On 22 July, Gambia celebrated its so-called “Freedom Day” – a day introduced by Gambia’s President of 18 years, Yahya Jammeh. “Freedom Day” marks the anniversary of Jammeh’s rise to power through a military coup in 1994. What it neglects to reflect, however, is the subsequent deterioration of the human rights of Gambia’s people under President Jammeh’s regime.
The “Freedom Day” has therefore been turned into the “Global Day of Action” for Gambia by civil society organisations in order to highlight the lack of political freedom in Gambia and to draw attention to the widespread human rights violations in the country. Since his rise to power, President Jammeh has issued a series of decrees which has systematically removed all human rights provisions from Gambia’s laws, resulting in the restriction of freedom of expression. Shortly after coming to power, he re-introduced the death penalty – on paper to begin with.
Unlawful arrest and detention of perceived and real opponents, in particular since the March 2006 failed coup attempt, are common practices in Gambia. Detainees are rarely informed of their rights or the reason for their arrest or detention and are often held for more than 72 hours without charge, in violation of the country’s Constitution. Torture has been reported to be used routinely both to extract confessions and as punishment. Other incidences of human rights violations include enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and unfair trials as well as deaths in detention and unlawful killings.
Gambia is described as “one of the most repressive countries for journalists in Africa” by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), with three independent radio stations banned and the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) involved in extrajudicial detentions and torture of journalists. Many journalists and human rights defenders have been harassed, threatened (including death threats), unlawfully arrested and detained, if suspected of providing information to on-line news sources or foreign journalists or publications.
Dr Amadou Scatred Janneh, a former Gambian Information Minister, who also used to work as the political and economic affairs officer of the United States Embassy in Banjul, was sentenced to life imprisonment for plotting to overthrow President Jammeh – a claim that raised serious doubts amongst human rights defenders. In June 2011, Dr Janneh was arrested for possessing T-shirts bearing “End Dictatorship Now” slogans. Two Gambians and a Nigerian were convicted and sentenced, alongside Dr Janneh, to six years imprisonment with hard labour. It is widely believed that the harsh punishments for Dr Janneh and his co-defendants were politically motivated.
President Jammeh has vowed to turn his tiny West African nation into an “economic superpower” over the next five years by “wiping out almost 82% of those in the workforce” who are ‘lazy”. His instructions to the security forces in May 2012 to “shoot first and ask questions later” to rid the country of all criminals, including “armed robbers, drug dealers, paedophiles and homosexuals, etc” as part of the so-called “Operation Bulldozer” give yet another reason for concern.
But Jammeh seems to think that he is above the law. In an exclusive interview with BBC’s correspondent, Umaru Fofana, at the end of last year, the President stated that his critics could “go to hell” because he feared “only Allah”. And maybe he is right, since he has not had to put up with any real obstacles to his de-facto dictatorship. For how much longer will the international community, and in particular, Gambia’s West African neighbours stand by and watch Jammeh’s “in your face” – displays of disrespect of human rights and his own people?
Gambia has signed up to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. President Jammeh can, and should, therefore, be held responsible for violating these international laws. Even more so as the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) is located in Gambia’s capital, Banjul. What an ironical circumstance. Jammeh’s blatant neglect of the circumstance is cynical – but it also shows that he does not have much to fear from the Commission. No wonder none of the manifestations of his dictatorship and human rights abuses has so far resulted in any fruitful action by the ACHPR. And for that matter, by any other international body. Instead, Jammeh feels so immune that on August 16, he had Taranga FM, an independent radio station, shut down, a few days after it had aired the opposition leader’s statement that the President had a worse human rights record than his predecessor. The radio station, which had broadcast news in local languages from independent English language newspapers, used to generate a lot of attention from the mainly illiterate public.
Then, in a televised broadcast on this year’s Muslim feast of Eid-ul-Fitr on August 19, Jammeh announced that by the middle of September, 2012 all those who have been sentenced to death will be executed. This would have left less than three weeks for the international community and in particular the ACHPR to wake up and meet its obligation to prevent further human rights obligations. But just to prove that he can, Jammeh decided to speed up things and already had nine (of the 47 persons on death row) prisoners executed one week later by firing squad!
It is high time the Ghanaian Government, in its role as the leading beacon of democracy and peace in West Africa, together with the members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the International Community finally stood up and helped put an end to the outrageous human rights violations which took place, and continue to occur, right under their noses. Jammeh’s brutal human rights abuses with impunity must be stopped immediately. Let’s re-install the rule of law in Gambia and allow the call of Dr Janneh to be heard worldwide: “End Dictatorship in Gambia Now”!
The writer is the Programme Officer, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Africa Office.