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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

I don’t want to be a refugee: An open letter to IGP Kinteh and Minister Mballow

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By Dembo Fatty

There comes a moment in one’s life when silence is the best approach to a situation. However, there are times when speaking up is the desired course of action in adding one’s voice to the multitudes of cries of a people to find a redress to urgent and pressing matters especially in life and death situations.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I consider both addressees as friends. I have known Kinteh for 30 years now. Our lives crossed path at Gambia High School when I was in Lower Six and I believe he was in Form 4. My memory may be hazy with regard to which class he was in. It would also happen that we both joined the Social Studies Club at Gambia High School perhaps because we both believed in social justice and the desire to get closer to our people, learn from them and prepare ourselves for the greater callings of life in later years.
That calling cannot be any larger and greater than the one we presently face. The call for action, leadership, direction and above all the call to stand with the very poor, weak and the down trodden that we both, 30 years ago dedicated ourselves to serve.

The attached picture I posted was taken by me in 1989 and I wish to refresh your memory that this was at Armitage High School on one of our Social Studies filed trips upcountry shortly after we left Wassu. It was dinnertime. The poor lighting says it all.
I posted the picture for three reasons:
First to refresh your memory and that I am not looking to become famous by being a friend of the Inspector General of Police. I am not looking for notoriety in this process but simply to proof that we knew each other when both of us were discounted and actually not risen the ladder of responsibility in the public domain. I like to provide evidence for whatever I do and say.

We knew each other years ago when we were young, inexperienced and innocent. And so, I can speak to you with candor and honesty that many friends you met during times of success cannot talk to you with frankness that I can. So, you can take my advice as a friend or you can decide not to. But I owe it to our friendship that I should be honest with you at all times and in all places even if my advice is not something you would like. I am not looking for your validation or favor. I am simply trying to be the friend I expect you to be to me if the roles were reversed. In the picture are some other friends like Almami Taal, Kalilu Camara, Ebrima Dibba, Bakary Fatty GRTS, Jarrai Dabo (I think niece of Bakary Dabo) and others.

Secondly, I posted the picture not to embarrass you as you can see almost everyone had food to their mouths but to show your human side of simplicity. Basically it was not an accident but by design that this picture is what it is. A group of young fellows trying to be who they were under the circumstance; young, outgoing and not shy to express themselves in the way they wanted to be. Perhaps, am sure some of these people would not want to appear in pictures like this today. But hay, these were teenage years and we all went through those boisterous moments of life. We made decisions that today looking back can jolt oneself from one’s seat questioning the unimaginable risks we took at this age. The picture showed the good side of you, relaxed, comfortable, sociable and true to yourself.

Thirdly, I posted the picture because of the food on the table you were having for dinner. If you look at the plate closely, you will notice that it was Jolof Rice with a slice of corned beef. Having previously been at Armitage for 5 years, this dinner was one of the best. Actually we the students from Armitage had a name for good food. It was simply “Town Food”. “Town Food” and “Armitage Food” are very different. The latter is simply food you eat to keep your soul and body together. While many in our group were complaining about the “Town Food” they were eating, little did they know that it would have to take a student strike in March 1987 demanding that the very “Town Food” quality we had for dinner that night. I am sure you would not want to know what real Armitage Food looked or tasted like. I and the likes of Yaya Dibba, Fode Darboe, Bamba Mass and Sana Sabally would toil with the idea of organising a strike and later sell it to like-minded students to improve the conditions of our lot both in terms of beds, matters, classroom furniture and even descent toilets.

By 1987, there were less than 100 tables in the school of 500 students. Students carried tables on their heads around for fear someone will steal it and at night they tie their tables to their bed frames with wires. I admit I did venture out at night untying tables tied to beds of “owners” while they were asleep. I was not a bad kid but the thrills of having a table and a chair and being able to sit at a desk even through one class session was priceless. You felt like winning the lottery.

Why am I bringing all this up here? It is simple. The incident at Faraba can be synonymous to the student strike I was part of in 1987 when we stood for our rights to have decent standard of living at Armitage. There were times we went to bed without dinner because rice was finish and we would be awoken at night to munch on corned beef sandwich courtesy of Waa Juwara, then Commissioner at Georgetown. We organised the strike because we wanted to be heard because for far too long, we have complained to school authorities, at our Kunda meetings and no one heard us. You see my friend, VIOLENCE SOMETIMES IS THE LANGUAGE OF THE UNHEARD.

We marched to Sankulay Kunda, with the conviction that since the school authorities failed us; we were going to take our grievances to President Jawara who was supposed to be visiting the island that day. Just to see how innocent we were, we instructed the students to take command of the ferry so that the president would not cross and so he will be forced to negotiate with us or at least, he would become aware that his people, needed his audience which he was never briefed prior or even the then education Minister cared about our condition.

The Police negotiated with us at the terminal but I still believe the psolice at Georgetown supported our move and the Station Officer never used his men to attack us. If the Police wanted to, they would have dispersed us before we got to Sankulay Kunda because we walked that three or four kilometre distance on foot which would have given them enough time to regroup and disperse the students.
Looks like the Police then had professional negotiators that day. They wanted us to line the sides of the road and that Jawara would stop to talk to us as soon as he gets off the ferry. We refused on the basis that once we lined up on the side of the road, Presidential escorts were known to drive at top speed which will make it very difficult for anyone to stand in their way and so we would not achieve our objective of talking to the President. We instructed the students to lie down on the road or sit effectively blocking Jawara as we knew, there was no way his men would drive vehicles over our little frames.

