Sam Sarr, Sidia Jatta & Halifa Sallah

 

By Mohammed Lamin Sillah

Last month, on Sunday 11th May 2014, the People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) formally launched its Agenda 2016 project at the Upper River Region village of Wuli Barrow Kunda. PDOIS claim the meeting was well attended by villagers and people of surrounding villages.

Many suspect that the reporters of the event were themselves close or sympathetic to PDOIS and so might have hiked up the numbers. But I think that the attendance figures could have been right. Imagine living in a highly remote village where events hardly happen and what you will see, smell, hear and feel will most likely be as you did yesterday, last week and even last year. You are bored to death, but in come a small gang of visiting politicians who act strange, think strange and talk strange. That would be thrilling! Wouldn’t it? I would have been among the first to report to such a political rally and believe would joined me sooner or later. Because for the first the element of fear would not have come to play because PDOIS is an opposition party but not considered a threat by the powers that be. They are not UDP, so being in a gathering organized by them is not considered so dangerous.  So I think we should give the reporters benefit of the doubt. And this was the idle season, when all men do is go on chattering endlessly and leave the women with all needed to be done,  the boring monotony of the topics discussed in bantabas, themselves would send everyone running towards the meeting. So the Barrow Kunda meeting could have been well attended, but not perhaps for the reasons that Hon Halifa Sallah and Hon Sidia Jatta hoped for. The two comrades perhaps thought the people came because they are a sovereign people answering to the call of political leaders truly concerned about their sovereignty while the people came to have a glimpse at the latest show of non-conformist political oddity.

May be the “thousands” might have been a little on the high, but the meeting must have been well attended and the people who assembled at the village square listened carefully wondering whether there  might have been some hidden meanings underneath the highly audacious but rather officious pronouncements made by the main speaker, Hon. Halifa Sallah..

According to the former NAM for Sereunda Central, “Agenda 2016 a provisional manifesto.” But did not clarify why it was only a provisional party document. Is the document provisional because it has not yet been adopted by a congress of the party?  If so why take the trouble printing and launching a document that may soon be amended? Why?   I am baffled over if the document is an Agenda or a political manifesto. A political manifesto, as most of know, is a policy document, declaring a party’s ideological principles and outlining its policies and programs. An agenda on the other hand is a set of issues to be tabled for discussion or a set of urgent issues to be acted on. The former suggests a long-term perspective while the other suggests immediate urgency that deals with an extra-ordinary situation to be dealt with.

It is not the first time PDOIS is coming out with a document bearing the word agenda in its title. The one preceding this was AGENDA 2011, conjured up in the less threatening and difficult situation. That year was about five years after the NADD attempt at coalition building collapsed and the humbling defeat they suffered in the hands of Jammeh and APRC party which, many believe, was a form of voter punishment, Voters were tired of the Jammeh dictatorship but were passionately mad with the opposition leaders who could not agree on a single flag-bearer for the then coming presidential polls.  It left many voters feeling that these party leaders cared more about their personal interests than the fate of the country and its people.  But the opposition parties today, in 2014, are in a far worst.  While division among them was then bipolar today it is three-dimensional.  Today the parties are trapped in a quagmire caused by a self- imposed protest action that has put them on the road to prolonged inactivity, reduced visibility and the threat of extinction but that cannot be abandoned without losing face.  Perhaps Agenda 2016 is meant for managing that losing of face hence its unclear purpose, its ambiguity and its failure to address the most salient issues currently facing the Gambian political opposition. There was no attempt to shed light on whether PDOIS will end the current election boycott. No word on its latest bed-fellow, Hamat Bah and his NRP and also no word on its take on the prospects of opposition alliance in the coming 2016 presidential elections. About a year ago the two former allies clashed openly and challenged each other for an open debate. Open debates are a sign of health in the politics of any state but in the Gambia it rarely occurs and when it is done, it evokes hatred, rancor and at best, a fight not for the quality of ideas and policies, but a play to the gallery, over eloquence and knowledge.  One of the opposition politicians came out with the challenge, perhaps not expecting the other to accept it. To his surprise, the other accepted. Then he suggested that the venue be at the Independence Stadium, the country’s largest park. A whiff of megalomania or one of an exaggerated Image of one’s self, I don’t know. I wonder what made him think that the people who would turn out for such a meeting would fill the capacity of even an average size class room. Somehow the debate never came off the ground, now having faded away from popular memory, but the questions haggled over remain as dividing as ever.

