Ebrima Sonko is working to transform The Gambia by bringing about changes to address gender-based violence and political transparency.
As an executive member for the youth-led group Peace Ambassadors in the west coast region of The Gambia, Sonko first became interested in issues involving leadership, peace and conflict, and terrorism.
“I’m passionate about defending people, I’m passionate about justice, fairness, and equity, to have social justice in our community,” the 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow explains.
This passion led Sonko to work with prominent female action groups to end gender-based violence in The Gambia, specifically concerning female genital mutilation (FGM). They succeeded in making FGM illegal in The Gambia in 2015, by educating people across the nation and applying political pressure.
Sonko and his team educate community members on social issues by having people who the community respects and can relate to talk to citizens about the facts of the issue.
He believes education is essential to building up The Gambia, along with a transparent government and getting people involved in the political process.
“An aware citizenry is an empowered citizenry. The value of being aware is so instrumental in a democratic process,” he says.
With this in mind, Sonko teamed up with a former Washington Mandela Fellow to create the Commission on Political Debate. The Commission was formed to address issues concerning limited freedom of speech and to make politics more accessible for the average citizen. As the administrative secretary, Sonko played an active role in staging the first-ever presidential debates in The Gambia in 2016.
The Commission hosts civil, unbiased debates between opposing political candidates so that people can see what policies are important to candidates and make an educated decision about which candidate they believe will meet their community’s needs.
“We want to create a platform where people are going to be free to talk about ideas, a platform where people could also come and hold government officials to account,” Sonko explains.
Learn more in this YALI Voices podcast about the actions Sonko is taking to empower his community members in The Gambia.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: EBRIMA SONKO
So, we, I think, have a unique opportunity to change the narrative of that history through the work that we do, through the awareness that we have, but also through the opportunity, because we need to realize that what we have is not just because we are better than a lot out there, it’s because we’ve identified ourselves and then we have an opportunity, so we need to maximize on that opportunity to make better policies, to make better programs, to make better awareness campaigns for our people, to ensure that there is accountability, there is fairness.
EBRIMA SONKO: My name is Ebrima Sonko. I am from The Gambia.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICE-OVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.state.gov to stay up to date on all things YALI.
Ebrima Sonko of The Gambia was told by his parents early in life that he could accomplish a lot and, in their words, be important to his community. And though his parents never went to school — and he never had a family member go to university before he and his siblings — they knew the value of an education. Throughout his young life, Ebrima has been guided by that belief through his work on women’s rights, peace and reconciliation, and his work to increase government transparency and citizen engagement in the country’s political process.
A 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow, Ebrima has worked on breaking gender stereotypes and pushing for gender inclusion. He has worked with women’s rights groups to educate communities to end FGM and criminalize the practice, efforts that subsequently led to legislation banning FGM in The Gambia. He is also co-founder of the Commission on Political Debate, an organization formed to provide Gambians with a safe and open space for them to engage with candidates on how they plan to address the country’s challenges.
We begin this YALI Voices podcast with Ebrima reflecting on his passion for social justice, fairness, and civic engagement.
EBRIMA: My career path at the moment is one that has several dimensions because of the kind of work that I do. And I think also, I said somewhere else a few days ago that I’m still on the path of discovering myself, you know, because of most of the things that I do, and even though I am passionate about law, I’m passionate about defending people, I’m passionate about justice, fairness, and equity, to have social justice in our community. But I also know that there is something bigger that I am more passionate about, and that is how do you make defense for your community, those people that are left out, the marginalized, the vulnerable people in their various communities.
So, there is one person with a background in law, another person, you know, who is so much passionate about volunteerism, is so much involved in his community, so I try to balance this, too, to ensure that the work of one of these things do not affect the other. Because my background in law is a catalyst to help me, to assist me in the kind of work that I do, you know. So, the goal is, at the end of the day, to do my bar school, to complete my bar school and become a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of The Gambia.
So, but the continuation of, to advocate for popular participation in politics, for social justice, to bridge the inequality gap that we have in our communities, is one that I think I’ll forever be tied to because of the kind of society that we have. And this [is] also more reason why young people like me, for example, who were born in 1994, between 1994 to 2016, we are born to not know about a lot of things that were happening, particularly in the political space. And we saw ourselves in certain socioeconomic conditions. We saw our people living in so much bad conditions. What are the circumstances, what are the prevailing circumstances that allowed some of these things to happen?