Those Police Officers and the Presidential Guards had weapons but they did not discharge them on us otherwise I would not be writing this post today. I was neck deep in the demonstrations. Not a single arrest was made and not a single student was beaten or shots fired. In the end, Jawara met us and our demands were respected and honored. That is why in this picture, our club members would sit at a dining table, which years earlier was not available to us.

So sometimes, a demonstration can yield positive results and the Town Food you had that night was borne out of the risks taken years earlier at the expense of our safety and educational careers. I do understand that sometimes, we each have to take on causes greater than ourselves even if that meant us losing but at least the greater society could enjoy life in dignity and peace.

The people of Faraba are just like us in 1987, seeking to be heard but unfortunately we as a people in 2018, did not accord them the leverage that was given to us at Sankulay Kunda. Yet it was the same Police Force and the same command structure for the most part. I have known you to be a straight shooter and I expect that you will get to the root of the issue and will, without hesitation bring those responsible to book. We voted in a constitution that guarantees our rights to protest our government officials and it is the duty of the Police to ensure that those rights are exercised without let or hindrance.

As annoying as these demonstrations and future demonstrations are going to be, they are guaranteed rights that must be enjoyed. If it were in Equatorial Guinea, I would not comment because they have not committed themselves to the ideals of a free and just society. But we as Gambians have committed ourselves to these democratic ideals and voted in a constitution to protect those rights.
Of recent, there has been a steady increase in calls from citizens for their representatives to review their situations from Gunjur to Sanyang to Faraba and so on. The Police Force must have a number of well-trained negotiators and conflict resolution officers with all the patience to listen and not rush to quickly find solutions that may end up creating more challenges for our young democracy.

As Inspector General of Police, you are, in my opinion, the most powerful man in that country. Under your command, thousands of men and women trained and ready to act on your orders and to shoot and kill if necessary. Internal security is your responsibility and so on those shoulders lie great hopes of the people that decisions arrived at, will be for the greater good.

Personally, I am not calling for any resignations until we get to the root of the matter but I am apprehensive of a structure as regimental as the Police, that live shots could be fired without a nod from the high command still baffles me. The various branches of the service have one thing in common; and that is respect for the chain of command and a clearly defined and enforced pecking order. I learnt in management school that as a leader it’s good practice to delegate but I learnt in my professional life that you cannot delegate a ritual. Orders of this nature must be cleared with you or a committee so appointed. Non-commissioned officers cannot make such decisions on their own.

And this brings me to the Minister Mballow. I knew you some 31 years ago this year and having graduated from Armitage two years earlier than me, I believe you still remember our school motto being “enter to learn, go forth to serve”; a call that every student of Armitage has answered to. I am proud to be a product of this great center of excellence. As the secretary of state for the interior, you provide oversight administrative functions to men and women under you and I am just concerned that with many flashpoints in the past weeks that a proactive decision was not taken to avert the situation we now wallowing in.

As a history enthusiast, I cannot but bring parallel situations in history and how they were handled. In the 1960s, Mr Jallow, a trade unionist organised riots in Banjul for descent wages and for over a week, Banjul was ungovernable until troops were brought in from Freetown to help the situation. Yet, not a single person died and that year saw the highest increase in wages in The Gambia, over a whopping 25% salary increase unmatched to this day.

Those police officers had guns, but they did not shoot to kill. Crowd control is a science but at the core of our challenge is the retraining of our men and women in uniform to respect the rights of the people. We are not enemies. Far from it. We are in fact your employers. We gave up our powers and gave you the authority to provide safety for the general good. You carried the guns while we gave up ours. Sometimes I see some sense in the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution giving citizens the right to bear arms. That however, is for a different discourse.

You must quickly provide group or individual therapy sessions to men and women under you and reorient them that it is not business as usual. Changing attitudes will be difficult but it can be done. For a Force who for the best part of the last 22 years were under duress and sometimes acted above the law, trying to change approach will be a big hurdle to climb. As former member of the security force, I expect that you too will investigate without delay, and with the quickest turnaround time, undertake serious reforms. Those found wanting be accorded due process despite their alleged grave actions because we have said loud and clear that each individual will be accorded equal protection before the law and each individual is subservient before the law.
This video (https://www.facebook.com/dembo.fatty/videos/pcb.10155973774133071/10155973771068071/?type=3&theater) is at the burial of Solo Koroma’s burial, a man who stood up when most of us were sitting and paid the ultimate price so we could enjoy freedoms today.
The old man in video said the following things:

Nfa suwo (my family home)
Nfa banko (my country)
Ee karreh siso kong kong woleh lah (These two things, you pound your chest for)
Fong furewo (or my dead body).
Simply, if we cannot be free in our compounds and in our countries, then it’s of no worth living. I don’t want to be a refugee. I would like to live in Gambia free from fear or crisis because I want to be close to my ancestors. There is no place like home.

If we cannot protest for our rights, then what is democracy? I don’t want to be a refugee and I believe you two will do the utmost to provide safety and protect lives needed for growth and development. You two have a greater calling at this time in history and be rest assured, that history is recording every footnote during these trying times.
I want you both to succeed. Refocus, reload and shoot for the stars. Faraba will not be the last test. There are still many trouble spots from Gunjur to Sanyang and so on that are unresolved and being proactive rather than reactive will either make us or break us as a country. Your leadership is needed and we cannot afford another lapse.

A people are on the move for justice. To right the wrongs and although that is not your role, the quicker the Executive moves the better for all of us. Justice before reconciliation is the mantra. Many lost lands, jobs, died or disappeared and are looking for redress. Too bad you have to become the sponge to absorb these flares of frustration.
Remember that sometimes, VIOLENCE IS SIMPLY THE LANGUAGE OF THE UNHEARD.

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