By Kebba Jeffang
The Social Sciences and Humanities Students’ Association (SOSHA) of the University of the Gambia (UTG) on Wednesday, March 16, 2016 engaged the Independent Electoral Council (IEC), political parties and the NGOs in the country to discuss the way forward for political activities ahead of the December 1 Presidential poll.
This brought about fierce political debate between the electoral body and the political parties in attendance. It also entertained questions for the parties regarding their level of preparedness ahead of the most talked about election in 9 months time.
The discussion took place at the University campus in Brikama where the National Reconciliation Party (NRP), People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) and the United Democratic Party (UDP) were present. The moderator of the platform said they have also extended invitation to the incumbent party Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) but they did not turn up.
Speaking, Professor Pierre Gomez, Dean School of Arts and Sciences said such platform has been created to discuss pertinent issues in the country. He said it focuses on different matters that come on every Wednesday morning as part of their extra-curricular activities.
He said this time; the students of his faculty have entirely through SOSHA come up with this proposal of inviting the stakeholders in elections ahead of December 1st Presidential election. He noted that as a university, they are known to learn and research on issues for the development of its students.
Mr. Gomez said “the reason for the invitation of IEC and political parties is to discuss issues that matter in light of holding peaceful elections in the country. It will also provide the opportunity for the students to put the parties to their toes by critically engaging them on what they hold for the country’s future and not just based on their high sounding agendas.”
Mr. Sambujang Njie, Chief Electoral Officer of the IEC said in orgsanising elections one is always confronted by challenges especially in the Gambia, which includes limited funding accessibility. He said in the elections, political parties are key stakeholders as well as the public and does not only concern IEC. He said as part of their mandate to conduct elections in the country, his Commission went back to the drawing board to relook into how best they can avert certain challenges they battled with in previous times. He said, IEC came up with a strategic plan that will avoid those challenges including pillars of voter sensitization for participation, institutional capacity building for its staff, voter system with biometric introduction which digits were increased to 18, engagement of stakeholders, electoral reforms, party reorganization and reforms.
“Electoral law reform has brought about One Million dalasis as a requirement for registering a new political party while Five-Hundred Thousand dalasis (D500,000.00) is the deposit for presidential candidates. This is done because some parties will register to take part in elections and later withdraw which is a big financial burden on the IEC. Spot counting will also be done in which the votes will be counted and the result will be posted on the wall where the voting has taken place for the purpose of transparency. Party reform is also considered by the IEC this term in which every party must have regional headquarters. The justification for this is to promote dialogue between the IEC and the political parties in which 31st March 16, 2016 is the deadline. This is done because in terms of delivering letters it is difficult as some of them do not have offices and you have to drop it in their houses. This will make work easier,” said Mr. Njie.
The CEO of IEC added that due to logistical nightmares, IEC also carried out with constitutional demarcation that affected Kombo North and Serekunda.
Mr. Francis Mendy of WANEP said his organisation has been working with TANGO as a civil society to observe and dialogue in election processes. He said they do this in order to avoid conflict in the places such as handing over power which usually lead to conflict in many places. He said WANEP is born out of experience in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Mr. Hamat Bah, the leader of the National Reconciliation Party (NRP) said he cannot discuss the strategies of his party at that platform but instead will tgrow light on the way forward. He said the group of opposition parties in 2015 presented a series of reforms for the IEC to look into changing the playing ground but that nothing is yet to be considered and there is no reply to that effect. He said to have a fair election result is beyond the IEC.
“The public media are not entertaining the voice of the opposition parties, even our announcements; we find it difficult to see them aired on the national media platforms. The arrest of our supporters and officials by the police is also another burning issue that affects us. The Judiciary that we expect for redress is not properly constituted since judges are being sacked without replacement so far to my knowledge. The Supreme Court that has a fundamental role in elections if not constituted is a deficiency in the electoral process. Election is a question of life and not a child’s play,” said Mr. Bah.
Mr. Halifa Sallah, Secretary General of the People’s Democratic Organisation Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) said PDOIS is more than ready to introduce term limit in the Gambia if elected, with even 2 terms of 4 years.
In dealing with the significance of election said election is not just about maintaining peace but making rightful changes. He noted that people must not exist for the government but it is the government that should exist for people. He pointed out that power belongs to the people.
He made critical remarks on the liberty of the people, taking note that Gambia continues to experience detention without trial and disappearance without trace.
He emphasised that the people must know themselves, their country and the world in order to take their destiny in their own hands. “People should ask themselves why they are paying taxes, why pay D3000 to acquire passport. PDOIS has been working on how to return power to the people ever since. We have been putting efforts even jointly with other parties in order to achieve this goal but it never materialised. This is why we are making no delay in 2016 because it is time for people to become sovereign. Gambia will be what you (the people) decide it to be,” said Sallah.
The PDOIS flag bearer insisted that IEC has no business in the establishment of regional offices of the political parties and that they should allow voters’ cards replacement to continue closer to election since they are incurring no cost as it is about reprinting the same template. He called on the IEC to be open to dialogue with political parties.
Regarding the development of rural communities, Mr Sallah said this will be done through the formation of active cooperative bodies. He indicated that family farm lands will be transformed into large scale farms with family members as shareholders, by creating schemes for such families to access credit from the cooperative banking sector to enable them to purchase farm inputs and expand production and yield. Taking milk production as an example he argued that this will ensure that milk importation is reduced since local cattle will be mostly utilized; mango and orange fruits will be processed; and vegetables will be produced en masse; which will generate income and employment.
Mr. Lamin Dibba, a representative of the United Democratic Party (UDP) said IEC has been advocating for unnecessary amendments including the submission of parties’ budget account as well as payment of D500,000.00. He accused President Jammeh’s government of dictatorship by arbitrarily arresting and detaining people at what he called ‘hotel’. He said the rule of law has been violated and that his party is talking about better governance which he said they will practice to the best of their ability.
“UDP is the main opposition party and has been ready for a unity. It is because of unity among the parties ahead of the poll, we decided not to select out flag bearer until we know our fate regarding coalition. UDP is going to URR for a congress but don’t expect the announcement of party flag bearer any sooner,” he said.
Mr. Dibba said his party has its priorities which include economic empowerment, agricultural advancement; affordable education as well as health.
Mr. Madi Jobarteh, Deputy Executive Director of TANGO said election is about maintaining one’s sovereignty, liberty, health, education and other rights of the people. He said people have to understand that it is their right to access education and not a favour by any person. He said every national development such as establishment of the university is not a favour but provided for by the national budget, grants or loans that is secured in people’s name.
He noted that “people should also do away with the culture of being carried away by high sounding statements of politicians but to critically engage them with objectivity. Election is about accountability and as such we also have to hold the opposition parties to account in respect of transparency, democracy and good governance that exists in their parties. He said IEC also failed to consult the parties during such electoral amendments.
Madi concluded that it is in his opinion that voter registration should continue even to the eve of the election in order to make it all-inclusive participation.