People cheer as ECOWAS Senegalese troops take position near to the state house in the Gambian capital Banjul Sunday Jan. 22, 2017, one day after Gambia's defeated leader Yahya Jammeh went into exile. ECOWAS troops are moving in to prepare for the return of newly installed President Adama Barrow. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Human rights in the New Gambia: Striking the right balance continuity and change

In fifty days’ time, we will celebrate the day Gambians voted out the Jammeh dictatorship – the great victory of that day is a magnificent tribute to the life’s work of our martyred compatriots whose commitment to the cause of human rights truly set them apart.

It is also worth reminding ourselves that just a few months ago Ghana celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of her freedom. This fact is an important part of our national identity now since we have lived all of our adult life as a nation as part and parcel of Ecowas and as committed Africans and pan-Africanists.

With an eye to the first anniversary of The Gambia’s true liberation from tyranny, I wish to share a few observations on human rights in the context of change and continuity. In particular, we must question whether the very notions of “continuity” and “change” do not exist in contradiction to each other.

Before December 1, 2016, the definitions appeared to be rather simple – “they” were the oppressive regime and “we” the human rights activists – the battle was contested on every possible terrain, the pulpits, and the courts and on every available international platform, and we won.

“We” were distinguished by the fact that we held the moral high ground and “they” were just simply bad. Definitions were easy and the entire world quite uncomplicated.

Then we kept the faith and persevered through the political impasse, secured an advantageous outcome, inaugurated the Coalition Government.

Definitions, roles, and tasks have been exceedingly complex since. So, how do we manage continuity and change together? What part of what we are and do is alterable, as against those elements that must remain constant?

We need to examine the challenges of modernisation of the nation-state both as a tool for transformation and as a concept for binding the ties of a people into unbreakable bonds of kinship and allegiance to democratic values and the practical application of the powers of the state, in a manner that sustains and deepens the democratic character of the people.

The questions thrown up by the Coalition presence in government should also feature in this: mastery of work in legislatures as part of instruments of transformation, oversight of government implementation of policies, mass mobilization, and accountability.

In this context, the issue of the Coalition’s role in “delivery” also arises. On the part of progressive mass formations and the motive forces of the December 1 change, challenges that need to be addressed include: how to use the state creatively to pursue sectoral and general interests; networking among agents of change at all levels; lobbying; relations with progressive business people and the attendant problem of corruption that may arise.

If these are the challenges of the present to the Coalition, what then of the challenges of rights, and let me add our obligations? How do these fit in when there is no easy fall back to an “us” and “them”? Should any part of the rights and obligations be altered or modernized?

There is an exceedingly important and humbling challenge that we have to respond to in recognizing that very little of what we do is permanent.

History will demonstrate that the economic growth and the concomitant opportunities it generates are unlikely to be a constant feature.

Similarly, the electorate has been kind to the Coalition and its component members that brought it freedom by electing them at the National Assembly election with a larger majority, it is not a right to which any member of the Coalition can lay perpetual claim, but it has to be earned and re-earned.

Well, what of the rights that we describe as fundamental and entrenched– the expectation that the Rights will rise up and be magically realized is unrealistic. So, which parts can we, in good conscience, modernize? How do we manage continuity and change in the context of rights? And, who determines this?

How do we respond to young people who demand the dignity that accompanies the right to work, when our new leaders lack the vision to generate transformational projects or the economy cannot generate sufficient jobs for the particular skills which they may have, or not have – as the case may be?

What parts of our rights are adaptable? What parts are enforceable? Is there a way of reinstating those rights taken by individuals? To what extent should we rely only on the commissions and the courts? What values afford us a compass by which to steer?

The Coalition 2016 must remain committed to its legacy, a legacy of unity and shared objectives for the common good, this is a lasting legacy to be celebrated, but also an enduring trust to be honored in the present. By definition, a tradition is handed down from the past. But a tradition, if it is a living tradition, is not only handed down from the past but also taken up in the present.

This is a possible response to the challenge of continuity and change.

As mentioned above, before 1 December the definitions were relatively easy and the task at hand not as complex as the present responsibilities.

Now, we have to build a united, caring nation, one in which the values that drove us so fervently over two decades are required to be measurable in evidence.

The challenge is therefore to build a human rights culture, to give life to the formal structures. Culture is complex – it is the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, and material objects acquired by people in the course of generations through striving.

By definition, culture cannot be static. Culture is dependent on values, values that sometimes are even unconscious to those who hold them. But, culture cannot be merely of the State.

Sure, it helps if the state leans in the same direction, then the development of norms and mores does not have to an antagonistic contest between the state and the people.

But we need to remind ourselves that the responsibility to govern merely creates a range of possibilities to intercede in support of a system of values – those contained in our Constitution and committed to the electorate through election manifestos.

There is nothing pre-ordained about the outcomes of a period in government. Thus making laws is an integral part of what governments do, however it is crystal clear that one cannot legislate values, just as one cannot legislate culture.

The culture of human rights goes far beyond the ability to recite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, memorize the UN Charter or be conversant with human rights case law.

It is about communicating the values that underpin the culture, bringing out some of the tenets that may even be unconscious to those who hold them.

It is also about working with others to develop and hone the shared objectives from shared values. None of this can be done without drawing attention to that which deviates from the underpinning values.

In the New Gambia, we must vigilantly look out for and stamp out the tendency in which personal aspirations atomise into an anti-social individualism, with a focus on wealth accumulation and conspicuous consumption.

Needless to say, the attendant problems of corruption, will be a force to contend with. When this happens, it erodes the culture, and in our context, it is the evolving culture of human rights that is perhaps most at risk.

We need to consistently remind ourselves that nothing but bricks and mortar is likely to be permanent. But life is about far more than bricks and mortar. And the success of this early period of democracy will be measured by the durability of the system of values we are able to inculcate.

So, it is to values we must look to rebuild the culture of human rights. There are few sources that address these as poignantly as the writings of that great African intellectual Amilcar Cabral.

It is fitting that we remind ourselves at this historical juncture of our nation’s evolution and draw on Cabral for inspiration and explanation. In his collection entitled Unity and Struggle he articulates his views so clearly. Let me share four of these with you – reality and realism; truth; criticism and conflicts.

On the subject of reality and realism, he writes, “Do not confuse the reality you live in with the ideas in your head.” Essentially he argues that for a struggle to be prosecuted successfully, the leadership must appreciate the everyday existence of the people, and start from this point to advance the struggle with the people, drawing from the reality of their lives. He does not argue that activists be held back, but rather that activists must have “both feet planted firmly on the ground.”

These words speak so directly to the challenge of building a rights culture – all across our country. Human rights are not acquired in the abstract, they are built on the capacity to transform the lived reality.

On the subject of truth, Cabral has been paraphrased into a slogan which I am sure that we can all repeat. Claim no easy victories, tell no lies. In the full text, he writes, “We must put an end to lying, we must not be able to deceive anyone about the difficulties of struggle, about the mistakes we make, the defeats we may suffer, and we cannot believe that victory is easy. Nor can we believe evasions like, “it seems that” or “I thought that”. This is one of the great defects of some comrades.”

Ours is a struggle against forgetting and for a culture of human rights. It is in this context that his words are so incredibly resonant.

In respect of criticism, Cabral advances the watchword, “Develop the spirit of criticism between militants and responsible workers. Give everyone at every level the opportunity to criticise, to give his opinion about the work and the behavior or the action of others.

Accept criticism, wherever it comes from. Always remember that criticism is not to speak ill, nor to engage in intrigues. Criticism is and should be the act of expressing an open candid opinion in front of those concerned.” Who should lead, who should measure the honesty and who is sufficiently confident to blast the intrigues masquerading as criticism?

And on unity, he forthrightly says, “there are no real conflicts between the peoples of Africa. There are only conflicts between their elites.” Just pause and consider these words.

These messages are not new. They speak directly to leaders and activists and to their relationships – with each other, within the organization, with the people, and perhaps most importantly with their values.

These words speak to the contradiction between continuity and change. And they strongly address the humility required to rekindle the culture of human rights.

The New Gambia project should not only be about the transformation of material conditions, even this is not urgently prioritized, but it should also really be about engendering new social values.

Failure to build a New Person, among the people themselves, and in a more diffuse manner, in broader society, will result in a critical mass of the enlightened citizens being swallowed up in the vortex of the arrogance of power and the attendant social distance and corruption, and ultimately, themselves being transformed by the very system they seek to change.

Almami Fanding Taal is a former high court judge. He lectures Law at the University of The Gambia.

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