Nationalism and not Ethnocentrism: A call for a more accommodating pluralistic nation PART 1 and 2


“A good nationalism has to depend on a principle of the common people, on myths of a struggling commonality.” Andrew O’Hagan

Being a breed of globalization where I might align my thinking to a statement once said by George Santayana that: “to me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography”, I don’t think I will wholly succumb to the idea of sticking all thoughts or profusely rendering all of ones energy to safeguarding the pride of nationalism just for a mere sake, but at the extreme, when my identity boils down to the dare need of nationhood and when nationalism is the only driver to the peace and prosperity of my country; when nationalism is what can change my country’s developmental terrain, then guarding that quest for development, that peace and prosperity, will worth me my last breathe. I will breathe nationalism, I will bath in nationalism and I will die in the palms of nationalism.

I am not trying to be sarcastic or too quick to bring to discussion, an issue of ethnicity, which some critique might consider being premature to be addressed at this time, but by virtue of the way some of my countrymen are driving the wheel for political change or insight or leadership in The Gambia, I see their actions to be alarmingly unruly. This trend calls for an intellectual discussion among all patriotic Gambians and the international community at large. The call for a change of any regime or the quest for sympathy and support by followers should not and never be aligned to ethnic differentiation or segregation or should I call it, ‘transparent partitions in an open dormitory’. There is no security in such a partition. It is entirely useless to any call for development or nationhood. It is categorically catastrophic. Metaphorically, we should see ourselves as a ‘self-contained house’, where every individual room or closet plays a vital role in giving the owners the desired comfort; and the roof, binding them to give the entire building a pride-rendering shape. The roof and the rest of the components of the house, in this context, is our country, our nation, our state, The Gambia. We should align ourselves more to this nation than to our individual ethnic classifications. Here, I don’t despise ethnicity; rather, I am ruling it out from being a centerpiece for nation building. We should only see our ethnic differences as colors in a rainbow. These colors complement each others beauty, they are never there to compete or refute each others position. They emphasize restrain, thereby rendering the rainbow the potent attractiveness to even the child who doesn’t know or understand its existence. Without the co-existence of these colors, no one would dare spend even a second to look at the rainbow.

The simple fact we need to comprehend and wholeheartedly accept is that ethnicity, on one side, is ‘a mistake in our social construct’, where all humans – with bloods which in one way or another might comprise of different groups but could be compatible in many instances based on groupings – are separated by virtue of our variations in languages, geographical demarcations, socially-constructed-inherited occupations (for example Serers as fishermen, Jolas as farmers, Fulas as herdsmen), and so on. Nonetheless, this mistake should not be seen as an ill-health. It should not be taken as an advantage to create conflicts within our societies. Rather, it should help us understand, appreciate and accommodate the plurality of cultures we have. In the simplest form, these diversities in culture give us the different models of lifestyles that can obliterate boredom from our societies. We both should accept this basic fact.

Contrary to the “mistake in social construct’, history has helped mold an all-inclusive positive form of ethnic tolerance in our sub-region which is definitely absent or insignificant in some parts of the world. We have joking relationships almost among all the different ethnic groups in our country. This relationship, being it the asymmetrical relationship (where one party is required to take no offense at constant teasing or mocking by the other) or symmetrical relationship (where each party makes fun at the others expense), should be fully appreciated as a blessing for us. Without doubt, most of the readers that are familiar with this form of interactions in our societies will agree to the benefits it propagates. A typical benefit of this interaction is that it mediates and stabilizes social relationships where there is tension, competition, or potential conflict, such as between in-laws and between clans and tribes. What else do we need as a form of conflict resolution other than this blessed form of relationship?

I think as Gambians, our preoccupation at this moment in the global race for development especially in the form of technological advancement, should be trying to concentrate more of our precious and limited energy on strengthening the unification we have since before our inception as a state; providing quality and affordable education to our citizens; creating industries that can employ our skilled and educated youths; providing sustainable quality social amenities; just to name a few, rather than on a ruthless campaign for disintegration through ethnic lines. As the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, in his 1984 National Day speech said: “We emphasized the common interest of everybody and we awaken common responses. Is active nation building…what gives Singaporeans this deep sense of personal pride is because we made them submerge their differences, muted, seek a common ground for mutual benefits”. If Singapore, a city state with no natural resources like sand, gold or oil, if Singapore, a country with different races – Malays, Chinese, Indians, and others – can move from a swampy forest island to one of the world’s most developed countries; if Singapore, a country that passed through brutalities such as its invasion by Japan, can serve today as a role model to many countries including its former colonial master, Great Britain (during Margaret Thatcher’s reign), why then can’t we also ‘submerge our differences as ethnic groups, mute, and seek a common ground for our mutual benefits’?

