Few days ago, I woke up to the news that Omar Jabang, a First Class Magistrate at the Banjul Magistrate Court, was arrested and held at the Banjul Police Station. I could not believe it at first. Nonetheless, I had to confirm with sources close to him. That did not work out.
A day later, Foroyaa carried out the story and reported that the brilliant young magistrate who topped his graduating class in 2014 was indeed arrested and fired from the Judiciary. Was I surprised? Not really. Only that it came sooner than I expected.
Jabang is not the first young Gambian Magistrate to be fired by the judiciary. Of recent, Samsudeen Conteh who presided over my case against the state was also reportedly fired the day after he acquitted and discharged me of all trumped up charges. Before Samsudeen, it was Jacklin Nixon Hakim. I was in the same class with Jacklin at Gambia Methodist Academy. I was in the same batch with her and Samusudeen at the UTG in different programs. The sad thing is that these three are not the only locally trained magistrates that have been fired from their jobs or forced to resign. A handful of other young Magistrates some of whom have left the Gambia have been victims too. But what is the real issue here? Why is it that only young magistrates believed to be very level headed are the ones attracting the wrath of the State? Is it due to their training from the University or that they are failing the expectation of the state, which is to always rule in favor of them in high profile criminal cases?
I personally knew Omar Jabang as a student at University of The Gambia. We never had any one-to-one discussion, neither were we close. However, as an active member of the University community, I got to hear stories about individuals and what they were doing within the University community. I know for certain that Jabang was an active participant in student politics and that he was very brilliant and level-headed. Unfortunately, we did not connect at some point, but I have heard and seen some of his work.
For Samsudeen, we came to the University at the same time. If I had continued with my Law program, we would have been in the same class and would have gotten to know each other better perhaps. I had most of my high school friends in his class. We have also played football together on opposing teams. Yes, my department Social Sciences wins every time we played the “lawyers”.
Like Omar Jabang, Samsudeen was also an A student. Indeed very brilliant. I remember at one point we had a very heated debate on the Law Faculty Facebook page. I was always on that page engaging the law students. The reason being, the students from other departments had this sort of stereotype against them. We felt that they thought highly of themselves and behaved as if they knew everything about the law, but couldn’t debate outside the law. So, my job was to challenge them normatively. Many times you ask some of them simple questions and all they could do was to quote a section of The Gambian constitution as if that was the only thing they were good at. I got irritated most of the time. Of course there were extremely brilliant individuals that did not need the constitution to make a normative argument. These were the people I connected with mostly. My very Boss Satang Nabaneh and Musu Bakoto Sawo were part of that group. Baboucarr Drammeh and Patrick Gomez as well as many other young intellectuals were too. Interestingly, when I was arraigned before the Magistrate court, I was prosecuted by Drammeh and Samsudeen was the Magistrate. It was an all UTG affair.
At first, I disliked Samsudeen. I thought he had some personal vendetta against me especially when he denied me and my colleagues bail on our first day of appearing before him. Although I was popular at UTG, I knew some people that didn’t like me. They thought I was very close to the Vice Chancellor Prof. Kah and that I was his “personal spy”, especially when I decided to resign as Secretary General of the Student Union to pick up a job with UTG in pursuit of my intellectual dream. In student politics people make up stuff. It was all part of the game. I knew I was adored by many, but few that I didn’t share the same political beliefs with didn’t like me. So, they decided to take the personal route.
Even today, some of them think I am a “hypocrite” because I am expressing my disagreement with the government. I have all the right to hate the government for what they have subjected me to. But no, I do not hate them. I just disagree with some of their policies and programs. The reason why I also express myself is because Norway provided me with that space – this is what lacking in Gambia: space to engage openly and constructively. The absence of such a space never limited me in anyway. You may ask my colleagues and students. My opponents could not understand and they will never understand, because they only see me as Sait Matty and do not know me on a personal level. They have never been in any of my classes and they just don’t have any idea whatsoever of who I am. These people should expect no explanation from me.
I thought Samsudeen was one of them. But I also remember that Samsudeen was not very active in student politics so he might have no idea what was going on. I thought to myself that it might have been our heated debate. However, our second appearance in court a week before our scheduled appearance made it clear. He slapped me with a bail bond of Five million Dalasis over a misdemeanor case. I was told that usually an ID card would suffice. Not in my case. I was even asked to tender my passport. I missed so many important meetings including the 8th Pan African Congress in Ghana. I was so angry, yet I laughed in spite of myself when Mrs. Ida Drammeh asked whether we have murdered someone or something else. It was that moment that I realized the case was beyond him and that there was someone above him forcing him to make those decisions. My case was political like many other cases. Still now, I do not really understand why I was arraigned. But one thing that I learned at St Therese’s was that the “TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE”. The biblical inscription on those yellow books kept me going. Of course with the trust and support from family and friends and some people that did not even know me, I eventually got acquitted and discharged by Samsudeen.
