The sight of a water cannon truck on social media yesterday sparked a lot of debate in the country. I wrote on my Facebook timeline Monday that I think it is a welcome sight for various reasons.
However, some folks in the country see it differently. In fact, some of my good friends have expressed surprise as to how and why I see this as welcome news as in their opinion, the purpose of these water cannons is well-known; that it is nothing but a way to suppress people and deny them the right to protest.
Added to this is the announcement that the French Police are poised to train forty Gambian police officers on crowd control measures. They say that this is a step towards suppressing dissent. Perhaps they are right, perhaps the government has plans to do just that; suppress the rights of the people, but there are always two sides to a coin.
It is for the above reason that I wish to write to fully explain what informed my support of the water cannons. Sometime in 2017, there was a problem in Busumbala which turned out to be violent. In fact, a police vehicle was burnt down. At the time, I wrote an article which I called ‘Managing the Frustration: The Busumbala Chaos. In it I wrote the following:
“The Constitution of the Republic of The Gambia has given the Gambia Police Force/Service the mandate to enforce the law and ensure the maintenance of law and order. It is the police who should ensure that there is peace; however, the police have not been given the necessary equipment and incentives to do their job to the best of their ability.
For instance, everyone knows that the police in this country are not as well paid as they should be. The police should have a good salary which will ensure that they have a dignified life. If they have a happy life, they will surely have the zeal to work hard for the progress of the country.
The police do not have the right equipment to stop or control certain types of crowds. The police should have armoured cars, teargas and all the other gear which will enable them control crowds of that nature. How do we expect the police to go to certain crowds in pickup trucks which will expose them to bodily harm or even loss of lives?
The police must have the right gear to be able to do their jobs well. If you give someone a job, you should provide him/her the tools to do it. Equip the police, Mr. President.”
Now, considering the foregoing, it is in line of consistency that I said that the water cannons are a welcome news. Let us consider the alternative. Even if people suspect that the government is doing all this in preparation for an anticipated protest, will it not be preferable to have the water cannons to only using their guns thus resulting in loss of lives as we have observed in Faraba?
Besides, if such an occurrence were to happen – we hope and pray that it never does – we will be the same people heaping blame on the police. Of course it is a fundamental right of citizens to protest and express their (dis)satisfaction against something or the other, but it is also the responsibility of a government to protect all citizens including the lives of protesters.
Another argument against the water cannons is that there are more pressing issues like drugs at the hospitals and so on. Granted, there is a need to take care of those things urgently, but does it mean that all other things should cease?
For me, what is important is to enquire as to how much and where the funds to purchase the water cannons came from and continue to pressure government into doing the right thing. Let us by all means seek to hold government and government officials to account to ensure that we build a nation which respects the Rule of Law and maintain democratic norms.
Musa Bah is a teacher at Nusrat Senior Secondary School. He is also a
writer, novelist, poet and social commentator. He is currently the
vice president of the Writers’ Association of The Gambia.