The West African Republic of the Gambia, one of the smallest countries in Africa, was ruled by Yahya Jammeh for 22 years. Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994 and, although elected as president in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011, his regime was continuously accused of human rights abuses. On 1 December 2016, after months of protests and calls for him to step down, Jammeh lost the presidential election to Adama Barrow. At first, surprisingly, Jammeh accepted his defeat. This was followed, however, by almost two months of “ping-pong” negotiations between Jammeh, who refused to leave power, the newly elected Barrow and the international community, led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Barrow was sworn in as the new president at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar on 19 January 2017. On the same day, Senegalese troops under an ECOWAS mandate entered the Gambia to compel Jammeh to leave. On 26 January, Barrow finally returned to the Gambia, while about 2,500 ECOWAS troops remained there to stabilise the country. Jammeh went into exile in Equatorial Guinea.
Dakar-based Gambian journalist Sheriff Bojang Jr, who has lived in exile for many years, shares his insights into this democratic revolution in the Gambia and sheds light on the challenges one year later.
Perspectives: What made political change in the Gambia possible?
Bojang: Although this has been a long time coming, the main trigger for change occurred in April 2016, a few months before the election, when opposition activist Solo Sandeng and a handful of other opposition members were arrested following their peaceful protest for electoral reform. Shortly after that, news emerged that Solo Sandeng had been tortured to death in custody. When the opposition leader at the time, Ousainou Darboe, and his followers went to ask for the release of Sendeng’s body, they were arrested and some of them beaten by armed police. It was for everyone to see, and that was the turning point. People who, for two decades, were never ever interested in anything political, who didn’t register to vote and who didn’t care but for their little business, felt they could not be quiet anymore.
On top of it all, Jammeh publicly insulted the Mandinkas, the biggest ethnic group in the country, at public rallies in the lead-up to the December elections. If it weren’t for these events, Jammeh would still be in power.
What enabled people to see and be more aware this time?
Before 2016, there were hardly any open street-protests. The student protests in 2000 were swiftly shut down by the authorities. 2016 was different in that everything that happened in the Gambia was fuelled from the diaspora. When local media would not dare to report on Sandeng’s death and the flow of information inside the Gambia was blocked, Gambians were able to consume information from the outside via social media. Information about Sandeng’s arrest was posted on Facebook, as were the beatings of opposition members who protested with Ousainou Darboe. You didn’t need to read it, you could watch it. It was a social media revolution.
In what other ways did social media play a role?
Young people formed WhatsApp groups inside the country, through which they were spreading the messages the government had long suppressed. They recorded their messages in local languages because many people in those groups didn’t go to school. They sent live videos. A kind of social movement formed, raising awareness, sparking anger and frustration, via Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. People just recorded voices and sent videos to everybody out there.
Which other constituencies, besides the diaspora and youth, played a critical role in the protests?
When the opposition leader Darboe and his people were arrested and detained illegally, women started what got to be known as the “Calama Revolution”. A calama is a traditional wooden spoon that they would hold as a symbol of protest. The woman to single-handedly start this movement was a retired headmistress who stood in front of the National Intelligence Agency, right opposite the supreme court, to protest. By the end of the week, hundreds of women were there. When the police started to stop vehicles at the bridge to Banjul, forcing women to disembark, they would simply walk. They walked three hours early in the morning to get to Banjul, to be at the court, to wait for the prisoners to be transferred. Every day they were there. The government eventually just let the protests happen. This was the end of fear. They were all market women, housewives and so on – most of them older than 50. This inspired everybody else across the country.
What role did Adama Barrow play in the protests?
Adama Barrow was kind of an outsider. He was the unlikeliest candidate. He helped the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) campaign financially, but he was never prepared or groomed to be president. But anybody else among the big names would have been a problem because some of the differences between opposition leaders date as far back as their schooldays. They needed an outsider like Barrow, this guy who is always smiling and full of wisdom.
In addition, the youth movements put pressure on the opposition leaders to come together. Young leaders told them, “If you don’t come together, we won’t vote”. There was also a lot of pressure from outside and on the social media, like, “If Gambia goes into chaos, it’s your fault – because if you don’t come together, Jammeh will win again. We won’t take part in elections, no campaign and no vote.”
Barrow was the only candidate that everybody could agree with and, at that time, the only objective was to defeat Jammeh. In the lead-up to the elections in December 2016, Barrow was disciplined, sending a very good image of himself, while Jammeh was getting angrier and angrier, even insulting people. Barrow had a very unifying message which resonated very well.
In Africa and internationally, ECOWAS received a lot of media attention for their intervention after the elections. How much credit do they deserve for this change of political power?
I think it’s quite evident that if it were not for ECOWAS, Jammeh would still be there. People voted against him but he refused to respect their collective will. This is when ECOWAS, led by Senegal, stepped in. They sought permission to intervene from the UN Security Council – first through negotiations and, if necessary, with armed troops. The Senegalese government, as well as public opinion, was determined since Jammeh had publicly insulted the Senegalese president, Macky Sall, and his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade. It became somehow a personal issue. All Senegalese were united against Jammeh. That’s when the Senegalese foreign minister said, basically, “As far as we are concerned: he lost, he goes”.
