Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Special greetings to the hosts, Mr Safiong Touray and his lovely wife Elke Klenk. The time and effort they put in to bring together Gambians and friends of the Gambia here in Tubingen for this event is greatly appreciated. We thank the performing music group Afrikor (an all German singing group in African languages, and the Kora Maestro Kandara Diabateh for their wonderful performance). As the United Democratic Party’s UK Coordinator and Liaison Officer, I can’t be more grateful. On behalf of the UDP, thank you very much.
I am here to discuss with you the oppression taking place in The Gambia. It gives me no joy to tell you that my task is rather easy. The situation in the country speaks for itself. For those who don’t know what’s going on there, a simple Google Search will do. It’s a tiny West African nation of about 2 million people. Under the United Nations Human Development Index, The Gambia is listed 175th out of 188 countries. Half the population lives in abject poverty. And everyone lives in a climate of fear. The economic hardship and political repression began 22 years ago when Yahya Jammeh, an army lieutenant, seized power from a democratic government. Two years later, he transformed himself from a military dictator to a civilian dictator through a fraudulent election.
Since then, the situation has only gotten worse for the political opposition, the press, the civil service, the non-governmental organizations, the business community, and the general population. The penniless soldier who grabbed power in 1994 is now one of the richest men in the world. He possesses import-export businesses, bakeries, butcheries and shops. He grabs large hectares of land in every region in the country. He owns commercial buildings, houses, farms and a zoo. He has amassed all these wealth and properties by wielding absolute power. The parliament is just a rubber stamp for his autocratic laws. And the courts issue the rulings he wants.
If he wants someone to go to jail, that person will go to jail irrespective of the facts of the case. Any opposition politician or journalist who questions his autocratic style of governing becomes a target of his secret police. Any business or property owner who dares to defy him stands to lose everything. These are the realities in The Gambia.
The annual human rights report of the State Department of the United States provides grim reading on The Gambia. Year after year, it catalogues Yahya Jammeh’s endless trampling on the constitutional and democratic rights of citizens of all ranks. The Amnesty International’s assessments are bleaker. And Jeffrey Smith of Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights called him “the worst dictator you’ve never heard of.”
For the United Democratic Party, the past five years have been particularly brutal. Being the largest opposition party in The Gambia, we are perceived as the greatest threat to his power. He therefore reserves his most savage repression for us. In April 2014, for instance, the UDP leader Lawyer Ousainou Darboe embarked on a countrywide tour. The police stopped him and his entourage at the rural village of Fass Njaga Choi. The explanation given was that he hadn’t obtained a police permit for a public meeting. But that was just a gimmick. For years now, the police acted on directives from the regime to deny the UDP permits for such events. The motive was to undermine our efforts to build greater support for the party. This case was no different. But for the first time, our party stood up to this kind of abuse of power. The standoff went on for five days. And thanks to the international publicity we were getting, the regime backed down. The UDP leader proceeded with his tour to spread the party’s message of democracy, development and the rule of law.
As it turned out, the regime drew a starkly different conclusion from the confrontation. Yahya Jammeh wasn’t only embarrassed, but also he felt threatened by the challenge to his authority. He can’t be a dictator if the can’t get his way. In his distorted mind, he must reassert his authority in the next incident to show the UDP and the entire nation at large that everyone must bend to his will.
That next incident occurred on April 14, 2016. Ebrima Solo Sandeng, the UDP National Organizing Secretary, led a demonstration for electoral reforms ahead of the December presidential elections to level the playing field for the opposition parties. It didn’t matter that the demonstration itself was a small one and peaceful. The Police Intervention Unit, a paramilitary branch of the security forces, swooped on them and rounded up Solo Sandeng and 24 others. Among them were three UDP female activists — Miss Nogoi Njie, Mrs Fatoumatta Jawara and Miss Fatou Camara.
These peaceful protesters were whisked away to Police Intervention Unit headquarters in Kanifing. About six o’clock in the evening, they were transported to the Mile Two Prison in the outskirts of the capital, Banjul. And about two o’clock in the morning, they were moved again. This time to the headquarters of the notorious National Intelligence Agency. From that point, it would all go downhill for them. The NIA torturers would murder Solo Sandeng. Instead of handing over his body to his family for proper burial, they disposed of it in the backyard of an NIA compound to cover up their heinous crime. The three female UDP activists — Nogoi Njie, Fatoumatta Jawara and Fatou Camara — would all end up in coma after being beaten to inches of their lives.
