The Perils and Promises of Popular Protest
Is Three Years Jotna Barrow’s Armageddon?
Popular protests have now become a permanent fixture in contemporary global politics. They are regarded as an ideal approach for disillusioned citizens to voice their concerns to a sitting government to bring about administrative changes. Across Asia, Africa, America, and the Middle East, protests and demonstrations have been used as a tool to spark social, political and economic changes, making them now the most popular strategy to remove autocratic leaders clinging onto power.
Though the freedom of assembly and protest is enshrined in The Gambia’s 1997 constitution, it is worth noting that a protest is a high–stakes game that often turns violent. It is not uncommon for security forces to clash with protesters demanding immediate changes in governance. Such was the case in The Gambia on April 10 and 11, when a student demonstration was met with excessive force by the police,killing dozens of students. The same mayhem of citizens being killed by security agents occurred during the Faraba Sand Mining protest and the Kanilai village protest, yet none of the individuals responsible for these deaths was ever made to face the full scale of justice, a display of the Gambian state’s lack of commitment to protecting its citizens against impunity.
As the Three Years Jotna movement is set to stage a popular protest in The Gambia on December 16 calling for President Barrow to honor the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed by coalition partners, which requires the president to step down after a three-year stint, a serious conversation is needed to prevent the country from morphing into a tailspin of bloodbaths. While practically all social movements seek to pass themselves off as advocates of peace and justice, the formation of the Three Years Jotna movement has generated more heat than light, making some Gambians apprehensive about the movement’s real motives and modus operandi. Though there is no suggestion that the movement has any intention to undermine the security and stability in the country, it is imperative to remind the organizers that within any protest, there is always a possibility that malcontents will emerge and exploit the situation for their benefit. Most protests usually begin peacefully, but they can quickly degenerate into an uncontrollable situation where violence and disorder become the order of the day. The Gambia is still a prime example of a nation that is very likely to be rocked by this type of violence. It is indicative that some desperados and double–talk politicians will try to use the protest as political expediency to wrestle power from the incumbent. The question that now lingers in the mind of every political analyst is, what is the strategy that President Barrow will employ in dealing with the Three Years Jotna movement?
Under the stipulations spelled out in the constitution, the president can serve for five years. The same constitution also provides citizens with the right to hold peaceful protest regarding any issue of concern. Granted, Barrow may default in honoring his campaign promise of serving three years, but his government cannot default in granting a permit to protesters orproviding adequate security that will enable protesters to exercise their political rights within the law. The Barrow-led administration should acknowledge that a protest is not a coup. It is a legitimate civic duty whose primary purpose is to influence public policy for the nation’s good and posterity. Any heavy-handed response may cast President Barrow in a negative light before the international community and will put the country on the road to becoming a failed state. Meanwhile, Protesters cannot hide under the veneer of protest to engage in vandalism, looting, and arson, as these unlawful activities, will make the government change the narrative against them, thereby giving the security agents a justification to arrest, detain and even mishandle them. We hope President Barrow doesn’t use dictator Yahya Jammeh’s playbook and instead charts a new course in Gambian politics by opening political space and reaching a meaningful compromise with the protesters because in the final analysis it is a huge triumph for democracy when citizens are able to express their concerns, fears, and disenchantments on public policy or public official without any repudiation or reprisal.