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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Lamin Bojang: PRO- Coalition of Progressive Gambians

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Recently, a pressure group calling themselves Coalition of Progressives came into prominence. When anchor Alagie Manneh met their Pirang-born PRO this week, he asks him about what they hope to achieve, their planned demonstration in November and related matters underpinning Gambia.

The Standard: Tell us about the genesis of Coalition of Pressive Gambians?

PRO Lamin Bojang: It is a group that is formed by people who did not come from the same settlements; who hailed from across the country, and from different backgrounds. We are not from the same regions or from the same compounds, but we all have one purpose; The Gambia. It is on that basis that we decided to come together to address and perhaps to solve the numerous simmering issues challenging the country. People do not just get up and form a group out of nowhere. No. We didn’t form the group for fame. We have realised that it’s The Gambia that we have, and that nobody is going to come from outside and develop The Gambia for us. It’s the citizens that must change the state of the country. The citizens who are supposed to change this country, their current predicaments remain because of the type of people they decide to give power to, who prefer them in their current state. Therefore, this group is established to bring government into account on what has been entrusted to them by the citizens of this country. It’s an entrustment that the people of the country decide to give to a few. The government’s handling of our affairs today, and the aspirations of the citizens, particularly as in regards to the harsh living conditions, is fearful, and thought-provoking. As concern citizens, we intend to remind the government of its sole responsibility of protecting and standing up to address issues affecting the citizens of the country.

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Exactly, who are the members of Progressive Gambians?

It is a group of people who came together. Among us we have farmers, teachers, and people from every profession and from all the regions. That is why we called it a ‘Coalition.’ It’s a big group, and we have representatives in all the seven regions of the country.

You have always highlighted the issue of corruption in several of your press releases. In your estimation, how dire is the situation?

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Every now and then, you hear of embezzlement of public funds by the government. The government has been indicted on numerous occasions even by institutions it established itself. Therefore, it’s easy to see that the government is truly mismanaging people’s money. Subsequently, it is citizens who will pay the price of corruption. That is what this pressure group came to address. The government must be accountable to the people. That is why it is called a government; to manage the affairs of the citizens. The person who is heading that government today, from 2017 to date, we haven’t seen him took any steps to addressing those issues. The loans that they take in our name – the citizens – we are the ones asking now of things that we expounded on in our many press releases.

What should be done to end the runaway graft in The Gambia?

That is very simple! The government must do its job. Just like I have told you, it’s the responsibility of the government to protect the citizens and to address issues such as corruption and cost of living. The high cost of living has become unbearable. Rice is a staple food in The Gambia, but it has become so expensive today. You know, this country is quite blessed. This country can feed itself if at all those who we selected and give power to put in place good policies and programmes. If you take a look, from 2017 to date, the Barrow government has been destroying agriculture, and not supporting it in this country, yet it is agriculture that can salvage the people of this country. As I am speaking today, how much does a bag of fertiliser cost. And almost 70 percent of the Gambian population are farmers. But what is the cost of fertiliser today? Take a look at the annual budget itself, how much is given to the agriculture sector, compared to other sectors? It is unfortunate. They fund sectors that only consume, but don’t generate nothing. I’m a farmer. In any given year, if I invest heavily on my farm, that year I earn a lot. Agriculture is the backbone of this country on which a people can thrive. If that backbone is broken, then no one can survive. They haven’t prioritised agriculture. A bag of fertiliser today costs more than a bag of rice. A government that cannot subsidise its farmers or reduce the price of fertiliser for them. Is that government destroying or empowering agriculture? It’s in the open. Now, everybody must think.

Although pressure groups are a vital link between the government and the governed in any democracy, critics said the Coalition of Progressives is a group of disgruntled politicians hiding behind the mask of advocacy. What do you say to that?

We all have our views. No one can stop others from expressing their opinion. In anything you do in life, the critics will say what the critics will say. But that shouldn’t stop you from accomplishing what you set out to. If you look at our demands made to government, they included the basic concerns of Gambian citizens today; cost of living, embezzlement of public funds, unemployment. We haven’t seen since 2017 to date any steps taken by the Barrow government to assure us that the reforms they promised would come to pass. This government came to power on the back of promised reforms on salient issues that were condemned by both us and them. That was what led to Gambian’s voting against the dictator. They did so on aspirations and promises made to them when the change comes. That was the reason why we all embraced the Coalition 2016. But those expectations and hopes have all faded. Some people might be surprised and say oh but we have freedom of expression today, and we have a democracy. But in a democracy, if the citizens cannot express themselves, then it means we are not in a democracy. That is why we voted against a dictator in 2016 to end dictatorship to be in a democracy where citizens can express themselves. So, that’s a non-starter.

