By Samsudeen Sarr
The regrettable or rather unfortunate Faraba Banta incident on Monday the 18th of June 2018 where three young Gambians lost their lives and few villagers got injured from gunshot wounds allegedly fired by members of The Gambian security forces against ‘peaceful-village- demonstrators’ once again brought to light a familiar operational failure by our security forces due primarily to a flawed Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that should have been addressed or reformed way back in 2000 after several students lost their lives in that year’s April demonstration. I have indeed written extensively about this faulty SOP without any impact on its enduring existence.
However in the wake of the Faraba Banta tragedy characterised by the same blame game spreading around again for lack of good answers while the root cause of the problem remains elusive or ignored, I found it compelling to once again draw the attention of the authorities over this chronic problem for possible amendments on it this time.
I am however inclined to believe that by trying to pin the problem down on the wrong issues such as demanding answers on who gave the orders to shoot or whether or not the shooters were remnants of the previous government’s trigger-happy officers or whether the new government has been acting like the previous one on human rights violations, merely compounds the problem rather than finding a meaningful and permanent solution to it. In fact, shootings of this nature are never done on anyone’s orders; they tend to happen more out of spontaneity than a deliberate act. And again, to think that the current members of the security forces are any different in form or character from those who had served in the previous regime goes to confirm a total misconception of the security dynamics we live by today. Trust me; it’s the same folks in numbers, style and substance from the top to the bottom echelon.
Anyway whereas the APRC government since the April 2000 tragedy took the brunt of the entire blame for what happened, while they also made some weak attempts to shift the blame elsewhere and even took remedial measures that reflected their regret over the tragedy, in the end I think they failed to correct the underlying problem that caused the disaster and still lingers around. Remember how they first tried to accuse the demonstrators of stealing weapons and ammunitions from the police stations that they said resulted in the armed conflict just to make the government look good? That theory didn’t survive a week after it was debunked in its entirety. Nonetheless they eventually came up with a handsome compensation scheme for the families of the victims who at the time showed genuine appreciation of the gesture.
The government, if we could recall, even set up a commission of inquiry over the case with a conclusive report identifying and accusing certain members of the security forces of being complicit in the deadly operation but who were subsequently indemnified for fear of undermining the spirit and confidence of the security system.
Though realistically speaking, I see no difference in what happened during the students’ demonstration in the urban area in 2000 from what happened in the 2017 Kanilai incident where ‘peaceful demonstrators’ were allegedly gunned down by Ecomig troops deployed in the Foni vicinity followed by an initial government response blaming the unarmed civilians for posing an existential threat from using traditional weapons against the foreign forces. Yet the very government alleging that soon debunked the prevalence of traditional weapons in the hands of the demonstrators. The Ecomig forces never accused any of their men in the attack and never arrested anyone for it, though they later apologised for the debacle without compensating the victims or their family members.
Again, it’s more or less a resemblance of the tragedy that happened in Faraba Banta on Monday the 18th of June 2018 with three young Gambian lives lost and several villagers injured.
Initial response from the IGP’s office that no orders were issued to open fire on the demonstrators resembles customary efforts to shift the responsibility or blame to the subordinates who we must agree that by simply arming them with assault rifles and live rounds and deploying them to a volatile terrain, perhaps without any clear cut rules of engagement, left them in the final encounter with no choice but to use their guns especially when their lives were threatened or their authority about to be compromised.
Just fancy what could possibly happen one day if someone on an emergency or by incident or accident failed to stop at Denton Bridge where there is always an AK47 rifle toting police officer-often looking very hostile to commuters- expecting every vehicle owner to slow down or stop for a meaningless – quick glance into their vehicle. Remember years ago when a taxi driver failed to stop at a military check point resulting in his vehicle being fired upon and a passenger-a young lady- fatally injured? There was another accidental beach shooting that killed a young man in the late 90’s while soldiers were conducting routine patrols.
I have to bring all these up to bolster my argument that these guards out of panic could easily open fire on vehicles, crowds or individuals simply because of the availability of the weapons in their hands.
Guard posts all over the country whether on installations, public facilities, VIP residences or foreign embassies, reflect the same reality – police officers or soldiers carrying assault rifles designed exclusively for combat when conventionally the heaviest lethal weapons required on such duties shouldn’t be larger than 9mm hand guns. Yet the civilians never complain until disaster strikes.
Except maybe in the USA and Israel and other police states, riot-control units in most countries including our neighbors Senegal restrict their troops into only carrying batons, shields, teargas and occasionally rubber-bullet guns.
Hence I suggest with utmost urgency for an immediate security reform that will require committing all our resources into stopping this flawed SOP of arming the police or soldiers with combat weapons-except for ceremonial or parade duties-and focusing aggressively on training even the army on how to carry out police duties in peacetime. Provided with the right orientation or training, I don’t think there is anything wrong with using the army in such domestic crisis management. Sitting in the barracks with nothing meaningful to do or waiting for a war that will never be the GNA soldiers could be of tremendous help to the police in conducting essential patrols, crowd control and above all handling civil-disobedience without the usual loss of lives.
If we continue arming few police officers with lethal weapons and deploying them on missions where they could easily be outnumbered, the chances of resorting to deadly force in self-defense will always prevail.
What else would one expect of an armed person, especially a law enforcement individual confronted with a defiant group that show no fear or respect for his or her weapon while at the same time posing a serious threat to his or her life?
Anyway let’s take another look at the situation in Faraba Banta where for the past weeks or month the villagers stood defiant to any authorisation of the sand mining there, whether legally approved or not.
Now instead of arming and deploying a handful of police officers there predisposed to being outnumbered and overpowered by the villagers in a confrontation, why not utilise the army to provide adequate men and resources on the ground equipped with batons, shields that could prevent any deadly event requiring the use of live rounds?
This is not about the president, the ministers, the officers or politics as habitually conducted; but about a critical national security policy flawed in any way we dissect it that needs urgent reform to stop the mayhem from happening again.
Like the minister of interior rightly said, “no one wants to kill your own people”. I can bet that the police officers that actually did the shooting and are aware of its deadly consequence will live to be traumatised by the incident for the rest of their lives. It is most likely that they pulled their triggers more out of nervousness than out of the desire to slaughter their fellow citizens. In our small Gambia, don’t be surprised if down the line the shooters turned out to be blood relatives of the victims.
So we should pray for all of them in the same manner we prayed for the victims-Bakary Kujabi, Ismaila Bah and Amadou Nyang Jawo – with the hope that this will be the last time Gambia will experience such tragedies.
In my humble opinion the police officers instead of arresting or punishing them should be counseled and protected; punishing them is tantamount to discouraging their commitment to diligently enforce the law they were tasked to implement.
And like what happened to the victims of 2000, government should come up with a compensation package to the families and loved ones of the deceased while the injured are provided with adequate funds for their medical treatment.
That’s my take on the subject. I sincerely wish to apologise if I sound offensive to anyone for sharing my personal viewpoints. Thank you editor. Long live The Gambia! Peace for all!