In Search of Unity: The Elusive Quest for Leader Among Diaspora Gambians

by editor | November 9, 2014 10:06 pm

By Professor Abdoulaye Saine

Aspirations among many diaspora-Gambians for a single leader to head a unified organization, is at best daunting, if not a futile charge. This does not mean various groups could not unite on key principles, and issues under a functional umbrella organization with each group enjoying relative autonomy. The assumptions that drive the quest for a single leader, and organization, are: “we are all Gambians,” and, as such, “we are all the same,” and, therefore, “we can, and must unite.”

While Gambians share cultural, religious, and other markers, they are also differentiated along: ethnic, gender, class, religious, regional, party, and individual interests. This is, in part, the result of social and economic changes occurring in Gambia for the last half century, if not longer. Traditional Gambian society, likewise, was highly stratified along caste, gender, ethnicity, and trade. Predictably, these new, and older social divisions, to some degree, have stood in the way of a collective Gambian national consciousness, and unity.

Therefore, the presumption that Gambians are “all the same,” is at odds with our historical, and political realities. Never in the modern political history of Gambia, except perhaps in the dawn of Gambian independence, did the elite partially, and temporarily surrender ethnic, religious, regional, gender, and other concerns to build unity around a greater nationalist interest- independence.

This was the case in other colonies in the continent where nationalist movements rose to wrest power from colonial authorities, who sometimes were weakened, as the French in Algeria, or all too eager to rid themselves of colonial possessions, as in the majority of resource poor, non-white settler colonies, such as Gambia.

Throughout the continent, unity was, for the most part, short-lived after flag-independence, as once united nationalist parties, and their leaders disintegrated into their pre-independence political formations. Thereafter, nationalists vied for control of the post-colonial state, and the “rewards,” or spoils it promised the “winners.”

The result was further ethnic division, patronage, concentration of power in the executive branch of government, corruption, and repression of opposition political parties and leaders. For the most part, Gambia’s ethnic divisions were relatively well-managed by the PPP-government under Jawara. This fledgling democracy, would end, following the 1994 Jammeh-led coup.

Jammeh would then build on once latent ethnic divisions, and sentiments of Mandinka domination, and “right” to rule Gambia, to enshrine, and presumably reclaim, as well as rescue Jolas from decades-long marginalization. He would single out Mandinkas for attack, and traveled the dangerous road to deny Mandinka nationality (I have argued elsewhere that ethnic groups and ethnic consciousness are in general, social constructions). The search for unity, and efforts at forging a Gambian national identity, would be once more shattered.

Even aspiration for a unitary, continental government, despite its promise to better lives of Africans, was frustrated by sub-group conflicts within the newly created Organization for African Unity (OAU) in 1963.

In sum, unity, if, and, when it occurs, or occurred, was only for a short period because competing interests that were shelved briefly, would resurface with a vengeance, especially when economic, and political stakes were high, as in South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and in Gambia.

The brief background is provide to underscore the point that unity among organizations fighting for justice, is the exception, rather than the rule. And, in instances where unity prevailed, it was often fleeting. In the United States, unity remained elusive among civil-rights leaders, resulting in a deeply fractured modern civil-rights movement during the 1960s. South Africa was no exception.

Therefore, diaspora-based political organizations are not immune to challenges of disunity along party, ideology, personal, and other dimensions, even when they agree, and are united against a perceived common enemy. Add to this mix, the lack of a democratic ethos, intolerance, indiscipline, aversion to constructive criticism, sexism, pride, jealousy, and ethnic chauvinism, to name a few. These get in the way of unity, especially, when bolstered by expectations for individual political, and economic gain, following “liberation.” These could prove deadly, as the greater challenge for Gambia lies in the post-Jammeh era, when these divisions could become combustible.

Disunity is not limited to political organizations alone. Among diaspora social, and religious organizations that explicitly eschew partisan politics, there exist deep divisions often between the young, and old, between progressive, and conservative interpretations of the Quran, and hadith, or between religious sects. Visit any major metropolis in Europe, or the United States, and you will readily observe the level of rancor within Gambian diaspora communities. These organizations, for the most part, remain parochial, and sexist.

In Gambia itself, Eid prayers, as well as mosques in many villages, remain divided for decades over disputes, the causes of which are long forgotten- leaving communities, and families divided for generations. Division, therefore, is inherent in all types of organizations, and are rooted in the operational code of Gambians, i.e., our psychological and cultural make-up.

