A Democratic Fallacy

The Gambia’s elections & capitalism’s grip on economic power in Africa

By Timeyin Oritsesan - 18th January 2017


After 22 years in power, President Jammeh was defeated at the end of 2016 by the now, new president-elect Adama Barrow. Although the British press condescendingly refer to him as ‘the former Argos security guard’ (Anyangwe 2016), Barrow is much more than his struggles as a young man, ultimately rising to become the leader of The Gambia’s largest opposition party in the 2016 elections. Now he is the new president. Thus he has become a symbol of hope for the Gambian people who have long been dissatisfied with Jammeh’s tyrannical rule (Abati 2016).

Many have expressed that Barrow’s win is a testament to the power of democracy (Maclean 2016). This may be true to some extent, however, despite 22 years of so-called “democratic elections”, Gambians were made to tolerate someone  many describe as a “soulless dictator” in the person of Yahya Jammeh (Maclean 2016). Jammeh took power, by way of a coup d’etat in 1994 and ever since, The Gambia has experienced nothing but restricted civil liberties, increased poverty rates and other socio-economic setbacks.

The Gambian economy has been falling further and further into disarray, with an estimated unemployment rate of 40% (Central Statistics Department Of The Gambia 2016). Brain drain is also an economic problem that has been severely affecting The Gambia ever since her independence in 1965. It is estimated that approximately 63% of skilled nationals are being lost to other countries that are offering more lucrative career opportunities (William Easterly and Yaw Nyarko 2008).

Additionally, the Gambian economy has an extremely narrow economic base, being that the country gets most of its income from the export of only a few cash crops, remittances from overseas and tourism (World Bank 2015). Famously known as the ‘Smiling Coast of West Africa’, tourism is actually a major source of national income and the tourist industry has now become the fastest growing sector in the economy (Burrington 2016). However, due to the seasonal nature of the industry, along with the volatility of world commodity prices, economic instability remains rife in the region, as evidenced by the more than 60% of Gambians who are currently living below the poverty line (World Bank 2015).

Consequently, President Barrow has promised to change all this by reviving the economy by focusing on economic diversification and job creation. Although, it is not entirely clear exactly how he will push the economy forward. Putting the state of the economy to one side, and in light of the recent elections, an examination of the effectiveness of multi-party politics and all-round adoption of European political systems is also required.

One thing that is clear is Barrow’s party’s commitment to protecting human rights and democracy, which are two things the former president was not at all concerned with. A quote from the party’s website states: “There can be no sustained and meaningful development in the absence of a genuine democracy.” (United Democratic Party 2016). This is indeed true, but following the brief analysis above of The Gambia’s economic situation over the past 22 years of so-called “democracy”, one might ask, what good is democracy, if The Gambia (and Africa as a whole) is still being crushed under the heavy weight of neo-colonialism?

Although former President Jammeh was far from ideal as a leader, he seemed to understand very well that Africa’s fundamental problem continues to be neo-colonialism. This is something many African leaders, Barrow included (I presume), are yet to understand or take seriously, and is evidenced by Barrow’s promise to reverse Jammeh’s decisions to withdraw The Gambia from the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court (ICC). When asked about the potential exits from the International Criminal Court (ICC) and The Commonwealth, Barrow was quoted to have said: “We are in the ICC and we will take the country back to The Commonwealth” (Manneh 2016). In stating the reason behind such a decision, he commented that Gambia was a small country, and could not afford to be isolated. He is also of the opinion that the ICC advocates “good governance”, thus The Gambia hasn’t got a good reason to leave. From a Pan-Africanist’s perceptive, such talk is not very encouraging, especially when further investigation reveals some of the reasons why Jammeh chose to opt out of these organisations in the first place.

The ICC was set up to try the world’s worst crimes but the tribunal has been accused of unfairly targeting Africa while completely ignoring the many war crimes of western countries (Lena 2016). For example, the ICC failed to indict former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for assisting America in the Iraq war, but sentenced former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison for assisting Sierra Leonean rebel soldiers in the Sierra Leone civil war (Open Society Foundations 2013).  Jammeh, on state television, called the ICC the “International Caucasian Court” for the racism they display towards African leaders (Lena 2016). Such a statement is not so far-fetched when one realises that every single leader that has been punished by the court, since its inception, has been from the continent of Africa (Smith 2016). Jammeh has been one of very few African leaders of the modern world who has been bold enough to explicitly speak up against the reality of existing neo-colonial structures.

Barrow’s apparent indifference towards the imbalance of power between Africa and the rest of the world is unfortunately reflected in the attitudes of many of the political elites of today’s Africa, who are very much willing to remain inside the oppressive western systems for their own personal gain. Moreover, the fact remains that American, European and even Asian diplomacy in Africa is in no way motivated by any genuine desire to want to help or partner with African people, but rather to ensure that global capitalism remains in service to the west.

