constitution making

Was the recent Supplementary Appropriation Estimate 2018 presented by the Minister of Finance in accordance with the dictates of the law and Constitution?

[Editor’s note: This is Part IV of our special series titled “Constitutional Review in The Gambia: Contemporary Discussions.” The introduction to the special series is available here, Part I is available here, Part II is available here. and Part III is available here.]

Background

The Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs tabled a Supplementary Estimate[i] on the 11th of December 2018 before the National Assembly, seeking approval for additional payments from the Consolidated Funds amounting to D1,128,337,519.7. It is important to note that the Supplementary Estimate was for the period 1st January to 31st December 2018 and was made in the last quarter of the year, literally less than two weeks before the end of the 2018 budget year. Secondly, the request was in addition to the already approved budget of D19.74 Billion Dalasi for the financial year 2018, which was already exhausted as at the time of the 11th hour request.

The National Assembly after extensive deliberations and debate rejected the Supplementary Estimate in its totality and did not get to consider the Supplementary Appropriations Bill. Many reasons were advanced by members of the National Assembly, ranging from the timing of the submission of the estimates, the quantum of estimates (too high), exorbitant amount identified for non-priority sectors and to some, it was unconstitutional.  

The focus of the article is to examine the legal framework that govern the procedures, requirements and governance of Budget Supplementary Appropriation with a view to determine the legality and propriety of the Supplementary Estimate of 2018.The author shall review the current constitutional provisions and the existing laws that govern Supplementary Appropriation, to inform the discourse on this topic. To this end, the author seeks to establish whether the proposed Supplementary Estimate and Bill submitted to the National Assembly was in conformity with the supreme law of the 1997 Constitution of the Gambia and other enabling legislation, which derive their legal authority from the constitution? .[ii]

Legal Framework

 The governance and legal framework of Public Finance Management is provided for in chapter IX of the 1997 Constitution, the Finance Act of 2014 and Government Budget Management and Accountability Act 2004. The 1997 Constitution provides the primary legal framework for the management of Public Finance in Gambia and the relevant sections germane to the subject of this article are found in sections 150 – 154 which shall be discussed in below in detail.

For the purposes of this article, it is important to note that by law all budgetary appropriations are through the Consolidated Fund by virtue of section 150 of the Constitution. [iii]  Section 150 allows for separate accounts to be created in specific circumstances only by an Act of Parliament.[iv]

The specific provision that the governs the Supplementary Appropriation is section 153 (1) and (2) which is reproduced below:

 Section 153

(1) Subject to section 154[v], if in respect of any financial year it is found that the amount appropriated under the Appropriation Act is insufficient or that a need has arisen for a purpose for which no amount has been appropriated by that Act a supplementary estimate showing the sums required shall be laid before the National Assembly before the expenditure has been incurred. [Emphasis mine]

(2) Where a supplementary estimate or estimates have been approved by the National Assembly, a supplementary appropriation Bill shall be introduced into the National Assembly for the appropriation of the sums so approved.

The first limb of section 153 (a) provides the basis upon which a Supplementary Estimate should be approved by the National Assembly. In summary, there are two scenarios -

1.      Budget Appropriation shortfall (insufficiency i.e. under budgeted) or

2.     An unforeseen contingency need arises

 It is very clear from the wording of the provision that the section 153 is to be invoked only if there is a short fall and/or a need that was not envisaged at the time of preparing the main budget estimate. The operative words in the provisions are “need” and “insufficiency.” It is my view that a close look at the budget items comprised in the 2018 Supplementary Estimate could not have passed the “needs” or “Insufficiency” Test as prescribed by the Constitution. The specific line items that constitute the Supplementary Estimate have been exhaustively debated by the national assembly members prior to the rejection of the Supplementary.[vi]

It is my contention that section 153 (a) envisages and necessitates the creation of a Contingency Fund by a statutory enactment before a Supplementary Estimate can be presented to cater for additional expenditure for the reasons stipulated in the section. The purpose of the Contingency Fund as implied in the name is to provide/cater for unplanned/unbudgeted contingency expenditures as long the amount sought does not exceed 1% of the budget approved for that year. The provision thus sets a cap of 1% of the approved estimate for the year, which in my view restricts the use of Supplementary Appropriations for marginal budget over runs. To the best of my knowledge and information, our National Assembly as required by Constitution did not create a Contingency Fund, which is a condition precedent for the application of section 153.

