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The Constitutional law of The Gambia – A book Review. by Lamin J. Darbo

Book Title: The Constitutional Law of The Gambia, 1965-2010                                 AuthorHouse Publishing Bloomington Indiana, USA.                                                  377 pages

Author:      Ousman A S Jammeh

Review by Lamin J Darbo

To a request from a potential buyer for a concise summation of The Constitutional Law of The Gambia, I responded that the book combines a historical and current account of our republican constitutional law and jurisprudence interspersed with a passionate articulation for executive restraint within the rule of law if we are to stand any chance of maintaining sustained ‘peace’ and uplifting The Gambia’s political economy.
In this seminal work, Ousman A S Jammeh – ‘Master’ as popularly known in legal circles – provides the first systematic general survey of the constitutional landscape of The Gambia with particular focus on the republican period from 1970. Granted an argument may be advanced that discussing the 1970 Constitution is of no practical significance considering its suspension in 1994 and wholesale abrogation in 1997.
It is nevertheless incontestable that the 1970 Constitution provides useful comparative material with the second republican constitution that came into effect in January 1997. In light of the underlying justifications for forceful governmental change in 1994, the jurisprudential backdrop of rights enshrined in the 1970 and 1994 cardinal documents of Gambian governance is significant if only to better inform ourselves of comparative judicial vibrancy under the two dispensations. Although Master provides the principal raw material for reaching a judgement on the issue in Chapter 4, First Republican Constitution 1970-1994, and Chapter 5, The Second Republican Constitution -1997, the question and its discussion is diffused throughout this excellent work.
A corollary determination and readers are invited, albeit without explicit statement, to reach their own judgements on the significant question of whether a constitution can effectively function outside the contours of a prevailing dominant political culture. Stated differently, can a constitution’s beauty alone suffice in ensuring a beautiful, i.e., democratic and accountable political dispensation. Answering this question necessarily entail a comparative analysis of the cultural perspectives of the apex leadership in Gambia’s first and second republican dispensations vis-a-vis the thorny issue of subjugating transient executive power to the majestic glory of transparent and accountable law.
The Constitutional Law of The Gambia is not a mere regurgitation of provisions enshrined in the governing instruments of 1970, and 1997, but a compelling and authoritative discussion of generally accepted legal principles and how they are implemented, not only in The Gambia, but in other parts of the common law world. The architecture of these broad principles, discussed in Chapter 2, Foundational Principles of Constitutionalism, clearly demonstrates Master’s enviable appreciation of such finer principles of constitutionalism as the separation of powers, the role of the judiciary, and the supremacy of the philosophical tenet that promotes the  subjecting of power to the control of law.
Indeed, it is in this chapter that Master demonstrates his nuanced understanding of constitutional law and jurisprudence not only in pre-eminent domestic rule of law jurisdictions like the United States and the United Kingdom, but also in culturally nearer “emerging” countries like South Africa, Mauritius, Ghana, Botswana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Zambia (p. 15). Master effortlessly discusses cases decided by American jurists in the mould of Justice Marshall, the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court – and some of their sublime legal principles that stood the test of centuries of rigorous ventilation – as he is at home discussing some of Gambia’s critical constitutional cases over the decades spanning its first and second republics. But there must exist an enabling political environment!
In analysing a Marshall pronouncement, Master contends, at page 15:
When reduced to its barest proposition, a constitution is like a deed of trust, between each citizen, with public power entrusted in the trustees charged with exercising it on behalf of, and in the general interest of the citizenry. As such, this trust is either lawfully  and justly discharged, or abused in breach of trust. Between the two options, there  is no middle ground. The experience in Africa tends to obscure this proposition through declarations of adherence to the rule by law, instead of the rule of law, whereby weak institutions shield formal constitutional authority, through legal formalism, but which in reality is at variance with every acceptable norm and fundamentals of constitutional trusteeship.
In Chapters 6, 7, and 8, Master discusses the respective constitutional roles allocated to the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial arms of The Gambia government. Although material herein may be accessed by consulting the actual text of the 1997 Constitution, an astute professional’s explanatory and user-friendly analysis comes in quite handy. Master fulfills that role spectacularly, particularly in the case of constitutional stipulations dealing with the Legislature, and Judiciary. Indeed, he exhaustively treats the legislative process from conception in the policy councils of a pertinent ministry, through the office of the parliamentary counsel in the Attorney General’s Chambers, to eventual enactment by the National Assembly with the required assent of the President (pp. 153-161).
Master highlights that it is not unknown for the National Assembly to act in excess of its legal powers but because of the “weak institutions” earlier mentioned, laws are still on the books, including in the Constitution, notwithstanding judicial decisions invalidating them. A good example is Kemeseng Jammeh, No 2, entailing “the amendment of an entrenched [constitutional] provision without a referendum” (see p. 162). Again, without an accountable political system, a constitution, no matter its exquisite crafting in letter and spirit, cannot protect the rights of the individual. All government needs to do is ignore judicial decisions adverse to its short term interests. An exemplification is Kemeseng Jammeh, No 2!
Chapters 9, 10 and 11 are of particular significance in that they deal with the various mechanisms for enforcing the 1997 Constitution. Here again, Master draws from a wide range of sources to articulate a reasoned case for enforcement of constitutional rights in the courts. Overall, there is no denying that the quality of the jurisprudence on difficult if straightforward constitutional disputes is varied, and the reader is again invited to comb through the decided cases for a view on where to root the likely causes of differential judicial attitudes to constitutional rights in the courts.
As the consummate scholar, and without emotion, Master provides a clue:
Whatever perspective or predisposition one may have about the ideals of Constitutionalism, and by extension the rule of law, it is important to realise that Constitutions are designed to endure with time if not to outlive generations yet unborn.
The legal basis for a Constitution is to establish a foundational law on which existing and future laws receive validity. One undeniable merit of an enduring constitution is one that ensures among other things, certainty, consistency, continuity and a degree of permanence. Invariably, these attributes have proven over time that the founding fathers of the United States including the indefatigable Federalists and the anti-Federalists, are indeed selfless and inspired visionaries. (pp 348-349)
The Constitutional Law of The Gambia is a book for all active participants in the ventilation of issues of public concern. Although of practical significance to practitioners and students of law, it is quite useful for politicians, journalism professionals, civil society, and other observers and commentators on the political economy
I wholeheartedly commend The Constitutional Law of The Gambia to all who are concerned in, and with, public affairs in our country. Master’s professionalism ensured a well-researched, well written, and well argued work.
The book is available online from the publishers AuthorHouse USA/UK; Amazon.com, and at Timbuktu Bookshop, at Garba Jahumpha Road, in The Gambia.
Lamin J Darbo
About Ousman A S Jammeh
Ousman Jammeh was born in Bakau, in the Kombo Saint Mary’s Municipality of The Gambia in 1963. He attended primary and secondary Schools in The Gambia, before joining the Gambian Judiciary, in 1984. He attended Universities in Guyana, Malaysia, and Barbados, West Indies. He is a member of The Gambia Bar and a foundation member of the National Council for Law Reporting. He also served as Secretary to The Gambia Law Foundation, and the Judicial Service Commission, as well as a part-time tutor in Para-legal studies at The Gambia Technical Training Institute, GTTI. He was a stipendiary Magistrate, Master and Registrar of the Supreme Court, and of the High Court of The Gambia, from 1994 to 2001. He practiced law in The Gambia, as Senior Partner, with Temple Legal Practitioners, TLP, from 2002 to 2005. He joined the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Tanzania, in 2005. He is married to Madame Fatou Marenah – Jammeh, and they have three children.