Madi Jobarteh

On 15 January 2018 the University of the Gambia conferred on Pres. Adama Barrow an honorary degree for human rights. Pres. Barrow is the Chancellor of UTG as per Section 7 of UTG Act. The provision went further to state that the Chancellor is only a ceremonial head with no executive powers on matters of the university.

In view of Section 7 therefore, there is an element of conflict of interest when that university decides to confer such an award on the sitting president who is the Chancellor. Being a Chancellor makes the president part of the university community as per Section 6 UTG Act. Therefore why would such a university give such an honor to one of its own especially when there has been no sterling achievement by that recipient? What is even more concerning therefore is when the UTG decided to associate that degree with human rights.

In the world of human rights, states have two forms of obligations to protect and fulfill human rights, i.e. negative and positive obligations. A negative obligation is when a state refrains from doing anything to limit or damage rights but to let citizens enjoy their rights. Negative obligation bears no cost to the state because it means a state does not have to do anything.

A positive obligation on the other hand is where the state must do something to ensure the effective protection and fulfillment of human rights. This means to create the necessary laws, policies and institutions and provide the resources and personnel for the purpose of making citizens effectively enjoy their rights in practice. Hence to determine if a government is human rights-friendly we must look at how does that government fulfill its positive obligations.
In the course of the past year we are yet to see in practice the efforts of Pres. Barrow to positively fulfill his obligations in human rights to such an extent that he would deserve an award for that. In the first place, he had said in his Manifesto that within six months of coming to power he would repeal or reform all laws that damage human rights, democracy and popular participation. It is now one year and this promise has not been fulfilled.

The same laws and institutions that were in place since Independence and made even more draconian under Yaya Jammeh continue to be firmly in place. While Barrow took several bills to parliament to change certain laws and constitutional provisions, yet he has never taken these bad laws before the National Assembly. Some of these laws contain extremely anti-democratic and anti-human rights provisions such as the Public Order Act, Criminal Code, the Information and Communications Act, the Newspaper Act or the NGO Act among others.

Furthermore we have also seen how the Police blatantly and unconstitutionally denied some citizens to protest last year. And just recently the Police went even further to ban political activity indefinitely. Apart from that, in Gunjur, Kartong and up to Kitty, a Chinese company is damaging the social, economic, cultural and environmental rights of citizens; not to mention the violation of the right to health posed by Bakoteh Dumpsite. In all these cases, Barrow has not taken a practical step to protect human rights.

Therefore the University of the Gambia must not think that the civil liberties that Gambians enjoy today are the making of Barrow. No way. The air of freedom in this country was created by the masses of Gambians when they shed off tyranny.

One can argue that Barrow therefore has a choice to infringe on those liberties but since he did not then he qualifies for a human rights award. Such an argument would be a misunderstanding of the function of a president and government and misconception about human rights. Just because Yaya Jammeh trampled upon human rights does not mean therefore if Barrow did not do the same therefore Barrow is more human rights-friendly.

President Barrow

The human rights-friendliness of a leader is not merely to refrain from damaging human rights, i.e. upholding one’s negative obligations. Rather being human rights-friendly is when you take practical measures to protect and then expand rights so that citizens enjoy them better. Thus so long as Barrow leaves those anti-human rights laws and those state institutions intact then he is not promoting human rights in the Gambia.

We must bear in mind that so long as these bad laws remain alive and these notorious institutions remain intact with the same leadership and personnel then the threat to human rights is therefore also alive. Thus to convince us that Barrow means well when he spoke in favour of human rights, Barrow has to be seen taking practical steps to repeal bad laws and create human rights friendly laws. He has to be seen to revamp notorious institutions to create new ones with personnel who were not part of the violations perpetrated in those old institutions. Words must match actions.

Secondly Barrow must know that the teaching and learning environment at UTG campuses are deplorable while the efficiency, transparency and accountability of the management is in question. In March 2017 the UTG Staff Association protested at the purchase of six vehicles by the Senior Management Team for 8 million dalasi when basic facilities, services, tools and general conditions at Brikama Campus are poor. Until today Brikama Campus, which serves as a major learning centre for UTG, is in more deplorable state than any slum in Africa!

In view of such state of affairs, Barrow should have taken a moral high ground to demand, as Chancellor and President of the Republic, that the leadership of UTG must first put its house in order. In that way he would be seen to stand against mediocrity and corruption within UTG in favour of excellence, efficiency and accountability in our foremost learning centre. But by accepting this award, Barrow has therefore further validated the UTG leadership and management when he should have called them to account for the state of affairs in the university.

One would have expected that the interest of students as well as standards and quality of learning, teaching and living at UTG would be the topmost priority for Pres. Barrow. But with this award, should we be worried that UTG has therefore bought Barrow in yet another case of political patronage that we have seen perpetrated by this new government so far?

The conditions of service and the working environment at UTG are unacceptable. No chancellor must take such an award from such a university. Barrow must not allow elites and sycophants to take advantage of him by showering accolades on him when the fundamentals in our institutions are in dire straits. Since its inception, UTG cannot even have a permanently designated venue for its convocation, which is unbecoming of a university especially when it is the only university of the country!

For the Gambia, Our Homeland