In a nutshell, the Hon Minister cannot apply for additional funds to be appropriated to the Consolidated Fund in the absence of the creation of a Contingency Fund, which in essence would have been the source of the additional funding within the cap set by the Constitution. The Supplementary Estimate presented for approval is for the sum of D1,128,337,519.77, which by any stretch of imagination exceeds 1% of the approved budget of 2018.[vii] In fact it represents close to 17% of the current 2018 budget.

In the final analysis, the 2018 Supplementary Estimates should not have been presented for approval, given that the amount sought was in excess of the constitutional limit set. Secondly, it appears that the Minister of Finance already approved expenditures prior to coming to seek for the approval of the National Assembly. This, in my view is in contravention of the spirit and substance of section 153. The ultimate power to approve expenditure is the National Assembly and the Constitution makes it very clear that no expenditure can be appropriated without prior approval of the National Assembly. Finally, the National Assembly can only approve the Supplementary Estimate within the limits set by the constitution. In order words, the National Assembly Public Finance Committee should have advised the Assembly that the amount presented in the Supplementary Estimates exceeds the 1% cap set by the Constitution.

Conclusion

A review of the Constitution, the applicable legislation confirms that the Minister of Finance’s 2018 Supplementary Estimate is not consistent with the dictates of the Constitution and the enabling Legislation viz. Government Budget Management and Accountability Act 2009 and the Public Finance Act 2014.  The author reiterates that the application of the enabling laws mentioned above and any power purported exercised by the Honourable Minister or his predecessor are subject to the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.

The Supplementary Estimate 2018 dubbed SAB2018 has exposed a fundamentally flawed budgetary process that needs to to be overhauled and reset. The old ways of budgeting in the good old days is not longer acceptable in this era of transparency and probity. The Minister of Finance is our gatekeeper of our public funds and we expect him to ensure financial /fiscal discipline is enforced to the letter without fear or favour.

Thus, there is need for the National Assembly to seek independent legal advise on such legal matters to ensure they discharge their functions within the confines of the Constitution.  The fact that the National Assembly Public Finance Committees considered the approval of the Estimate with a 45% reduction is cause for concern, as that would have flouted our constitution. It is timely for the National Assembly to appropriate sufficient resources to establish its support services in the area of legislative and legal support inter alia.

The buck stops at the Minister of Finance who has a duty to restrain Executive financial indiscipline and maintain spending within the approved budget. The Minister of Finance, by extension the Government should not use the Supplementary Appropriation Estimates as an overdraft facility and expect our National Assembly to simply rubber stamp the excess spending retroactively. 

In the interest of the betterment of our country and judicious management of our scarce financial resources, I humbly make my little contribution on this very important topic.

Suggested citation: Salieu Taal, Was the recent Supplementary Appropriation Estimate 2018 presented by the Minister of Finance in accordance with the dictates of the law and Constitution?, Law Hub Gambia Blog, 20 November 2018, at https://www.lawhubgambia.com/lawhug-net/is-supplementary-appropriation-constitutional.

For the Gambia Our Homeland

Salieu Taal

Initiator/Co-Founder #GambiaHasDecided

Managing Partner, Temple Legal Practitioners


[i] Supplementary Appropriation is governed by Section 153 of the 1997 Constitution which reads;

(1) Subject to section 154, if in respect of any financial year it is found that the amount appropriated under the Appropriation Act is insufficient or that a need has arisen for a purpose for which no amount has been appropriated by that Act a supplementary estimate showing the sums required shall be laid before the National Assembly before the expenditure has been incurred.

(2) Where a supplementary estimate or estimates have been approved by the National Assembly, a supplementary appropriation Bill shall be introduced into the National Assembly for the appropriation of the sums so approved.

[ii] Section 4 of the Constitution “ The Constitution is the supreme Law of the Gambia and any other law found to be inconsistent with any provision of this Constitution shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.”

[iii] Section 150 of Constitution defines the Consolidated Fund

(1) There shall be a consolidated Fund into which shall be paid

(a)    all revenues or other money raised or received for the purpose of, or on behalf of, the Government

(b)    any other money raised or received in trust for or on behalf of the Government

[iv] This raises the issue of whether banks collection of taxes on behalf of GRA is within the law in the absence of specific legislation authorizing the collection of state revenue.

