Ousainou Darboe, leader of the opposition United Democratic Party, on the 20th of April, 2016, was arraigned in Banjul High Court on six counts of criminal charges. Arraigned also were eighteen members of his party executive and supporters.
Darboe and co were not only the victims of a vicious dictator who had ruled the Gambia with an iron fist for decades, but they were prey to a vestige of a 1955 colonial-era law that requires persons to obtain a permit from the Commissioner now Inspector General of Police to hold a public procession.
They were charged with unlawful assembly because they lacked the permit to publicly assemble.
Mr. Darboe and his colleagues were found guilty and sentenced to three-year prison terms but they were freed on bail on December 5, 2016, three days after his United Democratic Party led by Adama Barrow defeated Yaya Jammeh in the December 1st presidential elections.
All of them were subsequently pardoned by the new Gambian leader but Darboe decided, nonetheless to challenge the constitutionality of the Public Order Act that was used by the ex-dictator to imprison him and his colleagues.
Fast forward to this week when a little-known group called “Occupy Westfield” group, led by Mr. Alieu Bah applied for a permit to protest against the local electricity company (NAWEC) to the persistent lack of reliable electricity supply caused by management and structural inefficiencies, aging plants and equipment and marred by corruption.
The permit to publicly assemble to protest the intermittent supply of electricity was denied, according to a police spokesperson, for security reasons.
Another reason cited was that on the proposed protest date coincided with a football match which could pose security challenges to the police.
The denial of a permit to lawfully protest by relying on the same Public Order Act that Ousainou Darboe, the current Foreign Minister in the Coalition government of Adama Barrow, is challenging its constitutionality in the Supreme Court of The Gambia poses an awkwardly delicate situation for a coalition that is still struggling to find its footing.
The Interior Minister, Mai Ahmad Fatty, the principal adviser to President Barrow and presumably must be in agreement with, if not the originator, of the decision by the Inspector General of Police to deny “Occupy Westfield” the permit to stage the protest.
Now that the permit has been denied to Occupy Westfield, using the same law that Jammeh used to incarcerate Ousainou Darboe and his entire executive, Barrow will either have to reverse Mai Ahmad Fatty and the Inspector General of Police or President Barrow instructs Ousainou Darboe to withdraw his appeal to the Supreme Court and embrace the law that sent the leader of the United Democratic Party and most his executive members to Mile II.
We subscribe to the view shared by many that the Barrow government has missed an opportunity of using the protest to address the vexing electricity problem one more time with the “Occupy Westfield” group, most of whom, very likely, voted for the Coalition.
These young men and women must not be seen as enemies of the state or the government but as a concerned citizen with equal claim to what Gambia has on offer.
We cannot help but, at this juncture, quote American Ambassador C. Patricia Alsup who, in addressing National Assembly Members, stated that “as elected leaders, to their constituencies are to provide strong oversight of the executive branch, ensure that government is transparent and accountable to the people, establish a budget that reflects the need of the people, repeal unjust laws and pass laws that protect basic human rights and ensure no one is left behind.”
The Coalition Government of President Adama Barrow and the National Assembly Members will be doing the Gambian people a great disservice if their individual interests take precedence over the basic needs and aspirations of the citizenry. The voices of the Gambian people must be heard. Ignore them at your peril.