Human rights organizations have repeatedly denounced the Gambian regime for forced disappearances, illegal detention, denial of due process, and the abuse and harassment of critics. Yet little progress has been achieved, and local activists are seeing their ability to act recede.
On 2 October, President Yahya Jammeh announced the Gambia was withdrawing from the 54-member Commonwealth of mainly British ex-colonies, calling it a “neo-colonial institution”; some analysts say the move was linked to criticism over his country’s human rights record.
In 2012, for the first time, the UK Foreign Office included the Gambia as a human rights offender in its annual Human Rights and Democracy report.
The most high-profile abuse case in recent years was the president’s order, last year, for nine prisoners to be executed - the country’s first executions in three decades. The prisoners were shot without any notice and without having exhausted their legal appeal process.
The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the UN, the European Union (EU), the UK government and other major donors and international rights groups urged the country to stop further prisoner executions. Soon after, the government acknowledged the executions and declared an end to them.
International media pressure helped the turnaround, said Amnesty International, which received more coverage for its communiqué on the executions than from any other story it exposed in 2012, including stories from Syria.
But local journalists are unable speak out on such issues. Two who did, Babacar Cissay and Abubacar Sediykhan, were arrested and only released following international pressure; Sedikyhan has since fled the country. Another critic of the executions, Muslim cleric Baba Leigh, was arrested in December 2012 and detained for five months.
IRIN spoke to activists, analysts and journalists on the impact of international human rights advocacy in the Gambia.
Living in fear
Many Gambians live in fear, and few are able to critique government officials or policies.
For example, homosexuality is an offence punishable by 14 years in prison. In April 2012, 20 individuals were arrested on charges of “unnatural offences” and “conspiracy to commit a felony.” They were eventually acquitted; 11 of them subsequently fled to neighbouring countries.
At the September 2013 UN General Assembly meeting in New York, President Jammeh told world leaders: “Homosexuality in all its forms and manifestations… though very evil, antihuman as well as anti-Allah, is being promoted as a human right by some powers.”
Journalists are regularly victims of arbitrary arrest and detention. Strict laws on libel, sedition and false information are used to inhibit freedom of speech. Newspapers and radio stations are routinely closed; last year, radio station Teranga FM and independent newspapers The Standard and the Daily News were shuttered. Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 152 out of 179 countries in its 2013 Press Freedom Index.
The ECOWAS Court of Justice has intervened in individual cases - for instance in the disappearances of journalists “Chief” Ebrima Manneh and Musa Saidykhan. Saidykhan, editor-in-chief of the online website Kibaaro and ex-editor of The Independent newspaper, disappeared following his arrest by the National Intelligence Agency. He was allegedly tortured. The court demanded the government pay US$100,000 in the former case and $200,000 in the latter, but thus far nothing has been paid to the journalists’ families. Saidykhan is now living in the US. At least the onus is now on the government to do something, said Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, a researcher with Amnesty International.
Human rights abuse victims are only likely to see reprieve if powerful international bodies take up their cases, said Ndey Tapha Sassy, president of the Gambia Press Union. The organization launched a global campaign, with ECOWAS support, in June 2009, to free seven journalists being tried for sedition over criticizing the President’s statement on ex-editor Deyda Hydara’s 2009 unsolved alleged murder.
“We campaigned in every country we could, and the President released them after a pardon,” said Sossey.
But ECOWAS does not use the other tools at its disposal, for instance imposing political or economic sanctions, said critics, partly due to fear by its members - West African heads of state - that such measures might one day target them.
A diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, fears a downward spiral, telling IRIN: “The Gambia is undermining the institution [ECOWAS] by refusing to comply, and is encouraging others to do the same.”
Lack of resources and competing priorities - stability in Mali, elections in Guinea - have also shifted focus away from the Gambia.
The African Union and the Africa Commission on Human and People’s rights (ACHPR), which is based in the Gambian capital Banjul, can publicly condemn violations and impose targeted sanctions, such as asset-freezing and travel bans.
The ACPHR produced two resolutions on the Gambia in 2008 and 2009, which called on the government to “bring to an immediate end the harassment and intimidation of independent media institutions” and “fully comply with its obligations… with regard to the right of liberty, freedom from torture, right to fair trial, freedom of expression and association,” among other demands. But these need follow-up, said a human rights activist who preferred to not be named. “Now they need to press the government on implementing these recommendations and hold them accountable.”
The West Africa office of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), based in Senegalese capital Dakar, takes a programmatic approach: promoting dialogue with the Gambian authorities on how to mainstream human rights in policy and programmes, but without open denunciations.
“We want to keep the dialogue open, fluid, and to be able to cooperate with state authorities and civil society organizations in pushing human rights issues with… cooperation activities. We don’t take a direct position [on the government’s human rights record] as we leave it to other international human rights bodies,” said OHCHR West Africa head Andrea Ori. Other players within the OHCHR - including its special procedures branch and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay - engage on the more sensitive issues, he said.
Donors do not exploit the leverage they have, said some critics. But the EU - the largest aid provider in Gambia, issuing a reported $88.6 million in grants between 2008 and 2013 - has outlined strong connections between financial support and human rights commitments. It cancelled $26 million in grants in 2010, a move linked to the government’s poor performance on human rights, and threatened to cut support following the 2012 executions.
This latter threat followed an initial political dialogue between the EU and the government, but the President dismissed it, calling the dialogue “death”.
“We are not going to meet with them [the EU]. In dialogue, you discuss as to how partnership will be mutually beneficial and not to be told what to do,” he told participants at an emergency cabinet meeting.
The US government has issued statements on individual cases and tries to highlight low performance on human rights in its annual Human Rights country reports to Congress.
International financial institutions - such as the African Development Bank and the World Bank, which invest heavily in the Gambia, focusing on boosting productive capacity and improving public services and economic management - need to put more emphasis on politics in their planning decisions, said Abdoulaye Saine, political science professor at Miami University in the US.
Ultimately country’s lack of geo-strategic importance on a global scale means outsiders are loath to get too involved, said Saine. That leaves it to regional actors such as Senegal, which has more of a vested interest, to intercede. But tension between Senegal and the Gambia have long run high over the latter’s alleged support of an ongoing insurgency in Senegal’s southern Casamance region.
Silencing local voices
While intervention in specific cases has made a big difference, most interviewees agreed that overall, the government record on human rights is not improving.
The President’s strong statements on homosexuality at the General Assembly were evidence that he would not bow to what he sees as a Western policy priority.
And pressure is unlikely to come from within.
Freedom of information recently took a turn for the worse with the banning of internet services such as Skype and Viber in April, and the passage of amendment to the Information and Communication Act in July condemning the online spread of “false news” about the government or officials. Caricatures or derogatory statements that incite dissatisfaction or instigate violence against the government are punishable by 15 years’ detention or a fine of $85,000.
This further limits the ability of activist and civil society organizations to communicate about abuses. International rights groups support local ones, “but must be very careful not to expose them so that they become the victims”, said OHCHR’s Ori.
Given the information void, the international press must be more proactive, said Peter Nkanga, advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “They should ask more questions, embarrass [the government], get in touch with Gambia’s foreign aid donors and ask those countries why they continue to support Gambia,” he told IRIN.
“If anything happens locally, people on the ground need to know they have support.”