Njundu Drammeh

Once upon a time, a people, tired of living in a garrison state and being subjected to indignities and unfathomable human right violations, employed every democratic, “undemocratic”, conventional, unconventional, legal and illegal means to free themselves from the stranglehold of a man and government who raped, plundered, killed, imprisoned, humiliated and tortured.

There were/are laws which circumscribed their right to protest but these were/are “bad laws”; they were applied only to non-APRC entities.

Even if one thinks the means were illegal, they were moral and legitimate. The laws were/are against the rule of natural justice. “Bad law”, we chanted, was no law. It was a matter of “give us liberty or give us death”. Men and women sacrificed their all and some drank the hemlock, through protests, to give us the freedom we now enjoy.

Even in that state of hostility and at extreme danger to personal security, people used “other means” to express their dissatisfaction, to fight for human rights, human dignity, good governance and freedom.

While comparisons are odious, political facts and environment considered, the underlying motive of a protest remains the same: To fight against injustice and to focus attention on some social or political condition.

If this position was true and accepted in time of “war”, when we were living under a dictatorship, why cannot it be truer in time of “peace”, when we are living in a democracy which was born out of the crucible of agitation, protests, hatred for dictatorship, desire for a life of dignity and greedom?

Protest is one means of expression, of the exercise of freedom of speech and assembly. It is as legitimate as sit down strikes, strategic litigation, march pass, boycotts, picketing, sending petition, etc.

Consider the alternatives. If the State prevents me from protesting against its political order, it is forcibly making me to accept that everything about its public services are great or that it’s political system is the best in the world or that its political order is completely adequate. If I cannot shout that the Barrow government is the apotheosis of perfection, then I am being forced to say that the opposition is the best. If I cannot go to Westfield Junction to preach against PIU brutality, then I am being forced to accept that they commit no wrong against people. That I am able to do or say any of these, with the full protection of the State, is a right that lies at the basis of freedom.

If views I express or actions I intend to take, publicly declared, can disturb the foundation of the State or its peace and security, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the “habits” of that state. Then that state is standing on shaky grounds, on a foundation of sand.

To prohibit a meeting or protest on the ground that the peace may be disturbed is to enthrone intimidation in the seat of power, is to forget the might and power of the State. A peaceful demonstration does not become illegal because other people are incited to disorder. It remains legal.

If we prefer a “free government” then we will have to stand up for each other when rights are violated or denied, restrain the government first and then restrain the people, and resist the narratives that respect for human rights are inimical to the peace and security of a country.

We are testing our democracy, its elasticity and capacity to tolerate the good, the bad and the ugly, all of which are intermixed and intertwined in our melting pot. Protests, strikes, sit downs, criticisms and other means are part of democracy and they are facts we have to live with. They serve as katharsis of discontent and the condition of necessary reform. Our democracy will not grow if we continue to cling persistently to the old thinking that exercise of human rights will jeopardise our peace or turn violent.

If we want to enlarge our freedoms and rights, and make them enduring and living, we must cultivate the habits of questioning, of demanding, of asking, of holding duty bearers accountable. Failure to question and protest or their denial will only blunt the instruments of our rights. How can we appreciate New Gambia if we cannot interrogate what it initially promised to deliver; if we cannot express our dissatisfaction with the way things are or supposed be?

What type of Gambia are we envisioning: one that is a democracy in name, form, content and character or a “demofeudal’ one, a society which is a semblance of democracy but deeply steeped in feudalism, seriously averse to any interrogation of the moral standing of its public representatives or making demands on them?

We make our road by walking
We make our democracy better and stronger by the way we treat those who disagree with attitude of the State.

Fact: a government learns more from the criticisms of its opponents than from the eulogies of its supporters.

Let people exercise their rights. Let the State respect, protect and fulfil these rights.