The Gambia: 50 years of “Independence”, 20 years of oppression and lawlessness: what to celebrate?

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Fatou Jagne-Senghor

18 Feb 2015

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Today, The Gambia celebrates the 50th anniversary of its accession to international sovereignty. However, this independence ­– far from being celebrated in harmony and joy – is held at a time when the country is depressed, divided and clouded by persecutions that have marked the past 20 years of oppression. Many have suffered the horrors of the regime: physical and psychological violence, imprisonment, confiscation of properties, and travel documents, enforced disappearances, murders and hundreds of people forced into exiles.

The descent into hell

Upon taking power, the Jammeh regime took the route of oppression. He suspended the Constitution and governs by decrees, which gave him nearly unlimited power. The transition experienced between 1994 and 1996 allowed President Jammeh to consolidate power and clear the space around him; some of his allies from the beginning were eliminated over the years while the lucky ones were sidelined. The first attempt by the drafters of the constitution to include a presidential term limit was dismissed by of President and his cohorts of "revolutionaries”. While Jammeh promised not to stay in power indefinitely and never introduce dictatorship, he ended up taking the country in hostage.

In the 2000s, feeling the resistanceof the population – especially during the 2001 election – the regime has accelerated reformsto bar the wayfor anypossibility of changethrough the ballot box and had hampered the local government decentralization process which had planned to give more autonomy to people to be involved in local affairs and also stunted development in areas which resisted his authority. All institutions whether religious, local, legislative and judicial are under the strict control of the regime.

In April 2000, during peaceful demonstrations by students protesting against the abuses of the security forces, a dozen of them were shot dead, while others injured, tortured and imprisoned. The trials that followed this incident were a "real test": the judges who dared to demand the release of imprisoned students and review the cases of other victims have paid high the price.

Repression is on the increase

Between 2004 and 2009, journalists and other human rights defenders have lived through times of distress and violence which still unpunished: the murder of editor Deyda Hydara, the enforced disappearance of journalist Ebrima Manneh, arrests and torture of many journalists, ransacking and liquidations of media outlets, campaigns against “witchcraft” with the deaths of populations forced to drink potions, and the fake "cure” against HIV &AIDS and other diseases which have been disastrous for those who actually suffer from these diseases. The list goes on and on.

2012 was a year of revelations of the nature of the brutalities exercised by the Gambian regime, with the arbitrary and extrajudicial executions of nine prisoners in inhumane conditions that had shocked the world. But this act is only the tip of the iceberg. How many people went missing? What has happened with the 44 Ghanaian executed?  The purges in the army? The many cases of people, including civilians killed during detention? We still don’t have the answers.

Lack of information keeps people in the dark

In a country where no one is spared– where anything can lead to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and even death or enforced disappearance – extreme caution has become the norm. Radios are forced to entertain and to give non-political information as to keep away the population from the real concerns of the country. All are forced to synchronize with the state radio to transmit and amplify government propaganda. This fact justifies the self-censorship that characterises the Gambian media. Internet is monitored and critical information sites from the Diaspora are blocked. Some do run the risk of surfing banned sites, but this information does not reach the masses. Many people do not know what is really happening in their own country. The blackout and tied control of information has enabled the regime to thrive, and continue in secret to commit serious and massive human rights violations.

Why this disturbing silence on the Gambia?

History repeats itself and people continue to struggle to deal with the consequences. To the victims – those killed, missing, deprived of their liberty, to family deprive of the ability to burytheir loved onesin their own country, people forced in exile who live in precarious conditions­– celebrating 50 years of independence means nothing when freedom and human rights are trampled upon every day.

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