By Edrissa Jallow
The April 10th and 11th 2000 Student Demonstration which resulted in the death of 15 young lives is one of the darkest moments in The Gambia’s 22 yearlong misrule under former President Yahya Jammeh. To date, the Gambia is currently grappling with demonstrations with numerous groups being denied protest permits and a November 2022 protest scheduled to take place with or without a protest permit.
The Public Order act which was enacted in 1961 aims to minimize public gatherings and protests. According to a Standard Newspaper publication dated 28th November 2017, the Public Order act was “first amended in 1963 and then further amended in 2009 to make it even more draconian”.
Similarly, the student’s protest which turned into a massacre was spontaneous and not granted a permit. The April 2000 Victims is one of the volumes of the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission’s (TRRC) Report and Recommendations. It highlights some of the challenges that still shackle Gambians to peacefully assemble and express themselves. The TRRC is a Commission enacted by the Government of President Adama Barrow after defeating former President Jammeh at the polls in December 2016.
In the months preceding the December 2016 Elections, the Gambian Opposition staged a protest calling for Electoral Reforms on 14th April 2016. Led by Youth Leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP), Solo Sandeng the protestors were crushed by Security Personnel and tortured at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). This led to the death of Solo Sandeng, serious injuries from horrific torture sessions and sexual assault meted out on detained protestors.
Given that President Barrow’s Government won its first term via a Coalition, many anticipated that the refusal of Protest Permits and clamping down on protestors would cease in the new administration, however, some challenges still remain.
In August 2021 speaking to the Serer Community in Jeshwang Ndangan a few months before the December 2021 Presidential Elections, President Barrow boldly declared that he would instruct the Inspector General of Police to deny protest permits.
Speaking in Wollof President Barrow highlighted that “this time on the 4th of December if we win that will end in the Gambia here. After that, we will give instructions to Inspector General of Police anybody who wants a permit will not be given one”.
As instructed, two months after the elections, in February 2022, a civil society organization named Gambia Participates was denied a protest permit to advocate for the Anti-Corruption Bill. More recently in September 2022 a group of young Gambians from Banjul held a protest without a permit. The protest leaders were questioned at the Police Headquarters in Banjul on the same day. In the same week, another group known as the Coalition of Progressive Gambians announced that they would be embarking on a protest with or without a permit.
In an effort to understand Police’s reasons for denying protest permits our reporter lodged numerous requests for an interview with the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the Gambia Police Force (GPF), Cadet ASP Binta Njie, however, no response has been received up to the date of publication.
This article features the Government’s implementation of the TRRC’s recommendation on the April 2000 Students Demonstration and peaceful assembly. Our reporter engaged two survivors of the student’s demonstration and political actors on the TRRC’s recommendation to review the public order act to bring it in line with International Human Rights Law.
Yusupha Mbye: “My Health Has More Value than Compensation”
Still, a teenager when he sustained bullet wounds on his spinal cord, Yusupha Mbye’s education was cut short on April 10th 2000. He still recalls how the unfortunate incident took place at Kanifing South next to then, Iceman. After testifying at the TRRC’s public hearing which was aired on live Television Yusupha rejected his first compensation payment of D19,000.
In an exclusive interview with Gainako, Mr Mbye explained that he returned his first compensation payment and delivered specific demands requesting medical treatment and care instead. “I returned the cheque because the TRRC said whoever has received first-class treatment will not be compensated over D100,000 and looking at the situation I didn’t have first-class treatment because how I went to Turkey that’s how I came back and my health has more value than compensation,” he explained.
After Mr Mbye’s testimony at the Commission, he was flown to Turkey together with three others. Out of the four that went for treatment Yusupha Mbye and another April 2000 Victim named Oumie Jagne informed Gainako that their treatment has not improved. In fact, Yusupha Mbye couldn’t get access to treatment because of the Covid 19 Pandemic. According to Mr Mbye, he spent “one year, six months and three days without medication” as he was waiting for surgery which never materialized. Unfortunately, after he “booked an appointment [it was] later cancelled due to the covid-19 pandemic”. He’s treatment was limited to physiotherapy support until his eventual return.
