Ku boka c geta gee nan c meow mee 

Famous Gambian Musician Ali Cham, known by his stage name Killa Ace, 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 belonging to the dairy herd or cattle herd deserve to drink milk.” Those not with the cattle herd do not deserve milk.

However, most government appointments, jobs, and contracts become political rewards, with workers kicking back to the political parties they owed their jobs all through the ecosystem of patronage. 

Unfortunately, this system of chaos and assault on the civil service and in the foreign service has become a reality— precisely, a conventional system that President Adama Barrow may not allow political patronage to return in his new administration, which leads to subpar hiring. 

Instead, he must prioritise reversing his predecessor, President Yahya Jammeh’s policy of politicising the civil service and the foreign service, discouraging the policy of politicisation of key appointments, discontinuing the system of political patronage, and encouraging trust and loyalty in a meritocracy. 

At present, in both the diplomatic and civil service and government-owned institutions, no organisation and system are safe from that chaos; no integrity test is safe from partisanship; no questioning of qualification is safe from that intrigue.

Introspection I have nothing against the Presidential Transition Team in the aftermath of the historic election of President Adama Barrow in 2017, taking action to restore and strengthen the Gambia’s new democracy choosing a team of cabinet members and senior advisers who bring government experience and expertise in their field to confront immense challenges in guiding the Gambia past Yahya Jammeh era and restore faith in government particularly the civil service, security service, and the foreign service appointments.

I think those around President Barrow did not perform an excellent job of facilitating the smooth take-off of the change space-craft. Instead of looking for ways of bringing competent men and women to work with President Adama Barrow, his closest advisers have allowed the political godfathers to regroup and hijack the People’s mandate. 

The civil service mess and the assault on the foreign service are two examples to illustrate my point. How can we talk about change when the status quo comes back? 

Equally troubling was the mad scramble for positions, including thoroughly incompetent, possibly corrupt individuals! In any case, filling the top places in the “traditional” way is hardly consistent with the principle of change. Suppose I have a say in the matter. In that case, the president should throw all the essential top civil service positions open and (as is now done in other countries) require those interested in competing, that is, to compete, not in party elders’ private dwellings, but open to the general public. 

The president’s advisers should have designed a form to screen even ministerial candidates, national security nominees, key diplomatic nominees, and other political appointees; however, unless the president resorts to open competition, he would face difficulty clipping the godfathers’ wings. Implementing his plan would also be next to impossible if he is held hostage to powerful vested interests. 

It has become customary for Gambians in the Diaspora who leave their locations to take government jobs at home to emotionally blackmail the nation into seeing them as irreproachable demigods whose “sacrifice” in leaving their diasporic comfort zones should inoculate them against scrutiny. 

Here are five reasons why this is boneheaded. First, no Gambian who benefited from the free or highly subsidised education in the country can ever fully pay back the debt they owe to the Gambia. Thanks to the Gambia government funding some undergraduates Gambians in the Gambia and abroad, which they could not afford if it were not subsidised. 

Most of us are debt-free and doing financially well in our diasporic location. My American colleagues are not that lucky. Most of them are still paying their student loans.

Former US President Barack Obama finished paying his student loan debts just a few months before becoming president. Had he not made a fortune from his well-received autobiography, he would have been paying his student loans well into his presidency.

So going back to work in the Gambia after staying in the Diaspora is, properly speaking, “giving back”; it is not a sacrifice. Sacrifice entails an undeserved loss resulting from giving up something more valuable. 

Since most diasporans will not even have the opportunity of their exiled comfort zones if they do not benefit from the Gambia’s free or subsidised education, they are not “sacrificing” by going back to the country that nurtured them when they were helpless.

After a sojourn in the Diaspora, returning to the Gambia often comes with the sorts of perks that people do not usually get in their erstwhile diasporic locations. For example, being head of a government agency, a minister, a special adviser, etc., comes with humongous allowances, an entourage of aides, access to the power structure, etc.