What could we have done differently as a society, as a state, to make sure that we have more people involved in politics, to make sure that our needs and problems are addressed by the state, to make sure that women, for example, participate in the political process as well? It is out of these reasons why, you know, I started working at the very early age with a woman-led organization in The Gambia, perhaps the leading in the country in 2015, called GAMCOTRAP, Gambia Association Against Traditional Practices. And the work that they do basically has to do with the idea of, you know, getting other people to deconstruct female genitalia mutilation, which many considered as religious, from religious and cultural practices, you know.
So, we were involved somewhat in sensitization, and through that work, I’ve had the opportunity to travel through the length and breadth of the country. I’ve met with, I’ve been to the most, the remotest parts of the country, and I’ve seen firsthand the things that people consider as acceptable by virtue of their culture and religion, most of it highly misconceived, but how do you make them understand that the process of change is not immediate, but it’s through dialog. It’s through sensitization. It’s through learning and sharing.
So I didn’t stop there. So, through our work, we’ve literally compelled the government to outlaw female genital mutilation in 2015. And we didn’t only do that, because we also realized that, you know, when we had a change of government in 2016, that people still believed that the government which outlawed FGM in 2015, so, the government changed the law, and the government is gone, so how do you make people understand that governments change but the laws remain in place? So, that was a huge question that we needed to address in our country, so we are still continuing to engage, until now, we still engage in that, as well.
EBRIMA: So, the way we approach this issue of FGM as a problem was we felt we couldn’t address it if we did not have real stories, real victims, or testimonies of the effects of FGM/C, and we also had very strategic people among us which are the authority leaders in our communities, for example the religious leaders, community leaders, for them to come and speak about these things, especially survivors of FGM/C, so most of our people we work with are people who underwent the process, so they experience it firsthand, some in their marital houses, some when they were given birth.
So, they would come, you know, so we knew that at least, you know, things that they experienced, if they talk about it, it has more power and impact than people like us who are men. But also, very importantly, the idea that women issues are not just women issues, that both men and women need to work together. So, the subject of inclusion. So, we include almost all sectors of our society. Doctors were there, experts to talk about the health complications of it. We had religious leaders to come out. We had traditional leaders, as well, because these things, these individuals are individuals of authority, and their opinions are highly considered and respected in the society.
So, we used that approach pretty much to ensure that, you know, we, we do what we want to do and we have more understanding with our people for them to realize that this is just a cultural practice. It has nothing to do with our religion, because in the first place, it is not a religious practice. It has its connotation and its background embedded in our religion, but it is not a religious practice. So we also met with legislators, because we knew the role they would play, but that’s about all the sensitizing that we could do, it couldn’t be even effective without involving the legislators because they were going to make the law eventually, so we also involved some legislators. And eventually we had all of these people on our side, and they joined the campaign.
When you go out, they are a part of us. They speak to the people. They are the representatives of the people. And the government in 2015 during a rally, the president stood up and said — the funny thing was the president has been a firm supporter of FGM/C. On several occasions, he’s been questioned and said he’s not going to comment on it because it’s not a local problem, it’s not a government problem.
But through our efforts and sensitization and through our inclusive activities, we managed to coerce him to make a statement that, you know, he has realized within himself that this action is not helping our people and that it needs to stop. So, as part of our laws, it was enacted that FGM/C was banned with severe penalties, so even if you know someone who is doing it but you are not reporting the issue, you are as guilty as that particular person, you know. So through that work, I also continued with another female organization called Think Young Women, more or less the same kind of work, going out in communities to talk to people.
So, I’ve been very much involved in women advocacy work, you know, to end harmful traditional practices, such as child marriage as well, in our village communities. But it’s not only that. You know, I also continue working with other organizations. We founded the first Commission on Political Debates in The Gambia.
EBRIMA: The Commission on Political Debate was founded in 2014 by a colleague of mine and myself for the sole purpose of bridging the gap created by our authoritarian regime, where there was no freedom of speech, there was no liberty, and people were not at ease with what was happening because they were not also offered a platform to participate in the politics, especially the opposition parties. So that was a problem we realized, and we felt we could play a role in this. And that was when we came up with the idea of Commission on Political Debates.
