By Musa Bah
Are we going to spend all our time protesting? Is there a protest every day now? What is the purpose of these many protests? Why don’t we stop all these useless protests and work for our development? How will the government do its work if people are protesting every day? The security situation is fragile and therefore it is not safe to always protest. Why can’t we give peace a chance?
The above are the frequently asked questions and points raised in the daily conversations in the Gambia. One would think that protests are actually bad; that they promote violence, or that they waste valuable time in a country. These are actually assumptions that are neither based on any tangible reasons nor on empirical proofs.
A careful study of the word protest and what is being said about it in the Gambia will reveal that many – if not most – people dismissing protests do not actually understand people power and what protests stand for, or mean. And, well, this is understandable seeing that majority of the youth who have become active in political and social life were born during what many refer to as the Jammeh-era.
The Jammeh-era is known for its repression on political and civil rights. Citizens were not allowed freedom of assembly or, speech for that matter. As a result, the many years of a gag and repression robbed the young people of the understanding of protest and its power. After the defenestration of Yahya Jammeh and his regime therefore, one would have – or should have – expected a proliferation of protests and dissenting views. This is where we are today.
For instance, we recently saw a protest by the Three Years Jotna Movement, the Five Years Jotagul and the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC). We have also heard of the Victims’ Centre and some other groups preparing to hit the streets on the 23rd of January. Seeing all these protests and counter-protests, some people seem to be weary that we are losing it. Some think that this has the ominous potential of sparking off violence in the country.
Successive governments in the Gambia have trumpeted a narrative that protests are riots viz; they are violent. As a result of this constant but blemished narrative, now the ordinary person hears riots when you say protests. The truth however is that this narrative is false. Governments are quick to run to their ever-present-defense of ‘national security’ to pedal fear in the hearts of the people and as such, there is anxiety in the air and the very people for whom you wish to protect begin to fight against you.
The reality however is that protests are at the heart of democracy and no democrat will attempt to stop protests of the people no matter how much you differ with the ideas for which people are protesting. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall). This is the spirit of freedom of expression and that of assembly. You may disagree with a group’s reason for protesting but you should defend its right to protest.
As I am no lawyer and don’t know much about the interpretation of the Constitution or other laws, I will use practical examples of what protests mean to the ordinary person in a democracy.
In the year 2019 alone, protesters took to the streets around the world to demand change. True, some of these protests turned violent and some people lost their lives, but the majority of them were peaceful, registering unprecedented changes and improvements for the people of those countries. A careful study has also shown that whenever and wherever a protest turns violent it is because of the way it was handled or mishandled by the government.
In Hong Kong for example, a bill which stipulated that suspects would be extradited to mainland China sparked off months of protests till the government withdrew that bill. The people, mainly students, turned it into a prodemocracy protest in defiance of China and their own government.
In the Middle East, protests brought massive change to the systems which were entrenched for decades. In Iran for instance, the masses, led by student leaders, took to the streets and demanded change. The outcome is that the government is forced to listen to them when they speak out.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi had to resign due to pressure brought on by protesters. The Lebanese protests against a government proposed internet fee brought the divided public together fighting for a common good.
In Sudan, protests brought down strongman Omar el Bashir. A similar feat happened in Algeria. No one needs to be told about Senegal where there are daily protests for one thing or the other. As a result of these constant protests, public officials are extremely cautious as to what they do. It is clear that it is only because of this that Senegal is ahead of us in every sphere of governance.
Ghana is another excellent example. It is not that these countries are – or have become – perfect, but at least they have started a journey which will bring them closer to progress every day.
So, if you ask me whether there are too many protests in the Gambia, my answer will be that we don’t have enough. We must cultivate the culture of protests until service providers – both public and private -understand that we mean business and do the right thing.
Fear not dissent, it is the spice of life!