By Madi Jobarteh
I feel highly honoured indeed to have been called by none other than my beloved brother Almami Fanding Taal at 6pm yesterday to ask me to deliver the Solo Sandeng Memorial Lecture today. Naturally I had no choice but to accept this most patriotic duty and therefore I had to spend the whole night awake to prepare this lecture.
Indeed, Solo Sandeng will go down in the annals of the Gambia as that larger than life human being in whose life generations of Gambians will find a source of inspiration and motivation to stand up for country and democracy. The story of Solo Sandeng cannot also be told without also paying tribute to a few of our current crop of Gambian political leaders who stood up against the tyranny of Yaya Jammeh for 22 years. In this regard allow me to therefore pay tribute to these leaders – Halifa Sallah who has inspired me very early in my life to stand for country and Africa and the defence of truth and justice; O.J. whose courage and steadfastness in the fight against dictatorship is second to none; and Sidia Jatta who I call the humble giant – a man with immense force of intellect and integrity who continues to inspire me and many Gambians for his openness and simplicity in both comportment and relations.
In paying tribute to Solo Sandeng and in narrating the story of the fight against dictatorship in the Gambia we are compelled to place Ousainou Darboe equally high in the ladder for his unshakeable courage and determination in combating tyranny over the decades. It is rather unfortunate that our society and its politics have become severely polluted and polarised to the point that we peddle more of misinformation and character assassination than engage in sober and critical analysis and understanding of issues. For that matter I have seen incredible amount of vilification and demonization of Ousainou, Halifa, OJ or Sidia among other leaders that I find incredibly difficult to fathom.
But as a person who has grown up quite close to Ousainou and indeed know him for that matter I have no doubts that this man is a decent, kind-hearted and well-meaning senior citizen. In his recently launched book, ‘A Date with Destiny’ former Minister Demba Ali Jawo had described Halifa Sallah, and rightly so, as the most detribalised politician in the Gambia. I wish to state that indeed Ousainou Darboe also equals in that category as both the most detribalised person and politician in the Gambia. Not only has Ousainou spoken against tribalism publicly like many of our political leaders but furthermore within the circle of family, friends and colleagues one cannot fail to notice the non-tribalized relationship this man has created, nurtured and supported over the years.
Having said that let me make the disclaimer that I am not a member of the UDP or any political party or even dreaming of putting myself in the same bracket as Ousainou Darboe or the other political giants I have earlier mentioned. Indeed, on many issues regarding the Gambia I have fundamental disagreements with these men. But honesty demands that we speak the truth when we have to speak, and that is what I have just done here as far as I know.
Ladies and gentlemen, I wish to also recognise the remarkable contributions of Hamat Bah, Fatoumatta Tambajang, Mai Ahmad Fatty, Henry Gomez and Isatou Touray among others who all played incredible role in the fight against tyranny in our country.
Chairperson, the story of Solo Sandeng is a direct replica of the story of Gambian Independence itself. The independence of the Gambia began as a protest until it was achieved. It began in 1918 when Edward Francis Small protested at the abuse of a fellow Gambian by a European trader in Balagharr. In response the Methodist Church, where he worked, dismissed him for insubordination.
EF Small then became restless as he launched a ferocious fight at the gross abuse and exploitation that Gambians were subjected to by the colonialists. He published articles and petitions about the injustices of the colonial government in his newspaper, ‘The Gambia Outlook and Senegambian Reporter’ and organized various groups and protests to demand better working conditions for public servants, fair price for our farmers and mobilised the voices and participation of Gambians to demand representative institutions. With his slogan, ‘No taxation without representation’ EF Small launched a barrage of petitions to the colonial government to the point that he was labelled “a self-appointed champion of non-existing grievances felt by an imaginary body of citizens”. With the power of voice and protests EF Small indeed triggered the unquenchable quest for independence that was to come several decades later.
Therefore, as we mark the third anniversary of the protest and the assassination, nay martyrdom, of Solo Sandeng, we cannot but fail to recognise the value of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in the life of a society that is claiming to institute and practice democracy and good governance in order to protect the fundamental human rights of citizens according to the rule of law. To ensure that democracy prevails which will usher in good governance, it is imperative that citizens and their various associations including political parties have the space and liberty to participate in the decision-making processes of that society which includes holding duty bearers to account. One of the highest forms of participation of citizens in determining the managers of the affairs and resources of their society is through elections, i.e. to vote for and to contest elections in a free and fair manner. Therefore, in order to enable citizens to perform this most patriotic duty the laws and institutions that prevail must be of such character and spirit that they will ensure the unfettered participation of all through a clean and transparent process that will produce the undiluted choice of the people.
The protest by Solo Sandeng therefore speaks to the heart of democracy and good governance. His demand for electoral reforms was meant to ensure that Gambians obtain legitimate and undiluted representation. Without such representation it therefore means that society will be led by individuals who have no legitimacy and authority to govern hence their management and control of the affairs and resources of the country would also be illegitimate. Electoral reforms therefore echo quite well with the battle cry of EF Small that there must be no taxation without representation. This is a longstanding historic and eternal democratic demand that we saw emerged first out of America in the 1700s when patriots there called for the end of British colonialism simply because citizens did not deterrmine the government that controlled and managed the taxes that they were forced to pay. In our case while we elected representatives who taxed the people, the difference is that the laws governing those elections were unfair.
For that matter the representatives that emerged out of this flawed election were not only illegitimate, they also went further to subvert the rule of law and placing themselves beyond and above scrutiny even by those institutions that are legally mandated to hold them accountable, such as the IEC. One could recall how the APRC was notorious for abuse of electoral laws by blatantly utilising State resources for their campaigns, harassing political opponents and further preventing the State media from providing equal media coverage to the opposition among other electoral malpractices. Because of its illegitimate ascendancy and control of power the APRC regime ensured that citizens either lacked the ability or at great cost to their lives and liberty if they wish to engage in political activity. The murder of Solo Sandeng and the torture and maiming of several of his colleagues is a testimony of both the flawed electoral laws and therefore the undemocratic scenario that such illegitimacy produced. One has to only look at the Elections Act as well as the Constitution in multiple provisions to realise that elections in the Gambia at that time only served to produce poor and illegitimate representation in which the incumbent had undue advantage to not only maintain power but to abuse it with impunity hence undermining democracy and good governance. This was what Solo was fighting against yet until today we see this same scenario unfolding as Pres. Barrow also equally engages in exploiting incumbency beyond what the Constitution and the laws provide.
The slogan ‘No taxation with representation’ by EF Small and its American forerunners on one hand and the ‘Demand for Electoral Reforms’ on the other by Solo Sandeng decades and centuries later come from the same philosophy and shared the same objectives without which we cannot ensure a just and accountable governance system in the Gambia and anywhere else in the world. These two objectives emerge out of, and speak to and give meaning to Section 1 subsection 2 of the Gambia Constitution that states that,
“The Sovereignty of The Gambia resides in the people of The Gambia from whom all organs of government derive their authority and, in whose name, and for whose welfare and prosperity the powers of government are to be exercised in accordance with this Constitution.”