Mr. President, in your meeting with the elders of Banjul and religious leaders on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr, you implored them to tell you the truth of what is not right. You said if they fail to do so, then they have failed the nation. I wish to take advantage to speak my truth to you. I hope you receive it in good faith.
It is with deep concern and remorse I received the news of the illegal conviction of Ousainou Darboe and 17 other decent Gambians to three years in jail for merely attempting to walk to a police station to demand the body, dead or alive of his colleague the late Solo Sandeng on April 16. Solo, the former youth leader of the opposition UDP was arrested on April 14 and by the next day Darboe got news of his death in police custody prompting him to convene a press conference to state his position. His decision was to walk, unarmed to the nearest police station to demand the body of the gentleman. Solo, in the first place led a group of youths to Westfield junction in the centre of the Greater Banjul Area on that fateful day to protest the discriminatory and harsh electoral laws and the appalling governance situation in the country. From there, he and his colleagues were brutally repressed and arrested, and for him, never to return home to his family again.
In the entire period of the trial during the past four months many more people were arrested and detained in various parts of the country for merely attending court cases and to show solidarity with Darboe and colleagues. Many of those arrested and detained were subjected to torture as their testimonies in court showed. During the trial, the judge created various constraints to the point that the team of seasoned lawyers defending Darboe and Co had to march out of the court and leaving the illegally accused to defend themselves. Even this did not humble down the trial judge to observe the rule of law, rather he continued to disregard basic procedures. For example, on many occasions the defence lawyers and Darboe himself asked for proceedings to stop at the High Court as there was a submission they made to the Supreme Court to question the constitutionality of some charges. This is simply because the High Court, being a subordinate to the Supreme Court cannot continue to deal with a matter that is referred to the Supreme Court which is a more superior court and yet to decide on that matter. But the judge, Eunice Dada did not relent, but continued to disregard the rule of law. Earlier, it was the Court of Appeal presided over by a three-judge panel, namely Justices A. Adegoke, Edrissa Fafa M’bai and Awa Bah which refused bail to the accused persons after spending already four months in prison including the entire period of Ramadan.
Mr. President, the Gambia is in pain. The difficult scenario unfolding in this tiny West African nation over the years is a direct assault on the sovereignty of the people. When the Gambia gained independence in 1970, it was meant to shed off the yoke of colonialism because the British had seized our humanity. They forced us pay tax which they spent as they wished without our say. They made laws to determine where we can go and what we can do and say in our own land. They created institutions that controlled the resources, wealth and the labour of our people for their benefit alone. But it was our founding fathers, from the legendary pioneer freedom fighter EF Small to IM Garba Jahumpa, Rev. JC Faye, PS Njie and Dawda Jawara and many more in the civil society, as well as the religious and traditional arena together with the masses of our people who stood up to demand that Gambians are human beings with rights and dignity that must be respected. This is how and why we became an independent nation. Independence therefore is about the restoration of our humanity – our human rights and dignity as fully fledged human beings. Independence means self determination that we must rule ourselves according to our own ideas and wishes that we translate into our own laws and institutions. We create our own government to oversee the protection of our rights and our sovereignty to determine our destiny. We elect persons among us as president and parliamentarians and councilors to manage our resources and affairs according to our will, hence democracy and development. This is the reason why we sought independence.
Thus we did not seek independence so that decades later one among us will come around to sit on our heads, and to utilize our wealth and labour and resources anyhow, and interfere in our affairs as he or she wished while we wallow underneath in hardship and misery. We did not seek independence to live in fear in our own land. We did not seek independence to be hurt by our own public officials that we elect, employ and pay. We did not create a state so that it becomes a predator that consumes us, one by one.
The peaceful protest led by Solo Sandeng is a demonstration of sovereignty. To protest is an entrenched clause in our constitution in Section 25d, that all Gambians have a right to assemble and demonstrate peacefully and without the use of arms. The action by Ousainou Darboe is a demonstration of sovereignty because the police is a state institution responsible for the protection of our rights and lives. Hence the police is a legitimate destination to find out about any incident surrounding any individual in the Gambia, more so if it was the police themselves that arrested a citizen. In Section 17 of our constitution, the primary obligation is placed on the Executive and its agencies to protect all of our fundamental rights and freedoms which are the basis of our sovereignty. Thus the Office of the President and the police as its agency should have protected Solo to protest, and allow Ousainou to ask. In Section 17, the supreme law further places an obligation on the National Assembly to protect our fundamental rights and freedoms, but all throughout this act of abuse by the police, the National Assembly kept mute and distanced itself completely. Section 17 further identifies the judiciary as the third arm of the state with the primary obligation to interpret and apply the laws. Again, both the High Court and the Court of Appeal have not only failed to protect the right of these persons to protest and not to be tortured, but the court went further to trample on their rights by denying them bail, fair trial, presumption of innocence and the right to protest and then sentenced them to three years. This is a travesty of justice.
