22nd July: Celebrating Coups and Extolling Democracy – Any Discrepancies?


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Jammeh and former Libyan leader (Gadhafi)

July 22nd is almost a household name in the Gambia. On that fateful day, eighteen years ago, former President, Dawda Kairaba Jawara was deposed in what has been described as a ‘bloodless coup’. Jawara’s overthrow was masterminded by a group of young soldiers led by then Lieutenant Yahya AJJ Jammeh. The putsches identified themselves as the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) and Jammeh, 29 at the time, was the chairman of the AFPRC. The AFPRC then suspended the constitution, sealed the borders and implemented a curfew. While Jammeh’s new government justified the coup by decrying corruption and lack of democracy under the Jawara regime, army personnel had also been dissatisfied with their salaries, living conditions and prospects for promotion. The coup did not receive much resistance from home but attracted international condemnation. Eighteen (18) years on, 22nd July is annually celebrated as a day that dawned a new political era in the tiny West African country. President Jammeh has always likened his overthrow to a revolution; in fact, there are no 22nd July coup celebrations. What the soldier turned civilian president celebrates is the ‘22nd July Revolution’.

But what is a Revolution?

Different people in varied environments define revolutions in diverse ways. Whereas some refer to it as a forcible overthrow of a government or social order for a new system, in the Marxist philosophy, a revolution is attributed to the class struggle that is expected to lead to political change and the triumph of communism. In fact a closer examination of the concept reveals that revolution is a term derived from the Latin term, revolutio, “a turnaround”. Notwithstanding, a revolution is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time. Aristotle, one of Socrates prized students, described two types of political revolutions: Complete change from one constitution to another and a modification of an existing constitution.

 Lawyer Ousainou Darboe, Jammeh’s leading political challenger since 1996 referring to the 22nd July 1994 takeover has retorted that what happened here in 1994 was a naked assault on the constitution and democratically elected government of The Gambia and nothing else. Darboe, who sees himself as the bulwark against public corruption in The Gambia further explained that a revolution emanates from the masses, giving examples of the events leading to the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt.

Whatever your school of thought might or your point of departure, a revolution is rapid change in the institutions of government, normally carried out by non-institutional means and usually with the support of popular groups mobilized for demonstrations, local revolts, guerilla warfare, civil war, mass strikes, among others. History reveals that until the 1960s, revolutions were mainly viewed as major turning points in history, ending traditional systems of government and ushering in modern political organization. However, the proliferation of revolutionary movements and rapid shifts in governments throughout the twentieth century led to a more open and ambiguous view. Revolutions—even “great social revolutions” such as the well-known French Revolution (1789–1799) and the famed Russian Revolution (1917)—are now seen as bringing a mixture of change and continuity. A feature that the ‘22nd July Revolution’ 1994 may not be spared of.

The ‘22nd July Revolution’ 1994 brought an abrupt end to the democratically elected government of Dawda Kairaba Jawara, first President of the Gambia. Jawara led The Gambia to independence in 1965 as Prime Minister and later a as President when the country achieved republican status in 1970. Under Jawara and the People’s Progressive Party, the PPP, the Gambia was considered a model for multi party democracy not just in West Africa but on the whole continent.

Transparency, Accountability and Probity were the magic words that the military regime impressed Gambians with so much so that they received large endorsement and low pressure from home and abroad respectively. Shortly after the seizure of power, the AFPRC quickly promised to “rid the country of rampant corruption, nepotism and abuse of office that was here for thirty years and to bring about a new era of freedom, accountability, transparency, probity and equal justice for all Gambians.” They assured the Gambians that they would never “introduce dictatorship in the country,” adding that they were “soldiers with a difference”. Whether or not Gambians believed the junta one may never know but what became clear was many adopted a policy of wait-and-see. It is now 18 years since then, the looming questions are: How do people feel about the ‘Revolution’ today? How far have the ‘Revolutionaries’ travelled on their promises?

