Gambia: The Coalition Must Restore our Fundamental Freedoms. Here’s How

Maintaining a democratic and free society is an almighty challenge, but an extremely worthwhile one. Research has shown that countries with thriving democracies are more stable, prosperous and less corrupt than countries without thriving democracies. More importantly democratic societies are happier and freer. Gambians have long yearned for a restoration of their fundamental freedoms of speech, association, assembly, religion and movement. Should the Coalition government safeguard these freedoms, the country will soar economically and socially to heights never before thought possible.

Societies are continuously evolving, meaning that the challenges, needs and sensitivities of the general population are continuously evolving as well. Navigating through all these changes while safeguarding fundamental freedoms and ensuring that our democracy works for everyone requires two very contradictory skills: rigidity and flexibility. Rigidity because democratic conventions, rules and procedures endorsed by parliament and laid out in the constitution must be adhered to at all times (especially in times of strife). Flexibility because the government and the legislative must be agile and imaginative enough to introduce new laws and statutes to address constitutional loop-holes which unveil themselves as our society evolves. These new laws must not serve to stifle fundamental freedoms; on the contrary, their purpose must be to further grease the wheels of our forever evolving democracy.

We must all have a shared stake in our democracy and the government must endeavour to actively listen to parliament and the people as we all strive to renew and improve our democracy such that it serves us appropriately. A few quick practical steps detailed below – most of which can be implemented within the first 100 days of the new government – would ensure that our democracy has a fighting chance of survival.

Freedom of the Press

Ever since Irish statesman Edmund Burke’s coining of the term “Fourth Estate” during a British parliamentary debate in 1787, the term has been widely used to acknowledge the importance of the media in all serious democracies.

While freedom of the press is an easy concept to grasp in theory, it can be tricky to implement in practice. Who sets and monitors the standards of the press? What happens if people’s rights are infringed upon and how do we walk the tightrope between free speech and citizens’ right to privacy? The courts can always be a final port of call for redress, but the judiciary cannot be expected to be a watchdog for journalistic standards. This responsibility should fall with two bodies:

A professional institution for journalism – run by the journalists – whose job it will be to provide advice and support to media professionals, while promoting high professional standards and ethics.

An independent press regulator whose job it will be to examine and act on complaints against the press, provide impartial advice to media professionals on legal and regulatory matters and exert constant pressure on the government to help ensure that the freedom and independence of the press is defended at all times.

The Role of Independent Regulators

The commissioning of Independent Regulation bodies is a very effective way to guard against over-bearing executive prerogative. It also inadvertently closes further avenues for corruption. The idea is that an independent panel or institution of regulators is appointed for all major industries such as financial services and insurance, commodity pricing, power and utilities, telecommunications, etc. The regulator hears complaints and has the power to impose fines if regulation has been breached or unfair practice/competition is found. This takes day-to-day regulation decisions away from the president and government ministers and back to the industry experts. After all, the executive should not be making judgements on regulation, because they are not necessarily industry experts and they should be getting on with the business of running the country.

An independent body would be open to more public scrutiny and therefore less prone to criticisms of bias. In addition, such an independent regulation system would demonstrate to local and foreign investors that our country is open for business and that our industries are well run and regulated – a very attractive proposition indeed.

Constitutional Council and Constitutional Court

France operate a perfectly sound Constitutional Council, which is the highest constitutional authority in the land. Established by the Constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958, its duty is to ensure that the principles and rules of the constitution are upheld. Senegal operate a similar system, which they have counted on to provide guidance on several difficult constitutional matters such as the 7 to 5 year term limit reduction referendum question, Abdoulaye Wade’s controversial re-election in 2007 and his bid to run for a third term in 2012. Had Senegal not had such an independent constitutional council, it is difficult to see how their vibrant democracy would have survived for so long.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has proved to be a solid institution, and it is probably the most credible independent governance-related institution currently operating in the country. However, the remit of the IEC can only go so far and it is clear that there is a serious vacuum of authority in The Gambia as we near the end of 2016. As it stands, no one knows exactly what date Barrow officially takes over the presidency (not even Barrow himself). A Constitutional Council would have set a clear timetable for all to follow.

How could we stop this from happening again? We could introduce a Constitutional Council/Court which would provide continuous guidance and judgements on constitutional matters especially during the most testing time in any democracy (and one which we find ourselves in): the power transfer phase. The Council could also be consulted by the government to re-draft our constitution, which would then be put to the people to accept or reject in a referendum.

The Armed Forces

The big elephant in the room is the armed forces. The Gambian Army is far too big and ubiquitous for the size of the country. Also, the various security forces are not suitably integrated enough and they are often pulling in different directions. For a country as small as ours, not only is it economically inefficient to have the para-military, police and army operating in the same space, it creates confusion, prevents accountability, heightens tensions and increases the likelihood of indiscipline among the ranks. We must get rid of the para-military altogether.

A few common sense questions also have to be asked:

  • Do we really need an air force?
  • Would a coast guard not suffice instead of having a full blown naval command?

This may come as a surprise to many, but good practice recommends that barring ceremonial duties or the very rare cases of a foreign invasion or a terror attack, the army should almost never be seen wearing military fatigue and carrying weapons in public. If they are to be deployed in their droves, this must be approved by the National Security Council, chaired by the President of the Republic. If they are be deployed within the public domain for a sustained period, this should only ever be done when the country is in a state of emergency as approved by parliament.

The army are not supposed to take civilians into custody. This should be the work of the police. In fact, during peace time, the rod of authority lies with the police and not the army. If a soldier breaks the law of the land, the police should have the authority to arrest him. That’s how it should work.

That is not to say that the army are not important. On the contrary, they are the paramount defenders of our country against foreign attack. In order to do this job, they have to be helped and supported by the government and defence ministry so that they have confidence that they are working in a professional outfit, where meritocracy reigns, continuous training is offered and their operational framework is well-defined.

A reduction in the size of the armed forces can be achieved through the following means:

  • Natural wastage (i.e. freezing recruitment as some personnel retire or leave voluntarily).
  • Re-training and re-deploying personnel such that they can be absorbed into other industries such as Construction. This is very important to combat unemployment and guard against discord among the soldiers at risk of redundancy.

The Judiciary: Independence and Competence Restored

The problems with our judiciary are well documented and can be summed up by the following sentence: Judges need to be competent, independent and free from state interference. Most of our lawyers are top-notch, but unfortunately most of our judges aren’t. The Gambia needs a strong Justice Minister who will defend the independence of the judiciary all the way into the trenches. We also need the appointment of a fiercely independent and competent Chief Justice. Independence and competence must be synonymous with the judiciary. If not, public confidence in one of the great arms of government falls by the wayside, along with our democracy and fundamental freedoms.

Grand Coalition of the Willing

Gambians are anxiously waiting for the Coalition government to take office. We want to make this our coalition which works for us. Our new President should tap into this support by calling for a grand rally of the people in which he delivers a thunderous, unifying speech. A couple of headline announcements detailing practical and tangible changes which will make a real difference to peoples’ lives will be most welcome as taster of things to come in the glorious new year ahead.

We are all willing our new president on to succeed but we know that he can’t do it alone. That is why it is important that the Coalition do their research and approach talented Gambians who don’t necessarily have a political affiliation but have the skills and experience to hit the ground running in their respective fields. A “Coalition of the Willing” so to speak. I suspect a fair few of them are sitting at home or on holiday as I write this, chumping at bit to get involved. If Barrow has good people around him, his seemingly impossible job could be a whole lot easier.

Written By Mendy Koto

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