Imagine the case of one of the illegally accused, Fanta Darboe. Here is an innocent lady on holiday from America who happened to be a member of the family of Ousainou. The judge made her a prisoner simply because she did not utter a word in court and therefore she was guilty. Meanwhile in her ruling the judge acknowledged that Fanta and another illegally accused, Yaya Bah were not part of the event. Yet Justice Dada sentenced Fanta because she is a nurse, and acquitted Yaya because he is illiterate. Seriously? How could a fully fledged justice of the law condemn an innocent lady for merely being a nurse and keeping quiet but not part of the crime? These actions by the Gambian State therefore blatantly shows that it is not only Darboe and Co who are imprisoned, but the very sovereignty of each and every Gambian is in prison. By these actions committed by the State, it clearly shows that any Gambian who wishes to exercise his or her sovereign rights under Chapter 4 of our constitution will face similar or worse response from the State which is supposed to protect these rights and freedoms in the first place.
Can we therefore ask the Gambian state what does it wish to achieve by disregarding the sovereignty of Gambians? Is the government creating the environment for the peace and stability of the country, or are is seeking to endanger national security? History has shown that no force on earth can protect any citizen, leader or public officer in any society in which the sovereignty of the people are trampled into the mud. So long as one right is damaged for once and it is not repaired in full immediately then no one’s right and life is save in that society. Otherwise Ghadaffi, Campoare or Mubarak could have protected their rights and life, and not be flushed out by the masses of the people. The leadership of the Gambia must bear in mind that only the respect for human rights and the strict adherence to the rule of law are the only weapons that can ensure national and state security for ever. In the absence of human rights and the rule of law, society drops into a state of nature in which the survival of the fittest becomes the norm. In our lifetime we have witnessed too many regimes and so called strong rulers collapse and melt away like a burning candle simply because they disregarded human rights and the rule of law.
The Gambia has reached a situation where there is urgent need for each and every citizen, more so the various categories of leaderships in the political, social and economic arenas including the academia to raise their voices with words of justice, truth and patriotism. The country has reached a critical juncture when we must put together all of our resources and capacities to pull the nation together to uphold our uniqueness and exceptionalism that only the Gambian and Senegal share in the whole wide world. We are one family. In the Gambia I grew up, we are taught to believe and fear Allah or God; to be honest and hard working; to respect elders and venerate imams and priests. We are taught to be proud and uphold our culture of peace and hospitality and care and share. The Gambia deserves a leadership that should promote and preserve this culture and way of life to further cement the unity of our people.
Gambians, especially our political leaders, on both side of the divide must realize that the country is in pain. The country is in distress. Far too many Gambian families – mothers and fathers and sons and daughters have endured grief and pain at the destruction of their rights and lives by fellow their Gambians who by law have been tasked to protect them. Politics is the process by which people manage their resources and affairs for their wellbeing through a series of laws and institutions. Thus more than anyone, we expect our political leaders – the president as well as the opposition leaders to get out of their cocoons and look at the national interest. I cannot believe that the combination of our opposition leaders and the ruling party lack the intelligence, honesty and patriotism to salvage this country. Any Gambian who does not see that this country is falling off the cliff is either dishonest or ignorant or both. Hence the urgent need to salvage this country is now.
I wish to conclude by calling on Pres. Jammeh to give unconditional pardon to Ousainou Darboe and all those sentenced with him. I wish to further call on him to drop charges on all those undergoing trial and release them to reunite with their families. I wish to call on him to order the release of the body of Solo Sandeng and return to his family, and to investigate all cases of death, torture and rape in custody and bring perpetrators to book. I wish to advise the president that there is no winner in the way the Gambia is going. No one won in Liberia. No one won in Sierra Leone. No one won in Cote d’Ivoire. No one won in Libya. Certainly no one will win in the Gambia as it continues to cruise on that same path on which all those countries were once on and got crushed. Let us cast away our ego and vain pride out of the window and reposition ourselves on the path of reconciliation, truth and patriotism to bring the nation together. The time to save our nation is now.
One day it will not be said that Madi Jobarteh did not play his small part.
For the Gambia, Our Homeland.