Is this not an indication that Hon, Sallah and his comrades in PDOIS do at times have their heads up in the clouds and not feet on the ground. If you are in a thing twenty-four hours for decades, be it sports, religion or politics, you are bound to miss on the gist of other things and you are denied the chance of making reality checks as often as necessary.

In communication we have in our mind a targeted audience before we set off. Otherwise it would not work. The imagined target may be so massive and undefined that we are unable to formulate the message properly with sufficient focus. The more we know this imagined reader or audience the better we are able to formulate the message.

Many believe that the series of Agendas the PDOIS has been issuing are basically the same and serve similar political purposes. Many suspect that Agenda 2011 was designed to per-empt any diagnosis of the NADD debacle, to reemphasize PDOIS’ position that primaries must decide the flag bearer and that PDOIS gets for itself a role in the coalition building bigger than the number of votes it can get on the ballot.

But PDOIS’ stand on primaries for flag-bearer selection is astoundingly naive, if not downright ignorant. Never in the history of alliance-building politics anywhere have primaries been used for the selection of a flag bearer. The idea itself is not sensible. Primaries are inner party affairs not an Inter-party matter. It is people in the same party who hold primaries not all the members of parties in a coalition. The idea is itself silly. In such primaries it should logically follow that everyone will vote for the candidate of his or her party. It is a costly but useless exercise whose results would be known long before it takes place. Also it is a thoroughly impractical thinking, of bringing up to 5 000 delegates together in a single meeting place and having them vote on a presidential candidate. The cost involved in organizing such a gathering would be in the millions; huge loss to the funds needed for the election proper imminent; the police could simply refuse it permit; the NIA given license to go amok; delegates scared away and the exchange of blows likelier than exchange of ideas and opinions. The acrimony that will go with this transaction may force some of the parties withdrawing from the coalition altogether.  Any village chief who allows such a gathering in his village, or the district chief in his district would be sure to expect the fiercest wrath of state repression and charged with being among the organizers. The idea may look and sound democratic, mass-based and bottom-up, but it is certainly ludicrous and not practical.

But with heads perhaps high in the clouds the PDOIS triumvirate perhaps think those practical matters are for those with small minds. It was a similar mindset that led to the registration of NADD and resultant loss of National Assembly seats by the opposition block of parties in 2005. Good in abstract and logical thinking but poor in perceptivity!

Perhaps realizing the poor prospects of any convenient arrangement with Bah for election 2016 and with its difficult ties with the other parties PDOIS is preparing to go it alone under the Agenda 2016 flag, since it is improbable that anyone else would be bearing that flag. So accordingly, like any aspiring candidate, Agenda 2011 is stuffed with a political manifesto.

Agenda 2016 consists of one strategic objective, two goals and two tactics, though laid out in a rather disjointed manner. According to Halifa Sallah secretary-general of PDOIS, “The strategic objective of AGENDA 2016 is to build a Third Republic.” This, according to him, will take us to a new “era of the sovereignty of the people commencing in 2016.” He added that PDOIS is of the view that, “the highest political expression of the right to self-determination and Independence is the founding of a sovereign Republic on the basis of the consent of the people, which legitimizes their equality in citizenship and sovereignty.”

One of the two goals is to ‘put a definitive end to voter apathy by ensuring that upon completion of the exercise each Gambian would recognize that the voter’s card is an attestation of one’s sovereignty and equality in citizenship with all other Gambians, without which one is deprived of the power and voice to say how the country is governed.”