According to Mr Mbye, since he arrived “the Government never sends or comes to visit or even to call and ask about my situation up to date”.
Security Officer “held my hand and forcefully slept with me”
During a stakeholder’s engagement commemorating the April 2000 Students Demonstration, one of the victims spoke about how she was sexually assaulted resulting in the protests led by aggrieved students. Only 15 then, Binta Manneh, a student from Brikamaba Upper and Senior Secondary School narrated publicly for the first time about her life-changing experience.
Then, an excited Ms Manneh from Brikamaba attended the inter-schools competition to represent her school for the first time. She also explained that this was the first time she visited the urban area of Kombos. However, what should have been a memorable moment in her life turned into a nightmare.
“When I was going to buy biscuits, I met two security officers at the gate, they asked me where are you going? I told them I’m going to buy biscuits and they said OK let’s go along. When the two security officers held my hands, I tried to move, but they yelled at me saying ‘hey don’t you know I’m working under the government?” she said.
It was at this moment that Personnel from the PIU dragged her to a secluded place where she was sexually assaulted by one of the officers. She recalled how one of “the — security officers left while the other one held my hand and forcefully slept with me”.
According to her, she dropped out of school after she was sexually assaulted and was seen as the trigger of the protest resulting in numerous deaths. She noted that her own colleagues looked at her differently after the incident, which made her feel very uncomfortable and impacted her life ever since. She cried bitterly during her first public revelation.
It was heart-wrenching to see the guilt of innocent students killed by Security Officers in the tearful eyes of an innocent student sexually assaulted by the same Security Officers who swore an oath to defend her.
Institutions’ Response to TRRC Recommendations
The Government White Paper on the TRRC Report and Recommendations notes that “the Commission found that former President Yahya Jammeh instructed his Vice President Isatou Njie Saidy to “take care of the bastards in whatever way, in whatever form” and that the statement was a direct order from the President to shoot the student demonstrators”.
At the end of the two days of civil unrest the Government White Paper highlights that “a total of fifteen (15) people were killed by State Security Officers during the 10 and 11 April 2000 demonstrations. Twelve (12) were students; 2 were toddlers (one of whom was a three (3) year old – shot in the head by security personnel); and a Red Cross volunteer. A third child was trampled upon by students fleeing for their lives from the PIU’s direct assault”.
The Government White Paper accepted the TRRC’s Recommendation that both former President Jammeh and former Vice President Isatou Njie Saidy should be prosecuted and banned from holding public Office. The White Paper also notes that Security Officers Baboucarr Jatta, Abdou Giri Njie and Gorgui Mboob amongst others should be prosecuted. A number of officers have also been recommended to be removed from public office if still in the Government.
Most importantly the Government also accepted the TRRC recommendation that “proper training should be provided to the security forces on matters relating to crowd control (riot management), and on security and legal issues concerning the management of violent demonstrations and riots”. However, the Police have refused numerous interview requests to provide an update on the implementation of the TRRC’s Recommendation.
Recommendation to Review Public Order Act
Another important recommendation which has an impact on the rights of citizens to peacefully assemble is the TRRC’s Recommendation for “a comprehensive review of the Public Order Act by the National Assembly with a view to amending it to be in line with international human rights instruments and customary standards”. The Government White Paper notes that it “accepts the recommendation of the Commission and will initiate a review of the Public Order Act”.
This recommendation is from Volume Seven of the TRRC’s Reports focusing on “Attack on the Media and Freedom of Expression” and also “Attack on Political Opponents”. This volume documents numerous attacks on defenceless citizens and how the Public Order Act was weaponized by the former Regime of President Yahya Jammeh to detain, assault and even kill political opponents.
After Solo Sandeng’s death in April 2016, UDP Party Leader, Ousainou Darboe was arrested together with his Party Executives after leading a protest demanding for Solo Sandeng’s body “dead or alive”. After the Coalition defeated former President Jammeh, the UDP detainees were eventually released.
