On April 14th 2016, Gambia was hit with a rare political demonstration headed by Solo Sandeng (RIP) and a few UDP members demanding electoral reform. They were immediately arrested and the protest crushed by Jammeh’s notorious security forces who detained the peaceful protesters and subjected them to torture, rape and eventual killing of the leader Solo Sandeng. This would mark the beginning of political turmoil the nation has ever witnessed.
The arrest of those brave citizens awoken the conscience of a people which led to leaders of the United Democratic Party and party militants hitting the streets the following day peacefully demanding the release of Solo Sandeng “Dead or Alive” along with his other arrested protesters. What followed as another peaceful protest led to another mass arrest of the entire executive of the United Democratic Party. The dictator vowed to eliminate the protesters and lock them up for the rest of their lives. The nation could not believe that a whole political party leadership would be arrested and the nation continue to go about business as usual. But this protest was not an ordinary one; it was the last option of a people who have endured impunity for two decades. Jammeh’s tribal tirades against the largest tribe in the Gambia leading to these eventful protests had almost brought the country to a point of political and civil unrest. The subsequent months of politically motivated trials presided over by activist judges made the situation worst. The nation and the world could not believe what they were witnessing.
Despite signs of potential mass unrest in the streets led by elderly women marking the beginning of the “Kalama revolution” and international condemnation of the arrests of political leaders, Yahya Jammeh showed no willingness to release the protesters and account for Solo Sandeng’s death. He was determined to send the leaders to jail and threatened that “many of them will never witness the upcoming elections” scheduled in December 2016. These trials further shocked the Gambian Diaspora who were the most vocal in the struggle against dictatorship in Gambia. What had always come across to citizens and political leaders as Jammeh’s selective arrest, prosecution, firing citizens and occasional killings with impunity now became inevitable that no one would be left untouched in Gambia including political leaders. Nothing was going to stop Jammeh and his notorious NIA tortured machines and killing “Junglers” from doing anything to keep him in power for as long as he wanted.
Jammeh made a deadly mistake taking for granted the divide and rule that had worked for him for the longest to ensure he stays in power. Something was different this time; not only had they admitted torturing a citizen to death but had threatened to wipe out the largest political party with violent threat of eliminating the mandinka ethnic group in Gambia. The Gambian people had no other choice but rally around each other to defend themselves. The Diaspora, which was the most divided constituency had a rallying course – the killing of Solo Sandeng and rapping of women who released written testimonials on their ordeals. This was too much for Gambians to handle. Both the Diaspora and the political parties on the ground now had little choice but put their political differences aside and rescue the country.
The final verdict that sent the UDP executives to jail for three years by a Nigerian activist judge who even refused for the rights of the convicts to make a plea at sentencing time was the last stroke on the camel’s back. The threat now became a reality that Jammeh was serious in his quest to eliminate his political opponents. It became apparent that this was the last chance the nation had to stop Jammeh or forever slide into political ruins with Jammeh as King of the Islamic State.
Fast forward, a tumultuous process was put in place to forge a political coalition with a goal of unseating the dictator. Urgency of the situation became the ultimate focus of all the opposition parties. The Diaspora rallied and put together resources like never seen before to ensure that a coalition candidate is elected in December. President Jammeh did not take the threat of unseating him seriously and he even refused to campaign. He got the shock of his life as the Gambian people were determined to send him packing. They couldn’t in good conscience vote for Jammeh knowing Solo Sandeng was dead, and political leaders were sitting in jail waiting for Jammeh to finish them up upon re-election for a 5th term. The election attracted more interest than any other time in the country’s history. Social media presence, online media activism and massive mobilization of resources were the ultimate recipe for defeating the dictator through the ballot box for the first time in history.
History was made in the most unlikely places where Democracy has only been known in name but not in practice. The world woke up to one of Africa’s most brutal dictators defeated and surprisingly he conceded defeat graciously and pledged to hand over power peacefully. Few days later, the dictator facing the reality of losing power all of a sudden made a U-turn and declared the results null and void and called for fresh elections. Something must have hit the dictator as it was too little too late for him to reverse course. He was done and must leave power something he never anticipated. The ensuring weeks would proof to become the most dramatic as ECOWAS threatened to forcefully remove Jammeh should he failed to leave when his term expired on January 19th. Thousands of Gambians fled to the country; some to the provinces and others to neighboring Senegal. Eventually, ECOWAS leaders smuggled the President-elect for protection while Jammeh was urged to leave power conditionally.
What the Gambian people went through in 22 years of Jammeh’s impunity and two months of political instability was unprecedented. The people were scared and their rights and freedoms were effectively taken away. The country was slowly sliding into political, social and economic Catastrophe. Democracy, political and religious freedom were going to be history as Jammeh was poised to introduce Sariah law and potentially declare the Gambia a Monarchy with him as the king. One year today, one man was in total control of government institutions; the security apparatus, the legislative branch, the executive and the Judiciary all used as instruments of oppression. When one compare citizens living in fear, hundreds imprisoned illegally and many disappeared, one can safely ask what a difference a year makes?. Gambia has successfully completed two election cycles without major incidents. The country arguably is on the path to restoring freedom, security and dignity of the Gambian people. Already we have seen citizens protesting peacefully during major milestones and tragic events without fear of arrest and intimidation. Even ministers were seen matching with peaceful protesters without any form of tension. No citizens have been arrested and detained without being brought before a court of law within 72 hours. Government institutions are back to functioning without political interference. Prisons have been emptied of citizens arrested and jailed without due process.
Most remarkably press freedom appears to be fully restored in the Gambia. The President’s office is sharing information with Independent and online media outlets to disseminate information to the general public without any form of censorship. Gambians across the world are all free to visit and or return home as they wish. Seeds of Democracy is slowly being planted with a Parliament without a single party with absolute majority. Gambia’s relationship with the outside world is being restored to normalcy. The Gambian people must be comforted that bodies of victims of Jammeh are being identified and families have the opportunity to conduct proper burial for their love ones. The process of delivering justice to the victims appears to be in the works as well. Notorious NIA officers who were willing to commit illegal crimes for Jammeh are also in detention and being arraigned in court. Gambians may not completely be satisfied with the direction of the New Gambia, but any fair-minded Gambian will acknowledge that Gambia has indeed come far just within a year. What a difference a year makes. Citizens must continue to be engaged in our democracy and to ensure that the government is fully accounted for its actions and policies.