On April 14, 2016, a small group of Gambians led by Solo Sandeng of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) decided to stage a protest march to demand electoral reforms before the country’s upcoming elections. They were quickly rounded up, beaten and arrested by the security forces, primarily members of the Police Intervention Unit. On April 16, after getting reports that those arrested had been severely tortured and at least one killed in detention, the executive of the UDP, led by party leader Ousainou Darbo, led another peaceful march to demand to see their detained colleagues. Again, they were quickly arrested and sent to jail.
The aftermath of the events has been very “interesting” to say the least. The uproar online has been tremendous but that’s nothing new. More surprising and significant is the public display of defiance by Gambians on the ground, living in The Gambia, both online and in the streets. Many Gambians seem to have finally had enough and have been emboldened to speak out publicly to express their frustrations. Of course it’s not everyone…yet. Most of the “elites” and are still “cautious” but it’s undeniable that a corner has been turned for the dawn of a new era. That’s not the subject of this piece. This one is a discussion with the keepers of the peace that Gambians hold so dear – the members of our security forces, entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining peace and protecting us all.
Gambians, myself included, have always been extremely proud of the peace and stability we’ve enjoyed. It’s one of the first things we will tell any foreign persons, next to the fact that we are “The Smiling Coast”, with the friendliest people on earth. We therefore jealously guard this “peace” and will sacrifice a lot to preserve it. We greet each other in the Arabic/Islamic salutation of “Asalaamu Alaikum” or “Peace Be Unto You”, and our most frequent and cherished prayers have peace as their centerpieces. Day and night, in our churches or mosques, we pray for peace. While this is an admirable quality, I’m not so sure we always truly examine the nature of this peace or who/what the real threats to it are. I feel that this failure to closely examine may have left us somewhat lacking in true peace, left us vulnerable to be victimized and left us at risk of being used to endanger the same perceived peace we so desperately wish to preserve.
With this understanding of our psyche, Gambian President Jammeh has been a master at exploiting this sentiment to his advantage in suppressing Gambians to tighten his grip on the country he has ruled for the past two decades. “Belai Wolai Talai, i will not compromise the peace and security of this country”, you often hear him say in his not-so-veiled threats to dissenting voices. Not only is it a ploy to instill fear, a huge part of it is to win the support/sympathy of many a Gambian who just want to preserve the peace.
What kind of peace are we living in?
When we claim we enjoy all this peace, what exactly is it that we speak of? Are we truly enjoying peace? Is it real or just perceived? Is it a myth? An illusion maybe? By what yardstick are we measuring this peace? How peaceful is it when Ebrima Chief Manneh and many others can just disappear into thin air and nobody in the country dares ask questions? How peaceful is it when Deyda Hydara can be gunned down and murdered in broad daylight and no questions asked? How peaceful is it when Gambians have properties they spent years working hard to build are forced to stand by and watch them bulldozed simply because one man wants the property it’s erected on? How peaceful is it when a Solo Bojang is arrested and detained after the courts acquitted and discharged him? How peaceful is it if our young men and women are fleeing in droves to risk their lives crossing deserts and oceans in the deadly illegal migration to Europe. How much peace are we enjoying when nobody in the country dares utter a certain name even in private conversations unless it’s to sing his praises? Do you think Solo Sandeng’s children are enjoying “peace”? Do we truly believe there is peace or is it just peace for me until my immediate family takes a turn at the gallows?
Now, i realize some people may argue that this (very relative) “peace” is all they know and would rather keep (or endure) it at all costs. Who am i to tell them they can and should hope for better? Maybe i should show some respect and focus on preserving this “peace” because it’s what the people want?
Who or what really threatens our peace?
In explaining to a 10-year old what government is, i was recently reminded that the whole point of having an organized society is to ensure peace and stability. Because everyone can’t be making and following their own rules, we create governments and build systems and institutions to enforce agreed-upon guidelines to prevent, minimize and resolve conflicts and disagreements. Along with all their branches and departments, we create a legislative to make the laws, a judiciary to evaluate and interpret the laws and an executive to enforce the laws. Without them, we are no better than animals in the jungle living by the “laws of nature” – survival of the fittest at it’s basest.
We don’t hear of coup d’etats in developed nations because they have strong institutions and laws to prevent them. When nations have term limits for the presidency, even those who are angriest at the government do not see a need to resort to violence. Instead of uncertainty and staring into a never-ending abyss of a doom and gloomy future, they see a light at the end of the tunnel – encouraging enough for them to hang on. Instead of taking a machete to attack someone who steals from us, we sue them and have the matter settled in court because we have confidence in the system and believe justice will be done.
Therefore, the biggest threat to our peace is anyone, or anything, that removes, weakens or undermines these systems and institutions. Such individuals or groups are a much bigger threat to our peace because they undermine the foundations upon which peace is built. In context, a “common criminal”, like someone breaking the law by holding a protest without a permit, is like a kid stabbing at a building with a knife. Yes, he may eventually succeed in causing damage if left unchecked, but it’s nothing compared to the termites eating away at the wooden foundations and pillars upon which the building rests. After arresting and assaulting Solo Sandeng and group on April 14, and Lawyer Darboe and group on April 16, both for simply gathering in groups, there were much bigger groups gathered on their court dates, yet there was no violence because the security forces acted professionally and allowed the people to express themselves. The protesters had no guns, knives or stones. They did not throw a punch or a kick. Their most dangerous weapons were whistles, their voices and their banners. The maturity they displayed proved they were not out to harm anyone or to destroy any property. Their behavior has been consistent throughout. They marched, chanted and went home in peace. What more evidence do we need to show that they are not the threats to the peace we so cherish?
How about our security forces? The ones trained and paid to maintain peace? On day 1 of these events, they attacked, assaulted and arrested Solo Sandeng and group. On day 2, they attacked, assaulted and arrested Lawyer Darboe and group. There was trouble on both days. On 3 separate court days after that, they came, assaulted and arrested nobody. There was no trouble. On May 9, they reverted back to the brutality by attacking the protesters and many ended up at the hospital and some in prison. As in any scientific experiment, we hold all other variables constant, change just one, and observe what happens. Is it then still a mystery who and what is the real threat to the peace and stability?
The system that fails to provide structures and opportunities for the people to rise out of poverty through honest hard work is a threat to peace. “Baye su jaahley maateh” (A goat will bite if cornered) – Olof Njie
The system that has no term limits, leaves one individual or group to be in power for over 20 years is a threat to peace. Again, Olof Njie – “Poosanteh si maraaj laa em” (You can only shove a person as far as the wall)
The system that rules with brutality and force to suppress dissenting voices is a threat to peace. The ones who gave the order to shoot unarmed students in April 2000 are a threat to peace.The ones who ordered, executed, supported or failed to investigate the murder of Solo Sandeng, alleged rape of unarmed female protesters and arrest, torture and illegal detention of unarmed peaceful protesters are a threat to our peace. Martin Luther King said “riots are the language of the unheard”.
To those who continue to claim the protesters, or their supporters living abroad, are the threats to our peace, i refer you to the words of Judge Judy – “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining”