The Faraba Killings: The Old Gambia in the New Gambia

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Karamo N.M. Sonko, Ph.D.

Heeno Occasional Postings, No.23, July 20, 2018

On Friday, 6 July 2018, my Gambian team drove me past Faraba Banta, West Coast Region of The Gambia, on the way to my village.  Faraba  was quiet, with few people on the highway that ploughs through it. Two thoughts crossed my mind as I looked around. The first was that former President Yahya Jammeh must have a good reason these days to follow the Gambian news media and to laugh at his opponents in The Gambia and the world! The news of the killing of three environmental activists and the wounding of several others in Faraba on 18 June might be the only cause of a real smile since he lost power to President Adama Barrow on 1 December 2016.

The second was about our new President. I am of the impression that he is a man with a good heart. The fact that such an evil thing can happen under the watch of such a leader frightens me all the more about political power. The President is but one man, I thought. No matter how good he is if the elements and the environment around him are not truly supportive to the interests of the nation, he would be unable to deliver positively.

The Faraba shooting incident is the worst nightmare one can imagine in the “New Gambia” – bloodshed the “Old Gambia” style! Understandably, across The Gambia the sad memories of the shootings of innocent students in 2000 are now being evoked again.

I am of the impression that he is a man with a good heart. The fact that such an evil thing can happen under the watch of such a leader frightens me all the more about political power.

Shortly after the Barrow Government was sworn in in January last year, I sent a message to my network of family and friends (after the sighs of relief when Jammeh finally stepped down), asking them to work together so that no one could say that the “Old Gambia” was better than the “new” one. I knew that there were some who would like to say that.

On 27 December, last year, as I stood in front of my new President and his cabinet (impressed by their modesty), at “TafCon 2017”, I decided not to explicitly specify or elaborate upon two terrible habits of the “Old Gambia” which I feared might re-emerge in the “New Gambia”. These habits of the past, which I could not mention directly (out of respect for my leaders), were the amassing of questionable wealth by the head of state and, worse, state-sponsored violence! I was not worried about President Barrow: I was worried about our nation as a whole, although optimistic about the long run. Unlike John Maynard Keynes, I did not believe that we would all be dead in the long run, but I was fearful we might be in the short run!

A few days before the shootings, I “sang a song” on my Heeno website and the Facebook page set up with my name by enthusiastic young relatives, a song called “The Gambia: Smallest in Africa but Biggest in the World!” Simultaneously, I warned my audience:

“If the Barrow administration fails, all its supporters (past and present) fail, and the hopes that were born in 2016 would be shattered and Gambians would crave for the very past that they once so greatly detested.”

The news of the shootings in Faraba came after thousands of Gambians had joined in my chorus for “The Gambia: Smallest in Africa but Biggest in the World”.  Now I feel a bit like a griot who was singing a praise song for a prince who turned around and slapped him in the face! I feel like a singer standing on a stage alone, after his voice went hoarse and the dancers abandoned him.

Saddened, terribly saddened, but “Thank God” that my lyrics included a number of “Ifs” (I repeated “IF”!). My cautious but optimistic attitudes about our nation, even in the long run, were and are still premised on certain conditions: “If” (and I repeat “IF”!).

The biggest disservice that the last regime did to The Gambia was the use of the security services as tools of state-sponsored violence. They made peaceful and innocent Gambians get used to hearing about killings to the extent that such news almost eradicated their fear of violence, even though the vast majority never directly saw anyone being killed.

However, we often overlook the fact that the security service men were themselves abused. I knew harmless servicemen in the days of Jawara who were turned into “killers” during the Jammeh era, according to reports I got about them in the media and through other sources. In addition, some of the infamous names ended up being victims of the cycle of violence that was set in motion. We also tend to overlook the laws that support or ignore such violence.

Gambians, I always say, are naturally gentle, modest and peaceful people, although evidence shows that we are also capable of fists and bullets when we are put in certain environments, under certain types of command. Faraba is a good example.

The biggest disservice that the last regime did to The Gambia was the use of the security services as tools of state-sponsored violence.

