By Suruwa B. Wawa Jaiteh
After having a very good taste of democratic governance in the first Republic, our country, The Gambia: showcase of democracy in Africa, lapsed into 22-years of beast hood. After the two “very cruel decades,” governed in the context of a failed state that was, fortunately, followed by the blessed ushering of a New Gambia, we can proudly beat our chest and proclaim, loud and clear, that “of all the established forms of government, democracy is the only one which recognises the inherent right of the people, as citizens and voters “to cast out their rulers, change their policy, or effect radical reforms in their system of government or institutions, by force or by a general uprising, when the legal and constitutional methods of making such changes have proved inadequate, or so obstructed as to be inconceivable.” The right to protest is an elemental human right, just as the right to repress a protest is an elemental pubic right.
When a community uprising occurs, like the one we recently had in Faraba Bantang, it is presumed that the legal and constitutional methods of effecting change have already become inadequate or unavailable. But, it is an altogether different matter when “a section” or the “entire community” agitates for change in spite of the existence of a democratic government in which this particular community is adequately represented. Unless it has become impotent, such a government must, on the one hand, defend itself as well as the other non-violent participants and, on the other hand, prove its capacity to initiate changes in response to popular expectations. The government, in effect, must engage the protesters in a competition for the minds of men.
A people may have the most responsive political authority, but unless they are faithful to its tenets and use its institutions wisely, the authority will be eroded by the few who will manipulate it for private gain. The political authority will then suffer from a diminishing of force and of moral authority. A violent situation cannot but follow from this erosion of force and confidence.
And this mood was dramatically and shockingly expressed in Faraba Banta in a confrontation that caused the death of at least three and injury and destruction to many. This was a regrettable, shameful as well as an avoidable situation that could have generated the much needed peaceful change through proper consultations. However, it is regrettable to say that, certain sections of society played up the violence that was due to two factors: firstly, the design of certain nihilist radicals in the community as well as participants in the confrontation and, secondly, the inexperience in riot and mob control of the police intervention unit (PIU). I am yet to hear and/or read any convincing attempt to understand the issues and sentiments behind the militancy of the community and the ideologues in their midst. It was sufficient to dismiss this as “disenchantment” with the administration rather than as the inevitable outcome of the “unlimited and wide latitude of democracy and freedom of speech” entrenched in the New Gambia, as well as the “much needed” and “most misunderstood” modernising process that is tearing our closely knit society apart.
At the start of the New Gambia, I wrote in the “Standard Newspaper” challenging our people and the development practitioners, in particular, to think and suggest new development possibilities for our women, youth and other resource-poor people and NOT to accept with resignation the misery and illness that was OUR collective legacy from two decades of deprivation. Sand and gravel mining in general, be it in Faraba Banta and in other similar clusters, could be adequately designed to be properly operated and managed by the Village Development Committees (VDC) for employment generation, poverty reduction, wealth creation and asset ownership. This and other income generating activities should be adequately captured in the National Development Plan, if it is to make any sense and be functional.
The point of the matter is that government is a Responsibility of all Free Men. We cannot demand freedom and shrug off the responsibility, no more than can a young man wish to be independent of his father and yet not responsible for his own life. There is no way in which one can divorce personal freedom from personal responsibility. Freedom means that I can make my own choices. But if I do make my own choices, I am responsible for those choices and their effects. No one else can answer for what I myself have chosen. The provocation of violence and the people responsible for it, must be made to answer for their actions. What has sand mining by an outstanding indigenous entrepreneur, philanthropic citizen, duly registered and licensed by the government, got to do with rioting and burning of personal properties? Furthermore, what has it got to do with the booing of a government Minister and, especially one who has been sympathetic to Faraba Bantang and her citizens. Have we forgotten this early in our history that, Ousainou Dabo had, during the course of his private practices, stood “thick and thin” with the residents of Faraba Banta. This was amply demonstrated during the review cases of the 1981 aborted coup d’etat and beyond. Could this be Faraba Banta’s thank you to Ousainou Dabo? I hope not. Here is a very peaceful, humorous and non-violent man who is even afraid of his own shadow.
In a democracy, the war of ideas is conducted through free and open public debate, in polemics, if you will, on the platform and in the media. The violence of our political language, the rhetoric of our new found radicalism, achieved their peak under the permissive atmosphere of this administration.
But precisely because the toleration of all expression is fundamental in our democratic society, the use of terror and violence is frowned upon. Those who provoke and employ violence, even in the name of the loftiest principles, are announcing in advance that they reject the democratic dialogue. They merely reveal that their objective is to impose their will rather than win the people to their ideas or ideals.
Only a legitimate government in a constitutional polity is empowered to employ violence, and ONLY for the sake of public order and the preservation of the state. This monopoly in the use of violence is crucial in the concept of the Rule of Law. All must obey the Law, no one should employ violence illegally. As a matter of fact, when the government itself uses its monopoly for the use of violence for illegal ends, that government must be overthrown and/or removed by the people.
It is for this reason that Yaya Jammeh’s oppressive/dictatorial epoch was removed by democratic change.
It would be interesting for the public to know how much institutional consultations were done on these issues (before violence erupted), by whom and with whom? Did the National Environment Agency (NEA) conduct any environmental impact assessment before and during the course of the mining? How was violence provoked, with what and, by whom? Why were personal properties burnt in the process? Who did the burning? How were the PIU involved in the process and with what mandate?
In sum, as a Coalition government in transition, after an epoch of tyranny, we are confronted with the problem of demonstrations/changes in our country. Drastic, fundamental changes in society are necessary to regulate demonstrations and protestations, which are inevitable. We need to provide guidelines. We may also need to create a Department of Public Information, to be adequately staffed, so that it can properly inform and appropriately educate the citizenry on democracy, freedom of speech and action and, the rule of law.
Here we come face to face with the crux of the matter: What kind of demonstrations/protestations do we need in the New Gambia? Is It the demonstrations/protestations that the nihilists are shouting in the streets, in their isolated base areas…the revolution/demonstrations that, in desperation, may resort, for example, to killings and loss of properties? Or is it a demonstration/protestation that, however convulsive, rejects violence as a policy and looks forward to the expansion of human freedom?
What above all must be the role of government in a revolutionary/transitory era? How does a democratic New Gambia, respond to the rise of activism/radicalism? What is/should be our radicalism? The investigation team should be able to provide answers/recommendations to the above.
Finally, the secret of national survival is to mark this point of no return very well and for the political leadership to resolve that this point of deterioration should never be reached.