By Ebrima G. Sankareh, Editor-in-Chief
Just one week after The Gambia’s embattled Interior Minister, Mai Ahmad Fatty, confidently appeared before the National Assembly garlanded in ubiquitous blue African kaftan, a blue hat, a sparkling wristwatch and bespectacled in a scholarly fashion to introduce the amendment of key constitutional provisions governing Presidential qualifications and Age limit for Gambian judges, his colleague, Justice Minister, Ba Tambedou, in a dramatic development on state TV last night, apologetically told Gambians, that Fatty’s Bill was flawed and has advised President Adama Barrow not to sign it into law.
Curiously, almost a month before a significantly metamorphosed Mr. Fatty walked into The Gambia’s disgraceful legislative chamber notorious for decreeing the most draconian laws in Africa, several legal scholars have expressed their opinions on the complexities of the provisions and had forewarned the Barrow government, to amend the bad laws using procedural parameters consistent with law; that it was a logical first step, that those who seek to nurture democracy must inherently be democratic and those who seek justice, must necessarily be just; an old legal adage that transcends centuries.
Significantly, our long-time legal columnist, Lamin J. Darboe, a Juris Doctor and an LL.B, coupled with stellar academic training in political science, legal and religious philosophy and once a magistrate in The Gambia, had written extensively on this matter with the hopeful anticipation that once the Barrow government was poised to amend some of Mr. Jammeh’s self-perpetuating bad laws, their actions will be procedurally sacrosanct.
Unfortunately, when Mai Fatty appeared on February 28, 2017 to begin the amendment process (The Echo appropriately calls it: Mai Fatty Amendment Bill),most legal scholars were stupefied at the procedural sham with which it was rendered and the tsunami of legal opinions blistering the move was predictable. The Echo has since received a barrage of biting opinions but in our desire to keep things calm amid an already poisoned political climate, we chose only to publish those that are consistent with our journalistic practice.
Embattled Interior Minister, Mai A. Fatty
What is even curiouser is that the controversial Fatty Amendment Bill was not tabled by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Ba Tambedou, nor was it tabled by the Minister of Forestry and National Assembly matters, the Hon. James F. Gomez but by their Interior colleague, himself a Gambian barrister and supposedly very conversant with the Constitution of The Republic of The Gambia. So the question many are asking is: why would Maimuna Fatty (Mai) put himself in such an embarrassing situation that now questions his quality as a lawyer and leader of an opposition party; a man reputed for his prolific essays and press releases denouncing Yaya Jammeh’s illegal government?
Be that as it were, Justice Minister Tambedou’s tempered demeanour before the glare of Gambian TV cameras last night, and his very modest and simple apology to Gambians to exercise patience as they grapple with Yaya Jammeh’s shameful legal structures designed to entrench dictatorship is a powerful anti-dote to the sound and fury the Fatty Amendment Bill has already generated within the corridors of state power and beyond. Minister Tambedou must also be commended for taking full responsibility for Mai Fatty’s futile and flawed legislation; an ominous legal precedent for a new government that promised miracles to Gambians both at home and in the Diaspora.
For the past two decades, some of us (myself inclusive) have been exiled and just to remind Mr. Fatty and his new government the hope we exiles have in the new dispensation, I would draw from my editorial captioned Gambia Defeats Tyranny
(http://thegambiaecho.com/gambia-defeats-tyranny/ ) on the fateful Friday Yaya Jammeh capitulated to the democratic will of the Gambian people. I said in pertinent part thus:
Today, this Friday, after two decades of living in the United States as an exile, I take solace in the immortal words of the German scholar of Jewish extraction, Theodore Wiesengrund Adorno, himself an exile, who poignantly said: “For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” Precisely so! Like Adorno, who fled Germany because of Hitler’s Nazi regime, I too fled The Gambia—my sacred Homeland; that sweet smelling aromatic beauty of a serene River and landscape where for millennia, civilizations have crisscrossed and cross-fertilized each other. Yes! I had to flee only because of Yaya Jammeh’s brutal repression and since I was deprived of this gem, I found home in writing and reflecting on my lost homeland.
Therefore, following this shameful legal spectacle and numerous others particularly the public humiliation of the Foroyaa journalist, Mr. Kebba Jiffang, captured on camera all in the spate of just two weeks, we urge Mr. Fatty that now henceforth, let him be guided by the spirit that powered us to liquidate the Jammeh dictatorship and remain steadfast for a better and more democratic Gambia where all are equal before the law. For some of us, writing and exposing excesses by whoever and whomever is in power, is a lifelong endeavour that transcends friendship, collegiality, ethnicity and party affiliation. Our only friend is the just!
Below, we reproduce verbatim, Justice minister Tambedou’s clarification and apology:
I am here today to clarify a matter of general public importance. You will recall that the government presented two bills to the National Assembly on 28 February 2017: one bill on electoral law seeking to reduce the monetary deposits payable by potential contestants in elections for public office in the country; and the second bill was in respect of amending provisions of the 1997 constitution relating to the upper age limit for judges of the superior courts and for the President of the republic.
As the Chief Legal Advisor to the government, I have now advised His Excellency The President to withhold his assent to the bill relating to the amendment of the constitutional provisions. The reason for this advice is because I am of the opinion that the procedure adopted at the National Assembly to amend these constitutional provisions was misconceived. The process of amendment of the constitutional provisions should have been guided by Section 226 of the Constitution instead of Section 101 which was the procedure used at the National Assembly.
Therefore, on this occasion, and being responsible for tabling the constitution amendment bill before the National Assembly, the Ministry of Justice failed to properly guide this process. As Attorney General and Minister of Justice, I take full responsibility for this error. Steps are now being taken so that this will be remedied at the earliest opportunity. Appropriate action will also be taken to ensure that such a situation does not occur again in the future.
This latest act by the government demonstrates that this is indeed a new era of openness and accountability, an era of honest government that is responsive to the concerns of its citizens. While there cannot be universal agreement on the interpretation of the law all the time, the Ministry of Justice will always act in the best interest of the country and in ways that will only strengthen respect for the rule of law.
This situation also underscores the need to conduct an urgent and comprehensive review of the 1997 constitution in order to ensure, among other things, a clear and consistent interpretation and application of its provisions. In this regard, I welcome the constructive engagement of the generality of Gambians on this matter. It is refreshing to see that a great number of people have taken to the constitution of late and are scrutinizing every government action to ensure compliance with its provisions. It is a positive and welcome development in our new democracy. It is a healthy practice which I hope will become a habit in our country.
Allow me to add, however, that as we seek to rebuild this country after 22 years of dictatorship which has crippled every sector of life particularly the legal sector, we must also accept the reality that this government has inherited governance support structures that were designed, over the past two decades, to entrench that dictatorship. Reform of these structures will not occur overnight or automatically simply because a new government is in place. We continue to depend on these existing governance structures while appropriate reforms are being initiated, and in so far as the Ministry of Justice is concerned, this will be done in a gradual and steady manner so as to avoid a further crippling of the very fragile support structures that we have to rely on in this reform process. It is a very delicate balancing act but one that is unavoidable and necessary.
Meanwhile, I continue to urge that you exercise patience and understanding as there will be other challenges and setbacks as this government seeks to rebuild institutions based on a solid foundation of respect for the rule of law and democracy.