Suppressing dissent: The Gambian realityPosted: 19 April, 2016
Author: Satang Nabaneh
Gambian Reporter to the Oxford Constitutions Online Project
The right to freedom of assembly as guaranteed by the 1997 Constitution includes the right to take part in peaceful demonstrations. However, people are deterred from organising and participating in such demonstrations. Section 18(4)(C) allows for the use of force and the deprivation of life in the ‘suppression of a riot, insurrection or mutiny’. This gives law enforcement officials with immunity when a person dies under circumstances in which reasonable force was used.
On Thursday, 14 April 2016, Mr. Solo Sandeng, National Organising Secretary and other members of the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) were arrested for leading a peaceful protest for electoral reforms and demanding for the resignation of President Jammeh. Two days after the arrest, senior members of the UDP, including the leader Ousainou Darboe, confirmed in a press conference the death of Solo Sandeng while in detention. Lawyer Darboe also stated that two detained female protesters were also in a coma following their arrest and alleged brutal torture by the security agents. Angered by the harsh treatment meted on the detainees, Darboe and a group of UPD stalwarts led began a protest march but were swiftly rounded up by Gambia’s security force and arrested. Eyewitnesses said the security agents fired tear gas at the crowd to disperse it.
Alarmed by the high-handedness of the authorities, the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon called ‘on the authorities to conduct a prompt, thorough and independent investigation’ into the circumstances surrounding the deaths.’[i] Rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 have also called on the government to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into Sandeng’s death and to release the protesters.
The right of people to protest peacefully has been met with a consistently repressive response over the years. The recent crackdown came in the wake of the 16th anniversary of the April 10 and 11 demonstrations in 2000 when the now banned Gambia Students Union (GAMSU) sought to present a petition to the Vice President on the death of a schoolboy, Ebrima Barry who died at the hands of fire service officers in Brikama, Western Region, and the rape of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl by a uniformed paramilitary officer at the Independence Stadium, where an annual inter-school sports competition was taking place. Prevented from submitting their petition, a spontaneous large-scale protest erupted but was violently stopped by a mix of paramilitary officers. Sixteen people were shot dead including a Red Cross volunteer/radio journalist and a three-year-old child (who was killed by what was reported to be a stray bullet). In solidarity with their colleagues, students in the country’s only boarding high school, Armitage in Janjanbureh and several other rural towns launched their own protests on 11 April and, like their colleagues, they were repressed and several hundreds of students were detained and tortured country-wide.[ii]
Due to this event and the impunity that followed, there has been a limited number of demonstrations that have taken place since then. Sixteen years on, the authorities have failed to ensure justice and hold the security officers accountable for their use of excessive force to suppress the students’ demonstration. Instead, in 2001 the Indemnity Act was passed which allowed the security officers accused of abuse of force during the demonstration to be indemnified. Additionally, the Public Order Act [iii] established the requirement of authorisation for organising rallies or demonstrations.
These changes to the law, and the manner in which they have been applied, have consistently resulted in violations of freedom of assembly. In April 2010, Femi Peters, the campaign manager of the UDP was convicted for using a public address system at a political rally without a police permit. The police alleged that Peters had ‘convoked a political meeting and used a loudspeaker without a permit issued by the Inspector General of Police, under section 5 of the Public Order Act.’[iv] He was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment and his appeal was rejected by both the High Court and the Court of Appeal.
Following the execution of the nine inmates of Mile 2 Central Prison in August 2012, two journalists, Babucarr Ceesay and Abubacarr Saidykhan, sought a police permit to hold a demonstration against the death penalty but were instead arrested without being giving a permit on 6 September 2012. Baboucarr Ceesay was charged with sedition, incitement of violence, and conspiracy to commit a felony, while Abubacarr Saidykhan was charged with incitement of violence and conspiracy to commit a felony. The two journalists were released on 10 September 2012 and the charges were eventually dropped, reportedly on orders of the President.[v]
On 15 December 2013, Lasana Jobarteh, a key supporter of the UDP was also arrested and detained for nine days incommunicado. Upon appearing in court, he was charged with using Skype to talk on iPod without a licence to broadcast. The arrest followed a rally held by his party at the Buffer Zone in Serre-Kunda the day before where Jobarteh used an iPod to link the rally via Skype with online Gambian radio stations in the US and UK for live broadcast. In July 2014, he was sentenced to a fine of D50,000 (approximately $1250) in default to serve a one-year term in prison.
The current deplorable trends in the Gambia characterised by the complete disregard of the rule of law and the personalisation of the state by President Jammeh over the past two decades pose a clear and present danger to national security. The country currently carries a plethora of laws and practices by the regime that severely limits and destroys human rights and human dignity. As a result of such undemocratic practices, the Gambian state has become inept, lacking in transparency and accountability hence delivery of public services and incidence of corruption and abuse are widespread. These conditions have forced many Gambian youth to seek greener pastures in Europe and elsewhere through deadly journeys across the Sahara and the Mediterranean. Many more have sought to leave the country legally to seek greener pastures, safety and security outside the country, contributing to massive brain drain. Still many more have been forced into exile from persecution and to save their lives. The urgency of change in the Gambia is therefore indispensable to the stability of the country. The sub-region and Africa cannot afford to once again wait to witness another crisis that is looming in The Gambia.
- See also the press statement by the Centre for Human Rights on this issue (18 April 2016):
Centre for Human Rights condemns human rights violations in The Gambia and calls for relocation of AU African Year of Human Rights celebrations and seat of the African Commission
[ii] See Gambia Student’s Association v. The Inspector General of Police & Anor., 26/04/2000.
[iii] The 1961 Act came into force on 31 October 1961. It has since been amended by the Amendments Act, 2009 and 2010
[iv] Peters (Femi) v. the State, HC 195/10/CR/075/BO (Crim. Appeal).
[v] Joint statement by ARTICLE 19, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Amnesty International, (21 December 2012) available at [https://www.article19.org/resources.php/resource/3575/en/the-gambia:-government-must-stop-intimidation-and-harassment-of-human-rights-defenders,-journalists,-lawyers-and-government-critics]
About the Author:
Satang Nabaneh holds a Bachelor of Laws (LLB), University of The Gambia (The Gambia) and an LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria (South Africa). Satang is the Gambian Reporter to the Oxford Constitutions Online Project. Her main research interests include human rights law (women and children) and constitutional law.