Unlawful overreach: why Government has no mandate over the Gunjur-Marlborough Link

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By Lamin J Darbo

What with the EU [European Union] rights standoff, the perennial uncertainty of our nation’s relationship with the open international currency markets, and the deepening inflation affecting daily necessities, one would have thought the attention of The Gambia Government would be fully engaged with these and other issues pivotal to national cohesion and security. But tragic-comedy is ever present in the convoluted public life of The Gambia, and so it came as no surprise that Government considered it crucial and proper to intervene in a dispute affecting one-half of a private relationship by purportedly banning (see Daily Observer, 19 July 2013) the longstanding Gunjur-Marlborough Link (G-M L). Is the ban exclusive to the community linking side of the relationship under the management of the Gunjur Link Committee (GLC), a clearly cancerous organ, or does it also encompass the development ambit of the G-M L as enshrined in the instruments of the Trust Agency for Rural Development (TARUD)? Whatever the answer, the Government of His Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya A J J Jammeh (the Professor) has no lawful authority to intervene in the affairs of the G-M L, a wholly private institution that so far implicates no compelling national question.

At the heart of the internecine dispute within the Gunjur side of the relationship is the community’s demand that the GLC step down from its management role of the Linking arm of the G-M L in the interest of transparency and openness. Except for the GLC itself, there is no one in Gunjur who considers this simple demand unreasonable considering the core management has been in office for upwards of three decades. Without offering so much as a dialogue with the GLC’s purported constituents, and those now clamouring for its exit, it labours on as if nothing was ever amiss. This was short-sighted in the extreme but the strategy is not without its credible, if naive calculations. Among those supporting the untenable GLC position of lifetime management roles are men in government and business with pretended influence and access in the ultimate decision making chambers of Gambian public life. Stated simply, the GLC, and its friends, placed ultimate reliance on public lawlessness to remain in control of a private venture notwithstanding the clear demands of the community that it steps down. This is a classic case of the Gambian propensity to short-circuit accountable and transparent process by placing exclusive reliance on support from the operators of public power to achieve a desired objective, no matter how tenuous over time.

At the other end of the dispute, and representing the clear wishes of the people of Gunjur that the GLC vacate office is the Village Development Committee (VDC), a creature of the Local Government Act (LGA), and an integral element of the state machinery to micromanage every aspect of life in The Gambia. With stellar intentions, but clear strategic naivety, the VDC pushed for the dethronement of the GLC management on the compelling ground it overstayed after more than 30 years in office, a situation the people of Gunjur, including the Alkalo, and Nyansingbaa, are no longer willing to countenance. There is no question the VDC and its wider support base has the moral high ground, and its argument that change at the GLC is long overdue is unassailable. However, the VDC is also guilty of placing substantial reliance on public lawlessness to effect change in GLC management. It too aimed to short-circuit the process of inevitable change via unacceptable reliance on state machinery.

Although I can appreciate the motivations behind the VDC strategy of getting government support, be it direct, or indirect, I repeat that it is both naive and dangerous. The G-M Link is not the type of community venture anticipated by the VDC mechanism of the LGA, and that accidental protection must never be voluntarily compromised. As a private non-governmental organisation, the people of Gunjur must never permit the G-M L to come under the purview of the VDC, a political instrument with the clear objective of giving government ultimate control over every aspect of Gambian life. When this dispute between the VDC and the GLC management flared, I counselled against involving public officials on this ground, as well as on the potential hazard of exposing individuals to the draconian Section 114 of the Criminal Code, the so-called “false information to public servant” law over the life of the conflict.

However Momodou Aki Bayo, the Honourable Minister of Lands and Regional Government came to be involved in this VDC-GLC dispute, there is no question he intervened in an affair that has no connection whatsoever with his office and lawful authority. Although it is easy to see how the VDC and its supporters welcomed the Honourable Minister’s intervention when, on 21 April 2013, he ordered the GLC to vacate office within a month, this was ill-advised considering his lack of lawful authority to so act. I was in no doubt the Honourable Minister was in no position to enforce his order without the intervention of the Professor. And so it came to pass that a presidential “directive” purports to ban the G-M L on 17 July 2013 (see Daily Observer, 19/07/13), some three months after the Honourable Minister’s initial ultimatum to the GLC to surrender control of the Linking side of the relationship to the VDC.

