The Interior Minister and the Kanilai crises

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Body of Haruna Jatta being laid to final rest

By Lamin Jatta,

On June 2nd, some villagers of Kanilai took to the streets to stage a demonstration. They were demanding the removal of the military personnel, especially ECOMIC forces from their village who they accused of harassment and intimidation. Some of them could also be heard saying they want former president Jammeh back.

The Foni region apparently has a good concentration of the ECOMIC forces because the Barrow government is seemingly harboring a paranoia if not outright distrust of the Fonis, especially in Kanilai, the home village of former president Jammeh, mainly due to the regions proximity and affinity to the recent troubled region of Cassamance. Also, the Foni region has experienced minor post election violence.

According to Foroyaa, a confrontation occurred between the ECOMIG forces and the protesters on the road heading to Kangfenda. The ECOMIC forces opened fire on the protesters with live rounds wounding seven people and one of the victims Haruna Jatta later succumbed to his wounds. Other accounts indicated that the protesters with their placards, singing songs were making their way to the Kangfenda junction to stage the demonstration there when the ECOMIC forces blocked their way and from the ensuing confrontation the soldiers somehow, fired live rounds in the crowd.

The minister of Interior, Mai Fatty, in an address on GRTS on the situation in Kanilai commended ECOMIC for exercising maximum restrain during their encounter with the protesters. He also claimed that the protesters were armed with “traditional weapons,” ( a term I never heard of), But failed to show or mention exactly what those weapons were. This claimed was dismissed by the protesters. Mr. Fatty, without proof also claimed that some people from the border villages in Cassamannce joined the protesters adding that the protesters even at some point taunted the security forces to follow them into Cassamance which he claimed, could have created a security nightmare. It is very disturbing that Mai Fatty would commend the ECOMIC forces for “exercising maximum restrain” after they opened fire in the crowd of protesters that also included women, young people and the elderly; Mr. Haruna Jatta who died from his wounds, was 54. Mr. Fatty should remember that Gambia especially the region of Foni is neither in a state of emergency nor war. Even in a state of war, soldiers are not allowed to open fire on civilian demonstrators because that can amount to a war crime.

From what I saw in the videos, I don’t believe the interior minister’s claim that the protesters were armed. I challenge him to show videos of the protesters threatening ECOMIC forces with “traditional weapons.” It is disappointing to note the length the minister went to create the impression that the protesters were dangerous because they may have some links in Cassamance. This even give credence to a claim by someone who participated in the protests that the ECOMIC soldiers were falsely tipped that there were rebels among the protesters. The craziest development of the story was that some surrogates of the government in the diaspora, shamelessly amplified the claimed by the interior minister with outright lies that the protesters were “armed with loaded guns” when they “attacked the soldiers” just to paint the protesters in bad light. It should be noted that for some time now, some knuckleheads in the diaspora were on Facebook egging on Barrow to adopt a zero tolerance policy for the people in Kanilai and urged the government to mercilessly crack down on them if they continue to “cause trouble.”

The ghoulishness with which some Gambians are justifying or celebrating the killing of a fellow Gambians is sickening. Just like the same way some APRC surrogates were saying that Solo deserve to die because he wanted to bring war to Gambia, the same way some surrogates of the current government are justifying the killing of Haruna Jatta. They were not on the scene of the confrontation and do not even get any understanding of what had transpired but quickly concluded that the killing was justified just because the victims are from Kanilai or are not their family.

Admittedly, 22 years of dictatorship has severely corrupted our national character and sensibilities, but that is not sufficient grounds to become so hateful or blood thirsty especially towards our fellow citizens. This behavior is barbaric and contravenes the love for one another and decency that our religions teach us.

The body language of the interior minister during his speech was very arrogant and unprofessional. If he would just hit the table once during his speech I would have sworn that dictator Jammeh was back in town. His warning that Gambians should obey the law or get consume by law in the wake of the execution of a protester was very insensitive to the the family of the deceased and can even be interpreted to be a thinly veiled threat that the government will not have much patience for those who oppose it. I want to caution Minister Fatty that his most important role is to protect and preserve the lives of all Gambians without fear, favor, ill will or affection. That if it gets to a point that government has to resort to taking life without proper due process, in the name of protecting other lives, that is when they should know that they have started failing and they will pay a high price for their actions.

Granted, former president Jammeh has put the security of Gambians at serious risk during the impasse. But thank God we came out of it unscathed. The people of Kanilai or any part of Gambia must nurture the peace and security of our country. I will commend Minister Fatty for assuring Gambians that his government will protect their rights especially the rights to freedom of assembly and association.

After we suffered 22 years of dictatorship, President Barrow has to show us courage and strength. Both President Barrow and Interior Minister need to learn to stay calm and calculated in the face of adversity. Overreacting to situations can complicate simple problems. You cannot enforce peace; you win Peace.
The government needs to cure itself from the paranoia that somehow there are rebels hiding somewhere in the Fonis waiting to wreak havoc but should rely on clear, concise and accurate intelligence on any security threats to our country. They cannot alienate the Foni people because they need their support in that intelligence gathering.

It is the duty of our police force to maintain public order and safety in our country. They did an excellent job in the case of the Farato demonstrations which was hundred percent more violent than the Kanilai one. No one was hurt because our own police quelled it and there was no false propaganda of rebel involvement. It is wrong to mortgage the public safety responsibility of our citizens to ECOMIC because clearly we all see what happened in Kanilai. We should limit ECOMIC role in Gambia to military role and not police functions.

The vacancy of the Vice presidency could also have contributed to this crises in Kanilai. We all know that the grievances of the people of Kanilai was festering for a while. We saw the the government chose the approach of militarizing the area as oppose to using alternative traditional peaceful and sincere effort to amiably solve it. If we had a substantive Vice President in place, he/she in her capacity as the chairperson of the National Security Council, could have nip this crises in Kanilai at the bud by inviting the Alkalo and representatives of the youths of the village to her office and listen to their queries and sincerely work to address it, hence our president is busy traveling the world. During Jammeh’s tenure, the Vice President, Isatou Njie-Saidy, summoned the students leaders, who were threatening to stage a demonstration, to her office for a meeting. The meeting that could have prevented the students demonstration of April 10/11 failed because personnel of the Police Intervention Unit started to crack down on the students at GTTI before their leaders made it to the Vice Presidents office.

The Barrow government cannot punish the people of Foni for all the evils that the former President perpetrated on Gambians. The Foni people themselves suffered under Jammeh’s dictatorship just like any region in Gambia. I will remind the Barrow government that they have promised that they are not going to witch hunt.

Lamin Jatta New York

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