Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Gambia: The Year 2013 Ends With Crackdown on Opposition



Convictions and sentencing of top government officials, and a divided opposition ‘united for change’


The West African country also made high profile decisions by exiting the Commonwealth of Nations over "neo-colonialism" and cut off diplomatic ties with Taiwan for “strategic national interest.”
The Gambia’s political year for 2013 ended with a crackdown on the opposition with the arrest of five youth leaders of the opposition United Democratic Party, UDP, and three militants.

Ebrima Solo Sandeng, national youth secretary general; Fakebba Colley, vice president and deputy secretary general of UDP youth wing; Laming Marong, youth propaganda secretary; Jerreh Fatty, treasurer; Sunkary Jassey, UDP Tanjie chairman; Ousman Drammeh, Yaya Njie, Batch Jallow and Mawdo Suso, all party militants – were charged with “unlawful assembly” following their November 30 meeting at Tanji which they said was not a rally but a ‘special youths get-together’.
While they have since been released, and without charge, the police brought an additional charge of “giving false information” against Mr Sandeng who said permit letter was issued to them by the Tujereng police at his request. Sandeng, who was arrested by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) on December 9 and released on December 18, was rearrested on December 19 and arranged at the Brikama Magistrates Court on December 23, 2013 where he denied the charge. Hearing continues on December 30. 

Another UDP member, Lasana Jobarteh, was arrested by the NIA on December 16, shortly after an opposition political rally held in Brikama by the Gambia United for Change, GUC, a grouping of three opposition parties. According to online reports, Jobarteh provided live coverage of the rally for a Gambian-owned online radio. He faces a charge of broadcasting without a licence.

On December 19, three former government officials were sentenced to two years imprisonment after the Special Criminal Court found them guilty on conspiracy, giving false information and abuse of office. Attorney general and minister of justice Lamin Jobarteh, Solicitor general and legal secretary Pa Harry Jammeh, and Secretary general and head of the civil service and minister of presidential affairs Dr Njogu Bah, had earlier denied the charges. The charges stem from allegations that they conspired between January and February 2013 to remove Justice Joseph Wowo, then president of The Gambia Court of Appeal. The three are said to have orchestrated Wowo’s arrest and subsequent detention and initiated a mock trial against the Nigerian. 

On December 18, the Special Criminal Court sentenced UDP national treasurer Amadou Sanneh to 5 years imprisonment after convicting him on charges of conspiracy and sedition. He had earlier denied the charges that emanated from allegations of false asylum claims to help a young Gambian (Malang Fatty) who intended on travelling abroad. Malang Fatty and Sambou Fatty who were tried alongside Sanneh had at the beginning of the trial pleaded guilty to the charges that included “possession of seditious publication” and “false swearing”. Both were equally handed 5-year imprisonment.

Also on December 18, the opposition NRP said it never ask of any political party to sacrifice its party principles to join NRP in the Kiang West parliamentary by-election. Its candidate Pa Touray Bajinka had been heavily defeated by 3703 to 509 by the ruling APRC’s Menata Njie in the 5th December contest, and the party said its performance was undermined by fellow opposition UDP which had ostensibly told their supporters not to vote for any candidate. But the UDP hit back and said it was not bound to compromise on its principles of non-participation in any elections until their (UDP and five other opposition parties) calls for electoral reform is heeded. The NRP is a member of the Group of six but had vowed never to boycott any election in the country. On Dec 10, it announced it was suspending its participation in the opposition grouping, GUC.  
 
On December 17, Lawmakers approved two significant bills, the Domestic Violence Bill 2013 and the Sexual Offences Bill 2013. The bills will empower the courts to sentence offenders for life imprisonment for rape and deliberate infection of rape victims with HIV, a virus that causes AIDS; up to seven years imprisonment for attempting to commit rape and a fine of D100, 000 for sexual abuse or a five-year jail term or both. Sexual harassment offences are punishable for a fine of D100, 000 or to a three years imprisonment or both. The two bills were brought before lawmakers by the Vice President Dr. Isatou Njie-Saidy

On December 14, the GUC urge Gambians to effect peaceful change of government for positive development. The PPP, UDP and GMC made the call at an awareness rally held at the Buffer Zone, Tallinding attended by more than 1000 supporters. Presidential elections in The Gambia are due in 2016 but the opposition parties said they are setting in motion awareness campaigns “to address current social, economic and political failings in readiness to effect a change of government through the ballot in three years time.”

On December 4, the 407th meeting of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, AU PSC, in Addis Ababa, choose The Gambia to head it. The Gambia Government confirmed its new mandate in a press statement indicating that “the provisional programme adopted for this month includes open sessions on women, children and other vulnerable groups.” AU PSC will also work on the promotion of peace and reconciliation in Africa, hold briefings on country situations like the CAR, DR Congo and Guinea Bissau; and consider reports on terrorism in Africa and activities of the Council. 

