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Sanna Sabally’s testimony exposes a national malaise

Madi Jobarteh is a Gambian rights activist
Madi Jobarteh is a Gambian rights activist

The initial testimony of Sanna Sabally exposes a malaise in our society that could be found widespread and deep – in both the educated and the uneducated populations. This malaise goes to explain in fact the bad governance and underdevelopment that this country has been experiencing since Independence unabated. Two issues reflect this malaise in Sanna’s testimony, i.e. the idea that the military has a duty or role to overthrow a corrupt government and that the Geneva Conventions are useless!

When Sanna forcefully and seemingly innocently claim the right of the military to address political issues means the man lacks basic understanding of the nature of democratic governance and constitutionalism in a republic.  This error in understanding the nature and function of institutions and processes can be found prevalent until today in the minds of many Gambians. For example, it equates quite well with the scenario where the current president just like his predecessor would sack a Member of the National Assembly on the pretext that the president nominated that member.

This misconception of the nature of laws and institutions and the power entrusted to public officers can also be found in even some well-educated lawyers and intellectuals who defended the sacking of a parliamentarian by the president. They claim, albeit erroneously that indeed a particular section of the Constitution justifies such action simply because he who appoints can also sack! Thus, in his ignorance of the very rationale and role of the military institution in a democratic republic Sanna could not find ever again any barriers, moral and legal to stop him from executing his diabolical objectives since he has already found justification for his actions on a misconception of institutionalism, constitutionalism and democratic governance.

Yes, the Constitution imposes a duty on all citizens to defend the Constitution, but one cannot just seek an outright overthrow of a government just because one perceives a particular government to be corrupt or violates the constitution. One will find that in any well governed state there will be abuses and excesses by public officials and the government as a whole at certain times. But in such states, one will also find processes and institutions of accountability that work reasonably and most of the time to ensure that there is redress. Furthermore, one will also find that the space is open and free for citizens and political parties to challenge that government in various ways. Thus, so long as accountability measures exist reasonably it will be difficult to justify a violent overthrow of a government especially by the military which is supposed to be under civilian control in the first place.

Indeed, the PPP Government of Dawda Jawara was not the best of well governed administrations in the world but despite all of its shortcomings there were institutions and processes that allows for citizens to seek redress and change things. Secondly the political space was open enough such that various political actors could engage in order to bring about change. This is not to say there were no incidences of corruption or abuse of power and violations of rights. They were there. But then given the Gambia’s overall history and context and the relatively open and reasonably democratic nature of that government it is fair to say that this was an emerging nation-state that did not deserve a coup at that time.

For example, we have seen how in the 1980s a journalist published a damning story about corruption involving key minsters, yet the journalist was not subjected to arbitrary arrest or his paper closed down. Even though his trial on sedition was not enviable however the journalist had his day in court and was eventually acquitted and discharged. This was in the 1980s!

Fast forward to 1994 to 2016 when if another journalist would publish the same kind of story under the APRC regime, there is no doubt that such a journalist would disappear, and the newspaper closed down as we saw many times during the period. Hence one could rather contemplate justifying a violate overthrow of the APRC regime than the PPP Government simply because the former closed all means for accountability and made political activity an extremely risky business while the former allowed accountability processes and the political space to remain open, peacefully.

Therefore, the narrative by Sanna that the military particularly has a duty to overthrow a corrupt government is symptomatic of the malaise afflicting our society when individuals harbour very narrow perspectives of reality only to reach extremely faulty and dangerous conclusions. In some instances, it is about being utterly subjective, partisan or sectarian such that one cannot see beyond one’s institution, tribe or religion. Rather we perceive reality and life as a whole in terms of our peculiar environment first.

The other misconception perpetrated by Sanna is the idea that the Geneva Conventions don’t mean anything. This is in fact more scary coming from a soldier when it is clear that the Hague Conventions 1899 and later the Geneva Conventions 1949 have always been active since when they were first conceived. Sanna’s perspective clearly begs the question as to what and how is the Gambian military trained? Is his perception reflective of the mindset of the generality of Gambian soldiers or not?

As a soldier Sanna should have been quite accustomed with the laws of war and prepared to solemnly abide by them thus reflecting indeed his level of professionalism and dedication to military culture. Any soldier who thinks even slightly that the Geneva Conventions can be disregarded even by an inch then such a soldier is indeed a criminal who must not serve in any military.

Hence this testimony clearly shows that Sanna Bairo Sabally must not have been recruited into the Gambian army in the first place if indeed the recruiters could have deciphered his mindset from the very outset. This testimony therefore calls for urgent security sector reform so that the women and men in uniform are properly educated and cultured. Great military women and men are those that do not only know how to use the weapon and fight well but also abide by the norms of civilized society as espoused in the laws and institutions that guide conduct in any walk of life.

At best I can only classify Sanna as a hugely ignorant man and at worst as an inherently evil person who must not have been allowed in the first place to get near the military much more hold any leadership position in the society. He has demonstrated that he lacks any morality and sense of humanity to realise that leadership is responsibility that must be guided by higher values and standards. Courage and bravery exist in a person when she submits to and defends those values and standard and not when she blatantly breaks values with impunity!

Sanna’s blatant disregard for human life by perceiving everything in terms of ‘either-or’ or as a zero-sum game makes him erroneously believe that perceived and real enemies must be crushed to death simply because that is what the ‘enemies ‘would have also done to him. He has completely forgotten, in fact ignored the fact that he was the Vice Chair of the State that has legal and political obligation to protect the rights and lives of all Gambians regardless.

I find this perception quite disturbing and deep since one can find such narrative alive and kicking even right now in the way our political leaders and their parties and supporters relate to each other. It appears our society lacks the ability to attempt to understand each other in order to negotiate and compromise among ourselves for the good of the nation. When we hold positions of power there is a tendency in Gambians to unleash force and violence as a means to dominate and control all others which we erroneously perceive to be bravery and courage. Go to Gambian homes, communities and offices and you will see how in many instances the people who hold power use it to conquer and destroy fellow family members, colleagues or citizens!

Sanna has demonstrated, after 22 years in which he served at the highest level of leadership in the country including spending 9 years in prison that his mind is still weak and poor to comprehend and submit himself to the dictates of morality and the rule of law. His understanding of power is so distorted that he could only use power to unleash pain and misery. Sadly, he still cherishes that extremely polluted notion!

This testimony therefore has indeed offered huge lessons for our society for one will still find many Gambians who think and perceive the world in the same distorted manner as Sanna. There are many among us who either do not understand the nature of things in their proper context or if they do, they care less. This could be about God, ethnicity, religion, constitution, laws, human rights, institutions, power and sacred values and standards. How many of us misunderstand the very purpose of our institutions or merely condemn international institutions and disregard international law just like that? What difference are we with Sanna who also thinks that the military has a governance role or that the Geneva Conventions are useless?

This same distorted mentality in Sanna is the same distorted mentality we could recall in Yaya Jammeh when he would also lambast ECOWAS, AU, UN, Commonwealth or the ICC and even go ahead to remove the country from these institutions as he liked. Not that these are impeccable institutions but when you have leaders misconceive the nature and purpose of domestic and international institutions, processes, laws and norms then woe betide that society!

Is this a Gambian trait? Are we an arrogant people or do we just have low self-esteem? Is it because our education and culture are weak and poor such that we cannot develop critical thinking for the purpose of doing the good and just in the right way? We need serious self-refection.

For the Gambia Our Homeland

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