In the larger scheme of things, the Marlborough side of the G-M L equation bears some responsibility in the sorry saga being played out in Gunjur over the Linking arm of the relationship. As the other party in the G-M L, Marlborough was fully aware that the community was clamouring for change in the management of the GLC. Instead of a timely intervention to contain the dispute, it left Gunjur to its devices. After such a long association with the community, and larger Gambian society, Marlborough ought to be in no doubt how such a protracted dispute would likely end considering the overt interest of the Honourable Minister going back to at least April this year. If Marlborough’s inaction was a function of long term personal relationships with some members of the GLC, it must now deal with the messy cleanup triggered by wilful blindness to a festering sore. In future, Marlborough must accord due consideration to the wishes of the community as opposed to the interest of a minority cabal committed to lifetime control of the GLC.

In light of the current dynamics of the dispute, it is difficult to achieve a comprehensive and lasting solution without a complete climb down by the Professor, and on this issue, his bungling Honourable Minister of Lands and Regional Government. It is extraordinary that the Honourable Minister announced a ban without invoking any lawful authority whatsoever, be it legal, or administrative. Although not unusual, such conduct by the Honourable Minister is nevertheless an affront to the dignity of Gunjur, a community defenceless against the raw power of the Professor’s Government. No matter how protracted, and seemingly intractable this internecine community conflict around the Linking arm of the G-M L, public authority must exercise appropriate restraint in dealing with issues outside the ambit of its legal mandate. I urge the Professor to rescind the banning, and to do so as a matter of urgency.

By all indications, the unaccountable three-decades run of the current GLC management may be regarded as over for practical purposes. What the VDC must immediately do is stop toying with its ongoing project of incorporating the G-M L in general, or the GLC, in particular, under its purview. This invites unacceptable Government interference in a relationship over which it does not, and must not, have any legal, or moral mandate. It is difficult to see how the generality of the G-M L can be insulated from Government control if an apolitical, private entity is brought under the purview of the VDC. The Government must be denied all opportunity to destroy the G-M L, and destruction would be the inevitable result if meddling such as that by Honourable Minister Bayo unavoidably introduces partisanship into the affairs of this significant and beneficial inter-community linking and development institution.

In May this year, the Siffoe VDC, without cogent reason, was dissolved by the Brikama Area Council (BAC) for partisan reasons. In a letter to the then Siffoe VDC (see Gambia Daily News, June 07 2013), the BAC communicated its dissolution decision thus:

Per directives from the Ministry of Lands and Regional Government through the office of the

Governor West Coast Region, Brikama Area Council has convene an Emergency Council

meeting yesterday May 22nd and pass a resolution to dissolve the Village Development

Committee. Part (V) Section 96 (1) empowers Council to dissolve a Village Development

Committee by resolution, if in the opinion of Council the Committee is ineffective or not

operating in the best interest of the village. Furthermore you are duly informed that Council

in Exercise of its mandate in accordance with the Provisions under part V Section 93 (b) (c) (d)

and (e) of the Local Government Act hereby instruct the Alkalo and the respective Kabilos to

select their representatives for the formation of a new VDC in Siffoe scheduled for Thursday

23rd May, 2013. The Council will be there to facilitate the selection process and as observers.

If only to avoid this capricious application of power, the VDC must abandon any idea of bringing the G-M L under its control. Ultimately, Gunjur cannot benefit from that arrangement no matter how convenient it may appear on current calculations.

Another compelling reason for taking Government out of the equation in seeking a solution to this affair centres on my concern of how this kind of dispute can easily trigger the so-called offence of giving “false information to public servant”. I cannot over-emphasise that politicians must be left out of this conflict, and here my counsel is for both the VDC, as well as the GLC. Involving the Government needlessly complicated the affair mainly through the GLC strategy of muddying the waters along sectional and political lines. The VDC must resist engagement on either sectional or political lines as no winnable strategy can be crafted out of these deliberately manufactured aspects of a simple call for transparent reform.

I wholeheartedly support Gunjur’s efforts to remove the current GLC management, and to replace it with a more community-friendly, transparent, accountable structure. This must be done outside the structure of the VDC if the G-M L generally, and the GLC particularly, must remain insulated from political control. The unlawful banning of an apolitical, private entity must be rescinded, and the Honourable Minister, Momodou Aki Bayo, whose needless meddling brought a dignified community to such sorry state, must lead the unbanning effort.