Halifa Sallah's Letter To Jammeh On The Killing Of Student Protesters – 11 April 2000

Halifa Sallah’s Letter To Jammeh On The Killing Of Student Protesters – 11 April 2000

There is hardly any doubt that events of tremendous significance are developing. The very survival of the nation is at stake. Consequently, all Gambians have the national duty not to be mere spectators of events. We have a duty to be the architects of our own destiny. Needless to say, the destiny that all just Gambians yearn for is one where the life, liberty, security and dignity of each Gambian are fully secured.

What happened on Monday, 10 April 2000 is not a mere passing event. It is a seed of national discord. If it is not uprooted, the road to peaceful coexistence and peaceful transformation of society in accordance with the will of the people shall be obliterated.

April are therefore not ordinary developments. The whole future course that this nation is to take hinges on how we conceive the event and what we do to address the concerns emanating from them.

It was our concern that this matter which developed after Ebrima Barry was killed will not lead to blood-letting. This is precisely the reason why we had to address our letter of 9 April 2000 to the secretary of state for the Interior [Ousman Badjie] with the view to prevent the crisis from assuming larger proportions and thus making the means to resolve them more stupendous.

We have had the opportunity to follow developments very closely. We even gave outlet for a student to write reports on the developments so that their views will not be subjected to any distortion. There is no doubt that the students were most tormented by the killing of Ebrima Barry and the raping of a 13-year-old school girl.

Needless to say, the fact that action was taken after the students expressed their determination to see to it that their concerns would be addressed instilled in them cynicism regarding the seriousness of the authorities in addressing their concerns.

It was the duty of the state to reclaim its integrity by drawing momentous lessons from the Brikama demonstration. It was spontaneous. No one agitated the students. They were driven to a state of deep sorrow by their empathy.

Most students became identified with the suffering that Ebrima Barry went through. No human being who allows himself or herself to put on another person's shoes can fail to be moved by a mental picture of a school child carrying forty to sixty bags of cement, head shaven, cement applied on his body and some put in his mouth. The more one nurses such thoughts in one's very being, the more tormented one must become.

Apparently, the swift reaction to maintain contact with the student leadership and the promises made to address their concerns had delayed a national catastrophe. For sometime, it gave the students consolation that their action would yield the desired results.

Of course, there was an information lag regarding the arrest of those who allegedly killed Ebrima Barry. To all those who received the information that the alleged killers were arrested and detained and that an identification parade had taken place to facilitate the screening of those who were on active duty at the Stadium when the school girl was raped by a person in uniform felt that actions were being taken in the right direction.

The breaking point seems to have started when the students insisted on holding a demonstration. Apparently, those in charge of security felt that the identification parade and the arresting of those who have allegedly killed Ebrima Barry was enough. The announcement over the air that the file of the alleged killers had been handed over to the Attorney General's Chambers and that the State will not allow students who still insisted on demonstrating to threaten the security of the State indicated very clearly that the authorities had the aim to bar the students from holding a demonstration.

It is precisely this notion that the demonstration was unjustifiable that compelled the authorities responsible for security to try to abort it either through conciliation or coercion.

In our view, what the authorities should have done is to question whether what the students intended to do was lawful or unlawful. What they needed to do was to draw lessons from the Brikama demonstration. This would have enabled them to understand the state of mind of the students; that they were now at a state when they felt that they could put their liberty on the line for their rights and for justice.

This was the reality. The authorities who met them at meetings could read this in their words. Letters to newspapers reflected their thinking. Nothing was hidden. Even the Department of State for the Interior could read the determination of the students to exercise their rights which led to the issuing of the press release over the weekend of 7 to 9 April 2000.

The students did not hide their intentions. No one could say that they were puppets on anybody's string. Even the student leadership was on fire for cautioning restrain when the issue of demonstration came to the fore. The demonstration seemed to have been the zenith of the expression of a passion which arose as a result of Barry's and the girl’s cases.

This is precisely the reason why we maintain that the fundamental flaw of the authorities is to fail to allow the students to hold a peaceful demonstration. Anyone with a slight understanding of the state of mind of the students would have predicted that any attempt to abort the demonstration of Monday, 10 April 2000 would lead to undesirable consequences.

The events of Monday, 10 April 2000 should, therefore, offer great lessons. We did move with speed when we heard that confrontation had started at the Gambia Technical Training Institute (GTTI). Eye witnesses called to alleged that the paramilitary forces were armed and that they were opening fire on the students. We later learnt that they were using blank shots to frighten the students. Other reports indicated that some students were arrested and were being maltreated. It was reported that the security forces entered the GTTI gates to follow the students, went to the classrooms, harassed students and lecturers and that some of the students had to climb over the fences to escape.