[v] Section 154 of 1997 Constitution

(1) An act of National Assembly may make provision for the establishment of a Contingencies Fund and for authorising the President to make advances from that fund if he or she is satisfied that there has arisen an unforeseen and urgent need for expenditure for which no other provision exists:

Provided that the President shall not authorize any expenditure from the contingencies Fund in excess of one percent of the estimates approved by the National Assembly for the current year before he or she has caused a supplementary estimate in respect of such excess expenditure to be presented to the National Assembly.

(2) Where any advance is made from the Contingencies Fund, a supplementary estimate shall be presented, and a Supplementary Appropriation Bill shall be introduced for the purpose of replacing the amount so advanced within ninety days of the advance being made.

[vi] See. Intervention of Sidia Jatta, PDOIS NAM, Sana Jawara etc Hansard Records

[vii] Budget Estimate for 2018 approved was D19 (Billion Dalasi)

From dictatorship to a new Constitution in The Gambia: Issues and Concerns

[Editor's Note: Madi Jobarteh's article was commissioned by International IDEA and was originally posted on ConstitutionNet, IDEA's online knowledge platform for supporting constitution builders globally.


As The Gambia transitions to a democratic dispensation, constitution reform, to be led by an independent Commission, will be central to the process. The success of the constitution building exercise is a test of the capacity of the new dispensation to meet popular expectations for a new and democratic Gambia. To this end, provisions for an inclusive and participatory constitution making process must be taken to heart and rigorously given effect – writes Madi Jobarteh.

Introduction

In December 2017, the Gambian National Assembly adopted a Law establishing a Constitutional Reform Commission that will oversee the writing of a new constitution for the country.  When finalized, the constitution will be the country’s third since 1970 when The Gambia first became a republic. The 1970 Constitution was overthrown alongside the then government, one of the handful of democratic regimes in Africa at the time, by the military in 1994, led by former President Yahya Jammeh. The military government organized a referendum on a new constitution in 1996, ushering in the second republic in 1997. Lasting 22 years, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Constitution (APRC), a political party formed by military officers who staged the coup, dominated the Gambian political landscape, allowing it to manipulate the political process, including through numerous constitutional amendments. 

Jammeh’s dominance came to an abrupt end after the December 2016 presidential elections when he lost to current President Adama Barrow, a joint candidate of the opposition coalition. After initially accepting defeat and subsequently retracting, Jammeh was forced to leave the country following the military intervention of the ECOWAS sub-regional force. Both the campaign Manifesto and the ‘controversial’ memorandum of understanding of the opposition coalition promised the creation of a new constitution alongside other legal and institutional reforms in order to ensure a thorough revision and change of the political system. On 11 December 2017, eleven months after the new government took office, the Minister of Justice, Aboubacarr Tambadou, finally presented the Constitutional Review Commission Bill before the National Assembly. It took the Assembly only one day and one session to approve the Bill, unanimously. The director of press at State House indicated that the president signed the Bill into law a week after the parliamentary approval. Nevertheless, the members of the Commission are yet to be appointed.

Why a new Constitution?

The need for a new constitution has long been on the minds of Gambians precisely because of the numerous amendments that the 1997 Constitution was subjected to over the years. During the electoral campaign prior to the 2016 presidential elections, the opposition coalition particularly listed several provisions that they highlighted as requiring amendment in order to ensure democratic governance and better protection of human rights. Above all, they contend that the 1997 constitution has provisions that disempower both citizens and lawmakers while at the same time giving more power to the president. In addition, many Gambians consider a number of issues that must be incorporated into their constitution in order to end self-perpetuating rule, ensure effective separation of powers and restrain the government in the exercise of its functions.

The 1997 Constitution is seen as a relic of the Jammeh government and its authoritarianism.

Both the current government and citizens appear to agree that, given the numerous amendments to the constitution and the several undemocratic provisions, the need for a new constitution cannot be over-emphasized. Furthermore, the 1997 Constitution, nicknamed the ‘Jammeh Constitution’, is seen as a relic of the Jammeh government and its authoritarianism, which has tainted its legitimacy among the people, civil society and the new powerholders. Accordingly, the reform process is likely to go beyond removing the regressive amendments and affect the whole constitutional framework.   

