By: Madi Jorbateh
It was Martin Luther King Jr who had said that riot is the language of the unheard. I would paraphrase to say that protest is the language for the defense of human rights, the demand for goods and services and for holding the government accountable. During the civil rights movement in the US, our fellow Africans in America were discriminated against and denied goods and services and subjected to police brutality in the midst of disgusting racism and indignity. Consequently, Blacks had no choice but to revolt as they watched their leaders being jailed and assassinated with impunity.
We may not have racism in the Gambia but indeed there is discrimination, police brutality corruption, and high cost of living which are all legitimate concerns for the people. Since 2017, things have been terribly hard in this country. Various groups, communities and citizens have been speaking out to bring Government’s attention to these issues to no avail. The President must recognize that Gambians are suffering. Not only is the cost of living skyrocketing, but access, availability, and affordability of basic services such as water, electricity, education, and healthcare are difficult for the majority of the people. Transportation from Point A to B is not only expensive but also time-consuming and tiring. People cannot just make ends meet while there is widespread insecurity. People are suffering, Mr. President.
Therefore, it is shocking to see the Gambia Police Force draw up a violent counter offensive strategy to confront ordinary citizens who merely wish to stage a protest on November 11. I will advise Pres. Barrow to ask the IGP to stand down and allow citizens to vent out their grievances in peace and calm as required by the Constitution of the Gambia. President Barrow must be told that if the police counter offensive strategy is enforced the country runs the risk of a bloodbath which will be his responsibility.
Sometimes I have no choice but to pity Pres. Barrow because I think he is hugely misled and misguided by those who are supposed to tell him the truth hence putting him on the right path. That life is hard in the Gambia is not difficult for anyone to see and feel. Life is hard simply and squarely because of gross inefficiency, negligence and corruption in his Government which is as clear as the sun at two o’clock. Hence if some Gambians are concerned about that, it is best for the President to listen to them than to deny and close them out. This is why Martin Luther King said riot is the language of the unheard.
I do not know what the Vice President, Cabinet Ministers, presidential advisors, and other technocrats tell Pres. Barrow within the confines of the State House. But we do know that not long ago the Vice President Alieu Badara Joof stood in front of his Cabinet colleagues and senior Government officials telling them that Gambians are not at ease. In his address to the first Cabinet Retreat in June he lamented the incidence of corruption, underperformance, poor delivery, and lack of discipline within the public service. VP Joof concluded that business cannot be as usual and implored his fellow public officials to salvage the Gambia.
Next, we just heard from the Finance Minister Seedy Keita last week acknowledging that corruption is rampant in the Government which is perpetrated together with the private sector. On corruption, one cannot count how many times fraud has been uncovered in this Government over the past six years. The evidence of corruption is so glaring that no one can deny it. The current crisis of the death of over 70 children from AKI can only be caused by corruption and negligence. The issue of Securiport contract or the Banjul Road Project and the plunder of the COVID funds are among many cases of corruption in the public service.
Therefore, if some citizens are concerned about these issues, it is necessary for the President to hear them if indeed, he wants to succeed, avert trouble, and maintain himself as a true leader. During his last State of the Nation Address, Pres. Barrow himself said this,
“Today, the Government respects and listens to the voice of the people, hence the multiple energised political parties that continue to make their presence felt. We must note, however, that The Gambia has a hopeful, inspired, but needy population; therefore, the responsibility lies on all of us to fulfil their aspirations.”
Therefore, why is Barrow refusing to listen to the Coalition of Progressive Gambians? Why does he want to silence and crush them? If what he said in this statement is what he believes, then why is he allowing the police to crush citizens for speaking about their aspirations. Barrow must realize that when life is hard in a country, citizens will react. Sober and smart leaders create the space for such reactions otherwise it could lead to bigger problems. To bury one’s head in the sand and refuse to accept the reality can plunge a leader into trouble.
We have seen that in Sri Lanka when the President was chased out by citizens for refusing to listen. We saw it in the UK where Prime Minister Liz Truss was forced to resign because of the high cost of living. We saw it in Lebanon too just recently when the President was forced to resign because of poor economic policies. Just last week Ghanaians were protesting in Accra and calling for Pres. Nana Akufo-Addo to resign because of the high cost of living and poor economic policies.
Therefore, why is President Barrow refusing to allow fellow Gambians to speak up on the issues that are confronting them so that he listens to them? Let these protesters be UDP as he claimed or belong to any other party or community. But the fact is they are Gambians who have a right to protest. I think President Barrow should seek advice from his Justice Minister Dawda Jallow about human rights and good governance which are the bedrock for peace, progress, and dignity. The Gambia has obligations to uphold by virtue of domestic and international laws to protect human rights which includes the right to protest.
President Barrow and the IGP Abdoulie Sanyang must realize that they have no authority or power to deny any Gambian from protesting. Hence Barrow needs guidance that his Government should allow and protect citizens to protest peacefully. If he fails to do so but allows the police to enforce their counter strategy, there is a high tendency that the protest may turn into a riot and bloodshed. If that happens, Barrow must realize that he will take responsibility as the President and the Commander-in-Chief, today or tomorrow.
The IGP must be asked to stand down and discard his strategy because it is a recipe for violence which is unnecessary. Protesters are not armed insurgents or armed robbers. Protest is a normal occurrence in a democracy which is good for both a country and a government itself. Hence the level that the IGP has taken this issue is a direct threat to peace and stability. He is provoking an otherwise peaceful matter into the realm of warfare and violence. Let us tell the IGP not to weaponize protests but to provide the necessary protection for the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly as guaranteed in the Constitution.