Two years ago, we set out to restore public confidence in our administration of justice system which was perhaps at its lowest ebb following two decades of calculated interference in our judiciary and a systematic dismantling of the machinery of justice by the previous administration. Today, we are proud to say that we have in large measure achieved this objective even though we also recognize that there is still room for improvement.
Over the past two years, and in spite of the enormous human and material resource challenges, we have registered some modest progress in governance and particularly in our efforts to rebuild a strong, indigenized and independent judiciary. In the process, we have also empowered women by appointing them to decision-making positions. This is reflected in the judicial appointments made following the installation of the new Government. Out of 12 new judicial appointments to the Superior Courts, 5 of the judges are women including the first female Gambian Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Mam Yassin Sey. 4 out of the 7 Justices of Appeal are now women including the President of the Court, Justice Awa Bah. And for the first time in the history of The Gambia, we now have a fully constituted exclusively Gambian permanent Supreme Court Bench.
We have also established within my Ministry, a Sexual and Gender Based Violence Unit that will now be responsible for handling all criminal cases of sexual violence and abuse. Members of the Unit will receive specialized training in the investigation and prosecution of sexual violence crimes against women and children. Moreover, we have re-instituted professional discipline at the Ministry so that all legal matters are now handled in accordance with the law and the dictates of the legal profession.
Other modest achievements include: the establishment of the Janneh Commission of Inquiry to investigate the financial delinquency of the former President and to expose and fight corruption; the establishment of the Constitutional Review Commission to draft a new Constitution based on ongoing consultations with Gambians at home and abroad; the establishment of the ongoing TRRC to investigate past human rights violations and abuses, restore the rights and dignity of victims by giving them a voice and through appropriate reparations, and to recommend ways of preventing recurrence; and the establishment of the NHRC in full compliance with the Paris Principles of autonomy and independence and whose members will be sworn in soon by His Excellency, the President. Arbitrary arrests have significantly reduced and detention without trial no longer obtains. Those in detention now readily have access to their counsel.
In the course of this year 2019, we have identified key priority areas of focus and have already initiated steps to get the activities underway. We will be conducting a comprehensive review of the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code as part of the sanitization of our criminal justice system. This review exercise will commence soon as the process for the recruitment of local consultants have already been initiated. I take this opportunity to extend gratitude to the Korean International Cooperation Agency who are graciously funding this review exercise through the UNODC and I also thank the latter for their partnership in this process.
Also, in collaboration with Article 19 and the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure, we have commenced the review of all media laws to ensure consistency with our constitutional obligations and to facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. In fact, this review exercise should have been completed in large part by the end of last year but due to a confluence of factors we could not achieve our target. We hope to make substantial progress in the course of this year. Notwithstanding the absence of appropriate legislation for the time being, the Government has demonstrated good faith in this regard by allowing the proliferation of private newspapers and radio stations that encourage the free flow of ideas among the citizenry in the country without fear or repercussions. Indeed, The Gambia has significantly improved its ranking in the 2018 annual press freedom index scoring 122 out of 180 countries compared to 145 in 2016 and 143 in 2017.
We are also at the final stages of reviewing an Anti-Corruption legislation to replace the Anti-Corruption Act of 2012 which was heavily watered down by the previous administration. While there is genuine concern about corruption in the country, the 2018 Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International has recognized The Gambia’s improved score over last year’s based on political commitment, laws, and institutions. As a result of ongoing efforts at tackling corruption, there has been a marked improvement in financial governance with rigorous enforcement of the Financial Regulations by Government departments. Notwithstanding, the perception of widespread corruption must always be of concern as it does little to encourage investment in the local economy among other undesirable consequences. But more importantly, corruption kills. Every Dalasi taken from State coffers is food taken away from the mouths of hungry children, or medicine taken away from the sick, dying of preventable or curable diseases. All the more reason we should expose it whenever it occurs and continue to fight it in all its forms so that it does not take root or become pervasive.
We will also engage in reform of the electoral process in consultation with key government stakeholders, the Independent Electoral Commission, and all registered political parties in the country. We of course recognize that the ongoing constitutional review process will likely address fundamental aspects of the electoral process and we will keep an eye on that parallel process as we embark on ours.
Far reaching reforms of our prisons system has already commenced with internal review of the Prisons Act led by the Ministry of Interior. However, that is just one aspect of our reform objective. We want to overhaul our entire prisons system and transform our prisons so that they do not only serve as a decent place of detention for our fellow humans, but also for the rehabilitation of prisoners in preparation for their re-integration into society at the end of their prison terms.
Ultimately, the extent of our success will largely depend upon the extent of our commitment to strengthen the judicial and legal sectors by devoting adequate resources to the sector. In this regard, allow me to extend sincere gratitude to you, Your Excellency, and to your Government for recognizing the indispensable role of an independent judiciary in a democratic State, and for strengthening it by increasing its much needed resources in the 2019 national budget. We are grateful for this show of support to our judiciary. Allow me to add however, that this improvement in resource allocation should only be regarded as the beginning and not the end of this crucial support, for if we want to attract quality Gambian personnel to the Bench, we must make the conditions of service commensurate with their standing in society. Anything less will seriously undermine our efforts towards quality Gambianization of our judiciary. Meanwhile, I take this opportunity to also thank His Lordship the Chief Justice, and all our judges for accepting to serve our country under such challenging circumstances. Yours is the ultimate mark of patriotism, and I assure you that we will not relent until we make our judiciary the envy of our sub-region.