Apparently, the students had their banners at GTTI. According to some comments from the authorities, some of the banners even mentioned "Sopi"; [change] that this gave them an impression that the students had intentions other than to demonstrate for action on Ebrima Barry's killing or the raping of the school girl.

If the situation is, therefore, examined with honesty one would acknowledge that there were determined attempts to prevent the students from holding the demonstration. It was also assumed that if a firm hand was initially utilised, the students will feel threatened and disperse. It was further assumed that the utilisation of blank shots would frighten the students and make them to disperse.

The notion of quelling the demonstration with a firm hand and that the students could be frightened by using blank shots was a miscalculation. What happened at GTTI was the spark which lit the prairie fire.

As soon as some students escaped from GTTI, and as soon as the people in the area heard the blank shots, the information that the paramilitary forces were openly shooting the students at point blank range and that they were using gun butts and all the forces at their disposal to suppress the students, spread with astonishing rapidity. The slogans reverberated everywhere among the students. "We want freedom; we want justice". It was incredible. Everywhere that our people went, they could see the forces of the students gathering.

Between 8.30 and 9.00 in the morning, transports heading towards Banjul were beginning to move back. This created congestion on the Brikama/Serrekunda Highway. People started to ask what was going on. The message was that the paramilitary forces were killing students. Each began to tell his or her story. Students in transports heading towards school began to alight from the transports and congregation of students could be found in many spots.

The same situation was taking place at Kairaba Avenue as well as Bakoteh end. Students were, therefore, surging forth in a wave towards Westfield Clinic. The whole of Serrekunda started to become a battle field. Those who were selling in the streets began to remove their goods. Those who were driving cars began to find quick ways to go and park. As students moved they ordered all transports to go off the road. Those who refused had their windscreens broken. Consequently, the whole town was swept off transports. It was as if a curfew has been declared.

The paramilitary forces, therefore, came face to face with the students who were armed with rocks which were being thrown like missiles. In order to keep the paramilitary forces at bay and prevent them from having reinforcements, the students seized tyres and started heaping them on the road and then put them on fire. These burning tyres belched thick black smoke which kept reinforcement away. The paramilitary forces were surrounded in many places and totally outnumbered. They moved helter-skelter firing blank shots there to frighten the students and tear gas canisters to disperse the students. A running battle started with students dispersing to avoid tear gas canisters and returning again to confront the paramilitary.

Some paramilitary forces would be overpowered and would decide to give up their grounds. The running battle continued as more and more students joined in. In some areas an uneasy truce remained. In other areas, security forces were outnumbered.

At a given point, it appeared that a settlement was about to take place when the GAMSU leadership spoke with the Secretary of State and the Army Chief of Staff. The student leaders went into a transport and were given loud hailers to start announcing that a settlement has been reached. Once they left, the tension built up again.

The fact that the secretary of state and the Army Chief of Staff, guarded by less than five soldiers, could walk on foot up to Dippa Kunda without any incident tends to indicate that there was a possibility of a settlement through negotiation. Even the skirmish which took place between the students and the secretary of state and the Army Chief of Staff between Dippa Kunda and Latrikunda did not prevent the students from walking with the Army Chief of Staff after initially throwing some stones which forced them to take cover. The students and the Army Chief of Staff were able to move from Latrikunda to Cedar Club on Kairaba Avenue and all the way to Kanifing School and then into Kanifing South and then come out at the Red Cross Junction and then headed towards the paramilitary camp.

Throughout this long walk, students were shouting the slogans "We want freedom; we don't want the paramilitary". The freeing of a student, who was handcuffed, by the Chief of Staff led the students to start chanting Jatta's name in unison with their slogans for freedom.

However, ten metres before approaching the base of the paramilitary forces there was firing and two students fell. Once there was firing people dispersed and Jatta proceeded to enter the camp. This is what led to the rumour that he was held hostage by the students.

The fact that the students would accompany the Army Chief of Staff all the way to the paramilitary camp indicated that there was a desire for some form of settlement. The anticipation of the students was that the Army Chief of Staff was going to discuss with the paramilitary force and the students who were present and strike a settlement. The firing of life ammunition changed the course.

As the students ran, some tried to get into Gambega but the gates were closed. Others tried and rushed to take refuge at the Red Cross Headquarters. Firing continued. Apparently, this is where people like Omar Barrow, a media practitioner with Sud FM Radio Station who was working as Red Cross Volunteer, was shot. The whole incident became a very bloody affair. Pools of blood could be seen where the injured fell.

A student by the name of Ousman Jobarteh of SEP lay shot in the hand and some other parts of his body close to Banjul Breweries. Another student lay just close to ICEMAN. Another dead body was near the Red Cross Headquarters. One Ebrima Dem, Lamin Jallow, Gibi Njie and John Gomez were shot. Baboucarr Kah, a student of Saint Augustine's Senior Secondary School displayed wound below the chest. A taxi driver, Abdoulie Jawara, received gun shots while on the Banjul Highway. A dead body of a person wearing blue trousers lay near the mobile traffic station. A student of Banjul Academy with a gun shot in the leg lay close to the dead body.

