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Gambia: Barrow government breaks promise to protect citizens’ right to peaceful protest and freedom of assembly
Banjul November 5, 2017- President Adama Barrow has reverted to the ways of his predecessor, dictator Yahya Jammeh, whose intolerance for criticism and disdain for protest, locked the tiny African nation in a rule of terror for 22 years. Matters came to a head on Sunday November 5th, when the Ministry of Interior deployed military and police units to Westfield, in the Kanifing Municipality, a densely populated area, which hosts the majority of businesses, and residents. The move by the Interior minister Fatty, was to deter public service delivery protests from going ahead, and intimidate the organizers and supporters in the process.
The Inspector General of Police denied the group a permit to peacefully gather at Westfield, through the use of the Public Order Act, a law that Jammeh relied on in suppressing freedom. This was the same law that was used to jail the entire United Democratic Party leadership, which ironically saw President Barrow ascend into the position of leadership, ultimately becoming president.
“What this new government is doing is very disappointing as it is worrying. They are showing tendencies of a dictatorship, with their disdain for dissent. It has not even been a year since we kicked out a previous dictator, who was notorious for levels of intolerance for citizens’ rights,” said Alieu Bah, the leader of the Occupy movement.
Occupy Westfield’s call for a nationwide protest is due to the dismal failure of the water and electricity company, which continues to plunge the country in darkness, a situation that has worsened under the Barrow administration. Although the new administration is not responsible for the technical insolvency of the electricity and water company, which has been unable to deliver basic supply of water and electricity for almost 40 years, it is nevertheless, obligated to respect the constitution, which allows for citizens to peacefully gather and express themselves, in whatever form, as long as such assembly is lawful. Added to this caveat, the current leadership of the United Democratic Party, which is now in power in a coalition government, challenged the very act that it is using to suppress the rights of Gambian’s to protest poor service delivery. The case is currently at the Supreme Court.
“The contradictions of this government are now clear for all to see. They say one thing, and do the complete opposite. Their credibility levels are diminishing by the day, which is disappointing for people like me that stood up to the previous dictatorship,” said Ali Cham- aka: Killa Ace, an activist, and the first musician exiled for standing up to Jammeh’s dictatorship in 2015.
A year ago, in the run up to the presidential elections, President Barrow, through the opposition coalition, made a specific pledge to repeal the notorious Public Order Act. The coalition’s manifesto explicitly stated that: "Public Order Act, Laws of The Gambia 2009 gives too much power to the Inspector General of Police and does fetter freedom of association and assembly. The Coalition government will repeal any provision in the Public Order Act which is not reasonable and justifiable in a democratic society such as those which hinder peaceful procession to highlight public grievances which is the main tool for exercising civil society oversight over the governance process."
It seems that the Barrow administration has forgotten that pledge. #OccupyWestfield, is not deterred by the show of heavy-handedness by the government under President Barrow. The group’s right to freedom of assembly and the right to protest will not be surrendered. The Gambia government has an obligation to promote and protest these rights. The 1997 constitution guarantees us these rights, as do the plethora of regional, continental and international treaties.
The fact that President Barrow, made several undertakings to uphold the rights of all Gambians, when he addressed the continental rights body last week, which Banjul continues to host, should at least prod this government to lead by example in respecting the rights of its citizens as enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Article 11 of the Charter states: Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, heath, ethics and rights and freedom of others.
The #OccupyWestfield Movement is not a threat to anyone. We have made this absolutely clear, to a point whereby our weapon of choice is a candle- something that signifies peace, spirituality, and power of the human spirit to endure in difficulty and preserver with hope. But our candles are being met with guns, bullets and batons. Our supporters for peaceful protest are being met with soldiers that are ready to unleash violence. Our calls for our rights to be respected as we demand for better service delivery, in the process asserting our rights to access basic electricity and water, are being ignored and silenced. This was what former President Jammeh practiced with great success, in the process turning The Gambia into a state of fear and terror. This is something that we will not accept. This is unlawful and tyrannical in every respect. We will exercise our rights. We will continue to call for better service delivery and asserting our fundamental right to assemble, and to express ourselves.
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Key dates and timelines:
October 26- Alieu Bah, a Gambian citizen posted a message on Facebook using the hashtag #OccupyWestfield, which called on Gambians to gather and protest the lack of service delivery (water and electricity);
October 31- the #Occupywestfield group applied for a permit from the Inspector General of Police to proceed with its planned protest, which would take the form of a candlelight vigil;
November 1- the Intelligence Agency invited the members of the group to an interview. The meeting was meant to “screen” the members, and personal details were taken;
November 2- A meeting was held with the IGP, and other security chiefs, where the application for a permit was denied;
November 3- Meeting with the Minister of Interior, Mr Mai Fatty;
#OccupyWestfield is not a formal organization but a shared desire, even as it is a shared grievance, for the very basics of life namely: water and electricity. It’s a rallying call that took a life of it’s own and became a movement. It started as a hashtag on facebook for Gambian ctitzens to come out and protest peacefully and share their frustrations. It has since grown into a movement with a coordinating committee.