Soon after his release Ousainou Darboe and 19 others file a suit at the Supreme Court seeking a repeal of sections of the Public Order Act mandating the Police to issue permits for citizens to freely assemble. However, the Supreme Court ruled on 23rd November 2017 that the requirement of a protest permit for the holding of public procession and the authority to impose conditions restricting citizens’ expression in order to prevent a breach of the peace are reasonable limitations on the right to assembly and to free expression.
The TRRC Recommendation comes after this failed attempt to amend the Public Order Act. Given the Executive’s declaration to instruct the IGP not to issue protest permits, it appears that the Government is not keen to repeal sections of the Public Order Act mandating a protest permit. It’s important to note that the National Assembly is the main body responsible for the enactment of laws in the Gambia. In response to this, our reporter secured an interview with the Chairperson of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Human Rights and Constitutional Matters, Hon Madi MK Ceesay of Serrekunda West.
Having won his second term via a UDP ticket, Hon Ceesay is well aware of how the Public Order Act was weaponized to infringe on the rights of citizens. When asked about the TRRC’s Recommendation for Parliament to review the Public Order Act and if his committee will act on this, Hon Ceesay opined that the responsibility lies with the Ministry of Justice to lead the process.
At first, Hon Ceesay highlighted that his committee will keenly observe all the recommendations noted by the TRRC and also take a stand. “The role that the National Assembly can play is to review it and to take positions so that the recommendations are implemented, that is the position my committee [Human Rights and Constitutional Matters] will do,” he said.
According to the member for Serrekunda West, “it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice to come before the parliament and lay the Public Order act for a review”. However, the TRRC Recommendation clearly instructs the National Assembly to conduct the review.
Two Parties Pledge Support to Review Public Order Act
Speaking to Executive members of two Political Parties, they confirmed to Gainako in an exclusive interview that they will advocate for a review of the Public Order Act in Parliament.
The Deputy Spokesperson of the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), Mr Dodou Jah revealed that his party would advocate for the Public Order act to be reviewed in ensuring a transparent public assembly.
APRC was created by former President Yahya Jammeh who lost control of the Party before the December 2021 Elections. According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the recognized Party Leader of the APRC is the current Speaker of the Sixth Legislature Hon Fabakary Tombong Jatta. It can be recalled that Hon Jatta and numerous APRC supporters staged a protest against the TRRC, however, it appears there may be a change of approach from the APRC which has fallen out with former President Jammeh.
According to Mr Jah, APRC “will definitely encourage and push for a review of the Public Order Act” however, “it will be a win-win situation”. Mr Jah added that the Security should be guided by regulations when dealing with protestors and citizens should also “take responsibility when they are out there to protest” and remain “law-abiding”.
The second Party Executive to pledge support for the review of the Public Order Act is the Senior Administrative Secretary of the Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC) Mr Samba Baldeh.
Although GDC doesn’t have any representative in Parliament, Mr Baldeh noted that they will engage other parliamentarians who were in alliance with GDC in the run-up to the Presidential Elections. It can be recalled that the GDC went into an Alliance with the APRC Faction that rejected an Alliance with President Barrow’s ruling National People’s Party (NPP).
According to Mr Baldeh, GDC will engage the “No to Alliance Movement” lawmakers to review the Public Order Act. However, this appears highly unlikely due to the fact that the No to Alliance Movement is still closely aligned with former President Jammeh. So much so that when former President Jammeh rejected current President Barrow’s NPP-APRC Alliance the No to Alliance Movement was formed and instead joined GDC.
After the April 2022 Parliamentary Elections at least five Parliamentarians were elected into office under an independent ticket from the Foni’s, defeating APRC Candidates in those constituents. As recent as 18th September 2022 one of the Independent Parliamentarians, Hon Almami Gibba, was condemned by the Victims Center for his “repugnant comments” directed to Victims of the TRRC.