Repressed by their government for years, the force for change in Gambia is likely to come from citizens finding the courage to 'seek another way, from another place'.
Gambia’s population cannot fight and expose the corruption and other heinous acts that have occurred without fear. In this tiny country, democracy takes one step forward, one step back. What can we do? It’s a damnably difficult question. And what can the international community do to rescue Gambia from chaos? Isn’t Gambia still a sun-drenched holiday favorite for package tourists who don’t read the newspapers? There is something the press in nearly every country should be able to do - it can care, and it can ask questions, and it can advocate for change. But not in Gambia. In Gambia, there are many extrajudicial executions, nocturnal killings and beatings and most recently, nine executions of men and women on death row, many of whom received grossly unfair trials.
The hosting of the African Commission on Human and Peope’s Rights and the African Center for Human Rights Studies in the Gambia is no longer tenable when the Gambian government carries out extrajudicial killings that contradict the country’s supposed position as an advocate for human rights and that international obligations.
When the Gambia was given the opportunity to host the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, it was chosen not only because the African Charter had been adopted in Banjul but because at the time Gambia’s adherence to international political and human rights norms was seen as exemplary and would ensure it as a good place to be headquarters to both the charter and commission. To host the African Commission, the government agreed to guarantee the necessary conditions and environment to allow the norms and values of human rights and democracy to flourish.
Unfortunately, Gambia is no longer a place where democracy and human rights are upheld. Over the years, President Yahya Jammeh has become ever more dictatorial - and, some might even say, crazy. DeWayne Wickham rightly pointed out that ‘Yahya Jammeh could well be Africa’s biggest psychopath’, like the late Idi Amin, the former Ugandan president who generously proclaimed himself ‘Lord of all the beasts of the earth and fishes of the seas.’ Wickham also said, ‘Jammeh has an other worldly sense of self.’
In October 2009, Gambia’s director of public prosecution was reported to have said that all prisoners who were sentenced to death would be executed by hanging. And that was no bluff; 13 people were handed the death penalty that year, and the same number were given that sentence the following year. Jammeh currently has 47 people on death row, and dozens serving life imprisonment sentences.
In Gambia death sentences can be handed down for murder, treason, and suspected coup-plotting, which has led to fears that executions could be used to remove political opponents. In 2010, the death penalty was also introduced for individuals in possession of more than 250 grams of cocaine or heroin.
Officials confirmed the official execution of nine inmates on 24 August, which were the first in Gambia since 1985 (though unofficial executions have been commonplace in the past decades). Although Gambia reinstated the death penalty in 1995, shortly after Jammeh took power in a military coup, no prisoners are believed to have been formally executed until that time.
Just recently, nine prisoners were reportedly dragged from their prison cells without any warning or even being able to say good-bye or given the opportunity to have their last meals and prayers. They were lined up and shot by firing squad, and now the remaining 38 others on death row risk the same fate.
Many family members claim that they were not aware of the execution of their family members until they heard it from the news. They do not know when they were killed, how they were killed, or where they are buried, and whether they were buried according to Islamic rites.
The law states that religious observances are rights that should be observed, but the state’s handling of the executions leaves everything in doubt as to whether they actually occurred. Section 253 Subsection (5) of the Criminal Procedure Code also states that the death warrant signed by the president shall contain the place and the time that the execution is to take place and how the body is to be buried. In short, there are rules to be observed in executing the death penalty that should be in line with standards of best practice. As guaranteed by Gambian law, families, religious leaders and others should have the opportunity to have a last word with the person before execution.
Speaking in a televised broadcast to mark the Muslim festival of Eid on 20 August, Jammeh had said, ‘All those guilty of serious crimes and who are condemned will face the full force of the law. All punishments prescribed by law will be maintained in the country to ensure that criminals get what they deserve; that is, those who killed are killed - by the middle of next month, all the death sentences will have been carried out to the letter.’ Jammeh vowed to execute them, and swore that, if they were not executed, he would ‘drink alcohol and eat pork’.
The African Union was among those who called on Jammeh to take back his pronouncement, and the UK, French, Senegalese, and Nigerian governments have all likewise expressed their shock and dismay. Jammeh had made similar threats in September 2009, but no executions were carried out at that time.
