National Review

Democracy, a means to an end

Exploring the path to good governance 

After leading a Commonwealth Observer Group to observe the presidential election in The Gambia earlier this month, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo underscored several democratic truths: Democracy is a means to an end, and voting in and of itself is not the end of the democratic process, but an important aspect of it.

Importantly, he said, democracy must deliver dividends – security of life, food security, job opportunities and other necessities. It must also guarantee certain freedoms – freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of expression and freedom to choose who will govern the people’s affairs.

“Now, what is important is that periodically, which is what elections are all about, [voters] give the leader a mandate or withdraw the mandate if he is not performing,” noted Obasanjo, who sat with National Review in Banjul, The Gambia’s capital, after the December 4 presidential election.

“That is what the election is all about, which is a very important and a very significant aspect of democracy, but if democracy does not deliver on what I call deliverables, then [it is not democracy].”

In a statement he delivered on behalf of the Commonwealth Observer Group two days after the vote, which resulted in the re-election of incumbent president Adama Barrow of the National People’s Party, Obasanjo said the election was conducted in a transparent fashion.

The Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa. Commonly referred to as the Smiling Coast of Africa, it is located in the continent’s western region and is surrounded by Senegal.

A crowded polling stream in Basse, The Gambia, on December 4, 2021.

It has a population of 2.5 million, just under a million of whom were registered to vote.

Though small in size, the country attracted significant focus as various election observer missions were present for the recent election, during which time voters peacefully cast their votes – through the use of marbles (not paper ballots) in tin drums – selecting the candidate of their choice.

“What we have been doing is to go through this country, The Gambia, going through a very important aspect of democratic practice, but that is not the end of it. That, in fact, is the beginning, if I may put it that way. The election is the beginning. It is the governance after the election that matters,” Obasanjo said.

The former Nigerian president was the most senior of the five African statesmen who headed missions to observe the presidential election – the fifth such election under the country’s 1997 constitution.

John Dramani Mahama, former president of Ghana, headed the Elections Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa mission.

Kgalema Petrus Motlanthe, former president of the Republic of South Africa, led the African Union Election Observation Mission (AUEOM)

Goodluck Jonathan, former president of Nigeria, was with the West African Elders Forum (WAEF) mission.

And Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, former president of Sierra Leone, headed the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) mission.

Obasanjo said the strong presence of observer missions and the fact that there were five former African heads of state in the country for the election was further demonstration that the democratic process and democratic stability are important even in very small nations like The Gambia.

“Two point five million and here we are, five former presidents, two of us from Nigeria, one from Ghana, one from South Africa, one from Sierra Leone,” he remarked.

“To me, it says a lot for what we can do in our community, in our subregions, in our regions, to make meaningful contributions to development in all [aspects] of the world – political, social, economic – you name it, in our growth and in our progress.”

Their presence was also a testament to the fact that the end of national political leadership should not mean the end of making meaningful contributions to the further development of democracy in one’s country, region and in the global community, added Obasanjo, who at 84 made time every day to walk the beautiful beach at Coco Ocean Resort where the Commonwealth Observer Group was based.

“The end of political life for a politician should not be seen as the end of a meaningful and useful contribution to his community, to his nation, and indeed to humanity at large,” he said.

“That is the way I see it, and as I rightly said, there are five of us in a country of 2.5 million people or thereabouts and we are here to put our stamp of goodwill on the democratic process and democratic practice in this country, which, of course, gives confidence to the people about their own democratic way of life, and you will have noted, we also make recommendations.

“Where things were good, we commend them. Where things were not as good as they should be, we made recommendations and I see that as a wonderful contribution to democracy on the continent, five of us.”

The missions observed every aspect of the electoral process – preparations, polling day, vote count, etc.

 In an interim statement delivered in Banjul on behalf of the Commonwealth Observer Group on December 6, Obasanjo said The Gambia’s marble voting system was worthy of commendation as the unique method of voting once again allowed all Gambians who voted to do so in a transparent manner.

In their interim statements, heads of the other observer groups, who gathered for a joint press conference after the election, also concluded that the process was fair.

Barrow will serve a second term in office.

He polled 457,519 votes against Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party (UDP), who received 238,253 votes.

While there can only be one winner in an election, Obasanjo said losing an election should not bar one from contributing in a meaningful way to national growth and development.

“If you have the opportunity to be in the State House, that means you have been elected or selected … through a democratic process. You can do a lot of good to a maximum number of people, but there will only be one president in a country at one time, or one prime minister, or, if you like, one chief executive for the country at one time,” he told National Review.

“But does that mean the rest of people in that country, particularly people who have been endowed by God, who have ability to be of service to their people and, of course, the purpose of us being here in the world, is service to humanity and service to God. So is the only way to serve humanity by you being in the State House? Of course not … so everybody who has something to do must see it as a service to community.”

Diaspora

The message is applicable beyond the continent, Obasanjo noted.

Considering that in The Bahamas politics often means senior statesmen are cast aside, we found the points of great interest.

We thought back to the rejection of former prime ministers Hubert Ingraham and Perry Christie, who had offered their expertise after Hurricane Dorian in 2019, but were ignored by the then administration.

When he sat down with National Review, Obasanjo also spoke broadly about strengthening linkages in the diaspora.

Knowledge can help bridge the gap, he said.

“History is very important, but history is like beauty – it’s in the eyes of the beholder,” he continued.

“I believe that next to history is that it must be our own narrative. We must present it. We cannot change history, but we can present it in the way that is objective, is positive, that it also teaches us the right lessons; and then we must, every opportunity that we have, we must interact, whether in Africa, for those of you who are in the diaspora, or where you are in the diaspora, if we have the opportunity to come there.”

Asked whether he had any specific messages for the people of The Bahamas, the former Nigerian president said, “Remember, whatever you do, remember that your root is in Africa. Whatever might have happened in the past let’s put that to history.

“We should not forget history, but we should not allow history to be a hindrance. If we know where we are coming from, then we will be able to know where we are and when we know where we are, we will be able to know where we should be; so, history tells us where we are coming from, the present tells us where we are and the future tells us where we should be. The three are a continuum.

“You in the diaspora, particularly you in The Bahamas, must remember this, and as you rightly reminded me, let us know that small can be beautiful and can be attractive and let us make small, in The Bahamas, beautiful and attractive.” 

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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