With a petition challenging the outcome of the 2021 elections waiting to be heard at the Supreme Court of The Gambia generating all kinds of ridiculous notions, perhaps a reflection on the past is in order for those who want to take a look at the bigger picture of what is at stake.
Between 2006 and 2010, The Gambia had four speakers of the National Assembly, three of whom were removed by executive orders. Sheriff Mustapha Dibba, Fatoumata Jahumpa Ceesay, and Elizabeth Renner were all removed by Jammeh. Ms. Belinda Bidwell being the exception after she passed while serving. All of them, just like the current speaker, became National Assembly members through executive nomination (a constitutional provision).
Beyond hushed outrage and passing condemnation, these removals were never questioned or effectively challenged. That would change on January 26th, 2020.
Hon. Ya Kumba Jaiteh, who got nominated to the National Assembly in 2017 was removed in 2019 by President Adama Barrow who believed erroneously that he could remove her because he nominated her to the National Assembly following precedent set by Jammeh. He sought to revoke her nomination because she would not denounce her party loyalty to support Barrow’s self-serving needs.
Her open loyalty and vocal support of the United Democratic Party (UDP) no longer bode well with President Barrow, and his unconstitutional move to remove her from a coequal branch of government was lauded in may quarters as appropriate. Supported by her party, she filed a suit contesting that the president’s move was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld that the president indeed has no powers to remove a National Assembly member once their nomination has been confirmed.
Despite the same 1997 constitution being in place, the matter has set a precedent that the executive holds no such power over a coequal branch of government. Whether nomination to the National Assembly remains a feature of our democracy or not is a different matter, what is clear from this landmark case is that thanks to the challenge, the Supreme Court’s decision will hold, and no National Assembly member can be removed by the executive, ever again.
Less than a year before Hon. Ya Kumba Jaiteh’s nomination to the National Assembly and subsequent court case, her party, the UDP set another precedent that forever altered the Gambia’s political landscape.
On April 14th, 2016, Solo Sandeng and a few of his fellow members of the UDP took to the streets in a peaceful protest to call for electoral reforms and denounce the flawed electoral environment that returned Jammeh to power in sham election after sham election. He was arrested and tortured to death and his accomplices all went through unimaginable ordeals at the hands of the notorious and feared National Intelligence Agency (NIA). The ensuing days and months would see mounting pressure on the Jammeh government both locally and internationally. On April 16th, 2016, the leadership of the UDP, led by Lawyer Darboe took to the streets to protest the torture to death of Solo Sandeng, of course they too were arrested and jailed.
To ease some of the pressure he was facing, Jammeh agreed to have on-the-spot counting of the votes in the 2016 presidential elections. Yes, under Jammeh the Independent Electoral Commission existed only in name (declaring results that were returned by returning officers was a final step in the electioneering process). One could argue that Jammeh got cocky and was assured of victory thanks to his fraudulent schemes of registering thousands of illegal voters, but the truth is, Solo Sandeng’s protest for electoral reform had a direct effect on that decision, especially after his cold-blooded murder and the ensuing outrage. On-the-spot counting, shall now and forever remain a feature of elections in The Gambia. Imagine the outrage and suspicion that would greet the decision by any future government or electoral commission to remove on-the-spot counting. Although it came at the unbearable cost of an innocent life, Solo Sandeng’s bravery, patriotism and sacrifice gave us that mainstay on our political landscape. But sadly, ingratitude greeted his sacrifice when some people boldly claimed that he died for the course of UDP and by his desire to see a President Darboe.
When the APRC government sought to indemnify members of the AFPRC and all those appointed as minister by the AFPRC from liability in any action or omission in the performance of their official duties, the right Honorable Kemeseng Jammeh went to court and challenged that such an amendment was unconstitutional. In Kemeseng Jammeh Vs Attorney General (2002), the Supreme Court upheld that the amendment was in fact unconstitutional. That bogus immunity clause was what Yankuba Touray tried to rely on in his defiance at the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). When he went to court, the precedent set in Kemeseng Jammeh vs Attorney General was relied on to affirm that Yankuba Touray in fact had no immunity. He is now convicted in the murder of Ousman Koro Cessay, a verdict that would not have happened had Hon. Kemeseng Jammeh not challenged the constitutionality of the amendment, which meant all the murderers of Koro Ceesay can no longer hide behind that amendment.
In that same lawsuit, Hon. Kemeseng Jammeh challenged that the amendment to the constitution that sought to make The Gambia a secular republic was unconstitutional, was also upheld by the Supreme Court.
The cases above are highlighted as their impacts are of very recent memory, all of them gracing our judicial landscape just within the past two or three years (Solo Sandeng’s case being the exception having taken place in 2016). But the fact is, The Gambia’s legal landscape is littered with similar cases where UDP, or members thereof sought to consolidate the rule of law. With time, all of them will be enumerated within their rightful context.
Democracy and its entrenchment is only assured with constant and continuous efforts to curb the excesses of the state and constant advocacy for the rule of law. We all know what such persistent advocacy cost the UDP. From political activism to the halls of justice, no single political entity has done more to entrench democracy and the rule of law in The Gambia in the past twenty-five years than the UDP. This is a source of pride for which we shall always hold our heads up high with gratitude for a steadfast and determined leadership some of whom have passed or perished as a direct result of their fight to entrench democracy, but they shall forever be remembered as patriots who sought for a more democratic Gambia.
America had to fight a civil war to become the United States and up to this day, the US is seeking to be a more perfect union daily from the halls of congress to the Supreme Court of the United States.
In our case, these seemingly small steps and numerous court appearances consolidate democracy. We may disagree on politics, that is the whole essence of politics. But any objective look at The Gambia’s political and legal landscape cannot miss the immense contributions made by UDP towards building a more democratic Gambia. And that, my friend, is in all of our interests and we cannot be an ungrateful nation to men and women who gave all in service of our collective good.