Allow me to add, Your Excellency, Distinguished Guests, that the same goes for the lawyers at the Ministry of Justice. I have never worked with a more committed and dedicated team than the men and women of the Ministry of Justice under the leadership of the Solicitor General, Mr Cherno Marenah. I could not be prouder calling them my staff. Over the last two years, they have been pushed to their limits to ensure that we deliver on our reform promises to the people of this country and they have been equal to the challenge. I salute their determination to forge ahead despite the difficult conditions that range sometimes from basic resource constraints such as the unavailability of vehicles or fuel to enable them attend court cases throughout the length and breadth of the country, to the incessant demands on their time for the provision of legal services to all government departments and their line ministries, as well as their support to the various activities of our transitional justice processes. We must therefore recognize their efforts and provide them with support by creating the appropriate conditions of service in order to also attract more private lawyers to the Ministry failing which we remain at great risk of not achieving our targets on time.
And to the members of The Gambian private Bar, individually and collectively, I wish to extend sincere appreciation to each of you for your support and partnership over the past two years. Of course there were times when we did not share the same views on one or two issues and that is to be expected in our vocation, but we nevertheless respected each other’s positions on those issues and continued our collaboration on other matters of mutual interest. I encourage you to continue in that spirit so that, together, we can have the greatest positive impact on our legal profession.
I have been blessed with the opportunity and privilege to rely on the experience and array of talents available at the private Bar for all the major activities under my responsibility including the ongoing prosecution of the NIA 9 case, the ongoing Janneh Commission, the Constitutional Review Commission, the Faraba Banta Commission, the ongoing TRRC, and the National Human Rights Commission which is about to start its work soon. I thank all those members of the Gambian private Bar who have accepted to assist with the work of these important bodies which form an integral part of our efforts to transition from dictatorship to democracy. I will continue to encourage and welcome suggestions and ideas from members of the private Bar on how we can improve in areas of collective concern or difficulty. There is no better alternative to dialogue and I will continue to literally have an open door policy to all of you.
And finally to our friends on social media, I call on you to play a more responsible role in our rebuilding process. It is an honour and privilege to serve one’s country and democracy gives you no right to insult or abuse those who do or their parents. It is unacceptable even by the standards of our own cultural norms and values. We welcome criticism because it makes us provide better service to you and it is unavoidable in public office, but criticism can and should be constructive and healthy. If we do not stop the unjustified personal and disparaging attacks on those holding public office, we risk depriving our country of its fullest potential. I say this because I have had instances when I have approached some competent, decent and honest individuals for work, and after consulting with their families, they turned down the offers simply because they felt that working in public office in The Gambia these days exposes them and their family members to disrespect and unnecessary ridicule on social media. So this has to stop! I am sure that I too will receive insults and abuses for even saying this today.
The best thing that has happened to us as a country is the freedom that we all enjoy today. There is simply no price tag to this freedom! Therefore, let me make clear that this Government, under the leadership of His Excellency, President Adama Barrow, is as committed to rebuilding a new and democratic Gambia today as it was on 1 December 2016. There is no intention whatsoever to re-establish dictatorship in this country and that those who may have concerns about emerging signs are simply confusing innocent mistakes with sinister intentions.
On the other hand, those who are constantly looking for mistakes by this government will always find faults simply because every government has its own challenges, and also because of the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves as a country in transition. We inherited a system of governance where State institutions from the Presidency to the lowest levels were systematically dismantled over a two decade period; and where we found no culture or practice of State protocol in consonance with democratic practice. In many instances, we have had to rely on conventional wisdom. Given these circumstances, there are bound to be mistakes. But when mistakes occur, point them out to us in a constructive manner and make suggestions on how to avoid them in future. Do not just sit back and moan, groan, and blame. You can surely do much better that! And lest we forget, those countries that currently do better than us in governance have had their own fair shares of trials and tribulations for centuries before getting to their current levels of development and evolution. Ours will come too, but only with time and maturity.
The new Gambia is therefore not about winners and losers. We either succeed together or we fail together because as a nation we are bound together by a common destiny. But failure is not an option and that is why we must persist and we must persevere especially in the face of adversity. This is the burden of responsibility that we carry as pioneers of this change.
But Government alone cannot bring about change. We must all continue to believe in this change and work hard to achieve it rather than give up at the first sign of a serious challenge. No one said that an immediate post Jammeh Gambia was going to be easy. But our country, at this critical moment of its history, does not need bickering over partisan politics or a fixation with partisan political point-scoring. Our country needs all of us, all its sons and daughters, all our different strengths, our collective will power, and above all, our unquestionable patriotism, to join hands and work together to bring about meaningful change in the lives of our people. This is what our country expects and demands of us at this moment in history. Anything less from us will be a betrayal of that sacred trust bestowed on us since December 1st 2016.
So I call upon everyone, especially the political class, civil society organizations, youth organizations, women’s groups, and the media fraternity to re-focus and re-dedicate ourselves to the noble cause of the common good. People have died for this cause and we must never lose sight of that reality in our dealings with each other. For when we stand together shoulder to shoulder, it is The Gambia that wins!!!!!
I thank you all for your kind attention and wish you a fruitful legal year ahead.