The police must protect the right to protest

By Madi Jorbateh

In the New Gambia, we envisage a kind of police services that is apolitical and non-partisan and only dedicated to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. The function of the police is to defend human rights at all times. This is why the police investigate, detect and prevent crimes and apprehend and prosecute criminals whose only intention is to infringe on the rights of others. In the same vein it is the role of the police to ensure that those who wish to exercise their rights have the space and freedom to do so without infringing on the rights of others.

In this regard it is therefore utterly concerning that the Gambia Police Force decided to deny a group of citizens whose intention is to occupy Westfield for the purpose of expressing their dissatisfaction with the state of electricity supply. The right to protest peacefully and without the use of arms is an entrenched clause in the Gambia Constitution. In that same law, the police, as an organ of the Executive are mandated under Section 17 to defend all the rights stipulated in Chapter 4 entitled ‘Fundamental Rights and Freedoms’.
The news that the police expressed security concerns as their reasons to deny the protestors a permit is untenable. Security concerns have always been a convenient cover for governments that seek to curtail civil space and activity. Unless the Inspector General of Police lays out the details, there has not been any official report yet either from the Executive or the Parliament that there is a looming threat facing the Gambia. Hence how would a protest by citizens about the delivery of a public good lead to violence or threaten the security of the Gambia?

Just a few days ago, we witnessed various political parties organize massive rallies, yet there was no security concern raised. One of those parties in fact was the APRC, which is the most recent ruling party of the Gambia. Why didn’t the IGP deny the APRC and later the UDP to hold a rally because of security concerns? Has the IGP and the Executive ever reported any incidents involving either internal or external forces seeking to destabilize the Gambia? If so, let the Gambia Government tell citizens what threats this country faces.
The IGP must be told not to raise false alarms just to suppress fundamental freedoms. Since taking office many months ago this IGP has never held a press conference or issued a public statement on the state of security in the Gambia. In the absence of such public information where then is the security concern? By claiming security concerns the police is therefore causing fear among Gambians and projecting the country as unstable to the international community. But is that really the case or the IGP is merely protecting the Government from dissatisfied citizens?

The denial of a permit is also further concerning given that the Minister of Justice just declared at a public forum on transitional justice on October 28 at UTG that his ministry would not enforce those laws that infringe on fundamental rights and freedoms. He cited the Public order Act among those laws. In fact the Public Order Act was among the list of laws that Barrow mentioned in his manifesto that he would repeal within six months of taking office. Yet the Barrow Administration is 10 months old today without any sign of law reforms!
I wish to therefore urge the IGP that he must rescind his so-called denial of permit and ensure that he provides the necessary security to protect both protesters and the general public. These citizens have a right to express their dissatisfaction with the government for any reason they deem fit. It is their choice that is guaranteed by the constitution. The job of the police is not to deny them their choice by hiding behind vague security concerns but rather to open the space for enjoyment of rights.

What all Gambians must understand and be concerned about is that when we allow the Government to take such decisions then we are effectively allowing it to close civil space and limit our rights. Today it is #OccupyWestfield, tomorrow it might be another group of people intending to express their issues and concerns. If we allow the IGP and the Government to refuse this protest, then we are giving them the power to refuse any other public demonstration in this country. We must bear in mind that it is through such civil disobedience activities that a society nurtures democracy and ensure good governance. It is such actions that will ensure accountable leadership and make public instititons become transparent, efficient, and responsive in the performance of their functions.

This decision by the police does not serve the Barrow Government at all. Here is an opportunity that they have lost if they had allowed this protest to go on, which could have further strengthened this Government morally and politically. It will serve to enhance citizens’ sense of security. More importantly it will diffuse some of the grievances in citizens as a result of the dire electricity situation. Hence Barrow lost another opportunity to cement his leadership and ensure greater security within the Gambia by denying this permit. Therefore Barrow must be advised to ask his agencies to consider all factors quite critically before they take certain decisions lest they injure the Government further.

For those citizens who claim that this protest is not necessary because NAWEC and the Government had said they are addressing the energy crisis must bear few things in mind. Just as one thinks this protest is not necessary so also do others thing it is necessary. Both camps are not necessarily right or wrong because both camps are merely exercising their right to freedom of opinion. Let us bear in mind that there is no right or wrong time to protest in a democracy. What appears to you as unnecessary and premature may appear to another as urgent and necessary.

Thus if you claim that a particular protest is not necessary rest assured that when your time comes to also protest others may find it also unnecessary. Thus let us recognize those interested to protest as their right even if we disagree with their reasons or will not join them. Let us not call for their protest to be stopped or denied.

God Bless The Gambia

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