By Omar Bah
President Adama Barrow’s plan to get the National Assembly to extend the state of public emergency for another three months as a measure to contain the spread of Covid-19 suffered a major setback yesterday.
The motion tabled by the Minister of Justice before lawmakers was referred to the National Assembly committee on human rights and constitutional matters for further scrutiny.
This came after a heated debate among the assembly members.
Hon. Halifa Sallah of Serekunda argued that the Gambia is dealing with an urgency that should not permit one to rely on technicality for its sake.“The National Assembly is an oversight institution meant to control excess of power and we must not begin to lose that control of oversight.We are told that we are existing under a state of emergence. We are not questioning the competence of the minister but we must begin to be guided by the very instrument that legitimises our presence here,” he said.
Sallah further explained that emergency powers are based on an act which provides proclamation or regulations to be made in order to effect control over our rights and those controls must be dictated by law.
“The minister knows very well that whatever regulations are published in the gazette must be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society and that is what we need to gauge. Are these regulations reasonable and justifiable in a democratic society? That is our duty and therefore to extend this would require real scrutiny of what is put before us. So that ultimately, we will say yes, we are in it together to fight Covid-19 but we are not in it together to restrict the rights of our people beyond what is reasonable and justifiable in a democratic society,” Sallah observed.
As the debate continued, the Speaker’s decision to allow the minister to respond before giving chance to other members to take the floor was met with fury.
The Speaker had to intervene on several occasions to restore decorum before the minister could finally take the floor .
In reaction, the Minister said: “I think why we are here is to help one another to take the best decision for our country. It does no harm to listen to what I have to say if it helps you in your decision. These are extraordinary times and the Speaker does have the power to call upon me to intervene by the Constitution and all I am trying to do is to clarify some of the issues raised by the Honourbale Member for Serekundaso that it may assist your decisions. The first point I wish to make is that the proclamation has been gazetted. That is the first statement of fact I want to make,” the minter said.
“Where is the evidence?”some members chanted. This prompted the minister to lose his cool, saying: “I hear someone saying where is the evidence? This is the Attorney General of the country speaking…If you don’t take my word for what it is, then it is okay, but I have the proclamations here.I understand the member for Serekunda’s concerns that between the period of the first and second declarations there might have been a gap and whether any measures were taken to enforce the regulations issued in between that gap. Now this is a matter of interpretation and that is not, with all due respect to Hon Member of Serekunda,the province of the National Assembly.That is the responsibility of our courts,” the minister said.
Sallah countered: “I believe it is just fair that we are entertaining what is not proper and the minister should realise that from that foundation. What he is saying now is improper but we are allowing him because we understand the urgency. (But) the minister should be properly guided.” Motion Before all that though,the Minister of Justice Abubacarr Tambadou justified the motion as follows: “A 90 days extension of the period of state of emergency will allow the government to do proper planning and organisation for the implementation of immediate medium- and long-term preventives and precautionary measures.
“Not only to save lives but also competing political, social and economic interest expected in such times of national and global crisis,” he added.
He said the government must be allowed to do all that it can to prevent the death of even a single Gambian, because it will be one life too many especially “if we can prevent it by our collective actions.”
“Given the size of our country and population and geographic location we are extremely vulnerable as a country and already overburdened health infrastructure would simply collapse under the weight of more Covid-19 cases in the country. When it peaks as predicted by health experts, it will not only kill people but there is also high chance it will decimate our front-line health workers. We simply cannot afford this to happen,” he said.