In this move to develop through nationalism and not ethnocentrism, we need a lot of sacrifice from all and sundry. The leadership for instance, in its roles among many, should put the interest of the nation first instead of itself. It should groom an environment suitable for the free contribution of all towards nation building, and through the guardian of the constitution. Public servants should take their works responsibly. As for the common citizens, they also need to take the state as theirs, thus considering ‘self’ as a secondary entity for identification; as Mark Twain said: “my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office-holders”. Additionally, the citizens should get rid of ‘lazy’ attitudes we have towards work; should be innovative and productive; and in a more sarcastic note, stop gathering around ‘tea pots’. The media should also note that ‘freedom of speech’ goes with ‘responsible, ethical journalism’. The education system also needs to device a more nationalistic curriculum than an ethnocentric one. In this part, the Social and Environmental Studies or Integrated Science curriculum, for instance should put more emphasis on ‘who is a Gambian?’, and how can one strengthen his being a Gambian than on ‘who is Mansa Musa, Sumanguru Conteh, Foday Kabba Dumbuya or others of mere historic values?’ The latter might seem pungent, but I think the article calls for more reflections on what are and what are not to be done to give us an advanced country. Here, I am not saying that our children should not learn history, but the history they learn should give them a more sense of the ‘supremacy of the nation’, and not of the ‘self’ or ethnicity.

In a final note, “a private man, however successful in his own dealing, if his country perishes is involved in her destruction; but if he be an un-prosperous citizen of a prosperous city, he is much more likely to recover. Seeing, then, that States can bear the misfortunes of individuals, but individuals cannot bear the misfortunes of States, let us all stand by our country. ~Thucydides



In part 1 of this article, I did emphasize the need for us to embrace nationalism instead of the more short-sighted ethnocentrism. I didn’t choose this topic in order not to be forgotten when I die, as said by Benjamin Franklin that: “if you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing”; but to remind ourselves of the realities of life that can help us develop our country. I believe that most of us are aware of the fact that aligning our development towards ethnic differences can never do any good but doom. Rather, as previously emphasized, we should endeavor to propagate a more pluralistic country, based on the common understanding that any nation, is supreme to the individual, this, includes our divisions through ethnicity. We still need to remind ourselves of our roles as patriotic citizens; being patriotic should always serve as a reminder for us of our responsibilities to nation-building. We should always look for what we can do for our country, but not what our country should be doing for us.

How can we contribute to nation-building? The answer to this is multifaceted but in this article, I will discuss pertinent issues but not limited to the following: our role in choosing our leadership, their mandates and what stake we have in making sure that the chosen leadership serve our nation for our betterment. In short, how we can use democracy at party-level to enhance nation-building.

To begin with, we need to understand our expectations of our leaders in our quest for a developed nation. Do we need people who would always keep their ears to the ground; who would always gauge the success of our country to their own growth rather than of the citizens? Do we need people who would always bully our votes and our constitution? Do we need egocentric leaders? Do we need people who will cling to positions for life?

Our leadership, I think, should have some traits including the ones described by Jim Rohn that: “the challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly”. It is with no doubt that we need leaders that “have the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others,” (Douglas MacArthur) because like Winston Churchill once said, that “the nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are keeping their ears to the ground”. The voices of the citizens need to be listened to.

The latter statement is always misinterpreted by many. Some people think that the voices are only synonymous to the results of votes cast during elections. It’s not only about their action of choosing a leader but who that leader should be. The meaning goes beyond that description. It’s mainly about post-elections. It includes the policies being formulated and implemented; it includes how the common people could be efficiently engaged in the decision-making processes; it includes a consideration of how those decisions could impact their lives and of generations to come; it includes how they could express their concerns, concerns that can positively impact the country, and how those concerns are listened to or accommodated by the leadership.