Why do you think pressure groups like yours get a bad rap in some quarters any time you came out?

I think [the National Centre for] Civic Education needs to work more. People speak of things that they have no comprehension of, and that is why, sometimes, they say what they say. It is every citizen’s right under section 25 of the 1997 constitution to associate with any group, and to demand for a just cause on issues that are going wrong. If people are doing that, they get labelled as trouble makers. No Gambian wants to see The Gambia burn down. The Coalition of Progressives is not after anyone. We entrusted a group with responsibility and that is Barrow and his government who have been drifting off course and that is why this group is established.

Your vice chairperson, Fanta Mballow, was a well-known figure of the proscribed group Three Years Jotna. How would working with her affect the image of the Coalition?

I have said this over and over again that members of Coalition of Progressive Gambians came from all walks of life. The over 800,000 Gambians who registered for the last presidential election all came from a political party. They are empowered as citizens of this country to take part in that process. Therefore, what it shows is that every citizen has a right under the constitution to associate with any political party or group. So, whoever you see among us, be it Fanta or me, people should not raise questions about that. Since the founding of this group, we have created a link and people joined. We have established principles and procedures, it is those principles that admire people from different aspects of our society who came to join us. So, people’s saying that Tom and Harry are part of us and they were the ones who used to… for us, we haven’t prioritised those issues. We are talking about the interest of the country. It is every citizens right to join us, irrespective of were you used to belong. So, we have expected those criticisms, and we accept critics. But if you have gone through our aims and objectives, if you hear such things, you would pay a deaf ear to them. And no one can divert us on our cause, and we will never be intimidated. We have a vison for this country, and that is to put the government into account.

The Inspector General of Police this week denied your request for a peaceful protest against corruption, unemployment and rising cost of living. Is this the end of the road for the Coalition of Progressive Gambians?

The Gambian story is a sad one. The response that the IGP gave, no… before I address that, let me tell you something. We wrote asking the government on issues bordering on the rising cost of living, corruption, the burning to ash of the fisheries department and the findings that are up to date under the carpet, the illegal opening of the D669 million security account that they claimed to have closed and it got opened again. Those are some of the demands we wrote in our press release. We followed that up by applying for a permit to go out and protest on November 11, as stipulated under the 1997 constitution. The so-called Public Order Act that is stifling citizens; that is not serving the interest of the Gambian people but the government and its inner circle, should be scrapped. We know that we are empowered by the constitution to go out and protest, peacefully. The Public Order Act said that before any group goes out to protest it must write to the IGP first, but we know that the country’s constitution has empowered the citizens to protest peacefully.  The Public Order Act is being used to stifle citizens who want to express their rights when their governments are not governing the right way. 

My question is, what will you do now?

The IGP said that his decision was based on “security reasons”. But there’s no threat to a nation greater than citizens going to bed without food, waking up without breakfast and thinking where they will get the next meal. There’s no security threat greater than that. There’s no security threat greater than a citizen who gets sick and went to a hospital but couldn’t get medicines; there’s no greater threat than a parent who spent his resources on the education of his children, yet the government did not provide employment or create the avenues for citizens to self-actualise. The situation has led to hopelessness among the parents and the youth. Parents are selling off all their properties to fund the deadly back way journey for their children, even if they will die at sea, all because of hopelessness, and a government that seem to not care. We have released a statement in the wake of the IGPs rejection that we will re-apply for a permit but that does not in any way indicate that we are cowards or that we afraid to come out in November. What we wanted is to follow all the due process of the law as it is the responsibility of the IGP to give police protection. It doesn’t mean that the November 11 peaceful protest has been cancelled. That is well established, and in the calendar. The IGPs letter did not affect that in any way.

Won’t your actions then in fact be treasonous?

No. The law that empowers the citizens to come out and protest when things are not going the way they should, it is that law that we will be leaning on. It remains our intention to protest come November. We made the request only to follow the laws, as we are governed by laws. The country belongs to the citizens, and it is they who are demanding for an accountable government.  

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