On July 22, 1994, Gambia’s long standing democratic space was encroached upon my mutinous soldiers who usurped power after overthrowing the constitutional democracy of over 30 years. This was replaced by two decades of tyranny; murder, torture, rape, disappearances, forced exile of citizens and unmatched corruption. Citizens were cowered into submission, media houses burnt down, journalists murdered, others disappeared and those that remained went into self-censorship. State institutions, especially the security sector became instruments of torture and intimidation with secret hit squads answerable directly to the president.
A two decade battle ensued, fought largely from abroad by citizens who refused to let their compatriots suffer in silence alongside a handful of opposition political activists and political parties on the ground.
On December 2, 2016 that tyrannical government was deposed by a determined citizenry, emboldened by the sacrifice and commitment of a few great souls of the land.
Who would have thought that two short years after the resounding defeat and dramatic exit into exile of the murderous tyrant, his immediate successor will tread the exact same path to tyranny and intimidation of citizens?
Well Adama Barrow, The Gambia’s current president is doing exactly that. A man who was handed the presidency on a silver platter is determined to cling onto power amidst mass objection. With no political clout, experience or grasp of issues, he assumed the leadership of the party he belonged to after the leadership and entire executive of that party were arrested and wrongfully jailed for protesting the murder of one of their members by the police in April 2016.
He started off by reneging on his promise of acceding to the terms of a MoU that was a prerequisite to a coalition of parties uniting behind him. Critical to that understanding was the agreement to serve only one term of three years and be a neutral party in the subsequent elections without presenting himself as a candidate.
You guessed right, he has reneged on that too. Not only has he rejected the three year term, he is set to launch his own party to contest in upcoming elections after the party through which he ascended the presidency rejected his bid to impose himself on the party by demanding that the party field him as a presidential candidate.
Knowing how these stories unfold in Africa, the new generation of African has decided to reject the politics of deception, corruption and self-perpetuation of political leaders that serve no purpose beyond their goals of self-enrichment coupled with total contempt for the very people who put them in power. That notion is what fueled a movement of citizens demanding that the President honor his words and step down at the three year mark as promised, especially amidst gross incompetence and growing endemic corruption.
That movement, named 3 Years Jotna (the 3 years is up) have organized themselves and made public their intent to peacefully protest against the president reneging on his words. They’ve been holding public meetings, engaging state authorities and the police to ensure their protest falls within the bounds set by the constitution and to ensure they remain as peaceful as they intend. They even applied for a police permit as required by law.
Those citizens and anyone who dares support or sympathize with their cause have been labeled a subversive group and are being threatened by all of the nation’s security outfits through their heads or very high ranking members thereof. Yaya Jammeh maintained his grip on power by presiding over a police state with absolutely zero tolerance for dissent. The same security outfit he used, and ordered through his then Vice President to mow down school children in their teens or younger because they dared to protest the rape of a teenage schoolgirl by security personnel, and the torture to death of another teenage school boy by two different state security outfits.
Fourteen young lives, including that of a Red Cross volunteer were snuffed out on that fateful day of April 10 and 11 of 2000 when armed security personnel fired live rounds with intent to kill. Some of the victims are still struggling with their activities of daily living due to permanent impairment from the injuries sustained from gunshot wounds on that day. The children went out on the streets only after persistent attempts to engage authorities to pay attention to their grievances and take action against those responsible fell on deaf ears. No arms, no weapons, not even rocks were handled during that protest, they came out with intent to march and bring public attention to the failings of the state only to be met with callous force.
This incident, and hundred more like it, where heavy handedness by security personnel led to countless deaths, was one reason amongst other reasons why the decision by Gambians to peacefully and democratically end tyrannical rule in favor of democratic governance was met with open embrace across the globe. Goodwill came in the form of technical assistance and financial pledges from international and development partners to help rebuild The Gambia’s battered image and reform its much abused institutions especially the security institutions. The much touted Security Sector Reform is an ongoing project aimed at reorienting the security services towards a more people centered approach of security in tandem with democratic norms. Unfortunately it seems that goal is dead.
Part of that same transitional reform agenda included the setting up of the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to probe past human rights abuses and make recommendations for reform and/or reprimand of perpetrators.
Eerily, the TRRC is currently hearing ongoing testimonies from perpetrators and victims of those darkest days of our history; the April 10 and 11 2000 massacre of school children. On the same day that we heard testimony from the president of the Student Union at the time, and a security officer who was among the killers; after broadcasting those testimonies for us all to hear firsthand account of the evils of tyranny, at the behest of the President, the national carrier Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) hosted security chiefs and members of the president’s team on the same medium for no other purpose than to issue threats to citizens with no malicious or subversive intent that if they dare come out to protest, they will be met with similar or greater force as was the case in April 2000.
The President’s National Security Adviser, Momodou Badjie; the Commander of the Gambia Armed Forces, Gen. Momat Cham; the Director of State Intelligence Services, Ousman Sowe; the Inspector General of Police Mamour Jobe; the Press Secretary at the State House, Amie Bojang-Sissoho; the Government Spokesman, Ebrima G. Sankareh; representatives of the Prison Services, Immigration Services amongst others, all sat on a panel on GRTS issuing threats to citizens whose only perceived crime is daring to talk about organizing a constitutionally guaranteed right to protest.
Prior to that threat-issuing “dialogue on state TV, the President’s former Minister of Interior who oversees all internal security outfits was on record at a public rally saying anyone who comes out to protest in December to demand the President’s resignation will be sprayed with hot water from the newly purchased anti-protest water cannons bought in time to be used in December.
On that same “dialogue” show, various speakers said, amongst other ridiculous utterances that protesting to demand the resignation of the President is subversive and treasonous. The army commander stated that the only recognizable mechanism for removing the president is through elections despite the fact that the constitution clearly states otherwise. The State Intelligence Service Director, who by the way has been implicated in attempts to kidnap the former president of the then Gambia Students Union after his exile into neighboring Senegal, labeled the would-be protesters as drug addicts and criminals. The state is effectively setting a stage to excuse any heavy handedness they are preparing to unleash by attempting to brand citizens as undesirable persons bent on breaching the peace when their task should be how best to coordinate their efforts and ensure the protests remain peaceful.
In essence, what we are witnessing unfold before our very eyes is an administration determined to wreak carnage in The Gambia in attempts to suppress citizens’ constitutional rights and shield a clearly incompetent and corrupt leader who is out of his depths and refusing to listen to good counsel.
With the facts on the ground showing that the movement dubbed #3YearsJotna have no desire to abandon their constitutional rights, and with security officers coming out with threats, it appears we are headed for a stalemate between heavily armed and trained personnel against unarmed citizens. The international and diplomatic community must be put on notice that with the latest utterances emerging from the state side, there is every intention that they want to use force (likely deadly) to ensure that citizens do not exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Diplomatic pressure must be brought to bear to ensure that the democratic gains so vigorously fought for are defended.
The political parties on the ground, that have been essentially rendered as opposition parties by deliberate acts of the president, civil society, the Bar Association, all need to take a stand and defend the rights of citizens to protest.
It is true after all, that one does not appreciate what one did not work for as clearly demonstrated by Gambia’s current president.