NEW YORK – In the Gambia, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel of fear. Recent extrajudicial executions, nocturnal killings, and beatings have reinforced the powerlessness of the population to fight and expose corruption and other heinous acts.
In this tiny country, democracy takes one step forward, one step back. What can we do? And what can the international community do to rescue the Gambia from chaos?
Last April and May, the Gambia was host to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights where the country’s position as an advocate for human rights was on display. Soon afterward, the government brazenly contradicted its position through extrajudicial executions in a tragic betrayal of the Gambia’s international obligations.
The Gambia is the custodian of the African Commission not only because the African Charter had been adopted in Banjul and is now headquartered there, but because the Gambia’s adherence to international political and human rights norms was seen, at the time, as exemplary. It was thought that this would ensure the Gambia as a good place to serve as headquarters to both the charter and commission.
In accepting the invitation to host the African Commission, the Gambian government agreed to guarantee the conditions and sustain an environment that would enable the norms and values of human rights and democracy to flourish.
Unfortunately, Gambia is not a place where democracy and human rights are upheld. Over the years, President Yahya Jammeh has become ever more dictatorial—some might even say, crazy.
DeWayne Wickham, a columnist for USA Today, rightly pointed out that “Yahya Jammeh could well be Africa’s biggest psychopath.”
Jammeh’s regime currently has 47 people on death row, and dozens serving life sentences.
Officials confirmed the execution of nine inmates on August 24, the first in the Gambia since 1985. Although Gambia reinstated the death penalty in 1995, shortly after Jammeh took power in a military coup, no prisoners are believed to have been executed until recently.
The nine prisoners were reportedly dragged from their prison cells without warning. They were not allowed to say good-bye or given the opportunity to have their last meals and prayers. They were lined up and shot by a firing squad; and despite a temporary moratorium on the killings, the remaining 38 are still at risk of the same fate. Some believe 18 inmates were killed, more than the number being reported.
"President of the Republic of the Gambia Yahya Jammeh has decided to put a moratorium on executions as a result of numerous appeals to that effect," the Gambian government statement said. "What happens next will be dictated by either (a) declining violent crime rate, in which case the moratorium will be indefinite, or an increase in (the) violent crime rate, in which case the moratorium will be lifted automatically."
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Family members of the executed claim they were not aware of the executions until they heard the news broadcasts. They do not know when the killings took place, how they were killed, where they are buried, or whether they were buried according to Islamic rites.
Speaking in a televised broadcast to mark the Muslim festival of EID, Jammeh said, “All those guilty of serious crimes and who are condemned will face the full force of the law. All punishments prescribed by law will be maintained in the country to ensure that criminals get what they deserve; that is, those who killed are killed—by the middle of next month, all the death sentences will have been carried out to the letter.” Jammeh vowed to execute them, and swore that, if they were not executed, he would “drink alcohol and eat pork,” in violation of Islamic law.
President Jammeh had announced during August that all prisoners on death row would be executed by mid-September to tackle a rising crime rate and to dissuade people from committing “heinous crimes.”
Before Jammeh’s takeover, the Gambia was viewed as an “exception” on a continent where authoritarianism and military regimes have been the norm since the colonies gained independence. Apart from an aborted coup in 1981, the Gambia had enjoyed relative peace and stability since it attained independence in 1965. Unfortunately, all of that changed in July 1994, after the coup led by Jammeh. Most Gambians genuinely fear the 45-year-old autocrat, and there is little outright opposition to him.
Jammeh’s government has tortured and killed journalists and forced into exile those who dared criticize him. He has cowed the rest into self-censorship. The Gambia’s prisons are filled with political prisoners, and rivals to the regime often disappear or turn up mysteriously dead in the night.
With the recent executions, we find ourselves asking anew: Is it possible to act courageously as a citizen in the Gambia today? Perhaps, although it is surely true that our experiences have taught us that there are limits to what Gambians are able to endure, especially when we are not able to truly speak out against the madness and anarchy that prevail.
As years of intimidation build, stress finds less and less relief as every possible effort to push on, report, and publish is exhausted. And when, time and time again, those efforts are foiled by government intervention, when personal safety is threatened, perhaps only the courage to seek another way, from another place, can become the force of change. Until that time there is little hope; no light at the end of the tunnel of fear.
Alagi Yorro Jallow is the founding managing editor of the banned newspaper, Independent, in the Gambia. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and holds a masters degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is winner of International Press Freedom Award. He now lives in New York City.