THE GAMBIA: 50 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE, 20 YEARS OF TERROR

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He claimed to be a different kind of soldier and promised not to hang on to power, and never to install a dictatorship. Who said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely?

The Gambia is celebrating her 50th anniversary of attaining national sovereignty. This independence, far from being celebrated with joy and harmony, is taking place at a time when the country is bruised, divided and darkened by the persecutions of the past 20 years that have spared no one. Military officers, mothers, judges, lawyers, ministers, imams, members of parliament, journalists, the political opposition, businessmen, have all in turn suffered the woes of the regime: physical and psychological violence, imprisonment, confiscation of goods and travel documents, forced disappearances, murder and hundreds of exiles. It is hardly an admirable story.

For the past twenty years Gambia has lived under a system of terror orchestrated by President Yahya Jammeh and his political police.

INFORMATION DEFICIENCY

In a country where no one is safe, where anything can lead to arbitrary arrest, a mandatory sentence, or even to death, enforced disappearance, extreme prudence becomes the order of the day. It is a country where the press is suppressed; the radio stations are forced to be a mere distraction, and to broadcast apolitical news in order to draw away the population from the real issues in the country. All the local radio stations broadcasting from Banjul have no right to carry news broadcasts, to allow the people to talk, much less criticize the regime.

They are all obliged to liaise with the State radio in order to transmit and amplify the sterile news, the propaganda of the supreme leader. This state of affairs justifies the auto-censorship that characterizes the Gambian media.

The internet is under watch and foreign based news sites critical of the regime are blocked. Only a few curious people dare to defy the bans by discretely browsing banned websites in order to get news bits and thereby share the perspectives of Gambians who are overseas. Unfortunately, this information does not get to the masses who are still preoccupied with their security and daily survival.

Yes, this is how Gambians inside the country learn about their country in 2015! Most of the people do not know what is really happening in their own country. The blackout and the lockdown of the information system have allowed the regime to stay in power, to operate in secret and to commit extremely atrocious massive human rights violations.

There are also subterranean practices aimed at letting the people know that the whole country is under telephone surveillance. This trick has so paralyzed the whole population that, without trying to find out much, have opted for prudence by avoiding issues that are political or could be perceived as such.

DESCENT TO HELL

From the moment it seized power, the Jammeh regime opted for repression. They then suspended the Constitution in order to rule by decrees, and this gave him all the powers. He learnt from his close ally, Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha, going even as far as copying the repressive decrees that the latter used to oppress his people and his opponents. Those decrees allowed compromised Nigerian judges to legitimize the execution of writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, that led to the death of Moshood Abiola in prison, to shut down the press and to pursue the human rights militants.

Banjul, having understood quite well the use to which such decrees could be put, did not hesitate to ask for the help of mercenary jurists to help it lock down the system and to rule without separation of powers, in terror and brutality.

The 1994 to 1996 transition allowed President Jammeh to consolidate his grip on power and to create a vacuum around him. Some of his allies from the beginning have been eliminated in the intervening years, while the lucky ones have been pushed aside. The initial proposal by the constituent body for a limit to presidential terms was rejected by the lord of Banjul and his cohort of “revolutionaries.” He claimed to be a different kind of soldier, and promised not to hang on to power, and never to install a dictatorship. But he ended up taking the country hostage. Who said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely?

Progressively, the regime attacked the elite and forced it into exile and thus ensured it has no say on how the country is run. The Gambia lost more than a third of its qualified manpower. What a waste for a country that needs to develop! The modus operandi is classical: dismissal, social and political quarantine, economic asphyxiation, vicious condemnations, judicial intimidations and physical attacks. That is how the regime has established itself while alienating the opposition and all dissenting voices that that could perturb its mission of building a subjugated country.

In the 2000s, sensing the resistance of the people through the score of the opponents, especially in the 2001 elections, the regime accelerated reforms in order to block all avenues that could possibly lead to a change through the ballot box, and slowed down the process of decentralization of local collectivities that aimed to give more autonomy to the people in local affairs.

All that was done on the back of a subdued population and was legitimized by multiple changes to the Constitution in the most obscure of conditions. All the institutions, be they religious, local, legislative or judicial, are under the grip of the regime. During this time, the project of a State Party was concocted through the intervention of the palace jurists. They started by changing the rules of the game and limiting the role of the people in the choice of mostly their local leaders. They reinforced the retrogressive laws in order to muzzle all the possibilities of independent expression.

The people who are in the areas favorable to the opposition were shamefully deprived of the programs of the State in order to punish them. The message is clear and the president constantly talks about it to remind people that development will be limited only to the areas that vote for him.

In April 2000, during a peaceful demonstration by students who were protesting the abuses of the police force against their classmates, a dozen of them were killed by bullets, others injured, tortured and imprisoned. The trial that followed this incident was a real test. The judges who dared to ask for the release of the imprisoned students and to look into the cases of the other victims paid the price for their audacity.

Since then the so-called free students’ organization was dissolved. The university is under heightened surveillance and the head of state himself is now its president. One can understand quite well the distress experienced by the teachers in teaching their classes with the respect f or academic freedom

Between 2004 and 2009, journalists and the people have gone through years of violence and anguish with no one being held to account: the murder of Deyda Hydara, the disappearance of Ebrima Manneh, the arrests and torture of journalists, the pillaging and liquidation of organs of the press. There is also the campaign against witchcraft with its dose of humiliation and deaths, with some people being forced to drink potions. Again, there was the discovery of the remedy for AIDS and other sicknesses. This discovery is a disaster and the descent into hell for those living with HIV. And the list continues.

The year 2012 was one of revelation of the nature of the rash brutality perpetrated by the Gambian regime with the arbitrary and extrajudicial execution of nine prisoners in inhuman conditions that shocked the whole world. But that act was only a tip of the iceberg. How many people have disappeared? What became of the 44 Ghanaians executed, the purge in the army, the numerous people including civilians killed while in detention, etc.?

WHY THIS TROUBLING SILENCE ON THE GAMBIA?

History has a way of repeating itself but human beings learn the hard way. May be the International Criminal Court or a Truth Commission could one day beam the light on these atrocities.

To those who were killed, those who disappeared, those whose freedom was denied, to families who were prevented from burying their loved ones in their homeland, to the exiles who are forced to live precariously, to all the victims of 20 years of repression, celebrating 50 years of independence makes absolutely no sense in these conditions in which freedom is daily trampled.

* Fatou Diagne is the West African Director of the global freedom of expression campaign group, Article 19.

This article was translated from French for Pambazuka News by Uchenna Osigwe