Alagi Yorro Jallow

Anyone who has grown up in or around the Gambia’s electoral politics knows that when it comes to party politics, there is a dirty word that has more than four letters; that word is “patronage.” Political patronage or the spoils system (indeed, any kind of patronage) employs a system that plays favorites. In party politics, the patron is usually the leader or Secretary General of a political party who has the power to hire his or her family and friends to political appointments and other attractive jobs that pay well. The Gambia since its independence has long been known as a nation where the patronage system has held sway despite the many attempts to destroy it.

Musician Ali Cham, Killa Ace known by his stage name eloquently and brilliantly described “Political Patronage or spoils system victory” meaning in one of his masterpiece songs in Wolof, “KU BOKA C GETA GEE NAN C MEOW MEE” literary and roughly means “ all those with cattle herd deserve milk”. Those without with cattle herd don’t deserve milk.

Once, government jobs were political rewards, with workers kicking back to the political parties to which they owed their jobs. This system of chaos and intimidation in government service has become a reality— exactly the system President Adama Barrow seems to want to return to. He is following his predecessor President Jammeh in the politicization of the civil service, encouraging or inheriting the politics of political patronage. At present, in both the diplomatic service and the civil service, no organization and no system is safe from that chaos; no test of integrity is safe from that partisanship; no test of qualification is safe from that intrigue.

In the Gambia, political patronage (also known as the patronage system) is a practice in which a political party, after winning an election, gives civil service jobs to its supporters, friends and relatives as a reward for working toward victory, and as an incentive to keep working for the party. The opposite is a merit system, where offices are awarded based on some measure of merit, independent of political activity.

Julius Bing, a renowned civil service reformer, has advocated for the professionalization and depoliticization of the civil service, a system that has served nations well for many years all around the world. That reform of the civil service matters today in the New Gambia, as President Barrow plans for disruption to appear, including the wholesale undoing of the civil service itself, like his predecessor destroying the foundation of Africa’s most capable civil servants.

President Barrow must start permanent employment in the civil service and end the politicization of the civil service by firing corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest workers and by using the powers of the presidency to remove and discipline government employees who have violated the public’s trust.

The civil service seems benign at best, boringly so. There are few advocates presently speaking up for it. But if we wait too long to pay attention or speak out, it might be too late. The Gambia depends on a competent, ethical civil service for the stable functioning of our government and economy—the very foundation of our greatness. The Gambia has grown used to official and reliable statistics, forecasts, reports, and investigations to keep us informed, stable, and safe. But this stability and professionalism has been undone by Yahya Jammeh, now the government of Adama Barrow following the same path the with the stroke of a pen on a late Friday afternoon through an executive order to hire and fire civil servants.

The Gambia’s civil service system was based on the Westminster style and, after years of efforts, aimed to cure the ills of patronage and corruption that to that point had defined government employment. It aimed to professionalize and depoliticize government employees, allowing civil servants to serve the people and the country rather than petty politicians or ideologies.

Its unethical but a tradition: presidents and political parties treated government jobs as part of the patronage and spoils system. Political party loyalists were regularly rewarded with jobs, promotions, raises, or even paid leave for work on political campaigns. Political machines depended on the system, for it provided an army of hacks and bosses to run the machine. As administrations came and went, so did most of the federal workforce. This led to constant flux in employment and workers who owed their jobs solely to political connections. Their morale was low and they lived in constant fear and anxiety of losing their jobs. Besides the obvious corruption, this created a massively inefficient workforce incapable of the important work required of the federal government, with few workers qualified for their jobs.

An array of political prostitutes and opportunists engaged in politics for selfish interests and benefits. They had access to the state treasury and control over issuing remunerative licenses and contracts. Most interestingly and surprisingly in the Gambia, participation in party politics does not mean automatic rewards, as most people who enjoy the dividends are latecomers.

Then, it is beyond speculation that the rewards after victory are usually based on political loyalty, commitment, and patronage! It goes without saying that those that made heavy sacrifices are left out.

The author is founder and former managing editor of The Independent, the Gambia’s only private newspaper before it was banned by the government in 2005. He was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, a 2007 Nieman fellow and is the author of Delayed Democracy: How Press Freedom Collapsed in Gambia published in 2013.