Potential areas of reforms

While the constitution reform process will lead to a new constitution, there are certain areas that will attract particular attention. There is widespread agreement that the constitution must provide for only two five-year presidential term limits. Indeed, the inclusion of term limits is specifically mentioned as one of the guidelines in the Constitutional Review Commission Bill. The term limit, which was in the original draft of the 1997 constitution, became surreptitiously absent when that constitution was eventually put to a referendum in 1996, to allow Jammeh, who was in his early 30’s, to run for reelection without limits.

Other issues of concern that have been well highlighted by the new government in their memorandum of understanding include the 2003 amendment of section 48(3) of the constitution that changed the voting system for presidential elections from 50%+1 absolute majority, with a second round if no candidate obtained the required vote in the first round, to the first-past-the-post system. Jammeh adopted the new system to ensure continuous victory in a country with a history of weak and fragmented opposition parties. Nevertheless, in the December 2016 elections, the main opposition parties overcame their differences and fielded a joint candidate. The plurality electoral system allowed Barrow to win the elections with 43.3% of the votes (to Jammeh’s 39.6%), without the need for a second round of elections. A former ally of Jammeh won around 17%.

The first-past-the-post electoral system for the presidency, term limits, the composition of the Electoral Commission, and the manner of loss of parliamentary membership will be among the focus of reforms.

One of the overbearing powers that Jammeh had exerted over the parliament, particularly his party members, was in section 91 that stipulates that a parliamentary member can lose his seat if dismissed from her or his party. Because of this provision, in the absence of intra-party democratic culture and processes, it meant that, as the party leader, Jammeh could control parliamentarians to submit to his whims and caprices at the threat of sacking them from the party, thereby causing them to lose their seats. Considering that members of parliament are elected through the first-past-the-post electoral system in single-seat constituencies, candidates were elected formally for their individual merits, although they may campaign under the banner of their parties. The effective empowerment of a party leader to remove members of parliament was therefore unscrupulous.

Other provisions that may require refinement include section 42(6) which allows the president to unilaterally remove commissioners of the Independent Electoral Commission, who are also appointed by the President in consultation with the Judicial Service Commission and the Public Service Commission. Even though the provision requires that, before a commissioner may be removed, a tribunal be set up to investigate the matter, several commissioners have been removed without the setting up of any tribunal. Similarly, appointments were carried out without any consultation with the specified commissions.

In a manner that limits citizens’ ability to stand for presidential elections, section 62(1)(b) sets a lower and upper age limit of 30 and 65 years respectively. This particular provision became prominent after it was recognized to bar the leader of the then largest opposition party, Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party (UDP), a veteran politician who contested and lost against Jammeh in four presidential elections (1996, 2001, 2006, and 2011).  

Irregularities in the enactment of the amendment removing upper age limits on the presidency and vice-presidency raise concerns regarding the integrity and credibility of the constitutional reform process. 

Interestingly, despite the clamor for a new constitution, the new government has since amended this provisionby removing the upper age limit altogether, with a view to enable the appointment of an older vice president. The amendment also extended the mandatory retirement age of superior court judges. Since assuming office in January 2017, Barrow never appointed a vice president because it was widely believed that he intended to appoint the influential ‘mother’ of the nation, Mrs. Fatoumatta Jallow Tambajang, who is above the constitutional age limit of 65 years. As it turned out, many saw the delayed appointment of a vice president and the eventual amendment of the provision to remove the upper age limit as an attempt to cater for Mrs. Tambajang.  

This action by the new government raises concerns about its sincerity and commitment to system change, and the integrity and credibility of any future constitutional reform process. It is perplexing to notice certain piecemeal amendments being undertaken, as if a new constitution would not be coming. After an initial faux pasin April 2016, when the government apologized for taking a wrong approach to the amendments, in July 2016, the Minister of Justice formally presented the constitution amendment bill before parliament, which was eventually approved

Composition and mandate of the Commission

Under the Act, the Chief Justice will chair the Commission. A vice-chairperson will be appointed by the Attorney General, who also appoints a secretary to lead the secretariat in charge of the day-to-day administration of the Commission. The President of the Republic will appoint nine more members taking into account the professional, geographical, professional and gender diversity of the country. There is no requirement for parliamentary approval of the appointments. The members may not be members of the National Assembly or of the security forces. There is no similar exclusion of ministers or high-level officials of political parties.