As a Gambian still loaded with the good memories of the 1970’s and 1980’s, my greatest difficulty during the decades of the Jammeh era was to understand or accept that Gambians (even as members of the security forces) were deliberately shedding each other’s blood on home soil. Of course, I remember the July 1981 Kukoi-attempted coup, but that was very much a guided/misguided action by those who (many of them very young men) believed they were defending their country.

Nevertheless, the violent tradition set in 1981 had its effect in 1994, at least in the psychology that made the coup a thought and eventually a reality.  The tradition continued in the attempted coups during the last regime, nurtured by official violence.

I noticed during the December 2016 – January 2017 impasse that this “alien” (by Gambian norms) tendency for violence inherited (like “tribalism”), mainly from the last regime, seemed to have permeated even the civilian sections of our communities.  So many Gambians rammed the drums of war during the impasse, even when the former President was only throwing his last kicks.

That reaction could have been out of the fear of former President Jammeh digging in his heels and surviving.  It could also be a result of sheer ignorance because they had no idea of the evils of war.  Nevertheless, I was amazed at how many citizens seemed to be in a hurry for the first bullet to be fired! AlhamdoulilLah, we never went to war, because if we had (as I told my network after the sweating-in of our new President Adama Barrow) we might have become another Rwanda or Somalia – who knows?

Men become beasts in war and wars are easier to fight than to end and their consequences are even much more difficult to terminate. Wars set up a tradition for violence and bad behaviour which become difficult to eradicate once established. The incident in Faraba is an indication of the terrible tradition of violence inherited from the last regime and it could have been much worse if we were in a war or post-war situation.

The worst nightmare for the “New Gambia” has become true! The present has challenged the mandate of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). The mandate has become very complicated, because the moral authority of the present has been weakened.

The Gambia Government may be new, but its citizens (including the security forces) are not.  Therefore, the “New Gambia” and its old citizens must do everything in their power to eschew violence; otherwise it would continue and get worse. Whilst continuing to preach peace and reconciliation in our country, I wish to also urge my compatriots not to show any tolerance for violence, either stemming from the security forces or the civilian population.  Gambians must watch out for the signs of increasing violence and not allow the future also to challenge the mandate of the TRRC!

Therefore, the “New Gambia” and its old citizens must do everything in their power to eschew violence; otherwise it would continue and get worse.

Violence is destroying our world and it must be treated with the harshest force of the law. It deserves the condemnation of all citizens, for in a state of insecurity and violence anyone can be a victim, even the perpetrators.

Whilst continuing to preach peace and reconciliation, I wish to also urge my compatriots not to show any tolerance for violence, either stemming from the security forces or the civilian population.

We must all (the leaders and the led) strive for a return to the peaceful culture of Gambians that I still remember and to which I believe most Gambians still subscribe. Without this, no progress is possible and we would lose the qualities of our nation which make me feel that we are (or were) special in a troubled world.

Like Jammeh’s before him, I am not unhappy that I am not in the shoes of our new President. However, he has been in power for only a year. We should wish him success in combining goodness of heart with greater strength and better advice in preventing such ugly things from recurring in the Smiling Coast of Africa.

It is our duty as citizens not to keep quiet as we did in the past. Yet words and actions must be responsible and constructive.  Otherwise our democracy would lead to chaos and not development.

The Joof commission of enquiry into the incident must be thorough.  The motivations of all those involved and the actions that led to the shootings on that fateful Monday must be known.

The data must be used for a comprehensive security sector reform in order to produce more professional security service personnel in The Gambia, with whom ordinary citizens would be comfortable and who would be comfortable with themselves. If there can be any value out of this terrible incident and any way of compensating for the lives lost, this must be it.

It is our duty as citizens not to keep quiet as we did in the past. Yet words and actions must be responsible and constructive.  Otherwise our democracy would lead to chaos and not development.

Additionally, we must all always strive to successfully instil a sense of non-violence in our family members, friends, neighbours and colleagues to make sure that such evil never rears its ugly head in our peaceful culture again.

I have no sanguine song to sing for our state since the 18th of June! So sad!

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©Heeno International, July 2018. This publication or any part of it, except third party photographs, may be reproduced by anyone for educational purposes without the permission of the author, but the source must be cited.

 

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