Fast Moving Events In Banjul!!! We Will Bring Them To You As They Reach Us.
Its been a while. The last article (How we Ignored Peace and Chose War) I sent to you in December about the divisions in the Coalition between Mai Fatty and Halifa and how they went about almost plunging the country into civil war made major waves. I watched the public reaction and saw with dismay how the same people who hailed you as a Hero were the same ones who chastised you and called you unpatriotic and tribalist. I saw on Social media how they called the contents of that article false and untrue. Now I guess after the happening of the last month and the internal scuffles that have been bared for the world to see, there is no doubt I was on point with my revelations. The issue at hand today is the move to facilitate the appointment of Tambajang as VP. forgive me or it length. As in the past please keep my ID hidden.
Barring any last-minute changes, the Coalition Government is scheduled to table a Constitutional Amendment Bill before the National Assembly on Tuesday 28th February 201. According to reports, the two Amendments sought are 1) A downward revision of the registration fees for candidates seeking to contest the Parliamentary Elections and 2) The Removal of the upper Age Limit for qualification to the offices of President and by extension Vice President. If successful, this amendment will pave the way for the appointment of Mrs. Fatoumata J. Tambajang as vice President of The Gambia.
Shortly after the Dakar inauguration ceremony, the Coalition on the 24th, though a Press release announced that President Barrow had appointed Fatoumata J Tambajang as the new Vice President. This immediately led to an outcry based on her eligibility to hold this position due to the Constitutional mandated maximum age limit of 65 years. You see, a lot of sources alleged that FJT, as she has been fondly called was way passed the constitutional Age limit of 65 and so was constitutionally unqualified to hold this office during a press conference a few days later the then Coalition spokesperson, Halifa Sallah, when posed with the question of her eligibility stated that any such questions should be addressed to the Government which will clarify the position. A few days later, a vetting committee was set up by the Government to look into the suitability of Candidates for cabinet positions. This obviously stemmed from the objection to FJTs nomination to the position of vice President.
In-spite all the public outcry, the government took no steps whatsoever to clarify their position as any responsible government would do or at least assuage the worries of a public which was visibly disturbed by allegations of such severe disregard for the Constitution so early into the term of the New Government. This was taken to new heights when in his maiden press conference, President Barrow was posed with the question of the eligibility of the new vice President. The response I would expect from no lesser person than the President of the Republic would be either: No, the vice President nominee is below the age limit and thus is eligible to hold the office of Vice President, which can be proven by so and so document’ or ‘No the vice President nominee is above the constitutional Age limit but however the Government is in the process of amending the Constitution to allow the VP nominee effectively assume the position.
On the contrary and to my utter dismay, the President threw the buck back at the Journalist who asked the question by responding along the lines of ‘anybody who thinks the Vice President is ineligible should prove it’. This presents an insult to a people who weathered trying times and threw all the support behind him to move the country forward from ‘dictatorship’. Every Government has a responsibility to her people; to be open, accountable and forthcoming. In spite of public concern and reliable information of the VP nominee’s ineligibility, the Presidency opted for political rhetoric. Up until the time of writing this the Government is yet to make any clear declarations on the VP nominee’s age.
As if to add salt to injury and in spite of the numerous questions flying about her eligibility FJT still went on to represent the President at the January 2017 African Union Summit and presented herself as the Vice President of the Gambia. Upon her return, she has continued to exercise the role of the Vice President and has appeared at such at Government meetings with International partners and even before the entire world, during the February 18th Independence celebrations/Presidential Inauguration.
Now, the above narrative is very important in view of our extensive criticism of the past government for its disregard of the Constitution and the fact that this was one of the main platforms on which the Coalition Government ran. My feeling is that the Government feels that proverbially burying their heads in the sand like an Ostrich, the public is going to overlook this issue of her age and FJT can continue to unconstitutionally exercise the powers of VP.
