Madi Jobarteh

(JollofNews)– Since my comments on the Fatou Bargie case, I have seen all sorts of comments emphasizing the issue of cultural norms and values as it relates to elders. Many condemned Fatou for being impolite and some went even further to say she should be disciplined or rot in prison. I see lot of conservatism, partisan and tribal undertones in those expressions. I see more emotional outbursts than deeper critical analysis to understand the nature of issues. Let me elaborate.

I agree that in any society, individuals must not insult each other for any reason. I consider insults as an act of verbal violence and one of my fundamental principles is non-violence. Hence I condemn anyone seeking to insult any other person. Certainly we have culture and religions in which the use of profanity in any way is discouraged. Our religions teach us to use language that is peaceful, reconciliatory, decent and productive.

However, let us understand democracy so that we do not mix issues that will only pull us back and keep us stagnant in one place. Some made reference to the West and therefore argued that if we were not trying to confuse democracy with the West, or rather impose Western culture on the Gambia.

Let me say that Democracy itself is an aspect of culture. The democracy we see in the UK or Sweden or the US is not their traditional culture. Every society has culture and I know Europeans had a more oppressive and exploitative culture than Africa if you go back hundreds of years. It was because of that oppressive and exploitative culture in Europe that gave rise to ideas of freedom and democracy until they were able to build a society that they have today. All of us today indeed admire the quality of democracy in the West and we have seen how that democracy became the basis for a free and developed society. Many Africans run away to the West because we face oppression or poverty in our home countries.

Hence when we get to this stage, we must realize that our objective is to build democracy. What the Europeans have taught us is that democracy is an act and a process of civilizing one’s culture in which the ideas and pillars of freedom, equality, and justice become the foundations of society and governance. One needs to read European history to understand how these people went through uncountable bloody revolutions and fratricidal wars just to overthrow that oppressive feudalistic culture centred around leaders, elders and deep-seated socio-cultural beliefs which were shattered in order to bring about an equal and just society.

This is the situation the Gambia is at today. We should have done this since the first day of independence but we failed. Since then, we continued to govern ourselves with notions of feudalism and religion even though our statecraft and governance system is supposed to be based on modern ideas. A president is an elder, but a president is not an elder as an elder in our village or in our kabilo. Thus to equate the president in terms of that traditional notion of elder can only make us stagnant hence give rise to dictatorship and entrench poverty and powerlessness. Thus while we need to discourage any abusive language against anyone, yet in matters of democracy and good governance, citizens can use language that could be uncouth to describe their perception about the State and State officials. And we must see such language only in that context, and not to invoke so-called cultural and religions notions because we are not on that plane.

If we continue to invoke our socio-cultural and religious notions about national governance, then it means we are still keeping the Gambia stagnant between the PPP and APRC eras and this is no progress. Citizens must have the freedom to say that the president or the minister lied. We do not have to generate special feelings in our hearts because of that and then attempt to cut off the head of that person for saying that. If we do, we will get to a stage when it will be criminal for even saying the president made a mistake.

Our experience since the 1st Republic, but more so in the 2nd Republic should give us enough lessons and insights into how to build a modern democratic society based on justice, equality and participation. I do not know what abusive words Fatou Badgie said but I would not say those words, and I would advise her and anyone to refrain from the use of abusive language in any setting and directed at anyone. But then to want to go for the head of the lady for her words potentially causes more damage to the entire society than to Fatou Badgie as a single person in the long run.

Let us bear in mind that even in Europe and America on this day, the use of profanities is highly detested and discouraged. When Congressman Joe Wilson insulted Obama, his party and many friends rebuked him and there was pressure for him to apologize. But it would have been a threat to American democracy if they charged the man for insulting Obama. This is not to defend Joe Wilson, but such action would have far reaching implications on the ability of citizens to express their disagreement with their government hence undermine American democracy eventually.

As Mandela noted, the foundation of democracy is free speech. It is only through free speech we can ensure transparency and accountability. It is only through free speech we can ensure fair trial and justice. It is only through free speech we can expose corruption and abuse of power. It is only through free speech we can ensure that public institutions are efficient, responsive and performing. Thus any attempt to suppress free speech, even if that speech is uncivilized poses a danger to the entire society sooner or later. In fact we voted out Yaya Jammeh through free speech on social media!

We want democracy like any other society because democracy is the best path to ensure freedom and development. Even China has noticed that and is gradually moving towards democracy. It is because of the lack of democracy that the Soviet Union collapsed. The foundation of democracy and all human rights is free speech. It is democracy that can civilize and humanize our culture, which has so many oppressive and exploitative ideas, practices and institutions. Thus let us not use culture to limit democracy rather let us use democracy to renew, civilize and strengthen our culture. Certainly in that process, all will not be cozy and sweet.

God Bless The Gambia.

By Madi Jobarteh