by Sait Matty Jow and Anonymous
With all the enemies Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has made over the years, this year seems to have been his most difficult one. Unlike previous years, the current political unrest evolving in The Gambia, involving the United Democratic Party (UDP), Gambia’s largest opposition party, poses a significant threat to Jammeh’s survival and has long-term implications for Gambia’s democracy.
Since the 1994 military coup that overthrew Africa’s longest surviving multiparty democracy, Jammeh has ruled the tiny West African nation of about 2 million people heavy-handedly, winning four elections, which most international observers termed anything but free or fair. His twenty-two-year presidency has been marred by violence and controversy. He has been accused of human rights violations by his opponents, as well as international human rights organizations. Amongst the atrocities he has committed, Jammeh ordered the use of live ammunition to disperse student protesters in 2000. Fourteen students were killed and many injured. A year later, an indemnity act was passed by Gambia’s parliament to protect the officers who had been involved.
In 2012, following his vow to make Gambia a peaceful country and to rid it of all criminals, Jammeh ordered the killing of nine death-row inmates without following due process of the Gambian law. This event resulted in many condemnations from international human rights organizations, as well as international bodies such as the European Union, which is Gambia’s biggest development partner. In response to the criticism, Jammeh removed The Gambia from the Commonwealth, describing the institution as “neo-colonial” and vowing that The Gambia would never be colonized again.
Jammeh’s mystical undertakings and his populist behavior, typical of “old school” African dictators, continue to haunt Gambia’s process of democratization and its relationship with the outside world. From his claim that he could cure HIV/AIDS using herbs and bananas, to his outright condemnation of the LGBTI community, proclaiming that he would “slit [the] throat” of any homosexual found in The Gambia, in addition to constant crackdowns, tortures, forced disappearances and even the murder of journalists, academics, political opponents and human rights activists, Gambia has certainly earned the title “North Korea of Africa.”
“Jammeh’s mystical undertakings and his populist behavior, typical of “old school” African dictators, continue to haunt Gambia’s process of democratization“
Various alleged and some verified military attempts to remove him in the past have failed. The most recent occurred in December 2014, when a group of dissident Gambians in the diaspora attacked the State House in an attempt to overthrow the Jammeh regime. Four people were killed and many arrested while the suspected attackers escaped.
In April of this year, another peaceful protest for electoral reforms has once again thrust Jammeh into the spotlight. On April 14, 2016, a group of young Gambians, led by Solo Sandeng, engaged in a peaceful protest demanding electoral reforms. Sadeng, although a national mobilizer of the UDP, nevertheless acted independently from his party when he incited the protests.
The group was protesting against certain amendments to Gambian legislation. Last year, the government amended the Electoral Act by increasing the fees for candidates and political party registration so as not to make the presidency “cheap for every Tom, Dick and Harry,” according to the national mobilizer of the ruling party. Prior to the amendment, presidential hopefuls were required to pay a fee of 10,000 Gambian Dalasis (approximately USD 250). Candidates interested in running under the amended section must now pay a mind-blowing 500,000 (about USD 10,000). Moreover, registering a new political party costs one million Dalasis (around USD 20,000).
Among the demands of the peaceful protesters was the removal of the age limit barring certain members of the opposition from running in this year’s election. The 1997 constitution, tailored to suit Jammeh’s political aspirations, pegged the age at which an individual is eligible to run for the office of the president. One should be of 30 years but not more than 65 years of age, which prohibits the leader of the UDP from contesting the December elections.
The protesters also petitioned for an open society, with freedom of assembly and expression, and an end to police brutality. In recent years, the NGO Freedom House has ranked Gambia “Not Free” in both the press and internet category. Journalists and media houses are under constant self-censorship while ordinary citizens are afraid to speak out against the government in public. In 2013, the government amended the media law to criminalize the use of the internet and social media to criticize the government and any government official. Any person convicted under this law risks serving a jail term of three years.
Sadeng’s peaceful protest was met with heavy police brutality. He and many others were arrested and detained. A report by Amnesty International claimed that Sadeng had died in custody from wounds sustained from torture. Reports of his death sparked another peaceful protest. This time led by UDP party leader Ousainou Darboe, who demanded the body of Sadeng “dead or alive.” He and most of his party’s elderly executive members were arrested and whisked away by the police. They are currently being detained and are facing seven trumped-up charges ranging from conspiracy to commit felony, incitement of violence, unlawful assembly, riot, riotously interfering with vehicles and holding a procession without permit.
As always, international organizations and political institutions, such as the United Nations, the EU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have released statements condemning what they term the government’s “heavy response to peaceful protesters.” The United States government has also released a statement reminding The Gambia of its own constitution. The Gambia should, according to the statement, respect their constitution which allows for freedom of assembly.
With the world watching, Gambians are determined to bring an end to the twenty-two-year rule of Jammeh. Events are building up to what many activists are calling the “Gambia Rising.” Every court sitting attracts hundreds of UDP supporters and activists, gathering to demand the release of arrested party leaders, as well as the body of Solo and three other party members who are suspected dead. The diaspora of Gambian activists, who have been calling for unified opposition, view this as an opportunity to remove Jammeh in the upcoming elections.
The government’s attempt to give in to the international pressure of arraigning the accused before the court, as stipulated in The Gambia’s constitution, has created yet another opportunity for the protesters to continue to demand reform, as well as Jammeh’s resignation, openly and without fear. Undoubtedly, these events, including the court cases, are rapidly transforming the political landscape of The Gambia from a country of fear to open dissent.
It may be too early to draw conclusions, as events are still unfolding, but the recent waves of public defiance represent a great challenge to Jammeh, who has vowed to rule The Gambia for “one billion years.” As the court cases continue, more people are expected to join with those already protesting. Nonetheless, if the government is unable to produce the body of Sandeng, this might incite further protest, even if Darboe and his comrades are released. It is also much too early to predict the outcome of the elections, but irrespective of the final result, the protests affirm that Gambians are slowly rising, and fear is withering in this too-long impoverished nation.