The Gambia has embraced a more open civic and political space for social justice organisations, movements and activists in the country compared to Yaya Jammeh’s time, although certain rights like those related to freedom of expression and rights to assembly remain limited because of lack of reforms, for instance, of the Public Order Act. The last three years under the transitional government have seen CSOs, and more specifically movements coming together on a number of occasions to take actions aimed at holding government accountable.
In the early months of the transitional government, marked by continuous interruption of electricity and water supply, a group of young activists held a sit-in at Westfield – the main square in Banjul. There was a lot of push and pull between #OccupyWestField and the government before a permit was issued, albeit with strong conditions. The #IamToufaJallow protest also brought together a broad coalition of activists and CSO’s to speak against rape after a woman made revelations to the media about how she was raped by the former president, emboldening other victims of rape to come forward and speak publicly about their ordeals. The naming and shaming of rapists are still on going, mostly on online spaces, and the government has promised to act on cases where they have enough evidence.
A group called #Jammeh2Justice also held a protest to counter another protest organised by supporters of the former president to demand his return despite all the atrocities he meted against Gambians for the over 22 years of his rule. The irony was not lost on many Gambians – who actually felt that the government should hasten the process of making Jammeh face justice – that Barrow’s government had given Jammeh’s supporters a permit for their demonstration. Many CSO’s and movements also found it unfair that this happened while the government was concurrently disrupting many of their planned demonstrations by denying them permits through the Public Order Act. The Public Order Act gives the government authority to deny or issue permits for protests. In some instances, government response to citizen agitation was violent and did not end well as in the case of Faraba where a protest against sand mining left two villagers dead.
The biggest protest in recent times was one organised by a movement called #3YearsJotna to pressure President Barrow to stick to his pre-election promise and step down after three years. There was a counter-protest to this by another movement called #Barrowfor5Years, and the #3YearJotna later organised a second protest to pile more pressure on President Barrow and make him honor his words. After much back and forth, CSOs and religious leaders played an instrumental role in negotiating for a permit on behalf of the group and its large followership. #3YearJotna thereafter got the permit, but with strict conditions from the police. According to some protesters, agent provocateurs allied to Barrow interfered with the protest, making it turn violent. We again witnessed police brutality marked with the arrest of activists, journalists, and the closure of two local radio stations. Some activists and all the journalists were later released and the closed radio stations allowed to re-open after lots of discussions and negotiations. Leaders of the #3YearsJotna movement were taken to court and released on bail.
The current government has taken minimal steps geared towards stopping or reducing corruption in public institutions. The promised Anti-Corruption Commission is yet to see the light of day. We have seen young people and communities raising their voices against Chinese investments that are not just destroying the environment but also affecting the livelihoods of many. In return, several of the young activists have faced arbitrary arrests and court cases while the Chinese fish meal factories remain open despite the push by communities affected to have them closed.
One thing that has come out clearly over the past few years is that we have a new kind of Gambian. People are empowered, they know their rights and are always ready to hold the government to account despite the unfavourable laws and slow reform processes that limit their civic actions. Gambian CSO’s are yet to become strong enough to hold government accountable as they remain limited by the failure to reform old repressive laws that inhibit space to organize independently. Furthermore, there exist weaknesses at the leadership level of NGOs in coordinating and leading CSO efforts aimed at holding government accountable, while the ability or inability of CSO’s to support progressive movements also affects the success rates of efforts to hold government accountable.
As outlined above, it is clear that most civic actions are led by young people’s formations and movements, successfully holding the government to account in many instances. Divisions, however, remain among the population, with politics and tribal affiliation only fuelling the divisions further.
The Janneh Commission, tasked with the recovery of embezzled funds and assets during Jammeh’s 22-year reign, has completed its term. The so-called white paper brought selective justice to the fore as a number of individuals named in the document were vindicated by the government while those not in their favor were not. It is also saddening that security sector reforms did not see much progress despite all the promises from Barrow’s government.
It is certain that Barrow’s government has in many cases used the repressive laws to deny citizens their rights of expression and assembly. The Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission ( TRRC) has been revealing the brutal nature of Jammeh’s rule, the atrocities it meted on Gambians and other people, and how these laws aided the regime at the time.
The National Human Rights Commission is giving certain hope to the Gambia, starting with their recent recommendation for the government to release 115 prisoners in order to curb the spread of coronavirus, and other positions the commission has taken to defend the rights of citizens.
The Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) has submitted what is seen to be a very progressive draft constitution to the president for review and onward presentation to the National Assembly for a possible referendum. What is worrying are the delaying tactics deployed by President Barrow and his cabinet in presenting the draft to the National Assembly, I am sure that citizen groups and CSOs, in general, will not allow any form of delay.
At this point in time, actions of Civil Society Organizations and individual citizens remain reflective of the need and urgency for a new constitution and the speeding of other reform processes in the country.
Muhammed Lamin Saidykhan is a Human Rights Defender and Coordinator at ‘Africans Rising’;