The Commission is required to seek the opinion of the people of The Gambia, including the diaspora.

The Commission will take decisions by consensus, and in its absence by majority vote, with a quorum of at least six members. The Act allows the Commission to establish technical committees, which may include non-members. The Commission will operate for up to 18 months, with a possibility of a six-month extension by the president on the proposal of the chairperson. 

The principal mandate of the Commission is to a draft a new constitution, and to prepare an accompanying report. In discharging its responsibilities, the Commission is required to seek the opinion of the people of The Gambia, including the diaspora, and to invite professional, civic, political and other organizations to appear before it and make presentations. The Commission must safeguard and promote a number of substantive principles, including the republican form of government, secularism, rule of law, fundamental rights, and the separation of powers. Notably, it must introduce presidential term limits. Nevertheless, the Act leaves open the length of each term and the number of terms a president may serve.

The Act proclaims the independence of the Commission, which is not subject to the direction or control of any person or authority. The members of the Commission will serve for the entire duration of the operation of the Commission, without the threat of removal on unfounded grounds. Once it has prepared the new draft constitution and the report, it submits it to the President and publishes the draft and the report in the government gazette and other platforms as may be desirable. Within 60 days of receiving the draft, the president must forward a ‘copy’, indicating that the president may not alter the draft, to the National Assembly, which will debate and approve the draft in accordance with the relevant provisions of the current constitution. Fundamentally, the Assembly must approve the draft constitution ‘without amendment’.

The President and National Assembly may not alter the draft constitution prepared by the Commission.

To ensure legal continuity, the new constitution will be adopted in the manner prescribed in the current constitution. Accordingly, the adoption of the draft constitution will require approval by 3/4th of the members of the National Assembly, and by 75% of those who vote in a referendum where at least half of all the eligible voters actually vote (i.e. there is a turnout threshold of 50% under article 226(4) of the current constitution). While presidential elections since 2000 have all secured higher than 50% turnout, turnout in all legislative elections has consistently failed below the half mark. The active support of all major political groups will be necessary to ensure the required voter turnout, and level of approval. This requires that the provisions of the Act for an inclusive and participatory constitution making process are taken to heart and rigorously given effect.

Concluding remarks

The enactment of the Bill establishing the Commission is welcome. Nevertheless, there remain concerns as to the appointments of its members. In particular, members of civil society are concerned about the independence, efficiency and transparency of the appointment process, the institution itself as well as its processes. So far, Gambian civil society organizations have not had a direct engagement on the terms of the Commission, with the drafting of the Bill largely undertaken within the walls of the ministry of justice.

There is high public expectation for a new constitution given how deeply the Gambian state was effectively personalized and abused by the former president. Thus, the catchphrase in the country is ‘system change’. There appears to be unanimous agreement that the country needs an overhaul of the current political and institutional framework in order to usher in a whole new democratic dispensation. However, there is also huge contention as to the nature, extent and process of the system change. While pro-government constituents appear to believe that in fact system change is unfolding, many on the other side claim there has been no or little change so far. The success of the constitution building exercise is highly viewed as a test of the capacity of the new dispensation to meet renewed popular and political expectations for a new and democratic Gambia.


Madi Jobarteh is a Gambian human rights defender. He is currently the program manager of The Association of NGOs in The Gambia (TANGO).

New Gambia and the Remaking of the Constitution

[Editor's Note: Satang Nabaneh's article was commissioned by International IDEA and was originally posted on ConstitutionNet, IDEA's online knowledge platform for supporting constitution builders globally.


                                         The Gambia's current President, Adama Barrow

                                         The Gambia's current President, Adama Barrow

On 1 December 2016, Gambia held a presidential election in which former President Jammeh (who had been in power for 22 years­) lost to the opposition coalition candidate Adama Barrow.  Initially, Jammeh accepted the results on 2 December only to reverse his position a week later, refusing to step down thereby plunging the country into an unprecedented political stalemate. The about-turn generated widespread local and international criticism, and started a flurry of diplomatic negotiations by ECOWAS. On 17 January 2017, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) dominated National Assembly approved a state of emergency declared by the President a day before, and extended the term of the Parliament and the presidency by 90 days.

