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Empowerment is more important than inspiration

Apr 20, 2009, 5:50 AM | Article By: Almami Fanding Taal

"And gradually they're beginning to recognize the fact that there's nothing more secure than a democratic, accountable, and participatory form of government. But it's sunk in only theoretically, it has not yet sunk in completely in practical terms."  Wole Soyinka
As a country, we are going through some interesting times; together we are searching for inspiration, seeking guidance and yearning for leadership. Unfortunately, our country has not yet formed the habit of undergoing complex and meaningful examination of its foundations, its values and its institutions. For this reason, we are not in a position to dig deep within ourselves, take careful observations and focus on repairing our nation's soul. During such trying times, it is common for us Africans to invoke and seek the wisdom of our departed ancestors, and for this piece it is a poem by the Mozambican revolutionary, Jorge Rebelo that assists us in such focus, it reads:
Come, brother, and tell me your life

Come, show me the marks of revolt

Which the enemy left on your body

Come, say to me 'Here my hands have been crushed

Because they defended the land which they own'

'Here my body was tortured because it refused to bend to invaders'

'Here my mouth was wounded because it dared to sing

My people's freedom'

Come brother and tell me your life,

Come relate me the dreams of revolt

Which you and your fathers and forefathers dreamed

In silence

Through shadowless nights made for love

Come tell me these dreams become war,

The birth of heroes, Land reconquered,

Mothers who, fearless, send their sons to fight.

Come, tell me all this, my brother.

And later I will forge simple words

Which even the children can understand

Words which will enter every house like the wind

And fall like red hot embers on our people's souls.