This is not to suggest that Gambians do not cooperate, or work together. In fact, they do. I am also not inferring that this is a uniquely Gambian quality. To the contrary, these tendencies are evident in all cultures, and struggles. Yet societies, and liberation movements that address these cultural challenges, and conflicts, are in general, better placed to realize their goals.

Thus, in large measure, diaspora-Gambian disunity is rooted in our political reality and history, as well as the current political party, and leadership crises in The Gambia, itself. As evidence: even after four presidential elections in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011, political party leaders are not any closer to the highly anticipated political unity. Decisions to unite in preparation for the 2016 presidential election, or whether or not to contest the elections, itself, remain unaddressed. While party leaders came close to unifying their parties in 2006- factionalism, unbridled personal ambition, “tribalism,” sexism, and bickering, among party leaders, dealt NADD a fatal blow. Can we expect anything different?

Not all is lost, however, as unity is a distinct future prospect. Political developments in the diaspora give one hope, and as political awakening continues, so would the prospects for unity- perhaps at a functional level.  Political awareness in the last twenty years, or so, has also improved markedly, as diasporans have graduated from mere online criticism to political organization, lobbying, and fund-raising to support the resistance. No longer content to criticism of the AFPRC/APRC regimes, diaspora Gambians formed political organizations to further democracy at home.

Online Gambian media also emerged to play a catalytic role in the struggle/resistance, and through their efforts, and those of others, Gambians became more informed, and paid more attention to events in the homeland. Diaspora Gambians voiced how they felt through demonstrations- both in support of, and against the regime, and before long a growing cadre of political, gender and other activists, swelled diaspora-dissident ranks. Many individuals who ran afoul of the regime, and escaped, also joined the movement; granted interviews to online radio stations, and newspapers, and in doing so, “spilled the beans,”  on regime atrocities.

The May, 2013 Raleigh Conference, organized by various dissident groups, and hosted by GDAG, remains the glowing achievement of the struggle against tyranny. Following months of deliberation, the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in The Gambia (CORDEG), a name grudgingly accepted by many, was born with high expectations to unify all Gambian organizations- a herculean task, to say the least.

CORDEG, like political organizations before it, is saddled with similar ills, absorbing into its structure the very pathologies of Gambia’s political culture, as well as numerous difficulties enumerated earlier. If unity is to be had, these pathologies must be addressed head on.

Consequently, CORDEG’s success, as a functional organization hinges on overcoming these social and political pathologies- the “right to rule,” mentality that permeates both Gambia, and Gambian organizations. Important to success is also mutual goodwill between groupings, and partial surrender of sovereignty, to make CORDEG, work. Otherwise, disunity, bickering, posturing, as in post-independent Gambian, will continue to undermine unity.

Another important element to CORDEG’s success lies in Gambian hands, especially those in the diaspora. This group of Gambians must actively participate in supporting CORDEG, and other groups with their talent, and expertise. Seeking change from the outside is a difficult, and expensive proposition, and must not be left in the hands of few committed individuals- it is a set-up for failure.

Also, if unity is to occur, it will be gradual, and evolutionary, and not superimposed from the outside. What seems reasonable in the long run, is CORDEG, and other groupings will evolve into a like-minded association, that allows for autonomy. Affiliate groups will consult, and collaborate on core issues agreed upon. And, where there are issues on which there is little agreement, to go it alone.

Also, attempting to create a global Gambian organization without a budget, and run by already busy volunteers with professional jobs, and families, and who expend considerable personal resources, and time to the struggle, is a huge undertaking. And, it will require time for such an organization to take-off. Expecting instant, or overnight success, without the requisite personnel, and financial resources, is to expect miracles. CORDEG needs fundraisers, accountants, grant-writers, PR, and technology experts, among others.

If this analysis is accurate, diaspora-Gambians must donate their time and talents to the resistance/ struggle, and to support various organizations, as well as a summit of leaders to begin talks for functional association.

The important question is, are diaspora-Gambians ready to step up, and partly underwrite expensive trips in the name of CORDEG, and its affiliates? Equally important, are diaspora-Gambians ready to populate CORDEG, and other organizations- contributing their talent, and precious time?

This is where the proverbial “rubber hits the road.” If you do nothing, and stand by the side lines, but remain vocal in your criticism of CORDEG, and other groups, then you do not deserve to be heard.

(Originally posted in The Echo on October 14, 2014)

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