou Alieu Sidi M’boge