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Gambians Push for Change With Unprecedented Protests Ahead of Presidential Elections

The demonstrations kicked off this month in an effort to push for electoral reforms as the small West African country prepares to head to the polls this year, with President Yahya Jammeh up for reelection after more than 21 years in power.

by Kayla Ruble
Apr 19 2016, 7:35pm

Photo by Afolabi Sotunde

Military checkpoints popped up in the Gambian capital city of Banjul this week to crack down on public protests following several rallies that led to clashes with authorities and the death of opposition party members. The demonstrations kicked off this month in an effort to push for electoral reforms as the small West African country prepares to head to the polls this year, with President Yahya Jammeh up for reelection after more than 21 years in power.

Photos and reports from inside the country on Monday indicated authorities had shown up at planned protest locations and blocked those who came out to protest from gathering on main streets. Despite the attempt to squash the movement, a smaller contingent of demonstrators managed to protest during the day.

Pictures showed a crowd of more than a hundred people facing off against a single-file line of armed security forces flanked by white Toyota trucks at Kairaba Avenue in the capital.

The demonstrations escalated a week ago while Jammeh was in Turkey for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference, but the opposition's rare show of force continued even after the president's plane was reported to have landed in Banjul on Sunday evening. The unprecedented nature and duration of the demonstrations in the face of Jammeh's notoriously repressive regime have reenergized a movement to push the leader out of power.

Continued protests have been planned despite the fact that an estimated 55 people have been arrested since last week and the disappearance of United Democratic Party (UDP) head Ousainou Darboe, who is reportedly being held in the country's Mile II prison. At least three party members are said to have been killed, including UDP leader Solo Sandeng, who was taken into custody during demonstrations on April 14 and later reported dead.

"If The Gambia is as democratic and peaceful as we claim, why on earth can't its citizens embark on a peaceful demonstration to declare what they are in for or not. I admire my Father because he is a ?#?hero?," Sandeng's daughter PhaateMah wrote on Facebook following her father's arrest, but before reports of his death emerged.

"No matter what happens, I stand by you today and forever for you have not wronged anybody."

Popular protests are extremely rare in the Gambia, a popular tourist destination along Africa's Atlantic coast that welcomes tens of thousands of foreign visitors every year. The country of 1.8 million, which is surrounded on its three other sides by Senegal, saw Jammeh rise to power through a military coup in 1994.

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The leader has ruled the country with an iron fist in the two decades since, shutting down independent media outlets, surveilling communications, and throwing critics in prison. Rights groups and opposition groups claim security forces regularly employ torture tactics in custody and carry out forced disappearances of citizens.

Tensions escalated in the country at the end of 2014 when a group of Gambian dissidents living in the diaspora attempted to oust Jammeh while he was abroad. The coup plotters included a former Presidential Guard commander who fled to the US, two US army veterans and a Minnesota-based businessman, all with dual citizenship. Security forces thwarted the overnight coup attempt.

One of the more high profile demonstrations of Jammeh's tenure took place in 2000 when police unleashed a brutal crackdown on student protests, killing 12 and injuring several others. More recently, a largely youth-led protest against sand mining in November in the coastal town of Kartong resulted in arrests of more than 40 people. They were later released.

"Gambian security forces have a literal shoot-to-kill policy and are shielded from prosecution given the country's 2001 Indemnity Law," said Jeffrey Smith, an international human rights consultant who has worked closely on Gambian issues.

This year has seen a renewed energy in the opposition, with the UDP hosting a series of political rallies in the lead-up for the presidential election set for December. Party members are demanding reforms to the electoral process, including implementation of term limits and allowing Gambians abroad to vote. In the face of these requests, the government implemented a series of changes over the summer that included raising the price of becoming a candidate by 1,000 percent to $12,740.

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"The ongoing protests in Gambia are undoubtedly the most profound, most sustained act of public defiance against Jammeh since he seized power over two decades ago," Smith said. "The courage displayed by the political opposition cannot be overstated."

The new era of demonstrations seemingly began on April 4 when a daytime UDP rally extended into the evening, forcing authorities to break it up. The movement resumed on Thursday when they held a small protest while Jammeh was in Turkey. Security forces reportedly cut electricity and arrested several opposition members, including Sandeng. Energy escalated in Banjul on Saturday after reports emerged that the political leader had died in custody.