The Gambian government issued a statement in support of the recent execution of the nine inmates: ‘All persons on death row have been tried by the Gambian courts of competent jurisdiction and thereof convicted and sentenced to death in accordance with the law. They have exhausted all their legal rights of appeal as provided by law.’
In the days that have followed, there have been an unconfirmed 18 executions that have taken place in a second batch of brutal executions.
Unfair trials are commonplace in the Gambia, where death sentences are known to be used as a tool against the political opposition, and international standards on fair trials are not respected. According to Amnesty International, there were 47 inmates on death row before the 24 August mass execution of nine inmates. Three of the nine who were reportedly executed had been sentenced for treason. Yahya Jammeh had announced earlier this month (August) that all prisoners on death row would be executed by mid-September to tackle a rising crime rate and to dissuade people from committing ‘heinous crimes’.
Before the nine reported executions on 24 August, it had been revealed that one Wuyeh Colley and Enor Colley from Karunorr, in Foni Kansala, one of the districts Yahya Jammeh hails from, had been abducted on 7 August from their village by some armed men onboard two military jeeps without number plates. The armed men, dressed in combat uniforms and wearing warlike masks, stormed the village and whisked them away and then apparently shot them to death on the Gambian border. This is simply another example of Jammeh’s murderous bent.
Jammeh might be relatively young, but he is larger than life in Gambia, where he has ruled for the last 18 years. Jammeh will soon be joining the list of longest-ruling heads of states in Africa - when he came to power, he became the youngest head of state ever to rule Gambia. At age 29, he toppled the 30-year-long government of Sir Dawda Jawara’s People’s Progessive Party, thereby ending one of Africa’s longest-standing multi-party democracies. Before Jammeh’s takeover, the Gambia was viewed (along with Botswana and Mauritius) as an ‘exception’ on a continent where authoritarianism and military regimes have been the norm since the colonies gained independence. Apart from an aborted coup in 1981, Gambia had enjoyed relative peace and stability since it attained independence in 1965.
Before Jammeh’s rule, Gambia was known as the ‘smiling coast’, a place of sunshine, welcome and real generosity by its people. It was the bastion of democracy in a continent beset by military takeovers and despotic regimes. Unfortunately, all of that changed in July 1994, after the coup led by Jammeh. Most Gambians genuinely fear the 45-year-old autocrat, and there is little opposition to him - many simply accept his rule because he has been remarkably repressive, and has governed with sustained brutatity characteristic of many other dictators.
Jammeh’s less threating statements might seem absurd, outside the Gambia’s borders, but even they often have quite serious consequences. His claim that herbal paste and bananas are a cure for HIV/AIDS has caused Gambian patients to stop taking anti-retroviral drugs. Jammeh’s more directly threating statements - such as his boast of persecuting political opponents - are also deadly serious. His government has tortured and killed journalists and forced those who dared criticize him into exile. He has cowed most of the rest into self-censorship. The Gambia’s prisons are filled with political prisoners, and rivals to the regime often disappear or turn up mysteriously dead in the night.
The Gambia has recognized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is a member of the African Union, whose charter adopts universally accepted human rights, including the right to life and personal integrity, as well as freedom from unnecessarily degrading treatment or punishment. The African Union created the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, with headquarters in Banjul, as the institution to promote and protect the human rights of individuals and collective rights of peoples throughout Africa.
With the recent executions, we find ourselves asking anew: Is it possible to act courageously as a citizen in the Gambia today? Perhaps, though it is surely true that our experiences have taught us that there are limits to what Gambians are able to endure, especially when we are not able to truly speak out against the madness and anarchy that prevail. As years of intimidation build, stress finds less and less relief as every possible effort that is made to push on and report and publish is exhausted. And when time and time again those efforts are foiled by government intervention, when personal safety is threatened, perhaps only the courage to seek another way, from another place, can become the force of change. Until that time there is little hope; no light at the end of the tunnel.
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* Alagi Yorro Jallow is the founding managing editor of the banned Independent newspaper in Gambia and now resides in the United States of America. He is a Nieman fellow at Harvard University class of 2007 and a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy school of Government. He is 2005 winner of the International Press Freedom Award.
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