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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Attack on PIU officers and the press conference

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By Madi Jobarteh

The 12 September attack on Police Intervention Unit officers resulting in two casualties and the critical injury of one are despicable and cowardly, and the Inspector General of Police must be commended for speedily apprehending the key suspect, Ousainou Bojang. I wish to call on the police to carry out their investigations with due diligence and professionalism to ensure that the alleged perpetrator or perpetrators face the law. May the departed souls rest in peace, and a speedy recovery to the injured officer.

I followed the press conference on Friday by the Deputy Inspector General of Police Modou Sowe and the National Security Advisor Abubakarr Jeng and the Minister for the Interior Seyaka Sonko only to be left with more doubts and questions than answers. Beyond describing how the suspect and six others were arrested, a lot of questions are circulating in my mind. For example, any concerned citizen would want to know the motive of the suspect. Why did he target PIU officers at Sukuta-Jabang turnabout in particular? What were his plans? What is his life story other than the fact that he is said to be from Brufut and worked at a local private security company? What is his state of mental health? Or is he driven by ideology, politics, or some other interest? Why would a Gambian-born alleged Casamance rebel think of nothing but shooting to death fellow Gambians in uniform and then run to Casamance?

Furthermore, I am left wondering about the effectiveness and appropriateness of police operations such that the incident on 12 September could not have been detected and prevented before it happened. In other words, how come the suspect for this heinous crime could have the ability to escape from the crime scene to the extent of crossing the border without being apprehended? Sukuta-Jabang turnabout is indeed a populous and busy intersection where there are always multiple armed and unarmed police officers from both the PIU and the traffic police, yet this suspect could escape. There is a need to critically analyse this incident objectively in the context of the entire security sector reforms to identify the gaps and weaknesses and to prevent a similar occurrence.

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In my mind, the fundamental question one needs to raise is how do the police carry out their functions? That is, how equipped are the police? Which police officers need to be where? What kinds of tools and skills should police officers have to ensure effective detection, prevention and apprehension of crimes and criminals at the heat of the moment. For example, were there or no police CCTV security cameras at Sukuta-Jabang turnabout? Are armed police provided live rounds as they mount checkpoints there? Do the police have vehicles, communication gear, and bodycams? Are the police provided with the necessary intelligence and combat skills to respond within split seconds to such situations?

I hope the police leadership and the National Security Adviser will exercise their minds as to how one person could walk to a public place, shoot down three police officers, and still could not be arrested there and then, and not even within the borders of the Gambia! This question requires the police and security leadership to remove all emotions and demonstrate utmost honesty and objectivity in pinpointing the issues and finding lasting solutions. Yes, we have seen the opening of new police buildings at Serekunda, Bakoteh, Brusubi and Bundung police stations. We are seeing new smart outfits of the traffic police, among other reforms especially in the areas of capacity building and promotions. But the police and the security leadership must also understand that like every other society, The Gambia is also undergoing social, economic and political transformations in diverse dimensions which will impact security. Is the law enforcement and the entire security infrastructure prepared for these changes?

In a nutshell, the press conference has not provided any deep analysis of the entire security apparatus to identify the weaknesses and gaps that could have prevented or allowed such a tragic incident to occur. Instead, they went political to pontificate about rights, peace, and the constitution and to admonish citizens and the media about the dissemination of information. The press conference itself came quite late at almost 72 hours after the incident, which is utterly undesirable. The professional thing to do in such situations is for the police to come out immediately within hours of the incident to share preliminary information which continues to be updated as more information is obtained without compromising classified or sensitive information that could interfere with the investigation.

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As a citizen I am concerned about this incident because it is unprecedented. Is anyone safe again in this country if a gunman could shoot down police officers and still escape through the borders of the country? Furthermore, I am worried about the response of the government because of the conflicting information they gave. Before the press conference, Government Spokesperson Ebrima Sankareh said the suspect was an employee of Brikama Area Council. He classified the attack as an act of terrorism. He also said the suspect had plans to kill many more officers and was provided a getaway vehicle.

Interestingly, most of the information provided by Sankareh was not mentioned by either DIG Sowe or NSA Jeng. As a citizen, I find this both worrying and unbelievable. This incident is so serious that no government can afford to speak with two conflicting tongues. In that case which tongue should citizens believe? Furthermore, as this is a serious criminal act, one would have expected that the Director of Public Prosecution should be present as the foremost law enforcement officer to highlight the path of justice in terms of what law was broken and what legal steps are available.

I would therefore like to advise The Gambia Government that instead of them asking citizens and the media to manage information well, they should be the very ones to do that first. For example, I do not understand the emphasis by DIG Sowe about information and media as if he is angry with someone. Why is he and the Minister of Interior and the security advisor harping on rumours and speculations when they sat there for more than two days at least before holding a press conference?

I would therefore advise the IGP and team and the Minister for the Interior as well as the NSA to watch press conferences by other police institutions around the world in times of such incidents to learn lessons. One will notice that in more professional police institutions, they quickly convene a press conference by bringing in all relevant agencies to give clear, precise, and user-friendly information and then continue to update.

Furthermore, I wish to advise that when they need to hold a press conference, they must ensure that they have well-organized and meaningful information to give and create adequate time. It is not professional to organise a press conference about such a highly worrying incident only to rush it. They must make sure they have time to spend hours answering all kinds of good or bad, intelligent or stupid, and indeed fair and unfair questions. Otherwise, don’t hold any press conference.

Giving adequate and clear information calmly and devoid of politics is necessary to allay public fears, generate public confidence and gives assurance that indeed the police are on top of things. But this press conference is totally unhelpful as the information provided only raises more questions and doubts in people’s minds.

Madi Jobarteh is head of the INGO Westminster Foundation, former radio journalist and deputy head of Tango.

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