All the time while in court, I noticed a different Samusdeen. I saw a merciful magistrate. One that shows pity and was very lenient with the accused brought before him. I witnessed three judgments, which made me really proud of him. He freed an individual that was arrested in April 2014 and was supposed to serve a one year jail term. He drew back the sentence and ordered the young man to be released at the end of April, which was just a week away. Another case was of one of my cellmates. A very funny Fula man from Senegal who was arrested for marijuana trafficking. Most of my cellmates, mostly young people, were arrested on marijuana-related charges. I heard stories of young people that were sentenced to prison for five years because of less than a kilogram of marijuana. This guy was caught with a whole bag and Samsudeen fined him instead of sentencing him. Another young man, who showed regret of what he did by sobbing in court was freed and warned never to do whatever he did again. I felt so happy and admired Samsudeen for taking those decisions. I spent two weeks at mile two. I know what is in there.
Like Samsudeen, Omar Jabang is been known for upholding the law and also showing mercy to those brought before him. I have seen some of his rulings as reported on the local papers. I am always happy when a judge uses other methods instead of prison for a crime that is not capital. So many youth are rotting in jail for lesser crimes and the bigger criminals are walking on the streets. This breaks my heart. People like Jabang must be encourage and not arrested.
So, all I am trying to say is this:
The University of The Gambia with all its shortcomings has produced brilliant students that are engaged in every sector in our country -private and public. Students are challenged to put Gambia before anything else, those that see the need to work for the motherland despite all the challenges. Yes, the university has also produced some that do not have any idea why they went to UTG in the first place. Some of them see only themselves and their personal growth. My dean Prof. Gomez will call them “students at the University and not Students of the University”.
The caliber of these young magistrates, determined to uphold justice; doing the right thing; aware of their tense environment, shows to a large extent, that the University has done its part. To a greater extent it shows that these magistrates are not part of the latter group I mentioned above but the former. They have decided to put their lives on the line to serve justice, the ordinary Gambian and humanity. Who could have thought that I would be acquitted and discharged by a magistrate that gave me a Five Million Dalasis bail bond? Or who would have thought that Yusupha Saidy, Sainey Marennah and Musa Sherriff were going to be acquitted and discharged from the trumped up charges levied against them by the state? Whoever thought that the state will lose any high profile case in the court? The fact of the matter is, these young Gambian magistrates know the law and they are bound to uphold the law without fear or favour; affection or ill. They are hellbent on upholding the constitution of the supreme law of the land. With all the efforts and fairness they put before their work, they are threatened, fired, arrested and detained. Violating the same constitution that these young intellectuals are trained to defend. The only one doing the Gambia wrong is the State. It is Jammeh’s APRC government.
If the real reason why Jammeh’s government established the University was to train homegrown problem solvers for the advancement of the country, then the daily attack on these lawyers and many other young intellectuals most cease. Academic freedom within the university is highly undermined. Since my arrest, lecturers are afraid to conduct any kind of research even though they are paid to teach and research. We all know that for any country to prosper, building and maintaining a strong knowledge economy is vital. The sad part of our story is that instead of the state supporting the work of the university with more funds and a conducive environment, they are busy arresting staff and products of the same institution they hope will change things. It is sad. It is sickening.
The future of Gambia is clear. It is the UTG. Not all but most people that are in position and will take position in the future will be UTG trained. What is our responsibility then? What is it that we owe to the Gambia? These are questions we must continue to ask ourselves daily. While asking the questions, we must also remember our environment. We as graduates are everywhere. In the military, police, state house, banks, as civil servants, teachers, international organization, farms, hospitals etc. We are everywhere and everything that this country needs. We must realize our numbers and continue to do well. Things are hard right now, environment is decaying, but we are the hope of our people. We must continue to change ourselves and only through that can we effectively change our society. Let us not be part of the competition and the personal infightings within government. Let us consciously and subconsciously always defend what is right in public when we can, but most importantly in private. We have read many books, heard many stories, seen a lot of injustices and dreamt of better things. Let us remember that greatness can only be achieved through collective actions when we all play our individual parts.
I remember in 2009, when we started the Nationwide Study Tours led by my mentor and friend Dr. Saja Taal. His idea for the next generation of Gambians was for us to know our country and put it before anything else. How do we know our country, the poverty, the diversity and all the challenges if we constantly explain it from the perspective of the people in the urban areas? How can we also fight poverty and bridge the inequality that exists between the urban and the rural? The experience was indeed life changing. We decided to form UTG Students Service Learning with the motto “Basse before Babylon”. After that first year we continued to take students up country, organize summer camps and work for and with the community. Dr. Taal always said to us “I can take you to the door but I can’t force you to knock.” myself and most of the other students close to him adopted this philosophy. We started doing things for ourselves seeing Gambia as our door to knock at. As students of UTG let us remember Dr. Taal and his teachings and continue to serve our nation with pride. Let us see the suffering of one of ours as our own pain. Wherever one is, let Gambia always come first.
Like many others I know Omar Jabang was arrested for upholding Justice. He is detained against his own consent. I cannot come down to free him, but I can say that the State is threatening the future of our country. We must continue to condemn these abhorrent behaviors individually and collectively. As a Gambian I demand from my government the unconditional release of Omar Jabang and all other prisoners of conscience including Lawyer Darboe and all his party members.
P.S. Before publication we received news that Jabang was unconditionally released and reinstated. We hope this will be the end of arbitrary arrest and detention.
Sait Matty Jaw