Actually, the Commission on Political Debate is also a brainchild of Mandela Washington Fellowship, because my colleague came to the fellowship prior to the establishment of the commission, and when he came down, you know, he spoke to me about it, and we said, “Look, we need to play a role in this to, more or less model it on the United States Commission on Political Debate, to localize it in our own context, to address our realities that we have,” because, like I said early on, between 1994 to 2016, this was a very hard time for our country. We had only one state television and one state radio station. And we had a few other private radio stations as well.
So, there was no other television that was available for opposition parties, even though the constitution makes it clear that all opposition parties would have equal access to our radios and televisions. But even if you had access to radio and television, that you are not free. You are not at liberty to talk about certain things. You cannot hold the government to account. You cannot say anything that is critical of the government.
So how do we address this problem to make people realize that, you know, in this 21st century, that all men are born equal, that we need to have a more free society and more accountable and transparent society that will address the needs, the socioeconomic problems that are compounding us as a country?
So, we conceptualized the legal framework, you know. We also went on to do the documentation with Attorney General Chambers at the Ministry of Justice. So, we did the initial consultation, and when we did that, people felt, this is going to be important and it’s going to be a breakthrough in our political process.
And in 2016, 2015 rather, we had our first initiative to organize, our first project to organize presidential debates in The Gambia. First time in our history, can you imagine? From 1994 — in fact, from 1970 to 1994, Gambia had perhaps the longest constitutional democracy in Africa. But even in that period, we never had anything like Commission on Political Debates or a debate process where political opponents would come and have a direct interface with the public. And the public could also ask them questions.
So we established it, we organized our first presidential debate in 2015, and successfully, it was attended by almost all political parties in our country, even the incumbent. That was in fact a surprising part of it because nobody wanted to engage with the incumbent because everybody felt they were just a dictatorial regime. You know, we didn’t want to have anything to do with them. And if you say anything that’s critical of them, the next day you’ll be picked in the midst of your family and nobody would see you again, because incidents like that happen. You know, there are several reported incidents, of various human rights organizations that talk about the state of freedom, the state of democracy in our country, so people were highly apprehensive of the idea of Commission on Political Debates. But we felt we needed to do it, so…
EBRIMA: So we realized at the Commission on Political Debates, even at the conceptual stage, that it is imperative to have some form of code of conduct, to also have some form of rules and regulations that are going to guide the kind of work that we do, especially in times of political difference, because debate is one aspect of the work that we do. So, we are also focusing on other areas which I think I’ll have opportunity to discuss further on, but we have our own rules and regulations that guide our debate. And part of that very essential and very, very central is the idea of independence, because we don’t want to be seen having any political affiliation, so we don’t wear any party colors or party caps.
You don’t come to any party, any, any, you don’t come to any of our debates with any party color whatsoever. If we see that you have any public engagement with any party whatsoever as a member, and if you have an affiliation with us, we try to condemn it, just so we know that we play that impartial role, you know, as an institution that wants to promote popular participation in politics, so we’re very central, and we try to safeguard that with utmost due diligence, you know, because we know that should be our strength as an institution, you know.
But also, you know, how do you make sure that political parties see us as part of them, you know, how do you have a very smooth working relationship with them? Because if one party see us as having some sort of affinity with another party, then they wouldn’t want to work with us, because they’ll feel like we are, we have some preferential treatment to one party as opposed to the other,.
So we try to engage them. We have lots of trainings with them, even prior to a debate, on what we expect of them, what are the rules of the debate, what each and, you know, every one of them is required to do, you know, in terms of not to use profanity, to have a more civil discourse, to make sure that debate is based on policies and not individuals, that our debate and discussion should be based on how do we better our institutions, you know, that our politics should not be just about the idea of individualism, because that is highly entrenched in our political spaces. How do you better individuals? What policies or programs do you have?
But we also make it up to them that we are going to challenge them during the debate. The whole idea is how do you telling them to sell their, to market their ideas in a more compelling way, in a way that it will come across as the ideal person. But we don’t decide that. The citizens who are there, about 13- to 15,000 people that we gathered together, about 20,000 people that follow us online when we are doing the debate, they get to decide. It is their selection process in terms of who they find worthy or credible or competent as a candidate.
So, that is the whole thing, and when we see people talk about those things, it sort of creates a national dialog, you know, that “The debate that was done yesterday, you know, have you seen this political, I think he or she did particularly well.” “Yeah, I think she should be my candidate because her ideas have policies or programs that are very clear or are very articulate and all of that.” So, that is the idea. We want to create a platform where people are going to be free to talk about ideas, a platform where people could also come and hold government officials to account.
