President Buhari may have rectified a “historical wrong”. (The post-announcement debate is massively in support of this reading). But our democracy is stronger the more it relies on institutions rather than on the whims of hopefully well-intentioned leaders.
Sometime in January 2013, The Gambia’s then president, Yahya Jammeh, lopped Friday off his country’s work week. The extra day of the weekend, according to the president, who also moonlighted as a snake-oil vendor, was to “…allow Gambians to devote more time to prayers, social activities and agriculture — going back to the land and grow what we eat and eat what we grow, for a healthy and wealthy nation”. Did this make economic sense for one of Africa’s poorer economies? Maybe not. There was always going to be a mountain to climb squaring the country’s aid-dependence with this new tolerance for indolence. Was there a chance that government could gain by, for example, reducing the costs to it from not having civil servants show up at work on Friday?
None of that mattered. For the unspoken part of this change to Gambians’ work life, which came into effect on February 1, 2013, was that President Jammeh, one of the continent’s crackbrained leaders was an autocrat who wouldn’t have brooked dissent on this, or any other of his policies. Gambians, with the help of their West African neighbours, eventually showed Mr. Jammeh the door. One week into office, his successor, Adama Barrow, had returned Gambia to a five-day work week format. Was this because the costs of a four-day work week far outweighed the benefits? Or did Gambians simply not socialise any more over a three-day weekend than they were wont to over the traditional two days?
Again, none of these mattered. It mattered more that Adama Barrow’s assumption of the presidency was a catharsis for most Gambians, the balm over the sundry lacerations to their space that was the presidency of His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa.
In the continent’s drive to build functional democracies and market economies, however, we cannot afford to ignore any of the lessons from our collective experiences. In a country with more than one person (the often-narcissistic leaders that Africa has been blessed with nearly always imagine the rest of the country as nought but their mirror images), there is, by definition, more than one perspective on everything. The diversity of views in any polity thus means that policies are strengthened by the gathering of evidence in their support (or against them) by each side interested in whatever issues are in discourse, and the conversations that these drive. Multi-party democracies and market economies nearly always derive greater value from the consultations and debates that these processes describe, than most other systems.
…because democracies must include as much public opinion in their processes of changing the rules and statutes by which they are run, they owe themselves a duty to ring-fence such processes from arbitrariness, without sacrificing the ease of jettisoning dated rules and statutes.
The party system, to the extent that internal debates take place within these parties (in which case, they are not the vehicles for the overly-large egos of their leaderships that we have become familiar with) is a critical part of the process of building democracies. But beyond the inclusion that every citizen feels from being able to contribute to such debates, is the opportunity that economic entities in such places have to arrange their affairs well ahead, based on their reading of the signals coming out of such fora. Accordingly, because democracies must include as much public opinion in their processes of changing the rules and statutes by which they are run, they owe themselves a duty to ring-fence such processes from arbitrariness, without sacrificing the ease of jettisoning dated rules and statutes.
Last week, the Nigerian government reminded us of how important the checks-and-balances are, on which successful democracies thrive. In a terse, one-page press statement, the Buhari administration “annulled” the date of a national holiday for the commemoration of “democracy”, and instituted a different date for it. “Just like that”, the young woman I was conversing with after the release of the press statement, asked? Yes. Just like that. It turns out that under our constitution, the president may designate (and cancel, and arguably, even re-designate) public holidays at will, a la Yahya Jammeh.
“Does that mean that we run the risk, someday, of having a president declare half the year a ‘public holiday’?”, I asked folks on this chat group I’d blundered into. “No!”, was the emphatic, and near collective response. “We would not be silly enough to appoint such a lunatic as president”! Yet, is it not silly already that even our Independence Day holiday (currently observed annually on October 1) exists at the sufferance of an incumbent president? Or was it not an act of puerile petulance (it’s considered bad etiquette in these parts to describe one older than yourself as “silly”) on the part of another such president that saddled us with May 29 as a public holiday, even when it was self-evident that the popular will was in favour of a commemoration on June 12?
After last week, it would not be too much to demand that, going forward, public holidays may only be scrapped or instituted as acts of parliament. And while we are at it, how nice would it be if we were also to demand that public holidays should be observed on the Mondays of the week in which they fall.
President Buhari may have rectified a “historical wrong”. (The post-announcement debate is massively in support of this reading). But our democracy is stronger the more it relies on institutions rather than on the whims of hopefully well-intentioned leaders. After last week, it would not be too much to demand that, going forward, public holidays may only be scrapped or instituted as acts of parliament. And while we are at it, how nice would it be if we were also to demand that public holidays should be observed on the Mondays of the week in which they fall.
Only because I might end up at the wrong end of a fatwa, this latter provision may not include public holidays of a religious provenance. Any which way, we cannot seriously mean to drive an efficient economy off the back of those mid-week breaks!