In response to the recalcitrant position of Jammeh, ECOWAS mobilized troops with the mandate to enter the country and forcefully oust the former President in case the diplomatic missions failed. Consequently, Barrow was sworn in as President on 19 January 2017 at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar, Senegal. Shortly after, a coalition of forces from five ECOWAS countries entered The Gambia stopping before the capital to finalize a diplomatic push for Jammeh’s exit.  Two days later, Jammeh, after having looted the state’s coffers, finally succumbed to diplomatic pressure and left The Gambia for Equatorial Guinea. On 26 January 2017, The Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow returned to the country amidst widespread celebrations.

The 1997 Constitution and potential reform areas

The Gambia adopted its second republican constitution in 1997 following a referendum held on the draft constitution on 8 August 1996. President Jawara of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had dominated political life from pre-independence to 22 July 1994 when a coup d’état led by Yahya Jammeh, a young army lieutenant, overthrew his government. The coup d’état brought to an end the longest surviving multiparty democracy in Africa.

The Constitution recognises The Gambia as a sovereign secular republic. It is premised on the principles of separation of powers, rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights. However, trends in The Gambia characterized by the complete disregard for the rule of law and the personalization of the state by former President Jammeh over the past two decades, posed a clear and present danger to the full realization of the Constitution.

Not only was the former regime notorious for the disregard of the rule of law, but Jammeh further distinguished himself by a number of amendments to the supreme law with largely anti-human rights and undemocratic provisions, such as the removal of the two-term limit and sweeping reforms to the electoral law which required heavy financial deposits for Presidential and National Assembly candidates. Naturally, the new government has promised and has actually started the process of sweeping legal and institutional reforms, including repeals or amendments of several laws from the Jammeh era that eroded human rights.

1. Electoral Reforms

Section 26 of the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to make political choices, providing for free, fair and regular elections, and permitting qualified citizens to vote and stand for public office. On 28 February 2017, the National Assembly passed the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2017 “to encourage the widespread participation of the ordinary citizenry in the new democratization dispensation.” The Interior Minister noted that salaries of most Gambians are low, and the revenue that is derived from commercial activities is equally very low.

The amendment was a response to the major shrinking of the political space during Jammeh’s era. In July 2015, the Elections (Amendment) Act, 2015 was passed and signed by the President on 20 July 2015. The number of signatures needed to register a political party was increased from 500 to 10,000 registered voters with at least 1,000 from each of the administrative areas, in addition to the requirement that a party post a deposit of more than D 1 million (USD 24,000). Candidates for President were required to pay D 500,000 (approximately USD 12,500) raised from D 10,000 (approximately USD 250); the fee for candidates for the National Assembly was increased from D 5,000 (approximately USD 125) to D 50,000 (approximately USD 1,000) and candidates for local council office were to pay D 10,000 (about USD 200). Opposition political parties not only regarded the increases as unreasonably high but also as a ploy by the government to drastically limit the participation of the opposition in elections. The basic salary for an average government employee in The Gambia is D3000. Thus the exorbitant fees were clearly intended to discourage multiparty democracy as most people wouldn’t be able to contest without patronage and financial support from the ruling party.

Now, the 2017 amendment reduces the exorbitant fees back to their initial amounts: President D10,000, National Assembly D5000 and other categories to D2500 and D12500 respectively.  

2. Change of retirement age and removal of upper age limit for holding office as President

On the same day of the amendment of the Elections Act, the National Assembly also passed the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2017 introduced by the Interior Minister on behalf of the President. The Bill amends section 141(2)(b) of the Constitution in extending the age at which a Supreme Court judge should vacate his or her office from seventy to seventy-five years. In addition, the amendment also removes the upper age limit of sixty-five for holding office as President provided under section 62(1)(b). According to the Interior Minister, the amendments were an attempt to ensure that competent and experienced Supreme Court judges and politicians will not be forced out of office in light of the limited number of qualified judges and political leaders.

