Gambians are no strangers to state-sanctioned violence, torture, and other human rights abuses
Photo illustration by Aaron Leaf.
Imagine being brutally assaulted by police simply for exercising your constitutional right to public assembly. Imagine later being apprehended by your country’s notorious riot police, along with dozens of your friends, and crammed into an unmarked vehicle and driven to an unknown location. Then imagine being tortured and terrorized to death by those same people, those who are duty-bound to protect the integrity and security of your person. These are the tragic circumstances and the ultimate fate that befell youth activist Solo Sandeng, along with two others, sometime on or around April 14, 2016 in The Gambia. This series of events occurred during one of the country’s largest and most sustained shows of public defiance that has shaken Gambia since gaining independence in 1965.
Sadly, the citizens of Gambia are no strangers to state-sanctioned violence, torture, and other human rights abuses. Since seizing power by military coup in 1994, the country’s chronically erratic strongman, Yahya Jammeh, has ruled the country through a combination of fear, intimidation, a contrived aura of mysticism and roaring corruption (Jammeh owns a nearly $4 million mansion in Potomac, Maryland despite coming to power as a penniless junior military officer). In order to deflect rightful criticism, Jammeh expertly cloaks his cruelty under the phony garb of Pan-Africanism that is heavily layered with anti-Western venom.
In an era when many autocrats have relied on the twin guises of the “rule of law” and “maintaining public order” to repress their people—leaning more on stacked courts instead of baton-wielding security forces—Jammeh has maintained a preference for brutality. As recently as last week, Gambian police fired live ammunition to disperse a crowd of protesters who bravely took to the streets to demand answers for the death of Sandeng and his two peers, all of whom are members of Gambia’s main opposition movement, the United Democratic Party.
Gambia’s history is replete with similar tales of murder and forced disappearance, mainly perpetrated against those who have dared to criticize Jammeh’s regime and its abusive tactics, including countless journalists, human rights activists, trade union leaders and members of the political opposition. Jammeh often employs a paramilitary hit squad, called the “Jungulars,” to do this sordid work on his behalf.
The president’s henchmen also haven’t hesitated to commit abuses abroad—this fact was evident in August 2014 when Jammeh’s security detail assaulted peaceful Gambian protesters in Washington, D.C. during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
In years past, these abuses committed against the Gambian people, and carried out with absolute impunity, have largely been met with silence. However, that scenario has gradually changed, with Gambia being thrust into the spotlight for several reasons, providing a much-needed complement to ongoing domestic and diaspora-driven advocacy efforts. This new reality has put the Jammeh regime on notice that there will indeed be consequences for their actions. For example, in late 2014, the United States removed Gambia from eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act(AGOA), a popular trade preference program that provides duty-free treatment to U.S. imports from sub-Saharan Africa. Gambia joined Swaziland, South Sudan and most recently Burundi as the only other nations to lose their eligibility over a lack of progress on basic human rights benchmarks.
Perhaps sensing this shift, and recognizing Jammeh’s increased international isolation, it is no wonder that Gambians have sensed the unique opportunity at hand. Gambian opposition leaders have vowed to once again take to the streets despite the heavy military presence that prevails in the country, as well as Jammeh’s ominous warning that “protesters will not be spared.”
The tide against Jammeh first began to noticeably shift in September 2014 when he signed a draconian anti-gay law as part of revisions to the country’s criminal code. Several months later in May 2015, Jammeh ratcheted up his already odious rhetoric by publicly threatening to “slit the throats” of gay men living in the country. Jammeh’s message also included a jab at western leaders, saying: “No white person can do anything about it.” This incitement to violence against LGBT people helped galvanize international advocacy efforts and paved the way for traditional human rights and press freedom groups to forge vital alliances with gay rights organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign. These joint awareness-raising efforts led then-US National Security Adviser Susan Rice to immediately respond to Jammeh’s comments, calling his threats “unconscionable.” The European Union took it a step further, suspending a $186 million aid package to the government.
Second, in December 2014, an attempted coup in the country garnered widespread attention for two primary reasons: it was planned and executed by seemingly upstanding members of the Gambian diaspora living in the United States; and later, the crushing manner in which the Jammeh regime responded, including the indiscriminate jailing of scores of Gambian citizens—mainly family members and perceived associates of the coup plotters—including individuals illegally detained for several months, some as old as 84 and as young as 14.
Third, the ongoing refugee and migrant crisis has helped to place the Gambian situation into a clear and altogether stunning context. Through the first half of 2015, Gambia, a nation of less than 2 million people, was fifth in terms of total numbers of refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, behind only Syria, Nigeria, Mali and Eritrea. To put these numbers in perspective, one journalist aptly noted: Gambia has about 1 percent of Nigeria's population—and no jihadist insurgency—but has accounted for 5.1 percent of migrants that reached Italy by sea, just shy of Nigeria's 5.3 percent. These staggering statistics helped place Gambia on the front page of the Washington Post print edition, among other major media outlets. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Gambia remains in the top 10 of all nationalities crossing the Mediterranean to this day.
Fourth, and perhaps most significant pertaining to events over the past week, Gambia’s long-fractured political opposition has seemingly begun to coalesce, with top decision makers from different political parties beginning to both recognize and advance their shared interests: namely, unseating Jammeh at the polls this December. This burgeoning sense of shared purpose has not only emboldened the Gambian citizenry and those living in the diaspora—from the United States to neighboring Senegal—but has also provided credibility to the pro-democracy movement as a whole, particularly with the donor community and foreign governments, whose support has long been deficient.
That events in Gambia are now garnering the attention they rightly merit is a boon to Jammeh’s critics who have suffocated due to a toxic combination of state oppression and an absence of outside support. Indeed, civic activists in the country and those in Gambia’s incredibly vibrant diaspora are no longer toiling in relative obscurity. For this reason and others, namely the upcoming election, we can expect a rising and more steadfast resistance to Jammeh’s patently authoritarian rule. The raucous and supportive crowds that continue to gather outside Gambia’s High Court—where opposition leaders have appeared to answer charges of “unlawful assembly” among other crimes—certainly seem to point in this direction.
At the very least, a more vigilant international community—including from top U.S. congressional leaders who recently condemned the clampdown on press freedom—are helping to ensure that the struggle for human rights and respect for human dignity in Gambia may not be in vain after all. This represents a momentous step forward, and is certainly no small achievement for a country, and a movement, that has rarely received outside attention or support, despite taking on one of the world’s most brazen and consistently violent human rights offenders.