On November 26, Gambia’s Minister of Information Nana Grey-Johnson was sacked, four months after he presided over the enactment of an internet law which journalists and rights groups criticised as “draconian”. On July 3, Grey-Johnson presided over parliament’s enactment of an adjusted version of the 2009 Information and Communication Act. The amended Act severely restricts press freedom, the right to freedom of expression on the internet, criminalises online speech, encourages self-censorship and violates the public’s right to know, rights groups say. Under the law, offenders will be jailed up to 15 years or fined an amount of D3 million (about US$100,000).

On November 15, a 40-days charity was held for the late Publicity Secretary of UDP Momodou Lamin Shyngle Nyassi at Brikama Daruhairu. Nyassi died on October 7 in Bronx, New York of heart attack while on a party mission to the United States. In front of thousands of mourners, the UDP said it is indebted to Shyngle who has done a lot for The Gambia in the fight towards attaining a genuine democracy.

On November 14, The Gambia cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan. President Jammeh said “this decision has been taken in our strategic national interest.” Diplomatic relations with Taiwan began in July 1995, and had span for a little over 18 years. On November 15 Taiwan’s Vice Foreign Minister blames President Jammeh of taking the decision unilaterally, saying: “Jammeh has his personal style.” “Our government expresses shock and regret that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh sent a letter to our embassy in Gambia on November 14 to inform us the immediate termination of ties. Jammeh has his personal style and we think this is Jammeh’s personal decision,” he said. 

On October 24, four opposition parties called on citizens to disregard what they called “President Jammeh’s tribal statements”. The NRP, UDP, GMC, and PPP in a joint statement said “Gambians should disregard tribalism statements emanating from State House through the Gambia Radio and Television Services, GRTS.”  Jammeh said his Mandingo brothers and sisters have every right to oppose the Government but they have no right whatsoever to “tarnish the image of our country”.  “I will not tolerate any campaign based on malicious lies and fabrication just for political asylum,” Jammeh said in a televised Eid message days after his government labeled the UDP as a “Mandingo tribal group” being used to launch a shameless smear campaign of lies against it.

On October 15, a US Court released detained Gambian Embassy occupiers Ousainou Mbenga, Pa Samba Jow and Sohna Sallah - members of the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists (DUGA). They were slapped with a charge of “unlawful entry” into the Gambian Embassy in Washington, before their case was dismissed. “DUGA’s Operation “MBOR MBOR” [steamy operation] was a continuation of our protest at the 68th session of the UN General Assembly in New York City against the repressive Jammeh regime,” the group said in a statement.

On October 2, The Gambia stunned the 54-member Commonwealth, mainly of British former colonies, when it announced it was leaving with “immediate effect”. “The decision to leave the Commonwealth was made based on the principle that we do not want to be part of any colonial or neo-colonial institution,” it explained on October 7. “Our decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Nations is final and not subject to negotiation.” The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office which said it regretted the decision added “it is unfortunate that The Gambia’s voice will no longer be heard in this forum.” Opposition leaders in the country criticised the government over the withdrawal citing the undue disadvantages it poses to The Gambia and her citizens and the lost benefits especially on good governance and human rights.
The Gambia had also accused the United States of coup plots but the US denied the allegations. In September, President Jammeh’s trip to the UN General Assembly in New York was greeted by protests by Gambian dissidents at a hotel where he stayed. In his Sept., 27 address, he criticised Western powers and identified “excessive greed”, “obsession with world domination”, and “homosexuality” as the three biggest threats to human existence.

In June, Gambian dissident Kukoi Samba Sanyang, who was expelled by Macky Sall in April, was briefly admitted at a hospital in Mali and pronounced death. He was buried at a Dakar neighbourhood of Yoff, Senegal. Kukoi, who led a rebellion in The Gambia in 1981 at the age of 29, had protested against his arrested and deportation to the troubled West African country of Mali.

In July 2013, The Gambia resumed political dialogue with the EU. Human rights groups welcome the inclusion of human rights issues in the dialogue and urge the EU to continue to ask the government for concrete improvements on the country’s human rights record. In January, President Jammeh withdrew from the talks and said The Gambia will not implement any of the 17 points highlighted by the EU “which undermines not only Gambia’ integrity but peace and stability as an independent and sovereign state with its fundamental rights to operate within the parameters of duly constituted laws.”
The European Union’s 17-point reform plan set for The Gambia to adopt, include upholding a moratorium on the death penalty, revision of laws on free expression, free operation of independent media, revision of sedition, libel, and false publication laws, revision of free expression and media regulations laws, and provision of information regarding the 2012 executions.  “So this dialogue is off. This is insulting and it is unacceptable,” Jammeh said ahead of the EU-Gambia government political dialogue scheduled for Friday, Jan. 11, 2013.

Compiled and written by Modou S. Joof & Sulayman Ceesay for the Serekunda-based privately-owned The Voice newspaper where a version of this report first appeared on December 30, 2013




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