The Red Cross Volunteers and others began to move some of the injured to find sanctuary at the Red Cross Headquarters. On the floor at the Red Cross Headquarters, one could find many injured persons. Omar Barrow was seen lying on the floor bleeding. He was reported to have been shot while serving as a volunteer at the Red Cross.

The news of the deaths inflamed the students all the more. Students went on the rampage. They started to collect petrol and gas bottles and moved towards different directions. One could notice that the actions they were taking were just being dictated by circumstances. For example, some students wanted to act on a petrol station but listened to wise counsel when others objected.

Hence, two phases of the confrontation with the security forces proved to be fatal. The first one was events at the GTTI which gave the other students who were far away from the scene the impression that their other colleagues were being shot. The second incident is near the headquarters of the paramilitary forces when real live bullets were used.

Soon after these two incidents, police station after police station was reported to be set on fire. At the Bundung Police Station, the living quarters of the police officers were in flames. The detainees in cells were released and police station was also burnt. The vehicles that were around, even those seized by the police for one traffic offence or another were burnt.

At Serrekunda Police Station, the residence of the police was spared, but the Station itself went into flames. At Kotu Police Station, the residence of the police was burnt to ashes. At Serrekunda Fire Station on the Brikama Highway, vehicles were burnt to ashes and all the windows smashed. All the transports found at the station were smashed. GAMTEL Westfield Booth was burnt. GAMTEL Serrekunda Market Booth was also destroyed. GAMTEL Latrikunda Sabiji Booth was also destroyed.

The Serrekunda Post Office was broken into and mails scattered. The GAMTEL Customer Service Unit at the GRTS Station was also stoned. The security post at GAMTEL, Kanifing, was also stoned.

NAWEC office at Latrikunda was also destroyed. The Gift Shop close to Standard Chartered Bank was also broken into and looted. Some other shops were also looted.

Fire and smoke darkened the skies as tyres put on the main road to stop traffic continued to burn. Unrest has broken out in the country. It is in fact spreading irrespective of the assurance given in the press release of April 10, 2000 from the Office of the President that the situation was under control.

On the same day, Brikama and Jangjanbureh experienced the same unrest. The Police Station in Brikama and some quarters were burnt. Transports, stores and offices were also included. The properties of the Fire Station were completely damaged.

The destruction has spread to Essau, Jangjanbureh, Brikamaba, Bansang and even Basse is under threat. A nationwide catastrophe has emerged. Where do we go from here?

The State may harden its position and utilise the language, intensify the arrest and detention of students, issue threats and treat the whole issue as a security issue which has to be handled with an iron hand.

This method would only be to the hardening of hearts.

Those who observed the relationship between the paramilitary and the students at close range cannot fail to realise that real hatred has built up. This was manifested in the brutalities which became manifest. The students see the paramilitary forces as instruments of coercion instead of forces meant to safeguard their security and freedom. The paramilitary forces are also beginning to see students as rebels who do not recognise them as compatriots.

The situation is, therefore, not under control. Hatred has never been the basis for maintaining peace, security and stability. It is the basis for yearning for mutual extinction. The security forces have explained how students stoned them. Students have explained how security forces utilised batons, boots, and gun butts to beat them without mercy.

A complex situation now prevails in the country. Tremendous maturity is necessary to hold the country together. How events will unfold depends on the possibilities we create for crisis management. The country belongs to us, but we do not share opinions on how it is to be governed.

What is a fundamental task is how to maintain peaceful co-existence as each pursues one's inclination on how the country is to be governed by relying on the consent of the people; that peaceful co-existence must be based on the eschewing of democratic values.

A fundamental lesson that we can derive from the momentous events is that constitutions set the theoretical basis for principles which guarantee rights and freedoms. Governments set their own limits on the exercise of those rights and freedoms. The people impose their demands on how far to expand the democratic space to ensure that the limits set by different governments, in accordance with the degree of their commitment to democratic values and the empowerment of the people, are stretched to equate with what is established as principles.

Where the people consider their demands as inviolable and the government deems the limits set as inviolable, confrontation and social explosion must be the order of the day. In order to avert such a social explosion, the principles set for governance must be those that are reasonably justifiable in a democratic society. The people must make demands that accord with those principles and the government must not set limits that are at variance with those principles that are reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

There is absolutely no doubt that if the students were allowed to demonstrate and given a police escort, they would have been able to contain each other en route to deliver whatever petition they had to the authorities. It is, therefore, a fundamental lesson that peace and stability are best guaranteed by openness and tolerance rather than through coercive and repressive measures.

