African governments are fond of violently pouncing upon peaceful protesters and those who express dissenting opinion, sending them to jail and, in some cases, clobbering them to death, as happened with Solo Sandeng. Those who survive violent arrest and or torture are slapped with heavy charges, often invariably including the ubiquitous “disturbing of the peace” and treason. Peaceful protesters expressing their legitimate public opinion within the limits of their constitutionally guaranteed rights are forcefully criminalized and accused of trying to overthrow their governments by unlawful means. The irony is that because peaceful protesters are acting within their constitutionally guaranteed rights, they cannot possibly be committing treason at the same time.
Yet, in a majority of cases, Africa’s peaceful protesters so arraigned are declared guilty and sentenced, to time, to death, or to indefinite detention and starvation unworthy of human dignity. African courts under the obvious control of intolerant governments routinely find innocent people guilty of nonexistent crimes. Peaceful protests such as the ones held in April 2016 by Gambia’s Solo Sandeng and the UDP leadership cannot possibly be treasonable felony. The government’s treason charges may stick to the case, but not to the persons of the UDP defendants because they are simply not guilty of treason. In the laws of nature, you really cannot make something what it is not simply by calling it so. It is like insisting that a cow is really a chicken and that you heard it coo and can see its feathers too!
African governments that pounce on peaceful protesters are genuinely afraid of what peaceful protests can do: they can overthrow a government, but only lawfully, since the protests are lawful. The Arab spring that toppled Arab dictatorships in North Africa started small, then ballooned to match the size of the government’s unpopularity with the people. Protests of such magnitude take a long time coming, a long time of the suppression of small protests and dissenting opinion by the state which creates widespread feelings of anger and disgust in the population. Dictatorships continually undermine themselves because with every small act of tyranny against somebody, the circle of public anger widens, even if only by the relatives and friends of the affected persons. By trying to prevent the growth of protest movements, African governments try to silence the future but end up giving the future a larger, louder, more insistent and more coherent voice.
It seems entirely lost to many African governments that it is within the rights of a people to remove and replace their government through constitutional, and if necessary, unconstitutional means. The critical difference is that while toppling a government by force of arms may be claimed as a “constitutional” right – as Mr. Jammeh and his colleagues did on July 22, 1994 – it is still a treasonable felony. This natural right to violent insurrection by oppressed persons may be treasonable, but it is still a right either explicitly or implicitly resident in the constitution as the right to insurrection against injustice and unbearable oppression by the State. The best antidote to public protest is government tolerance and responsiveness to public opinion, especially public opinion addressing issues of general national interest, such as electoral laws and government policies. The suppression of legitimate political dissent is unfailingly counter-productive for the State and its mother, the Nation.
In an alternative trajectory of recent Gambian history, the Sandeng protest would have attracted police attention. The police would send some officers to help maintain law and order by their presence. Solo would be allowed to have his protest, to lay out his demands, to loudly condemn government policy, ask for electoral reforms immediately and even call upon the government to step down because he believes – rightly or wrongly – that it has lost all political and moral legitimacy to govern. At some point, the protest time would be up and Solo and whatever crowds that may have gathered would disperse with a threat to continue protesting until their demands are met. The government hears about the protest and issues a statement defending its electoral laws, criticizing Sandeng and the UDP, and encouraging a dialogue and public debate on the issue. It organizes a free and fair referendum on the issue with all interested parties freely campaigning for their point of view. If the majority of Gambians say there should be electoral reform, there would be electoral reform. If the majority of Gambians say no electoral reform, well, no electoral reform and the UDP would be morally obliged to respect the wishes of the majority for the current election cycle while reserving the right to continue advocating for electoral reform within the limits of the law.
To crack down and forcefully suppress Sandeng and the UDP leadership for demanding electoral reform is to totally misunderstand the nature of the nation-state. Such action may seem natural in another type of political formation, an absolute monarchy with no constitution aside from the king, for instance. But even there, the natural right to insurrection exists, hence history’s many revolutions in which absolute monarchs are forcefully toppled. In all situations, regardless of the nature of the State in power, the nation equally belongs to everybody. It could be said without much fear of error that all Gambians equally love The Gambia. Arrested protesters and journalists are loudly told during police interrogation that they are enemies of the State out to destroy the country. It is implied that there are some Gambians who hate their own country so much that they are plotting to physically destroy it, often with the help of some imaginary malignant foreign interests. One dares to say that a citizen may be deprived of anything but their love of country. Yes, citizens may dislike, even hate their government. But they cannot dislike or hate their country itself because that is contrary to the laws of nature. It is like disliking or hating your own identity, an obvious contradiction in terms possible only under abnormal conditions. For example, no one questions Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s love for America. Trump simply wants an America that builds walls to keep Mexicans out and ban Muslims from entering the country, while Clinton wants another kind of America. In the recent Brexit saga, some British citizens wanted a UK that was part of the European Union, others wanted a UK that was not part of the European Union. Neither party could be legitimately accused of hating their country. They are merely arguing for their preferred version of the nation, their imagined nation (to evoke Benedict Anderson’s useful concept of the nation as an imagined community).
Because of the grotesque dislocation of the African State from its natural space as an integral and subservient segment of the population, it is incapable of developing an appropriate understanding of its locus, status, role and function in society. The African State conceives of itself and acts as if it is a separate, all-powerful entity, located high above the people, with total command of the police, the army, the courts, the prisons and all the laws of the land. It insists on knowing best what is good for the country and reserves the right to violently protect itself against any constitutional right that interferes with its absolute power. In a strange case of political dystopia, the State arrogates to itself total ownership of the country, the people and their future, and leaves no room for alternative viewpoints on the national project.
This profoundly tragic distortion of the nation’s character makes it impossible for the State to appreciate that political conflict in general, and political dissent and opposition in particular are inevitable expressions of citizens’ desire as to what their country should be, or should be like. The Gambia government has its own idea of what Gambia should be. The UDP and other Gambian individuals, political organizations, the media, the Church, the Mosque – all have their ideas of what Gambia should be. Some of their visions or aspects of their visions of an imagined Gambian nation may be similar, some may be different. In all cases, the State that enjoys an advantage of political power should remain embedded and subservient to the people at all times. What vision of an imagined Gambia takes ascendancy in the nation’s politics should be determined not by police boots, batons, guns and extrajudicial incarcerations and executions, but by the people, if necessary through their own vocal agency, or their elected representatives or competent courts of the land. If it is understood that no citizen really hates their country and that political differences are simply expressions of different imagined nations, and are to be expected and even encouraged, the kind of destructive politics we have seen in Africa since independence may begin to shift in the right direction.