VOICE-OVER: Despite being unable to gather empirical evidence of their impact, Ebrima and his team believe that the way citizens talked about governing and governance did change as a result of the debates.
EBRIMA: You know, we know it happened, and we know, at least from the responses we get from people through viral conversation and through reading correspondences, that this needs to continue in our country, you know. So, because nobody thought that such an opposition party would come to a debate organized by young people. These are young people in their 20s, and literally they had nothing, we had nothing. We just thought we needed to play a part, that the incumbent was going to work and have that representative to come and represent them in the debate. That was huge. So, people felt that, in fact, after all, they are human.
EBRIMA: So, we want a more — we want to get more popularity in the country, because you want people to understand and realize the value that a Commission on Political Debate can play. Take the United States, for example. Most of the decisions made by a lot of people in terms of voting, the debate that they organize usually plays a huge role in that, you know, because people take ownership of it because the institution of debate also has established itself as a credible, credible player in the political dispensation. We want to play that role in ours, as well, although we are young.
But I feel through the strength and the work that we are doing, we’ll also get there, only if we continue to be independent, you know, only if we realize the value that this can play in our society, you know. So, research and polls for us is very important. But not only that, we’ve also realized that a key part of our democratic process is the role of the national assembly and what they could play, particularly in terms of their oversight functions to hold the government to account.
So, many problem that we have in the continent is — there is now a rising argument between federalism and presidential system and what could hold governments more to account in our continent, because ours has more of a presidential system of government, and it has not yield[ed] more dividends in terms of holding our leaders to account. So how do you make sure that a presidential system is very accountable? How do you make sure presidents do not come that after one year time, they won’t be changing constitutions to go back and rerun for another time again?
So, the national assembly could play a very strategic role in this regard. Only if they realize it, only if they know that the role for a national assembly is not about making laws, it’s not only about amending laws, but it’s also about accountability. How do you make sure we train national assembly members on accountability mechanisms and procedures through the different committees that they’re a part of, you know, public enterprise committee, public finances committee, education committee.
It is my view that the presidential system could guarantee a fair separation of powers and show transparency and accountability only if national assembly realizes the role that they can play in holding government to account.
But there’s huge work that needs to be done in making them understand that your role as the national assembly, as much as you’ve been loyal to your party, the constitution says your primary role is to defend the constitution of the government, is to defend this country and the condition that you are loyal to because you came through your party is secondary to the condition of your country. And how do you work hard to ensure that the government is held to account?
VOICE-OVER: We asked Ebrima what he hoped to see as far as citizen participation in holding government accountable. Later, he offers specific advice for young African leaders on how they can inspire and create more civic engagement in their communities.
EBRIMA: The citizens are critical players in holding government to account, and again, ours is a case point to make reference to, because in 2016, when we had the elections, after the elections, the president went on national television and said he has accepted the outcome of our electoral results and that our election, it cannot be rigged and that it’s one of the best in the entire world, at least reported by, because we used a marble, you know, so it’s supported by many international observers that came down to see our election was free and fair, and he acknowledged this on state TV the evening of the elections and said it is time after 24 years to step down and that he is going to leave and become a farmer.
I think six, seven days after that, he came back on national television and said they got proof that election was rigged somewhere in some part of the country and that he is going to the Supreme Court to challenge the outcome of the elections and that the status quo remains the same, meaning that he should remain as president of The Gambia. Now, the constitution says that there’s a particular number of days that a president or an individual who lost in the election could go back to the Supreme Court to challenge the outcome of the political election that happened. But that has elapsed in this time.
So what happened? What could we play as a society from the broader context, not just the Commission on Political Debate, what could we play as citizens of our country that have a duty according to Section Four of the 1997 Republican Constitution to defend our constitution and to a reasonable extent justifiable? How do we defend our constitution, that if leaders want to, want to neglect whatever has been said in the constitution, how do you hold them to account?
And most of the time, in many countries, what it leads to is some revolution, you know. But ours was different, because we knew we had a sacred duty to make sure that he honor the dictates of our constitution. Civil disobedience broke out, you know, we went out, almost all state public institutions made a statement to condemn and that whatever he said was contrary to what the constitution says. Judges won’t go to courts. Teachers won’t go to schools. Students won’t go to their exams. The Commission on Political Debates walk out of their office.