Returnee diasporans who want you to give them credit for taking a pay cut to accept a government job in the Gambia are intentionally deceitful. Some earn more than twice what the Gambian President officially makes. However, everyone knows the President does not need his salary.

There is little that people in the Diaspora bring back to the Gambia that does not already exist in superfluity in the Gambia. So there are literally thousands of people who can be, and even better than, whatever any diasporan Gambian does. 

However, still, they are passed over because they do not have access to people who make appointments— and because they do not have the social and symbolic capital that living abroad confers. So it is a privilege, not a sacrifice, to serve.

Self-preservation is the first law of nature. Therefore, most people will not leave their diasporic locations if it exerts a strain on them and their families.

Should any Diasporic Gambian decide at some point to relocate to the Gambia, it will not be a “sacrifice.” At worst, it would be “giving back” and, at best, a privilege. 

There are thousands of people with an impressive skillsets in the Gambia. A diasporan who worked as a contract staff in a country where he was neither a citizen nor a legal permanent resident is enjoying an upgrade if he gets a visible, consequential position in government. 

Instead of arrogantly saying they are “sacrificing” for the country, they should be grateful for the opportunity to do a job that thousands of Gambians at home are capable of doing. 

It is gratifying to note that  Gambians have finally acknowledged that the patronage system needs urgent review and, hopefully, radical overhaul. It is crystal clear that Gambians in 2017, some Gambians were aware of the chorus of protests that greeted appointments of incompetent folks in the civil and foreign service. 

The inherited patronage system has been with us for as long as one can remember. Under the system, consideration for public office hinges mainly on one’s connections, not on competence or track record. 

The patronage system does not ask what you can do for your country but whom you can rely upon to bat for you when vacancies are about to be filled. I gave this name the “technical know-who” instead of “technical know-how”. 

The “technical know-who” is problematic for several reasons. First, it mainly places square pegs in round holes. 

Second, and springing from the first challenge, “technical know-who” places a high premium on the reward of personal loyalty over the attainment of nationally preferred outcomes. 

Third, the mediocrity that thrives under the spoils system marginalises excellence and compromises ongoing anti-corruption efforts. It also generates controversy.

The controversy trailing the civil service and foreign service appointments is a case in point. However, unless the President treads carefully, whatever corrective measures he orders will generate further (probably, more serious) controversy. 

Here is the reason. Suppose President Barrow focuses simply on balancing the claims of representation in his grand coalition partners with those of their under-represented counterparts in the political trenches and uses the patronage system to reward. 

In that case, he is likely to miss the target to ensure that every Gambian has a sense of belonging. The patronage system currently in place is, after all, badly rigged. 

It is provided in favour of powerful backers and against most Gambians. Moreover, it is a system that allows politicians (over-or under-represented) to recycle favored indigenes of a particular part of the country or ethnic group from post to post. 

In contrast, candidates from other parts of the country constantly get passed over. How such a system can skirt controversy is anybody’s guess.

The President also plans to do something about Gambia’s corrupt culture. The first place to start is how public officials are recruited and selected. No government can successfully combat corruption if its employees are corruptly appointed. 

Look at the police, immigration, the Gambia Revenue Authority, the Gambia, Ports Authority, and the situation becomes clear. Whoever has direct access to the President should advise him correctly. 

However, unfortunately, our problem has gone beyond one that can be sugar-coated. Actual change will start when we speak truth to power. 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 professionalise and depoliticise government employees, allowing civil servants to serve the people and the country rather than petty politicians or ideologies.

It is 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 the 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 apparent corruption, this created a massively inefficient workforce incapable of the critical work required of the federal government, with few workers qualified for their jobs.

Many 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. 

Interestingly and surprisingly, participation in party politics does not mean automatic rewards in the Gambia, as most people who enjoy the dividends are latecomers. 

Nevertheless, it is beyond speculation that the rewards after victory are usually based on political loyalty, commitment, and patronage! However, of course, those that made heavy sacrifices are left out.

Reporting by Alagi Yorro Jallow

Alagi Yorro Jallow

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