The events of 24th July in Brikama shows that the Gambian police at the current state are acting as political hacks for Adama Barrow’s government instead of professionally carrying out their duty. As a citizen of what we believe is a democratic country, the right of assembly is up there with other fundamental rights such as freedom of speech.
The need for filing a notice at the police before any demonstration is reasonable so that adequate security precautions can be done. So, it’s understandable that permission is sought from the police before any demonstration or large-scale gathering. It is also important to point out that the goal of seeking these permits is not for the police to simply decide which gatherings are allowed and which are not. As long as the group that is doing it is not intending to carry out illegal activities, they have the right to do so. Freedom of assembly is not a privilege to be conferred by the police.
Gambians should not allow practices that have been carried over from the Jammeh regime to become entrenched in this new era. If instructions from the government officials and the police infringe upon our rights as citizens of a democracy, we have a duty to reject them.
If the police deny a request for a planned march, they must provide a clear and valid reason for doing so. It is not acceptable to simply deny the request to carry out a peaceful and lawful demonstration. To deny the request to hold a demonstration, particularly when that demonstration is intended to show our lack of satisfaction on the government carrying out its responsibility is particularly troublesome. To allow such illegal interference from police to stand means that the police are giving themselves the power to decide which of our constitutional rights we can enjoy and which we cannot. They do not have that power and their attempt to do is simply unacceptable.
This is the situation in Brikama. The people of Brikama have a legitimate reason to protest given the horrendous and unsanitary condition of their market. The Brikama Area Council has woefully failed to address this problem for years. Repeated pleas and complaints have been made to both the local and the central government to no avail. There is therefore a legitimate reason to make a demonstration to bring the issue to light.
Our hapless vice president demonstrated to us that the Barrow government will not be the solution to any development by the way she decided to handle the issue. Instead of looking into the root causes of this problem, which is extremely low capacity and corruption at the area council that requires significant reforms, she decided to make just a public show of personally leading a one-day cleaning effort. In other words, she tried to distract people’s attention from the problem instead of helping to find a solution.
The organizers of the Brikama protesters were right to press their case and to demonstrate. These organizers were exercising their constitutional right of assembly. In fact, the police started firing teargas when the organizers were simply distributing t-shirts. The police have no basis to prevent or break up the march. The people intended to march peacefully to highlight a problem that should have been trouble to any Gambian. The only illegal activity that took place on July 24 was illegal intervention by the police in beating protesters and landing some of them in hospital. I hope the police officers today would pay attention to what is happening at the TRRC hearings. The day would come when police with their clubs and their commanding officers would answer for their unnecessary heavy-handedness in response to a peaceful protest. I also hope the court system would throw out any unsubstantiated charges leveled against the arrested protesters, which is nothing but a blatant contravention of people’s rights.
Just to underscore how empty the Barrow government’s claim to be undertaking a security sector reform is, notice that the so-called Security Sector Reform Steering Committee is reporting that it will be doing a nation-wide visit to security sites in the country on the same day when we are facing internal security challenges. It is a measure of the incompetence of the officials put in charge of the security reforms that they are still focused on the wrong priorities even as the real security challenge is staring at them in the face. It is noteworthy that the government had to send the Deputy CDS Yankuba Drammeh to talk to some protesters rather than the issue being handled by internal law enforcement.
This tells us all we need to know about why security reform is not taking place and why it is truly needed in the country. Without a well-resourced and trained police force, there is no way for the government to properly handle internal security matters in a way a democratic country should. If one has to depend on the army to address lawful demonstration by civilians, we may as well be prepared to say goodbye to democracy.
Ousman Gajigo is an economist. He has held positions with the African Development Bank, the UN, the World Bank and Columbia University. He holds a PhD in development economics. He is currently an international consultant and also runs a farm in The Gambia.