Choosing that leadership, by the people and for the people, is a real challenge for so many reasons. Typical are the limitations in the number and caliber of candidates available, which some critics might say is always made available through democracy but this I refute for the simple reason that: “we’d all like to vote for the best man, but he’s never a candidate”, (Kin Hubbard); transparency of the electoral system; availability of resources and the fair utilization of such resources by all candidates as prescribed by our constitution; the awareness in our citizens about what factors should motivate them to cast votes for a particular candidate – whether it should be policy-based, fear-based, community-driven, ethnic-driven, religious-driven, clan-led, change-motivated, etc.; a clear distinction between a nation and a ruling party (we have, in our country, confused a nation with a governing political party); how democratic our parties themselves are especially, the power of party members irrespective of status or positions held at a point in time; etc.

The latter limitation is very crucial to note but I wonder how many of us ever noticed an ‘irregularity’ in it. If we want to talk about democracy of a state, we should begin from the very nature of our political parties. The most undemocratic nature in our parties is how they become ‘owned’ by either a few people or by an individual and how these people grip to power till death. I will not go far to search for proofs to this statement; history can help us through. From the Democratic Party (DP) of John Colley Faye, the United Party (UP) of Pierre Sarr Njie, the Muslim Congress Party (MCP) of I M Garba Jahumpa, People’s Protectorate Party (PPP) of President Sir Dawda K. Jawara, Common People’s Party (CPP), National Convention Party (NCP) of Sheriff M Dibba, Gambian People’s Party (GPP) of Assan Musa Camara, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Lamin Bojang, People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) of Seedia Jatta and Halifa Sallah, of the First Republic, to the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) of President Yahya Jammeh, United Democratic Party (UDP) of Ousainou Darboe, National Reconciliation Party (NRP) of Amat Bah, NDAM of Lamin Waa Juwara, both of the Second Republic, how many of them are still functional after either the demise or the inactive political participation of their leaders?

In the First Republic, aside from PPP and PDOIS, all the other parties died a natural death, the reasons I need not to discuss further. In the Second Republic, aside from PDOIS (who I can say only leap-leapfrogged), none of the others ever changed their leaderships. From this premise, how can we advocate for democracy when our primary institutions aren’t willing to adopt a fair transition of party leadership? Are we saying that other party members aren’t competent to lead their parties? Are we saying that it’s only the party-founders who have the mandate to lead? I think we should look at other democracies around the world. Am not saying that we should be copy-cats (which we are very good at in many instances of our policy-making) but we should be able to look at those democratic parties around the world who do effect regular changes in their leadership and how effective this is to nation-building. This is because they believe in the equality of their membership; because they believe that most of their members are also competent enough. “If we say that we believe in democracy, if we say that the fabric of a democratic society is one which allows for the free play of idea…then, in the name of all the gods, give that free play a chance to work within the constitutional framework”, (Opposition leader Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore Legislative Assembly, Oct 4, 1956).

If our parties fail to democratize their political apparatus, if the party leaders cling to power forever, then I would like you to help answer the following question: how can we have and respect term limits for our presidency? But the fact is that our “politicians and diapers should be frequently changed and all for the same reason”, (José Maria de Eça de Queiroz). In choosing the leadership, we should always remember that our: “politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river”, (Nikita Khrushchev). We should value our votes and cast them in the proper way. If need be, where one believes that none of the candidates vying for the leadership positions are incompetent, one should rather stay away from casting his vote. This doesn’t mean a dislike for one’s nation. It’s another element of patriotism. What we should always accept is that a vote belongs to an individual, it’s your constitutional right, and casting a vote wrongly can harm a nation and not only the individual. You should only use it in a situation where you firmly believe could benefit your nation as a whole, but not the individual politicians. Additionally, we shouldn’t indulge into dirty-politics where we sell our votes; insult each other; create hatred for one another. Our politics, nowadays, is so dirty that we need not to pay a d’jali anymore to trace our lineages; we just go into politics and our opponents will do it for us. This is the time they will tell us how we were even born. This is not politics, its bullying the votes of our citizens.

To conclude this article, nation-building, folks, cannot go in the absence of democracy. Democracy is not synonymous to hypocrisy, rather to truth, honesty, and love. “We either believe in democracy or we don’t. If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally. If you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication. Then, no law should permit those democratic processes to be set at nought, and no excuse, whether of security, should allow a government to be deterred from doing what it knows to be right, and what it must know to be right…” (Lee Kuan Yew, Legislative Assembly Debates, April 27, 1955).