"This time we are not keeping quiet anymore... Whoever arrested my father, let him know my father has a family," PhaateMah said on Saturday at the site of the rally. "I am standing alone. If anybody is behind me fine, but I'm not expecting anybody behind me."

More than a dozen people were arrested during the demonstrations on Saturday, including Darboe, the party leader. Condemnations over the recent events and violence from the international community have begun to pour in, coming at a time when Jammeh's regime has been trying to regain favor with world powers.

On Sunday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's office expressed dismay at Sandeng's death and "deep concern" over the reported use of excessive force.

"[Ban] calls on the authorities to conduct a prompt, thorough and independent investigation into the circumstances that led to their death while under state custody," the statement said. "He calls on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those arrested, including UDP leader Ousainou Darboe."

Also condemning the government's response to peaceful protests, US State Department spokesperson John Kirby called on the Gambia to respect human rights, including the right to freedom of assembly.

"We call for an immediate end to violence and urge all Gambians to exercise restraint and remain calm," Kirby said.

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In recent years, the Gambia has seen the European Union and United States cut international aid over human rights concerns. Meanwhile, the United Nations Special Rapporteur put out a glaring report in 2015 detailing use of torture and inhumane treatment. Backed into a corner and in need of funds, critics say Jammeh has attempted to earn favor from Islamic nations — around 90 percent of the population is Muslim — by welcoming refugees and declaring the country an Islamic State.

Relations appeared to be improving with the recent appointment of a US ambassador to the country. The US and EU's willingness to quickly come out against the protest crackdown is worth noting, according to Jim Wormington, a West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"Condemnation of the abuses by the US and EU, who had both recently been hopeful of an improved relationship with Jammeh's government, shows that the authorities' brutality has not gone unnoticed," Wormington said.

Smith also welcomed the swift reaction from the US, calling it an improvement compared to years past when Gambian government abuses were met with silence. He said stern statements are not enough and that the US should pursue asset freezes and travel bans — which could hit home for the dictator who owns a $3 million house in Maryland and reportedly sends his daughter to private school in New York City.

The latest comment came from the African Union on Tuesday through a statement from the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, which has been based in Gambia since 1989. The Commission said it had received the reports about the demonstrations and accusations of arrests and deaths of party officials. According to the statement, the body has been in touch with Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Islamic Republic of The Gambia Mama Fatima Singhateh.

"Without in any way reaching conclusions on the above allegations, the Commission is concerned that if the allegations are true they will amount to violations," the statement said.

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Gambia's Information Minister Sheriff Bojan defended the government's response to the recent protests, according to VOA. The official highlighted the country's law against street protests, meetings, and processions without prior approval.

"The president of the Islamic Republic of the Gambia, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh has been saying time and again that public law and order and security will not be compromised in the Gambia," he said. "The Gambia is known for its civility, is known for its stability, is known for its tranquility, and no one will be allowed to put a pin in that balloon of tranquility."

In a recent speech, made weeks before his arrest, Darboe said Gambian civil society had started to overcome the paranoia that runs deep in citizens.

"Today the vast majority of the Gambian people have now mustered courage and are speaking out openly against a government," Darboe said. "We have now succeeded in overcoming the "fear syndrome" that has encompassed the life of ordinary Gambians for a long time."

Internal circumstances have also begun to open the door for unrest and anger. In recent years, the economy has struggled as international aid cuts set in, with the situation worsening in recent months after a diplomatic spat led to the closing of the border with Senegal — the only land route to bring in exports. Highly reliant on foreign remittances, Gambians have also accounted for a large number of the refugees traveling across the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe.

The economic pressures combined with the country's large youth population indicate the frustration is highly political and social, according to Jeggan Grey-Johnson, a Gambian and Advocacy officer with the Open Society supported organization AfriMAP.

"If you're looking at the possibility of an uprising coming out of these conditions or this situation I think its obvious that this was going to happen," Grey-Johnson said.

"After almost two decades...I think Gambians have basically reached their pinnacle and have realized that at the end of the day they cannot function as a people and a country under such a situation," he continued, adding that their demand is currently just for electoral reform. "The writing is on the wall that people are not happy [with] what is going on and they're starting to take matters into their own hand."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB