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Sunday, March 3, 2024
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“The Force The Colonizers Left Us”: Crime & Punishment in The Gambia

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With Amran Gaye

The bandits came at night, when they knew everyone would be asleep and there would be little resistance. They had scoped out the house for weeks, and noted that the watchman always went to his shed to sleep around midnight, and did not rise again until fajarr.

The fence-top broken-glass part was easy: they threw stacked saaku over it to neuter the jagged edges. And then up and over, and they were inside.

The watchman had gotten used to hanging his open padlock on the wall hook, so he wouldn’t lose it. After all who would be interested in an empty shed. They closed the door quietly, and clicked the padlock shut to lock him in. He did not wake.

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The important thing was to not rouse the family until you were inside, so they would not have time to recover from their waking fright. In and out, before anyone thought to call the police or yell for neighbours.

The sound of the window glass shattering stirs the merr out of sleep but does not quite wake her. And then the bang of the door being kicked in, as she is pulled out of her dreams with a scream.

Then one holds a knife to her throat while the others ransack the house.

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The police arrive an hour after the armed robbers have left. They take statements, ask the victim questions as if they are questioning the criminals.

They ask if she suspects anyone, and why she had so many valuables and so much money on the premises anyway. They make it sound like the merr’s fault: she made the careless choices that led to the robbery. What did she expect keeping that amount of cash in her house.

And then they leave too, asking her to report to the station the next morning to give a full statement.

And then everyone is gone, police and bystanders, and she sits amidst the ruins of her desecrated home, her bravery exhausted, tears flowing freely down her cheeks now.

*

The Gambia Police Force has its roots deep in our colonial past. During the toubab occupation, we were not so much a country as a named piece of land: belonging to an empire, which needed to protect its interests and those of its monarch, our first dictator.

So the force was created to keep us, the monarch’s subjects, in line; and her resources protected; and her sovereignty unchallenged. A weapon created by the empire, to wield against us and put us in our place, with violence and brutality if necessary.

It was not a noble beginning.

Independence came to pass. The colonisers left, not out of any particular generosity but because our material value to them had waned, and its extraction no longer necessitated occupation.

But the systems they built survived, handed down to us in almost the same form. We inherited their laws and their law enforcement, their government structures and their bureaucracies.

And we inherited also their spirit of justice in the colonies: subservient subjects living in what amounted to a police state: our movements proscribed, our thoughts regulated, even murmurs of dissent met with violent reprisal.

The colonisers were, of course, not interested in rehabilitation. The legal system they built was a means to an end; and the end was not justice but domination. Driven not by mercy but by retribution, and the need to set an example for the other subjects who would step out of line.

And so even as their own justice systems evolved over time to better serve their populaces, ours remains stuck in the shape of the mould in which it was formed, like hardened clay that stubbornly refuses to be chipped away.

*

There was a certain symmetry, in the burglary. All the merr possessed had been provided by her son in Germany.

Each of the robbers had tried the backway, even as her son had. But each had been returned, the farthest making it all the way to Lampedusa before he was caught and deported.

But Ousu had made it. Not informing her when he left – he told her later he had not wanted her to worry. As if his disappearance would not drive her crazy and send her rushing around the neighbourhood looking for him. Until timiss, when one of the boys told her.

She went straight home, and spent the night praying, asking Allah to do what she could not, promising her own life in return for her boy’s safety and survival, whether he made it through or was returned.

*

The police are incentivised to catch as many criminals as possible. The sign of their success is how full the jails are, how many cases are being tried in the courts. This is their mandate, of course. And to be perfectly fair they have improved in carrying it out, especially when it comes to communicating with the public and respecting the rights of detainees.

But it’s not enough, because the changes don’t go far enough. They are an attempt to heal the corps while leaving the disease of the spirit intact.

The force has never contended with its origins, and so it remains as it was founded: beholden to the state first and then us citizens. It is and has always been the violent instrument of whoever is in power: duly elected or despot, local or foreign. It takes commands without question – lawful or not – and uses the State’s monopoly on violence without any accountability.

Just as the colonisers intended it, at its founding.

But filled jails aren’t the metric we should use to measure the progress of our society; we must not take the number of arrests made as a sign that crime is being reduced. Quite the opposite: this number is actually evidence of how much more crime is being committed. The higher it grows the more criminals we have had to remove from our streets.

Which then begs the question: why are so many of our fellow citizens – especially the youths – increasingly turning to crime?

*

Before he left, Ousu had gotten into trouble once. A truckload of paras descending on their vous, because one of them had hurled an insult as they passed. They beat them up there on the street and then took them to the police station and beat them up some more, with other paras joining in. And then they threw them in a cell, allowing the ones with mobiles call before they were taken away.

When Ousu’s mother went to pick him up, she found him in a cell with 15 other youths, standing room only. She raised her hand and waved at him, and there was shame written all over his face as he waved back, refusing to meet her eyes.

They called it bail but it was not really that – everyone involved knew this. It would never make it into government coffers – the officers involved would divvy up the funds and tear up the report, if it had even been written.

They had sized her up as soon as she entered, deciding how much she could afford to pay: she could see it in their hungry eyes. It took an hour to negotiate them down, and she still had to return home to borrow.

*

96%. That’s the percentage of our youths who failed their final high school exams in 2023.