It goes without saying that the youth movement needs to know the distinction between the political movement and the civil rights movement. When youths favour total change of governments, it is their duty to join any political force they believe would be able to bring the type of change they desire.

However, when a youth organisation is fighting for the expansion of the democratic space within which they can operate to conserve their rights and freedoms, they must establish their strategic objectives very clearly so that they will be able to state their demands concretely and pursue them collectively without losing sight of their fundamental aims and objectives. They must always allow their mission to be guided by a clear vision of what they really want.

Lives have been lost and properties destroyed. Live bullets have been utilised which connotes war, for only enemies reserve the use of the means to kill in order to confront each other.

The paramilitary forces, the police and other forces continue to claim that the students treated them as enemies instead of compatriots. They fail to realise that the situation is their real enemy. When one is placed in the midst of students with a baton or a whip, a tear gas canister and a gun to suppress them, stones flying like missiles could put one in a life threatening situation. One may be tempted to use whips, tear gas canisters and even kill. The real solution is for such a situation of confrontation not to be created in the first place by policy makers. No one on earth can condone the use of live bullets to suppress students without guns.

The fact that the students did not fire any live ammunition is precisely the reason why no one has heard the death of a security officer. Of course, everybody expects that stones would cause injuries just as batons cause injuries. Live bullets, however, cause death. This is why 12 people are now considered dead.

By 5.00 p.m. on Monday, 10 April, 2000, 77 people had reported one form of injury or another at the Serrekunda Health Centre. Some were treated and left to go while many were referred to the Royal Victoria Hospital. At Ward 8 and 3 of the RVH, we met eight people who were seriously injured. At the Intensive Care Unit of the RVH, there were about 12 young people. More were still coming. A young man was there with a bullet in his head. He may have been among the 12 people who are officially confirmed dead.

State officials should not shield themselves from such gruesome realities. The conscience of the nation must be kept alive. The day that the conscience of this nation is dead, the country will be transformed into a jungle and we, her citizens, into beasts who will feed on each other's carcass. That day can be near or far. It depends on our individual commitment or lack of commitment to the values which make us human and democratic.

We must all become outraged with what has happened and make it our commitment never to allow it to happen again. We must do more than that. We must begin a process of healing the wounds. We must stop looking for scapegoats and face the reality squarely. Once disorder starts, many elements are bound to exploit it. Some who are opposed to a government may clap for students. Others who want to loot may encourage them to destroy certain facilities and so on and so forth. The principal reason for destroying State property is simply transferring anger. When anger rules the heart, vengeance becomes a way of giving it an outlet

Many parents are still standing near police stations to find out what had happened to their children. Many of them are still detained. It is important to bear in mind that this is not a war situation and no state of emergency exists. Under normal circumstance, within three hours after their detention, a person should be given reason for one's detention and should be allowed access to a legal practitioner. Within 72 hours, one should be taken before a court or released. Under all circumstances, arbitrary detention is impermissible. Many of the children detained are students. They need special treatment.

It is, therefore, absolutely essential to convene a committee of respectable elders and take them to the places of detention of the students so that they will be able to confirm that they are neither being tortured or harassed.

They should be spoken to and released with immediacy. The country must not be allowed to sink into arbitrariness if the government does not want things to deteriorate. The committee could also seek the expertise that could quantify all the losses incurred by the police officers and other citizens and give a report to the State for action to redress the situation.

Furthermore, the names of those who died should be made public. Autopsy should be carried out to determine the cause of death. Parents have been going close to the mortuary without gaining access to the bodies. This is the second day. It is essential for the government to do everything with speed so that those who are to be buried would be paid the respect due without delay. It is already heart wrecking to receive news of the death of a loved one. Such a family should be saved from any bureaucratic obstacles which lead to more frustrations.

Armed men are still going into some compounds to arrest people. This is creating a lot of panic in certain areas. It is important for the government to eliminate this militarization of civil society and ensure that this crisis is not expanded by antagonising the citizenry. What is required is a containment of the crisis; not its escalation.

Government should set up a Coroner's Inquest to find out how those who died met their death and take all necessary actions to ensure that life is not taken with impunity.

Finally, the radio and the television should be opened up for the expression of views by the citizens of this country so that through the different positions expressed our collective awareness would be raised and peaceful existence based on democratic and human values restored.

We will be making all the moves necessary to ensure that the cause of justice is not derailed and that Gambians do not nurture the type of callousness that can make revenge to be the order of the day.

We must not allow our minds to be dispossessed of rationality; our hearts to be dispossessed of justice and our very being to be dispossessed of conscience. This is the only way that we can prevent spreading mischief on the face of the earth.

While anticipating your due regard of the concerns raised,

Halifa Sallah


11 April 2000