In our land, bullets are beginning to flower.
The writings of genuine revolutionaries inspire us and resonate in our collective memories because beyond providing inspiration such writings set benchmarks against which future conduct and actions may be judged. We must understand that the consciousness of the people and their active participation as agents of change in their own lives is the key to democratic transformation, the focus of our passions and energies must remain the fundamental transformation of our society.
The struggle for the humanisation of society and for the full realisation of human rights has always been an important dimension of the broader struggle to make life gentle on this earth. With some variation, this was the cornerstone of the policy statements of every organisation ever convened to mobilise for freedom of humankind. However, if it were merely a struggle for human rights, we could have declared "mission accomplished' in 1997 when we have a 'new constitution' which entrenched fundamental human rights.
But in many important respects, the 1997 Constitution is flawed, as a consequence, it has not brought about citizens engagement and empowerment. For instance it concentrates too much power in the Executive branch, effectively weakening the other branches, the Legislative and Judicial branches. On one hand, there is a qualification, an age threshold and age limit for the office of the President (Secondary Education, 30 and 65 years respectively) but on the other hand there is no term limit for the Presidency, unlike in the constitutions of Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Tanzania. The issue therefore is how do we measure the success of our democratic and constitutional government? Is it the number of 'millionaires' we create or the opportunities we create for the people to lift themselves out of poverty? Is it in the number of government officials who are now chauffeur driven in expensive 4wheel drives? I think the more appropriate measure is to be seen in the profile of poverty that still manifests itself in the Gambia.  The harsh and ugly truth that confronts us is that more than ten years after the coming into force of the Constitution and democratic governance, the everyday lives of the majority of our people remains as uninspired and as filled with despair as before.
Perhaps there is something consistently and fundamentally wrong in our understanding and communication of the message of constitutional government and the rule of law? Perhaps the people have been lulled into a belief that government exist for its own sake and glory and not for solving the problems of the times? What is the meaning of the rule of law in our time? What is the use of democratic government? We should ask these questions because this is a moment when we are searching for guidance from ourselves. Perhaps it affords us the time to reflect, to take stock of the unemployed, to understand why we are witnessing the profound apathy and massive civic disengagement of our people.
We must understand these trying and interesting times knowing that moments of crises can become moments of opportunity.  So let's be clear our quest should be for a democracy that has a palpable presence in the lives of all of our people. Our determination should be to serve our people and, if we do not know our people and we do not know of their lives, then government is probably serving only its officials and not the interests of the  people. It is to try to understand those gaps that exist between the very best endeavours of government - in the laws passed, the finances  allocated, the policies  adopted and the public servants  employed - between all of that and the lived reality of our people's lives that we must discuss the overriding importance of empowerment. The lack of debates in our society speaks of the level of people's consciousness, of their misconception of role of Government, of their limited understanding of empowerment.
Empowerment is about giving the people a stake in our democracy, in energising democracy. It speaks of a necessary shift from a mere focus on representative democracy to the imperative of an energised democracy. What constitutes an energised democracy? It surely cannot be the mere occupation of the institutions of democracy (and they are ours in all the arms of government - the legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive) and the ability to pass laws. We are after all past masters at writing statute - we have passed countless pieces of legislation since 1994.
Roberto Unger, a Brazilian legal philosopher and a Minister in President Lula's government discusses the concept of a high-energy democracy. He calls for 'a set of institutional arrangements that ensure a continuing high level of organized popular engagement in politics'. He goes on to say, 'a cold, demobilised politics cannot serve as a means to reorganise society. A hot, mobilised politics is compatible with democracy only when institutions channel its energies. It is a goal that can be achieved as the cumulative and combined effect of many devices.' Unger explains what it means to establish a high energy democracy: "one that permanently raises the level of organized popular participation in politics, engages the electorate as well as the parties in the rapid and decisive resolution of differences and equips government to rescue people from entrenched and localised situations of disadvantage from which they are unable to exit by the normal forms of political and economic initiative."
'People should be equipped and empowered in such a way that the manner in which they receive their educational and economic equipment leave the greatest range of social and economic life open to experimental reshaping. The practical means of basic human rights rests on an apparent paradox. We make people's basic rights and capabilities secure against the swings of the market and the reversals of politics. We do so, however, in the hope that thus equipped, people may thrive all the more in the midst of innovation and change. We do so, however, in the hope of making the scope for valuable change broader'
In drawing inspiration from Unger, there are two elements of an energised democracy that are clear and relevant to our realities.  The first is the role of people and communities in energising democracy. The second relates to a social compact, defining a common understanding of each of the rights and responsibilities of the various social formations in energising our democracy, in deepening the gains of constitutional government and in improving the lives of all of our people. 
We should be wary of the notion of a passive mass of poor people waiting for a government or a leader to deliver unto then what they seek. This notion is based on a perspective of development as something that government hands out to people as though it were some type of product or commodity. Instead, development we should seek has to begin with a consciousness amongst the people, that they have power. They have the power to elect their own representatives, to hold them accountable, to build institutions of democracy, to talk to each other to resolve differences, to demand functioning public services. People must have the consciousness to understand what development means, to understand what empowerment means, for these are not goodies handed out from mountaintops or official functions.  Empowerment  aims to inculcate values of self-reliance and self-development in addition to self-esteem, self-respect and self-confidence.
This is not suggesting that government must abdicate its responsibilities. Government has roles and responsibilities that it must play and play more effectively. What I am calling for is for more peoples' power, for a deeper understanding of development and for a richer discourse on empowerment.
Let us accept that distorted notions of democracy abound. There are people amongst us; including in government, who want to nurture the notion that empowerment is something that can be dispensed; or worse, that empowerment is exclusively about conferring some right on marginalized groups. Frequently this arises for self-serving reasons of power over the lives of others. Government cannot deliver development single-handedly, it can and must partner with active and conscious communities to effect real transformation. Yes, government delivers infrastructure  or health care or schooling, but these things only contribute towards development if there is a deeper consciousness about what development is. A patronage-serving culture of delivery and empowerment constitute significant threats to our value system and our notion of constitutionalism.
The second point that is relevant to empowerment is the construction of a social compact for development. A social compact is not a new concept, yet we in the Gambia have failed to grasp its meaning. At the heart of a social compact is the sense that citizenship is stewardship. A social compact requires society to set out the roles, rights and responsibilities of each element of society - government, business, labour and even the media have a role to play in this regard. I stress, a social compact is about rights AND responsibilities. However, in defining these roles and responsibilities, the primary question must be about the values that a society eschews. These values must have at their core, the principles of people-centred development, of freedom, of conscientisation, of mobilisation and of high-energy democracy. Government has a clear role to play in redistributing opportunities to the most vulnerable. Government has the right to expect from its citizens, both corporate and private that they pay their taxes, that they abide by the laws of the country in letter and spirit, and that all contribute towards development, in the spirit of our Constitution.
Similarly, government has a responsibility to ensure that the quality of public services improves, that we take clear measures to protect citizens, that we spend the public's money wisely, that we clamp down on corruption and patronage, that we employ the best people for the job and that we involve local communities in the improvement of their lives. Government has the right to intervene to try to correct market failures as efficiently as possible. Government  have the responsibility to listen to citizens, to create the legal environment for citizens to contribute towards better schooling, better policing and better health care. Business has the right to invest where they see an opportunity and they have the right to make profits. They have the right to be treated fairly, to be given opportunities free of the obligations of patronage. They have the right for their property rights to be protected. They also have responsibilities; to train their staff, to expand the pool of skilled people and to ensure adequate opportunities for men and women.
We the people need elites that plough back, not elites that plunder. We need a business community that balances their freedom to make profits with an understanding of the distorting history of poverty in our country. We the people need a private sector that is prepared to be a partner in development; yes looking for opportunities to make money, but recognising the bigger picture that a stable society is better for growth than a society wracked by social strife.
In conclusion, let me say that Democracy is something to fight for, constantly. Development is not something handed out at official functions. It is a conscious process of building capabilities, giving communities power to change their lives, empowering young women and men to make a contribution to our beautiful country. 
The thread that runs through the references from Unger is the concept of consciousness, the deep understanding of the self-worth of people and the power of communities. The people must be given the power to change their lives. For an energised democracy is only possible if we think about empowerment differently. An energised democracy is only possible if we have it within ourselves to construct a social compact that puts our long-term interests above short-term gain. An energised democracy is one where each element, business, government and communities balance their rights with their responsibilities.
This is our moment and could define our collective future. Let us utilise it for a national catharsis and renewal. Let us work together as advised by Unger who writes, "Social solidarity must rest (instead) on the sole secure basis it can have: direct responsibility of people for one another. Such responsibility can be realized through the principle that every able-bodied adult holds a position within a caring economy - the part of the economy in which people care for one another - as well as within the production system."
Almami Fanding Taal is Legal Practitioner with a special interest in Human Rights, Media Laws, and Good Governance & Institutional Development