Citizens everywhere look up to their government and its institutions to work on their behalf and provide oversight on matters that significantly impact their quality of life and livelihoods. Governments worldwide can fulfill this role most effectively when their activities are open and transparent to their citizens. This results not only in accountability and probity but also a just and economically sane system. A clear visibility into government actions in all areas of the governance process helps to ensure that people participate in the general political process and hold government officials accountable for their actions. When citizens engage in the issues that affect them, they can help to ensure that power and public funds are used wisely in the interest of many if not all.

The AFPRC junta ruled the Gambia through a two-year transitional period and returned the country to civilian rule. Jammeh retired from the army in 1996 to be the standard bearer of the newly formed Alliance for Patriotic Re-orientation and Construction (APRC) party. Jammeh as many predicted, won the September 1996 presidential polls and assumed the Presidency in the second republic. Since then, President Jammeh has been re-elected for three times and is now on his fourth mandate in the Presidency.

Although to date President Jammeh has parted with most of his colleagues in the July 1994 Revolution but what seems clear is that the soldier-turned-civilian-president is still relentless in his quest for a better Gambia. Whereas most of his critics raise concerns over his human rights records, fault his economic policies and question his democratic styles and good governance philosophies, his supporters point to mass infrastructural development and good will gestures as unmatched in Africa and beyond.

In a recent interview with a local daily, honourable Fabakary Tombong Jatta, Majority Leader has brushed out opposition comments that the Gambia under Jammeh is not democratic. “Even the West called the PPP regime champions of democracy. I get amazed with those comments”, honourable recounts, arguing that the PPP came at a time when awareness was very low among Gambians, not least among the youth.

The National Assembly Member for Serrekunda East went further to explain that what obtained in this country prior to 1994 is worlds apart to what is obtaining now, in the post 1994 era. “Prior to 1994, there was no government high school in The Gambia. The only government high school was Armitage built in 1927 by the British government”. Hon. Jatta who most of the time compared and contrasted the first and second republics said “We are one of the last countries in the world to have a television station not because they (referring to the PPP government) cannot do it but because television enlightens people very fast. And if you are not honest you would not want people to be enlightened. You would be afraid. They could have done that. So it is President Jammeh who opened the first television station in The Gambia.

Jammeh Elucidates ‘Revolution’

In an exclusive GRTS interview on the eve 22nd July 2012, President Jammeh recalled events leading to the takeover in 1994. “I made it very clear to them that I would lead the revolution and I am not taking a back seat”. In the traditional anniversary eve interview, Jammeh explained that it was the Almighty Allah who made it possible that there was no resistance.

“I cannot tell you they [other security units] were on our side. At various stages of our movement from Yundum military camp there was resistance but I think the stiffest resistance was at the Denton Bridge. It took time because I did not want to kill anybody. So we were trying to negotiate with them to lay down their arms and (they) were firing at us.

Autocracy vs. Democracy

There is no doubt that there are some democratic institutions in The Gambia that are credited to the second republic. The establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman and an independent electoral commission are but two examples, even though many question the competence of these very institutions.

However, what is clear is that the Gambia remains a long way from being the functioning democracy that most of her citizens are yearning for. The role model for multiparty democracy it assumed within the continent is but lost. It is also a fact that holding periodic but sullied elections is hostile to democracy and the road to good governance. Thus prompting many to rubbish Gambia’s claims for democratic gains as unrealistic and further asserting that the country is rather gripped in autocracy.

According Professor Abdoulaye Saine, for elections to engender confidence in the political process, those in power must respect the rule of law. “Otherwise, what should be democratic institutions become façades for authoritarianism and elections constitute just another way of consolidating the power of the incumbent president. The rise of such a false-front electoral regime is perhaps the biggest threat to national peace and progress toward democracy.” Professor Saine, an authority on Gambian politics lectures African studies and international political economy at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He has written extensively on the military, human rights, and democratization in the Gambia and Africa.

In conclusion, whereas the real meaning of the events that unfolded on 22nd July 1994 is subject to interpretation, the reality is a lot has changed (for good or for bad) since then. And despite the seeming desire and willingness of the July 22nd event masterminds to better the living standards of all Gambians, what remains true is that Gambians are unfortunately faced with many problems. The fact that infrastructural development does not match the much needed political and economic freedom is one of our greatest setbacks so far. So I ask, when we celebrate coups and extol democracy, is there any discrepancies visible?

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