Dr Ousman Gajigo
The recent shooting of Ismaila Tamba by soldiers on 19th May at Kanilai was an accident that could have been prevented. First of all, we have at least seven military checkpoints in the country, all located on well-travelled major roads. These checkpoints are manned by armed soldiers with no training on internal law enforcement or how to properly interact with civilians. One still gets the impression that some of these soldiers are still influenced by the culture of impunity that was forged under the Jammeh dictatorship where the military was given all sorts of responsibilities and powers irrespective of whether it is their proper mandate or whether they have the requisite expertise.
This combination is a recipe for disaster. This tragic event is completely avoidable because we should not have even a single military checkpoint in the country. The proper place for the military is in the barracks and off the road, unless there is war. Internal security or law enforcement is not the responsibility of the military, nor are they trained for it. As long as we continue to have military checkpoints, tragic incidents like this will sadly and inevitably occur.
I have personal experience and a near miss as far as military checkpoints are concerned. On May 1st 2019, sometime between 3pm and 4pm, I approached the military checkpoint at Kalagi. There was already a queue of several vehicles caused by the barriers erected by the military checkpoint. When the vehicle directly in front of mine moved forward, I followed. Even after the vehicle in front of me was allowed to proceed, the soldier manning the checkpoint insisted that I must reverse and go behind a barrier since I started to move before he motioned for me to do so. I refused the unreasonable command because there was no vehicle in front of me. Upon my refusal, he ordered me to pull to the side of the road. I again refused to do so because he had no probable cause to detain me and, in any case, I don’t believe the military has the right to detain civilians as far as traffic-related issues are concerned.
I ignored his commands and gently proceeded to depart because I didn’t see the point in engaging him any further. As I drove off, I observed the soldier in my rearview mirror drew his gun, proceeded to cock it and aimed it at my car. Luckily for me, he didn’t shoot at my vehicle, which had two passengers at the backseat at the time. Nevertheless, the soldier went through the motions of taking a shot at me even though I presented no imminent danger to him or others. It is only in a military dictatorship that soldiers would feel comfortable to behave in such a fashion.
The tragic shooting of Ismaila Tamba and my own experience, and from the experience of many ordinary Gambians, raise the question of why we have checkpoints manned by the military. After all, we have a police force in the country whose role is internal law enforcement. Despite all the problems associated with our police force, they at least have training in law enforcement and experience in interacting with civilians in their day-to-day operations.
Unlike the checkpoints manned by the police, the ones manned by the military are major hinderances. This is because the military checkpoints have multiple unnecessary barriers that result in vehicles queues anytime you have more than three vehicles simultaneously approaching. The most egregious of these checkpoints is the one located in Farafenni in front of the military barracks, which has more than six barriers. Apart from stopping vehicles and unnecessarily wasting people’s time and asking for money, these checkpoints serve no security role.
If the return of the military checkpoints is necessitated by the need to address some deficiency in the ability of the police to provide adequate internal security, the proper course of action by the government is to address the relevant shortcoming directly with the police force by providing the necessary resources. For instance, if the issue is that the police force can’t carry out certain security roles due to the fact that they are not uniformly armed, the appropriate solution is to upgrade the armed unit of the police to enable them to carry out the necessary patrols and checks rather than giving a role to the army that it is not trained for. In fact, we already have a police unit that is armed, and that unit is actually manning certain checkpoints. The government should give the necessary training needed to that unit, in accordance with the security concerns. Even with checkpoints being manned by the police, the government should look into reducing them.
Also, it must be pointed out that the proliferation of security points, even if manned exclusively by the police, does not mean greater security. Officers can provide security in a given area without standing in the middle of the road and stopping every single vehicle. More often, the more unobstructive and inconspicuous a security arrangement is, the more effective it can be. This is why checkpoints put in the middle of the road should be reconsidered. Currently, our checkpoints, whether manned by police or the military, serve little security function. If you want to evade a police security checkpoint in The Gambia, travel between 12pm and 3pm, since no police officer would be found standing under the hot sun during those times. Similarly, you can carry contraband through any military checkpoint if you are willing to part with D50 and willing to endure your time being wasted.
So, with all these checkpoints, you have a situation where there is only an appearance of security being provided when in reality, they are just sources of nuisance or worse.
While discussing this particular tragic issue, let’s not forget the underlying cause, which is rooted in the failure of the Barrow government to implement short-term corrective measures in the constitution and in select laws that were enacted by the Jammeh dictatorship to provide legal cover for security forces to act with impunity.
While we can only speculate on what is going inside the mind of the soldier that shot Tamba and the one that took aim at me, there are legal and constitutional reasons why some soldiers might feel embolden to act in a certain manner. The defective 1997 actually gives the power to security forces to use deadly force. Specifically, it states that
“…a person shall not be regarded as having been deprived of his or her life in contravention of this section if he or she dies as a result of the use of force to such extent as is reasonably justifiable in the circumstances of the case…”
One of the cases is specified as follows:
“(b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained”.
In other words, the 1997 Constitution, our current supreme law of the land, does not consider it a violation of your right if the security forces kill you even under such a circumstance where you do not pose any imminent danger to them or others. This means that the soldier who shot Mr. Tamba may have a credible defense by citing the constitution, as distasteful and inconscionable as that would be.
How ironic is that the Barrow government is still empowering Jammeh in a way. Yahya Jammeh even had the audacity to comment on the tragic shooting of Mr Tamba. While we may be outraged by wolf cries of a dictator who has lots of blood on his hands, our ire should also be focused on the Barrow government for giving the necessary opening to Jammeh to condemn a preventable tragedy. The very reason why military checkpoints exist is that the Barrow government has not clearly thought through their policies and has unwittingly allowed Yahya Jammeh’s policy to continue to guide various institutions in the country to date through commission and omissions.
Partly as a result of inaction by the civilian leadership, our military remains chronically and permanently confused about its proper role because it is yet to undergo any meaningful reforms. The legal basis notwithstanding, the military brass needs to make clear the kind of orders that are being given to soldiers at the checkpoints during the investigation of this particular shooting. Irrespective of legacies of the Jammeh dictatorship, we deserve better than the status quo given the change that we voted in. While I do not believe that soldiers are given the order to shoot at moving vehicles, the fact that this incident occurred is disquieting because it means that our soldiers remain poorly trained and may still feel embolden to act with impunity. This tragic occurrence cannot be explained away as the errant behavior of one ill-trained soldier. As my own experience has shown, many soldiers manning checkpoints do not understand what is acceptable and appropriate behavior. This tragic event therefore represents an institutional failure.
Ousman Gajigo is an economist. He has held positions with the African Development Bank, the UN, the World Bank and Columbia University. He holds a PhD in development economics. He is currently an international consultant and also runs a farm in The Gambia.