In turn of events, the FJT has been reassigned as Minister of Womens’Affairs overseeing the Office of the Vice President. This is one of the most bizarre if not the most bizarre manipulation of administrative procedure. I have scoured the internet and public libraries for instances where somebody has been appointed to oversee such a high office. If you ask me ‘oversee’ is just a twist on the title ‘Acting’ in a bid to avoid any objections from the public. The Constitution clearly makes Act provision for the office of the Vice President in Section 70. Unlike the constitutional positions like the President, where the constitution clearly makes provision for the VP or speaker to oversee or act in that role (Section 64) or the most Senior Judge to Act in the office of the Chief Justice (Section 140).
As such, I contend that the appointment of any individual to oversee the office of the Vice President is not only Illegal but is in gross violation of the Constitution. This incessant attempts by the Government to push through the appointment of FJT as VP in spite of all the glaring evidence of her ineligibility is synonymous to the Government telling us that other than FJT there are no other women in the Gambia eligible and capable of handling the portfolio of Vice President. Now, I assure you, and I think it is a sentiment shared by many people that I apart from the age issue, FJT is highly qualified and will make an very good VP. However, the main bone of contention is the manner in which the Government is going about her appointment. With the tight timing and under the right circumstances I will have no issue throwing my full support behind her appointment.
However, I hold the Constitution too Sacred to see it denigrated by this Government. I will elucidate further on this below. The more the Government continues to wrangle and play politics with this appointment, they will continue to hemorrhage key supporters and the more unpopular FJT will grow.
As I stated at the beginning the Government is scheduled to table a bill before the National Assembly remove the maximum age limit for the office of President and Vice President. I have two major issues with this proposal. The first is that early in this Government and with all the major issues and priorities that are facing this country, issues that will have an immediate impact on improving on the conditions of the everyday man and contributing to an improvement in Democracy, and basic freedoms, the Government has chosen to prioritize constitutional Amendments which have the sole aim of favoring one individual’s aspirations for power over the interests of an entire nation. It is highly disturbing that while we still have certain provisions of law that affect the immediate enjoyment of private rights by citizens, freedom of speech, freedom of association, health and political reform, the Government chooses to Amend one single provision to benefit one individual. We have a constitution which virtually gives the President the power to Appoint and fire all members of the other two arms of Government (Judiciary and National Assembly).
The notion of separation of powers is to guarantee three separate and independent arms of Government is to ensure that they each act as a system of checks and balances. Under Section 93(1) of the Constitution, the Speaker shall be appointed by the members of the National Assembly from amongst the Nominated members (Nominated by the President). This means by firing one of the nominated President can in essence fire the speaker We have seen this happen wantonly in the past. In addition to this it means the even in the scenario that a party other than that in power seeps a majority in the national assembly, the President still gets to decide who becomes Speaker and in most cases one who will likely be his supporter. The speaker wields a lot of power, he gets the deciding vote in the case of a tie in the National Assembly and is also third in line for succession to the Presidency The National Assembly should be free to choose its leadership from among the entire membership. With the National Assembly coming up in April one will think this will be the Government’s priority but No, it’s just not important enough for this Government. Now that they are in power centralises power all of a sudden no longer feels like such a bad idea after all. If this is where we are 2 months in I shudder to think where we will be 6 months or a year down the road.
My second issue with this proposed Amendment is the fact that it is not just an amendment of any law or statute but an Amendment of Supreme Law of the Land for the benefit of a single person. The common argument that you will hear in favour of this Amendment is the fact that ‘the age limit was put in the Constitution to block Lawyer Ousainou Darboe from becoming President’. This absurd and far-fetched argument like many others in Gambia stem from utterances of a single misinformed individual which then took a life of its own and became ‘truth’.