Are ECOWAS troops still present in the country?
The mandate of the ECOWAS military intervention in the Gambia was extended until May 2018 after the incidents of Kanilai, Jammeh’s place of birth, east of Banjul. On 2 June 2017, one person got shot and several injured during a protest against the heavy military presence by ECOWAS troops in their community. Despite this unfortunate incident, ECOWAS confirmed its determination to support the new Gambian government to stabilise the country.
What does life in the Gambia look like, one year after Jammeh? What does the political change feel like?
If you go to the Gambia today, you will see people who left the country ten or twenty years ago. It’s a very emotional time right now. You go to a restaurant and people are talking about everything related to politics. People are criticising the government in the open.
There are also not many soldiers in the streets. Nobody is scared of police officers. In the past, there was a lot of abuse. For example, the military used to beat people who were caught using their phone while approaching a checkpoint. They thought that those people are sending information to the diaspora.
But the newly won freedom also comes with costs. For example, Jammeh completely bankrupted the national electricity company, and the new government is trying to put this in order, but people are very impatient due to frequent power cuts. People are publicly insulting officials for anything; it’s like they are trying to find their voices. They’ve been silent for two decades. Before you could not even say on a public vehicle “oh, the road is bad”, because it was all linked to the president. Now you’re on public transport and people are so free. The most important thing for us as Gambians is freedom.
However, this also led to a concerning reaction. There’s a lot of bullying among Gambians on the social media. The country has also never been this divided based on tribe and political affiliation.
The former National Intelligence Agency (NIA) played a crucial role in keeping Jammeh in power for so long. How much influence do they still have?
The name has changed and I think everything else changed with it because, publicly, they are not present anymore and this is what was supposed to happen. Of course, we cannot do without secret agents, but they are not supposed to target the local population for dissent. Their existence is not supposed to be felt by people. Now the new director invited the journalists to visit the NIA. Never had this happened before. If you ended up there before, you could be sure you will be tortured. Otherwise, you would not be there.
Now nine former NIA agents, including the former director, are on trial for Solo Sandeng’s death. The reforms are going on. What they are doing now is training, and the trainers are all from a human-rights background or working on freedom of the media, etc. Some of the former agents are still there, of course. You cannot kick everybody out. But there is no space for intimidation or torture in this new Gambia. Even if you want to do it, you cannot. Everybody is conscious. What is necessary now is to change the building, because it’s a stark reminder of dictatorship and torture. It’s so scary. But now the institution NIA is no longer the same. I have confidence in it.
What do you think will be the challenges going ahead?
Regarding security, we are not out of the woods yet. Maintaining the deployed ECOWAS troops in the Gambia is costly. Right now, they are not needed elsewhere in West Africa, but there will be that moment when they will be needed elsewhere. In the long term, I don’t know how effective the reforms in the Gambian army will be. A minimum of 80 percent of the Gambian soldiers came into the army under Jammeh. They were trained the Jammeh way: “Crush anything that is even perceived to be against me and my government. You are loyal to me, I’m the country, you belong to me.” This is the way they’ve acted and this is his army: this is him. So I’m very sceptical. But I also believe that a coup d’état is not possible in West Africa anymore. ECOWAS would not allow it.
There is also a policy vacuum. President Barrow hardly says anything. He flip-flops a lot and I don’t think that he has the right people surrounding him. But the biggest danger is political. The political party leaders are already preparing for the next election. And when that happens, your effort to do the right thing as the cabinet minister is divided between that function and your presidential ambition.
Currently, there is a lot of goodwill towards this government, especially towards the president. But there is a lot of nepotism as well. Almost all the ambassadors are from the UDP and people are not happy about this. I am afraid of the moment when people will lose hope and confidence in the parties in the ruling coalition. The opposition party led by Mama Kandeh is very similar to Jammeh’s party. If they get into power, there are concerns that Jammeh might be allowed back into the country. So I’m worried about Mama Kandeh gaining power, capitalising on grievances. We would have Jammeh back in one way or the other.
What role will the people who protested on the streets play going forward?
My hope is that if it becomes clear that if things go wrong, ordinary Gambian people – the women who protested and young people who used social media – will revolt again and say “no”.
Under Jammeh, people were not thinking about politics: the focus was the unforgivable killings by Jammeh’s government. But now people are beginning to think and talk about politics. It’s still very limited, but it happens. People are debating the budget for next year, something which would have never happened under Jammeh.
There are also so many Gambians from the diaspora who are coming home to settle. People are now taking their jobs more seriously because they no longer fear the closure of their business because of allegations such as, “Your father is against Jammeh”. So there is hope. But I’m also still paranoid from all those years of living in exile. It will take time. But it’s the most amazing thing in my life that I’m free now to come home to the Gambia and see my family whenever I want.