Lessons of a Brother from Another Mother

In January 2017, within a day of each other, two real estate developers became presidents of their countries. In both cases, their inaugurations signaled a sea change in the lives of their citizens.

Adama Barrow, president-elect of Gambia, offered renewed hope and opportunity for his countrymen. For 22 years they had suffered under of the erratic and unhinged rule of their former dictator, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Babili Mansa, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Chief Custodian of the Sacred Constitution of The Gambia—otherwise known as Yahya Jammeh. 

Donald J. Trump, president-elect of the United States of America, on the other hand, offered the end of civic discourse and politics as the country had practiced for 240 years. In fact, his erratic and unhinged meanderings and tweets showed Trump had more in common with the outgoing dictator Jammeh than the incoming Barrow.  One country steps forward, the other backward.

In his first days as president, Barrow promised a u-turn from the oppressive, autocratic rule of his predecessor: the country would follow rule of law, there would be a separation of church and state, the press would be free and protected. Barrow committed to ending human rights abuses in the Gambia—a nod to the 22 years of torture and disappearances of political dissenters. He ordered the immediate release of all prisoners detained without trial and the removal of the heads of the security sector, all responsible for meting out Jammeh’s abuse. Barrow also reversed the Gambia’s intention to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), a move Jammeh had made the previous year.

By contrast, in his first few days as president, Trump demonstrated his aversion to the rule of law with a series of executive orders that showed neither understanding of how the three branches of government work nor interest in relying on the pool of subject matter experts at hand (the DOJ, CIA, FBI, State Department …) to design useful, effective, and legal executive orders. Trump selected cabinet picks from among his wealthiest supporters during his campaign without proper vetting nor regard for suitability. Trump declared war on the press as well as on the national intelligence agencies, precisely because they resisted being politicized. Trump has shown no interest in protecting human rights or respecting international law. At home, he has attempted to deny noncitizens in the country the right of due process with the intent to make them disappear regardless of the consequences to this country and abroad.

The current state of America’s government has triggered comedic allusions to some of the worst examples of African governance—autocracies with no democratic values and weak institutions. Those examples are the result of a minority elite who maintain control over the lion’s share of resources and opportunities in society. Being a small group, the elite—typically key actors in the political, corporate, and military spheres—easily align their efforts to retain power. Because Jammeh spent his 22 years in power creating an ever decreasing circle of trusted elite, Barrow has a unique opportunity to cut off these spoilers and lead his small and relatively homogenous populace toward a stable democracy based on accountability.

But what about America? Lest we think this style of governance is an African problem, we should recognize that in the US, this patronage system has been growing over a long time. In fact, it has been argued that the Trump supporters were expressing their longstanding frustration with the political-corporate patronage that had created a disproportionate allocation of resources and opportunities in the US. Unfortunately for Trump supporters, and for the rest of us, Trump was part and parcel of that system. The question now is whether America’s citizens, like their Gambian counterparts, will be able to reject the attempts of a minority to thwart the will of the majority.

In describing how autocracies persist despite being a minority, a look at the limitations of collective action is useful. The very size of the majority works against its ability to mobilize. Members of the majority are usually widely dispersed and unable see how the system benefits the minority at their expense. When and if they do come to understand how and where the system fails them, many are not likely to appreciate they have any power to change their situation. Simply put, the challenge of educating, organizing, and mobilizing the majority for collective action is an enormous feat. The minority has the advantage.

As the Gambia decidedly marches into democratic rule, the United States staggers under the challenges posed by a political-corporate minority willing to subvert our democratic values and institutions for the sake of power. Hopefully, the example of the Gambia can be a useful reminder as Americans organize to return the US government back to the people.

Interconnecting Circles

#Wm. Marc