Permit me to drop some knowledge here. Section 62 which contains the provision with the maximum age limit for holders of the Office of President/vice President is one of the Original Clauses of the Constitution. After the 1994 coup, all Political activity and by extension Political parties where banned in The Gambia by virtue of a Decree the AFPRC Military Government. In March 1995, a decree was passed creating the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) which had as its main objective the review and drafting of a new Constitution in consultation with the general public. This Committee came up with a draft which it submitted to the military Government sometime in mid-2016 with Section 62 which established the 65 year maximum age limit being part of that Draft. The reasoning behind this maximum age limit came from public frustrations with the advanced age of holders of high office in the previous PPP Government. The then Military Government decided to submit this Draft to a referendum which was organised by the Provisional Independent Electoral Commission and held on the 6th of August 1996. 441,732 people registered for the Referendum with 383,875 turning out to vote making a voter turnout of 86.90%. 270,093 voted For the Draft Constitution with 113,744 Voting against and 38 blank votes, translation to 70.36% percent voting in favor and 29.64 voting against.
As such the constitution with the maximum age limit for office of President although not an entrenched clause was voted in an overwhelming public vote. Exactly 8 days after the referendum, precisely on the 14th of August 1996, the ban on political parties was lifted via Decree number 89, with the exception of the three pre-1994 parties vis PPP, NCP and GPP. This led to the formation in August 1996 by Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party. It is therefore very clear that at the time the 1997 Constitution was drafted and voted by referendum, political parties were yet to be formed and lawyer Darboe was not yet a Presidential Candidate. In 1996 therefore, neither Ousainou Darboe or any other individuals for that matter were targets of this particular provision. In addition, at the time of the coming into force of the 1997 Lawyer Darboe was a young man of just 48 years old. It would therefore be absurd to think this provision was crafted specially to remove him from contention.
Such a provision therefore which was the product of extensive public consultations and formed part of the original draft cannot be unilaterally amended by the Government without similar public consultations and validations. I will not hesitate to support this Amendment as far as it is done within the context of a wider constitutional amendment project. On its own however, and for the benefit of an individual, I must say that any such moves are unconscionable and a betrayal of public trust. I therefore call on the National Assembly to actively debate this Bill and take the best decision on the interest of the law and the people.
Even in the scenario where the laws are amended removing the maximum age limit, can we trust a Vice President who is reported to have a birth certificate conveniently stating she is 64 years old and other documents stating she is 68? The controversy surrounding her appointment and Government’s high handed and out of touch response have taken away any legitimacy her Vice Presidency could possibly have had.
I have learned two major lessons from the public reaction to the saga of the VPs appointment and to the other questionable acts by the new Government. The First is that in Gambia we support the ‘person’ and not his/her deeds or ideas. In Gambia once we support and individual, that person becomes infallible in our eyes and can do no wrong. We find a way to justify their actions and scuff at any criticism that is channeled directed towards them. That is why we can afford to stay silent in the face off all the faux pas of not only this new government but also the old Government. We will applaud the same acts that we previously criticized as far as those acts are done by the people we support.
Secondly, there are two kinds of lack of freedom of expression. The first is lack of freedom of expression due stringent laws and Government crackdowns. The second type is of a cultural nature, the fear to speak due to the desire not to be seen as a non-conformist with the prevailing public sentiment. It is this type that causes us to align ourselves with the prevailing public opinion we do not believe in just to avoid being viewed negatively. How many times have you been in a room having a political discussion and you had an opinion contrary to the others in the room, but shied away from expressing your opinion because you feared being ‘unpopular’. This second type is typical of Gambia.
We all want the new government to succeed, but they can’t succeed if we do not hold them to task. Dictatorships are created by the failure of people to hold their governments to task before we realize it may be too late. There are two kinds of dictatorships, Overt Dictatorship wherein there is no attempt to hide suppression. This is less dangerous than the second type which is subtle/diplomatic Dictatorship, where a government says the right things to appease the people and appears civil and down to earth while at the same time subtly oppressing them in the shadows. This kind of masked dictatorship is the type we risk falling into should we continue to stay quiet in face of Government which either by design or inadvertently has made faux pas after the other. This starts by us saying no to any attempts to pull the shades over our eyes. FJT is highly qualified to hold several offices within the Government of The Gambia; she just cannot and should not be the appointed Vice President of The Gambia.
Written By An Insider