852000. That’s the estimated number of our people who live under the international poverty line of just D65 a day.

60%. That’s the percentage of Gambians that are below the age of 25.

4.8 %. That’s the unemployment rate, the percentage of Gambians ready and equipped to work.

To the outside world these are just statistics. But to the ones who are being counted – the more than a million Gambians who live in abject poverty – these numbers are the laws that govern their lives, forcing them into survival mode and leaving energy and resources for little else. Their ambitions dulled and their potential diluted, bit by bit, until there is nothing left of it. Dying in poverty as they were born, leaving nothing behind for their children. This is the life of the majority of Gambians.

48. That is how many years we have had to get it right, to make the motherland a comfortable home for all her children. And yet after all the promise of Independence, after three governments, this is where we are as a nation: stuck in the mud, unable to move either forward or backward, our wheels spinning uselessly, our youths doing everything they can to jump out and escape.

*

And, when it comes right down to it, we are a hypocritical society when it comes to our youths.

We generalise the youths’ laziness and their lack of jomm and initiative. This is convenient, because it lets us look the other way, because it hoists the responsibility onto their shoulders instead.

But then the youths who complete the journey are the ones sustaining what amounts to a Gambian welfare system, one that the government is unwilling or unable to provide. The amount of remittances sent back by Gambians abroad in 2023 alone was US$737 million – over a quarter of our GDP.

So: we castigate them when they attempt to leave; and yet depend on them to keep this country running if they succeed, because taxes and loans only go so far, because there is such high corruption and inequality.

And for the ones who’ve not made it into their promised paradise but were captured on the way, we provide them as props to the toubabs as they perform their widely publicised self-absolution ceremonies, rewarding us if we participate in them; punishing us by withholding visas and aid if we don’t.

*

There have been improvements since 2016. It is true. But citizens still get hassled on the streets daily. Officers still personalise the state’s power, using violence to solve their own petty grievances and respond to what they perceive in any way as yabaateh. And there is nowhere to turn – the force protects its own. Once you get into that uniform you can act with impunity.

And, just as we accepted the occupier’s rights to brutalise us, so are we forced to do with the uniformed officers whose salaries we pay. We accept it as merely the cost of being Gambian. Even as governments come and go, the force has stuck steadfastly to its roots.

And until this is remedied, “community policing” will continue to be an oxymoron. Because the force’s stated goal and its founding goal are incompatible with each other. It serves the people, or it serves those in power; it cannot do both.

So far in our history the force has chosen the latter, and been ready to carry out illegal acts as long as they are decreed by our leaders. It has been a willing participant in political violence with scant thought to the lives and wellbeing of Gambians. It has kept us safe from the violence of criminals while subjecting us to the violence of its own officers. It has made The Gambia a hostile place to live for our youths, one more reason for them to attempt escape. In this way, it has contributed directly to the back way problem.

*

Each youth who is lost – to the oceans, or brain drain, or drugs, or crime – is another Gambian life thrown away. Their sum potential: the potential of Gambia herself. All the things they could’ve been: doctors and engineers and artists and athletes. All lost in service of one dream, the Gambian dream: a dream of leaving as soon as possible because your fortune lies somewhere else. Because without leaving first, it’s almost impossible to make it at home.

That dream must change. And the best ones to effect that change are the 60%. The youths whose time it is to take the reins of this country and drive it forward.

This is not just an essay; it is a call to action. We are at an inflection point: the decisions we make now will determine our future and the future of our children.

What we need is not a revolution of bodies but a joining of minds. All behind a steady hand that steers us into the new world.

We can rebuild, from first principles. We can use the wealth of talent and human resources we have at home and all over the world, Gambian experts in every single field you can imagine. We can finally begin to make the necessary changes that will lead down the path to prosperity for all Gambians: dispense with the old and replace it with the new. Remake Gambia into the home we have always dreamt of, for ourselves but also for our children.

And elect leaders who see the vision that, in the end, is also the one that drives the youths to attempt escape by any means possible. A vision of a future better than today; a comfortable homeland built to our exact specifications. Everyone we elect fit to serve and working only for the people, with their party affiliation secondary.

The system we inherited from the colonisers has never worked for us. Because we keep repairing the rooms in the building when it is the foundational structure itself that needs to be replaced.

We need to take power back from the political class. They have held on to it too long – and cost us too much – without fulfilling their end of the bargain.

It’s time to try another way. Time to form a leaderless organisation, an un-party, one that is completely apolitical, one that spans Gambia and is built from the grassroots up. It’s easy to join. Look around your community – what do people suffer that you could change? It doesn’t have to be something big or expensive. Every little counts.

And then reach out to others of like mind in your community and in the ones near you. We will slowly build a network of patriotic Gambians who are ready to rebuild this country.

And then, at the national level, elect leaders who understand the vision that, in the end, is also the one that drives the youths to attempt escape. A vision of a future better than today; a future not filled with all the humiliations of poverty; a future in which we live comfortable lives at home with our loved ones.

Out of all our joint efforts a larger Plan will begin to emerge, as the lives of Gambians in every community get better, thus making the lives of everyone in the country better.

But we must begin soon, because we are being left further behind every day that passes.

My name is Amran Gaye, and this is what I’ve seen. Thank you for your attention. Please forward this to anyone else you think would find it beneficial. And recruit others around you to our cause, wherever you are, in this great project of reimagining the motherland in our time and building the foundations for generations to come.

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