The second goal is “to put a definitive end to sectarian politics which relies on the perpetuation of prejudices or loyalties based on faith, gender, caste and ethno–linguistic origins and ensure that it is engrained in the consciousness of every Gambian that a Sovereign Republic is a community of sovereign citizens who enjoy equal rights and freedoms and are entitled to equal benefit from public services irrespective of place of birth, ethno-linguistic origin, religion, physical features, philosophy, gender and other demographic characteristics, in whom the sovereignty of the country resides, from whom the authority to manage the affairs of the community must be drawn and for whose liberty and prosperity.”

It is doubtful if voter apathy can be put to any definitive end if the opposition cannot put up a credible alternative to the Jammeh mis-leaderhip; If the opposition parties cannot manage to get around a common narrative and program; if the opposition leaders are perceived as self—seeking persons and if the confidence in the electoral system is low and dwindling.

It is even more doubtful if an end can be put to sectarian politics through education or legislation. It is progress, development and prosperity that pull people out of their ethnic shells to embrace the idea of a nation state and it is poverty, want and oppression that can put them back into it. It is political leaders who can help most in rolling back sectarian politics by introducing and replacing it with the politics of issues.

But apart from the strategic objective and two goals there is also a pair of tactics. The first tactic is to work for electoral reform so that the second round of voting is restored and upper age limits barring candidature are eradicated to enable interested parties to test their popularity and leave the electorate to decide the fate of political leaders.

The results of the Mayoral election in Banjul confirms that even if there is no electoral reform change would come if the people are resolved to support one candidate . Hence PDOIS proposes if no reform takes place up to the middle of 2015 opposition parties could meet to decide on how to select one candidate to contest the Presidential elections in 2016. This is an announcement that the PDOIS plans to drop its non-participation protest action in a beating-about-the–bush way. Face saving, isn’t it?

A political Observer’s Description Of Agenda 2016

The document outlines a series of steps for the party to pursue to achieve their electoral objectives in particular and more generally the broader reform agenda they share with some of their colleagues in the opposition. The timing and overall thrust of Agenda 2016 seem to reflect an attempt by PDOIS to  subordinate a previous binding agreement between it and five other political parties in the opposition to pursue meaningful and verifiable reform of the entire electoral process following years of fraud and abuse. The constituent members of the G6 as the informal alliance is called issued a 14 point demand stipulating specific changes and timelines as a condition for further participation in polls. The alliance justifiably refused to per take in both the parliamentary and municipal elections that followed the issuance of their collective demands after the government failed to address their concerns. Most Gambians support the G6 position of insisting on clean, free and fair elections and doing so in a strong and united voice to ensure success. Agenda 2016 regardless of how its proponents might spin it, would in both perception and reality seem to inject uncertainty and lack of focus on the broader reform agenda for which there is broad consensus across the spectrum of Gambian society. The majority of the electorate has clearly and consistently indicated they want their legitimate political leaders in the opposition to work together to help end their long national nightmare. They have implicitly rejected participation in fraudulent elections with more than half of eligible voters skipping poll. All political parties should pursue the only agenda that can restore proper participatory democracy and the 14 point demand of the G6 when pursued robustly an in unity will bring success. Conversely having individual members within G6 embarking on parallel partisan electoral strategies no matter how well intentioned will only rekindle the Gambian people’s fear of a divided opposition once again missing the forest for the tree

Because of the muddled up nature of the presentation it is not clear what the second tactic is. Could it be the actual publication of the manifesto, or the manifesto itself or the phrase ‘Electoral Reform Or Opposition Alliance.” But are these really tactics? My understanding of tactics is the plans and means by which goals are met. Here seems to be some lack of logical connectivity between strategic objective, goals and tactics. Combating sectarian politics is too diffused a goal and not easily measureable and it does not necessarily lead to the sovereign Republic that PDOIS says it is striving for, nor does combating voter apathy. Heads up in the clouds again?

Ends

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