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Friday, October 30, 2020

Presidential overreach checked, tax evasion, riots and media stifling: what a week!

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By Musa Bah

The Supreme Court! That name evokes vivid images in the minds of many, some joyful and other foreboding. In the space of a week, the Supreme Court of The Gambia has done some far-reaching rulings which have extensive consequences for many citizens in the country, but more so, the Government of The Gambia. These rulings will be received with mixed feelings from the different sections of the society.

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The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the revocation of the nomination of Ms Ya Kumba Jaiteh as a National Assembly Member by the president, Mr Adama Barrow, is “unconstitutional, null and void”. In the same way, it ruled that therefore the nomination of Mr Foday Gassama to the National Assembly by the president is “unconstitutional, null and void” and thus he should stop presenting himself as a member of the National Assembly.

This is indeed a victory for democracy even if it is just one step. It clearly shows that the principle of separation of powers is in effect. The judicial independence that we all called for, fought for has finally begun to present itself as an integral part of our democracy. Although it is too early to conclude that we now have democracy as this is just one step.
Many citizens in the camp of President Adama Barrow have started beating their chests that it shows how democratic President Barrow is. Some go even further to say that for the first time, a court is making a ruling against a sitting president or his government. Halt! I say, this is not the first time. Even at the height of the dictatorship, Kemeseng Jammeh filed a case against the government of Yahya Jammeh at the Supreme Court. In that case also, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Honourable Jammeh. Thus, this ruling is not the first.

There is no doubt that it is a milestone case as it checks the presidential overreach of President Adama Barrow in sacking a sitting National Assembly Member. This is unheard of anywhere in the world that a president can sack a sitting National Assembly Member: nominated or elected. The president should not – does not – have the power to sack a representative of the people. So bravo to the Supreme Court of The Gambia!
But as we all know now, the Supreme Court was lit on Tuesday as it also delivered another landmark ruling when it upheld the ruling of the high court on the issue of Lawyer Ousainu Darboe’s tax evasion case which was as a result of a Commission of Inquiry into tax in 2012. Lawyer Ousainu Darboe challenged the authority of that commission to make those findings.

Well, the ruling did not go his way and this has raised a lot of issues as to his political ambitions. Many of his critics (or should I say detractors) are literally jumping for joy as this may bar him from running for office in 2021. They now claim that as he has been convicted of evading tax, he will no longer be eligible to run for president.
But caution! I say. This may not bar the good lawyer from running for office. Seeing that the new constitution will soon come into force and it does not seem to include tax evasion as a deterrent to running for office, this ruling in itself may not be enough to stop Darboe’s march to the presidency. So, I say to his opponents, hold your horses! One thing is clear though, he should pay up. Who knows may be my salary may increase lol!
The same week also saw the Government of The Gambia clampdown, for want of a better word, on dissent in the country. A group of citizens by the name Operation Three Years Jotna which has been agitating for the resignation of President Adama Barrow in fulfilment of his promise in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election came face to face with the paramilitary unit of the Gambia Police Force last Sunday.

It is said that when two elephants meet, it is the grass that suffers. Though this analogy is a little off as government is far bigger than any group in the country but it is also said that with power should come restraint! Government should have exercised more restraint in the way they dealt with this group of citizens who were simply exercising their right of freedom of assembly.

banning of a citizens’ group is certainly not a way to show how democratic a government is. Citizens have an inalienable right to manifest their grievances in the country and should not be banned and labeled subversive and whatnot when there was no sign that they had any arms or that they were prepared to perpetrate violence in the country.

If anything, the government overreacted in the case of the Three Years Jotna riots. And as the Wolofs say, ‘gacce bu gatte moo gen gacce bu gudu” (a short term embarrassment is better than an abiding one). It would have been better for them to simply let the protestors go when the riots ended and calm returned to the streets. Now that they have dragged it to the courts, if the case is dismissed, which it likely will be, it will be another embarrassment for the government of President Adama Barrow.

The other extreme tendency displayed by the government is the arrest of four journalists and closure of two radio stations. This one act was reminiscent of the tactics of the regime of Yahya Jammeh when the case was that any media house that did not toe the line was arbitrarily closed down. Until now, these radio stations are off the air and the citizens who work there are unemployed, uncertain as to where the next meal will come from.

The media is the oxygen which democracy breathes. So if one wants to stifle democracy and freedom, the first place to attack is the media. This is why, around the world, dictators have always had an issue with the media. You see, no one who is wont to do evil wants his or her actions to be known by everybody. Thus, when a democratic government starts having problems with the media, a perception that it is turning into a dictatorship begins to hold sway.

If the government of President Adama Barrow wishes to be taken seriously as a democratic one, then it should endeavor to have a good relationship with the media.
These past seven days have been very interesting indeed!

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