Public interest vs. witness safety
Business magnate Muhammad Bazzi made an unprecedented request at the Janneh Commission, through his lawyer, to have the rest of his testimonies in camera citing perceived threats against him and his employees. The high profile witness, believed to have made series of underhand payments to Jammeh’s personal accounts as means to curry favors from the then administration, is fearful that certain public disclosures could put his life and wellbeing in jeopardy.
As far as I can tell, Bazzi saw our small country as a lucrative business hotspot, recognized the unyielding greed in Jammeh and wasted no time in exploiting it to his maximum benefit. Like many foreign investors doing business in The Gambia, Muhammad Bazzi and his associates used cash to entice former President Jammeh before profiting off of our vulnerable country.
Jammeh administration had notoriety for strict adherence to loyalty, allegiance and secrecy and for 22 years, most of his illicit activities and financial crimes have only largely been rumored with very little corroboration from key players. This Commission affords Gambians the unique or rare opportunity to hear for themselves how that criminal cartel operated. Anyone closely monitoring the Commission’s proceedings is undoubtedly of the considered opinion that unearthing the felony-level misappropriation of public funds committed by Jammeh and the brazen complicity of compromised public officials must be open to the public. Although it is highly unlikely that millions of dollars squandered in this “industrial scale” corruption scheme will be recovered, Gambians can at least find solace in the knowledge of the whole truth, learn lessons and ensure that future thieving in our government is checked.
In the absence of General Saul Badjie’s testimony, Muhammad Bazzi and Amadou Samba are perhaps the most critical witnesses to directly link Jammeh to some of the sickening sabotage of our financial system. They are privy to and may have in their possessions evidence detailing Jammeh’s decade long pillaging enterprise and may even know how some of the looted funds are stashed or spent. Getting such vital information is crucial to the Commission’s efforts and in the broader public interest. Safety concerns of key witnesses and collaborators can apparently impede such important fact finding and recovery mission.
Thus, while I vehemently oppose any testimony to be heard in camera, I would suggest the coalition government through the Ministry of Interior and National Security Council device witness protection strategy that will ensure the safety of all individuals assessed to be at significant security risk due to their involvement with the Commission. Some may argue the rationale for providing tax payer funded protection services to those accused of stealing or aiding pilfering of public funds but we should be reminded that even convicted criminals are protected under the law. The Commission’s mandate in giving comprehensive account of Jammeh’s financial activities including those of his close associates should not be derailed or undercut for lack of cooperation from witnesses who are concerned for their personal security. In this case, witnesses’ security is tied to public interest.
We are also hopeful that the Commission of Inquiries end with this transition government; that oversight institutions get to work to serve as bulwarks against corrupt practices; that attitude towards public duty is reformed and that citizens are fully engaged and relentlessly committed to keeping watchful and constructive eyes on their government devoid of cynicism. As the Barrow administration has proven, it appreciates the praise and commendation from supporters but also listens to the genuine criticism of others. President Barrow recognizes both groups as patriots who love their country dearly and I pray he never veer off this path.
Zakaria Kemo Konteh