In eras past, the west would cover up their selfish motives with altruistic rhetoric, making reference to seemingly noble undertakings like development and democracy.  But now, diplomats representing the developed nations of the world speak boldly and very brashly about exploiting Africa’s vast resources and market opportunities.  Michael A. Battle, the US Ambassador to the African Union (AU), supported this when he said with reference to America’s interaction with Africa: ‘If we don’t invest in the African continent now, we will find that China and India have absorbed its resources without us, and we will wake up and wonder, what happened to our golden opportunity of investment?’ (Hickel 2010). Battle couldn’t have been blunt or more offensive if he tried. But what is even sadder here is the AU’s abhorrent support of such an exploitative agenda.

In 1881, during the infamous ‘Scramble for Africa’, European countries colluded to decide on how Africa and her abundant resources will be divided up among themselves. But now, in 2017, we find that this notorious  “scramble for Africa” is happening all over again, but this time China, India and North America have all been given seats at the now expanded table of western imperialism (Hickel 2010). They are now dividing up their ownership of African regions via foreign direct investment (FDI) and the establishment of a military presence. For instance, in 2006, American government officials talked of their commitment to assist the AU in militarising some of the continent’s coastlines. The reason they gave for this was to help curtail maritime piracy. However some suspect it is only to protect US oil interests (Hickel 2010). The USA is especially notorious for using trigger words like “terrorism” to justify their call for the increased militarisation of Africa, when in actuality, the primary goal is to secure and lay claim to African lands and seas.

The only difference between the original scramble and what we see today is that the plunder that is being shared is now done with the full collusion of the African political elite. But what they fail to realise is that African governments cannot create or offer real democracy or civil rights for the people if we are not control of our own land and resources.

A report released by the ‘War on Want’ revealed that state-sponsored British companies are at the forefront of this new ‘Scramble for Africa’. The report states that more than 100 British companies listed on the London Stock Exchange have mining operations in Africa and control resources worth in excess of £1 trillion (Curtis 2016). This shows that British companies, and western powers in general, are just as much in control of Africa’s key mineral resources as they were during the colonial period.

At the start of the African independence epoch, foreign governments may have left but the foreign companies did not, and they are still there, to this day, pumping trillions of dollars out of Africa on a daily basis (War On Want 2016). Such companies include BP (est. 1909), Anglo American (est. 1914) and Royal Dutch Shell (est. 1907) to name a few. Fundamental elements are still owned by former colonial powers and their corporations. Anglo-American, the world’s second largest mining company, is a prime example of this. This British company has been extracting resources from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe since 1914. To this day, the company is one of the world’s largest producers of platinum, diamonds and gold. This particular company has recorded annual revenues as high as $39 billion (USD) most of which is repatriated right back to the UK (War on Want 2016).

Imperatively, the yoke of neo-colonialism needs to be dealt with and this will not happen under the guise of seemingly noble western political models like democracy. What really needs to be addressed are the economic and structural constraints on countries throughout the continent.

And although it is true that to a certain extent,  FDI alleviates ongoing poverty and instability (UNCTAD 2008), it is also true that much of the same FDI in Africa is extremely exploitative, as they are mostly based on unfair deals and labour force exploitation (Wackera 2011, Economy Watch 2010). Thus, a dependence on natural resources and foreign investments is unsustainable in the long term. This is why economic diversification, investment in innovation and infrastructural development is so important. A shared and distinctively African-centered political ideology is also essential.

Africa is in need of a new political approach beyond the token symbolism of “democratic elections”. This is why a strong belief remains among Pan-Africanist thinkers that there is, indeed, an African way to create sustainable development, different to the European path. As a result of this, much research is still being done in hopes of finding alternative political models. In this search, a lot of inspiration can be drawn from the successes of pre-colonial and even ancient African systems. Thankfully, there are some scholars on the continent and in the diaspora who have dedicated their lives to studying the various cultures, economies and systems of governance that were prevalent throughout pre-colonial Africa. These scholars include, Cheikh Anta Diop, Dr Ivan Sertima, and British-born Robin Walker, just to name a few.

Regardless of what new political theory is adopted, one thing that is essential for anything to work is an increased sense of integrity, pride and unity in the hearts of every African, especially those that aspire to be in the political sphere. It is the type of, ‘integrity, pride and unity’ that should make any African politician think twice about mishandling funds, and instead of paying homage to our ancestors by leading us aright and practising good governance. The histories of the great Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and other Pan-Africanist leaders bear witness to the fact that, they will not allow us to disentangle ourselves from neo-colonial enslavement without doing everything possible to destroy  any signs of resistance. Hence, we will only be able to fight back on a unified front.

Encouragingly, everyday, more and more people of African-decent are engaging in re-educating themselves for the sake of African empowerment. Thus, if the level of consciousness among black people continues to rise at it’s current rate, our emancipation may come sooner than we think. As Malcolm X once said: “Instead of changing the mind of the white man, we must change the mind of the black man and make him accept himself. Once, he accepts himself, he’ll solve his own problems” (Malcolm X 1965).

Timeyin Oritsesan

Timeyin is a writer and independent researcher for The Centre of Pan-African Thought. She holds a degree in International Business with a minor in Economics from Florida International University . She also holds a Masters degree in the Political Economy of Development (with special reference to Africa) from SOAS University in London.

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