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Without the courage and determination of the Gambian people, it is unimaginable that dictator Yahya Jammeh could have been forced out of power at the ballot box and into exile. The Gambia now does feel like quite a different country to the one many oppressed citizens always knew. No effort should be spared to consolidate the gains of democracy for the good of the people.

On 6 April 2017, I drove around the Gambian capital, Banjul, with a sense of historic déja-vu as I watched people queue at polling stations to cast their ballots in legislative elections. Just over four months earlier, I had watched them form long lines from the crack of dawn to vote out a dictator who had ruled us for 22 years.

The parliamentary poll was the first time in a generation that Gambians were voting in a climate free of fear and repression. A record 238 candidates from nine political parties ran for 53 parliamentary seats and as in December presidential elections, when the results were announced, democracy won. For me, and many others who put everything on the line for change in our nation, these two events were not only the fruits of our labour but a resounding affirmation of the power of collective action and of the vote.

Chasing away a sit-tight despot

I was a 10-year-old kid when Yahya Jammeh seized power in a military coup in 1994. I have grown up without some of the fundamental freedoms many take for granted; in a country where discussions on the state of affairs and on one’s rights were held behind closed doors and in hushed tones and with nervous glances – in fear that the fruit hawker or taxi driver or even beggar within earshot on the street could be a regime informant to land you in trouble. The shrinking of civil space happened gradually but the culture of fear of regime seeped deep into the fabric of Gambian society.

The world watched anxiously as Jammeh refused to accept electoral defeat or the urging of other leaders to step down and then celebrated as that longtime dictatorship finally ended and a new day dawned for Gambia. But for activists like myself, it was a long, hard and dangerous journey to those crossroads.

Both the regime’s threats of arrest, detention, torture and even death and the public’s fear of these actions made organising for change challenging. But the state’s repressive actions, and the anger it provoked, ultimately brought young Gambians to the realization that they had to do something, galvanizing action.

As we traveled the country, through towns and villages, organising youth and women particularly to get out to vote in the December 2016 presidential elections, I realized that people were finally ready to act. They had had enough.   

Gambia is a small nation in Africa with less than 2 million people – more than 63% of them under the age of 25. The future of the youth was, literally, at stake.

As I monitored polling stations on the day of the presidential elections on December 3, 2016, it was clear to me that Jammeh would lose. Voter turnout was low in previous elections. Voters didn’t feel the ballot box offered a chance for real change – that no matter what, Jammeh would always win. But now we had given people reason to come out. That day, in the historically long voting queues, people talked openly about the need for new leadership. I had never seen anything like that. A shift had occurred. The outcome was the first transfer of power by popular election in The Gambia since our independence from Britain in 1965. The BBC called it “one of the biggest election upsets West Africa had ever seen.”

There was naturally surprise when the incumbent conceded defeat right away. We weren’t really expecting that. But there was no surprise, a week later, at his U-turn and the security crackdown that followed. For those of us who had spent years playing cat-and-mouse with national intelligence agents as we organised people, we realised there was no turning back. We had to launch a campaign on the streets and online to resist the attempted power grab.

The #GambiaHasDecided social media campaign was a hugely successful tool in emboldening and mobilizing Gambians to take a stand.

The Jammeh regime sent the military out onto the streets, declared a State of Emergency and had security forces start arresting people associated with the protests. Tens of thousands fled to neighboring Senegal but many of us decided we’re not going anywhere, and were prepared to fight. While African leaders put pressure on Jammeh to step down, we stepped up the #GambiaHasDecided campaign as the constitutional crisis deepened.

African leaders’ attempts to let Jammeh know he would not get away with this, is an example of the value of solidarity. As activists, we received expressions of solidarity – one of the most impactful, from a solidarity mission to Gambia at the height of the crisis, by Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity.

More than just offering solidarity, this emerging pan-African movement played a critical role in bringing civil society groups together to create cohesion. It was at a heated meeting of a number of civil society organizations, convened by the Africans Rising delegation in Banjul, that we agreed on a course of action together. Gambian civil society had not been well organised during the crisis and lacked the confidence to come out and join young people in protests. Africans Rising’s engagement gave us the opportunity to work out our positions, find consensus and decide on our next steps together.

On January 21, with Gambians out on the streets and Senegalese troops headed for Banjul, Yahya Jammeh boarded a one-way flight to Equatorial Guinea. Watching him leave, I had mixed feelings. We had hoped that he would have been arrested and dragged into court to account for all he had done. It felt like he was escaping. But many others felt they would not be safe – and free – until he was physically gone. Today, Jammeh has yet to answer for his actions.

A new future with Adama Barrow

Before assuming office, President Adama Barrow promised to set up a truth and reconciliation commission, along the lines of South Africa’s after apartheid. But there has been no word on that yet. Without justice, real healing and restitution cannot happen.

In the almost three months since Jammeh’s departure, Gambia does feel like a different country to the one I’ve always known. There is freedom of expression now and the Barrow administration is working to undo the structures that held Jammeh’s repression in place.

While the new administration is off to a good start, we know the struggle is far from over – it goes on, to ensure that our freedoms and democracy are safeguarded. Indeed, on the morning of President Barrow’s inauguration, we organized a huge demonstration inside the venue, reminding our new leaders that #GambiaHasDecided for justice and accountability, that #GambiaHasDecided against police brutality, arbitrary arrests and detention without trial. We called out new ministers by name to send a message that we would not stand any transgressions. We were testing our newfound democracy from the very outset.

Some Gambians believe that it is too early to criticize the new administration. But I believe it is vital that we question government’s actions to build a healthy democratic culture of checks and balances and civil engagement. I was disappointed that President Barrow did not appoint any youth to his cabinet, given our role in the political transition and the nation’s demographics. Ahead of the parliamentary elections, our hashtag campaign #NotTooYoungToRun served to remind voters and leaders of the need to include youth in leadership.

One of the biggest challenges is economic. Jammeh reportedly looted state coffers of at least $50 million on his way out, leaving the economy in bad shape. So there is a pressing need for progressive socio-economic development.

Another is justice – we need to see members of the former regime, including Jammeh, held accountable for their actions. At the moment we are in the process of gathering evidence of human rights violations committed under Jammeh.

Tribalism – another enduring legacy of Jammeh’s rule – remains a major problem, having become entrenched in Gambian politics.

As Gambia get down to the challenging and often messy business of re-building a culture of democracy, Africans can draw valuable lessons about the power of movements like #GambiaHasDecided and #AfricansRising to galvanize and support struggles, defend rights and bring about positive change.  

What happened in Gambia has been witnessed in many other African countries, with the same resounding issues and lessons. That was the point of departure of Africans Rising’s solidarity mission in February – that efforts to subvert the will of the people in Gambia directly affects Africans everywhere because of the interconnected world we live in.

* Muhammed Lamin Saidykhan is a Gambian human rights activist and coordinator of the emerging pan-African movement, Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Democracy.

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