However, the process for amendment by government was erroneous as they didn’t follow the proper procedures. In a televised statement, the Minister for Justice and Attorney General Tambedou advised President Adama Barrow not to sign the two recently amended constitutional provisions. Minister Tambedou believed “that the procedure adopted at the National Assembly to amend these constitutional provisions was misconceived. The process of amendment of the constitutional provisions should have been guided by Section 226 of the Constitution instead of Section 101 which was the procedure used at the National Assembly.” As the applicable amendments deal with sections 62(1)(b) and 141(2) of the Constitution which are not entrenched provisions, they fall within the ambit of section 226(2). The section provides that before a Bill for amendment is presented for first reading, it must be published in at least two issues of the Gazette, the latest publication being not less than three months after the first.  The Bill should also be introduced into the National Assembly not earlier than ten days after the latest publication and must be supported on the second and third reading by votes of not less than three quarters of all the National Assembly Members. This procedure was not followed.

The Minister took full responsibility for the error and promised to take actions to remedy the situation as well as avoid such occurrence in the future. He further underscored the urgent need to do a comprehensive review of the Constitution. This public apology and acceptance of responsibility showed the Government’s responsiveness to the concerns of citizens who lamented the non-adherence to the constitutional procedures in passing the amendments.

Other immediate potential reform areas for the government:

3. Introduction of presidential term limits

The issue of term limits is not stipulated in the 1997 Constitution. Currently, The Gambia and Togo remain the only two countries in West Africa without presidential term limits. When the issue was brought up at the ECOWAS Heads of State Summit in 2015, the two countries refused to agree to the plan of restricting West African presidents to two terms in office. This led to the abandonment of the idea by the sub-regional body.

The absence of term limits enabled ex-president Jammeh to stand and win elections four consecutive times and even to seek a fifth term unsuccessfully in December 2016. It further provided him the opportunity to misrule the country and govern horribly against his people for twenty-two years.

According to Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) of the Coalition, one of the key goals of the Coalition government is the institutionalization of term limits. There is an urgent need for an amendment to include a two-term limit of 5 years. In assuring Gambians that his government will introduce a two-term limit of 5 years, President Barrow stated that "with term limits, any president that comes will serve appropriately and have respect for the laws of the land because the person will know that there is an end to his or her tenure."

4. Media law reforms

Section 25 of the Constitution guarantees a wide range of rights, including freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of thought, assembly, and association. Under President Jammeh’s rule, the environment in which the media operated was a precarious one characterized by draconian laws and arbitrary arrests, detentions, and physical assaults against journalists, as well as by closure and burning down of media houses. 

As a dictator, Jammeh stifled the independent media. This was done through several changes which occurred including amendment to section 52 of the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act 2004 making any written or verbal statement that is critical of the government an offence; the offence of publishing false news with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public; the Information Act (amended) 2013 that provided a 15-year jail term for any person found guilty of using the internet to spread ‘false news’ about the regime or public officials. The amendment also imposed a fine of D 3 million (approximately USD 86,000) on persons found guilty of publishing ‘false news’ online against the regime or public officials.

There are several problems with such provisions, including the difficulty of distinguishing between fact and opinion; the chilling effect of such provisions have upon freedom of expression; and the fact that they do not serve any legitimate purpose which would justify restricting freedom of expression.

In addition to repealing these laws, a new Freedom of Information Act should be enacted to ensure the right to free speech and independence of the media. This will be in line with the promises made by the Justice Minister to make reforming media laws a priority. This will also guarantee the protection of press freedom which is vital to establishing and maintaining an open and democratic society in The Gambia.

Conclusion

We, Gambians fought against dictatorship because we wanted change: our rights and dignity restored. The hallmark of that dictatorship was the constant abuse of power through the blatant disregard for the rule of law as laid down in our Constitution. Going forward, Gambians must act as watchdogs to ensure respect for fundamental human rights by the government. It means also that every citizen must be a human rights defender or protector. Furthermore, this will also ensure efficient leadership and effective government that is responsive to our needs and accountable to the citizenry. 

In order to ensure that our democratic aspirations are attained, there is need for the creation of a participatory platform between state and non-state actors to agree on set human rights-based goals and priorities which are underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, and accountability. The Gambia can provide a blueprint for democratic movements in Africa through its transition from dictatorship to democracy. For that to be possible, provisions in our Constitution that are repugnant to natural justice or at variance with international human rights law must be expunged or amended to fall in time.

Satang Nabaneh is a Gambian human rights defender. She holds a Master of Laws (LLM) in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, South Africa, and LL.B (Hons) from University of The Gambia.