So, everybody sat at home and that, more or less, you know, resonated with a lot of people, even the international front, that how did government do this? And those literally forced him to also accept that he was going to leave. At least, there were some also enforced by the international community through negotiation and diplomacy to get him out. But it’s the work of the citizens. An aware citizenry is an empowered citizenry. The value of being aware is so instrumental in a democratic process. And this also more reason why we have a lot of problems in the African continent, why almost more than half of the population are not literate.
But even if they are not literate, what is the role of the civil society in ensuring that people are aware of their rights and responsibilities, that people are aware that we need to protect the fundamentals and foundations of our democracy through our constitution?
Before you realize it, he was left isolated. Almost all ministers in the country all wrote their resignation letters, even those those that were standing with him for many, many years. So, I think ours, ours at least goes to delineate or describe what citizens could play in their various countries in terms of, not necessarily violence, or what they could do to hold the government to account, because most of the time, what happens is people vote during elections. Election is almost the only way people participate, so we want to change that. We want to make sure there are polls, politically people participate in politics through polls. They tell us what they think of government. At least, they do also shape or guide our participation moving forward as a country.
EBRIMA: The first thing that I would advise young YALI, modern African leaders that are here, going back to their various countries, about what we could do together to ensure a more free, fair, and transparent elections in our various countries, first and foremost is to advocate, prior to the elections, for laws that are clear, are fair, and just, because most of the time, it’s the laws that ensure that there are, you know, fair and just elections because we have laws. For example, in my country, one of the laws for, one of the rules to become a political party, the registration fee is 1 million dalasis, which is a huge amount of money.
So, you realize that, prior to elections, you have political parties that would want to come and agitate for a change of that particular law, and the government will issue a demand, and then problem will always come out because then there’s going to be confrontation. So, prior to the elections, the national assembly should be engaged through dialog to ensure that they change those laws that impinge some sort of restriction on the individuals who have aspirations of running as candidates. That is important because pre-, post-, and after — pre- and post- and during elections are all very important moments. So, how do you make sure the process of getting to elections, during elections and after elections, is very important. Most of the time, we focus on elections, but what were the surrounding circumstances prior to the elections, what were the laws in place, you know, would have to make a more free and fair elections. I think that is one fundamental area that people need to look at.
Secondly is the idea of awareness and rights and liberties that are the franchise, because we have, it’s unbelievable, the amount of voter apathy we have in the continent. This is during elections. This is because people have lost faith in their government. And, of course, we can participate in the political space through different means, but election is one of the most important ways to send our voice, to use our voice to make changes. So, if we want to play that role in the political space, if we want to make a difference, it’s not through the barrel of the gun. It should not be through just revolutions. I mean, revolutions have different dimensions, some good, some bad, you know, but it should be through recognizing and appreciating the value of your voice. How do you engage your communities for them to realize that voting is a very strategic thing that could make a lot of differences in your community. So, that awareness has to be strengthened.
So, most of the time, also, if, for example, the majority of the people do not vote in elections and you have only a small number of people that went and vote, how is that a representative democracy? You know, so it’s about few people, you know, that are going to manage your affairs. And all the policies and programs that they make are going to affect you as a person.
So it is important that we address that. It is important that, you know, we encourage each other as young leaders. It is important we talk about the importance of voting in our various countries, because young people in the continent — there’s a prediction that in 2050, Africa is going to have more youth than any other continent. That Africa is going to spur economic growth, that Africa is the future. And we are the future because we are the future generation.
But ours is again interesting because women vote in our political spaces more than men, at least in my country as a case study. But they are the most forgotten force in our political space after elections. So, how do we restore that confidence for women to realize that, look, it’s not about you voting, you need to stand, and people need to vote for you, that you are as competent as your menfolk, that you are always — it’s not time to serve as a cheerleader. It’s time to lead.
I think young leaders from the continent that are opportuned to be a part of this program need to look at, holistically, how do you make sure that, you know, all of these things are put in place, that elections is not an election for the few, but an election for everyone. And elections are going to decide who or the trajectory of our country, because remember, despite all the tendencies of human rights violations and abuses, widespread corruption, the squandering of resources in our country from 1994 to 2016, we were resistant, and we said, look, somehow someday we are going to make a difference. So, if you stay out, then it’s a problem. We need to participate. We need to take the lead. We need to lead ourselves.
VOICE-OVER: Participate and take the lead. Important words from Ebrima that are a call to action to young leaders across Africa.
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