Solo Sandeng’s murder and the brutal beatings of these three women would not be officially confirmed at the time. The world learned about them because conscientious elements within the security forces leaked the grim news to expose the regime’s barbarism. The full facts only came to be known the following month when Fatoumatta Jawara and Nogoi Njie testified in the habeas corpus hearing for Solo Sandeng. The suit filed in the High Court was a legal strategy to compel the regime to break their silence on Solo’s fate. They produced a death certificate calming that Solo denied of respiratory failure. Simply put: they murdered Solo in cold blood.
What form of torture did the NIA unleash on Solo Sandeng and the others? Before getting into Nogoi and Fatoumatta’s statements, allow me to describe the circumstances under which they made their dispositions. First, both women were still under detention when they were brought to testify in court. Second, both had visible marks and scars of torture on their bodies. Third, several armed officers of the Police Intervention Unit were present at the court when they were giving their statements. Fourth, they were deeply concerned about being subjected to further torture for testifying against the regime.
Still, they summoned the courage to share their gruesome experience of the worst moments of their lives. Fatoumatta Jawara, the UDP female Youth Wing President, is 26 years old and a mother of three.
The night of their arrest, she told the court, they were transferred in different vehicles from Mile Two Prison to the National Intelligence Agency headquarters. Once they arrived there and were taken into a room, one of the men grabbed her. He pulled off her head-tie to blindfold her with it and threatened her that, “You are UDP, you want to destroy this enjoyable regime but we will deal with you guys.”
She was taken to another room and undressed. That was when the whipping started. They poured water on her as they whipped her until she collapsed. They placed her on a desk and called in about ten men to rape her. She had only been with her husband and she would rather they kill her, she told them. In a rare moment of sanity on their part, they changed their minds.
However, that was the only reprieve she would be allowed. They gave back her wrapper and carried her to an interrogation room. When they couldn’t make her give self-incriminating answers to their questions, the interrogators threw her out of the room. Some other officers dragged her into another room and left her on the floor with Fatou Camara.
She couldn’t stand on her own much less walk to the bathroom. Two ladies at the NIA helped her into a wheelchair. The sight of her injuries brought them both to tears. They bathed her with hot water and took her back to the room. She collapsed again and heard Nogoi crying, “Solo has passed away.” That was the last thing she remembered.
Around midday she found herself in the clinic inside the NIA. Fatou Camara, who was also admitted there for torture-related health complications, informed her that she had passed out. The next thing Fatoumatta knew was that she was urinating blood. That went on for most of the 13 days she had been at the clinic. All three female detainees were taken back to a detention cell. The only people they saw were those who brought them their food.
On the 28th of April, they were taken back to Mile Two Prison. They were detained inside the convict wing on the claim that the remand wing was full to capacity. They had no access to medicine and their families weren’t allowed to visit them. She still wore the same wrapper stained with blood.
Every morning, they were forced to suffer the indignity of leaving their cells to go greet the prison officers. They had to do the same for the afternoon shift, too. Refusing to do, they were warned, would result in grave consequences for them. They had to endure the humiliation or risk further physical harm.
Nogoi Njie’s statement essentially mirrored Fatoumatta Jawara’s. Because she wasn’t blindfolded, we saw through her eyes the NIA’s torturers. They were all dressed in black complete with ski masks and gloves. One of them broke Nogoi’s finger when she tried to pull away in fear of them. Instead of giving her medical help, they undressed her, placed her on a table, and began lashing her. They poured water on her as the beating went on, leaving her body marked with injuries and bloodlines.
She was passed off to the interrogators who, in spite of what she had just been through, asked her to become a member of Yahya Jammeh’s ruling party. When she refused and wouldn’t incriminate herself, they took her to a tiny cell stanching with urine. There, she found three other detainees who were waiting for their turns to be tortured.
Few minutes later, Solo Sandeng was brought in. His body was bloody; his face, swollen. He lay down in severe pain on the bare concrete floor. While Nogoi was messaging him, they came back for him. And then, his screams echoed from a nearby room as she was being tortured again. When they returned and took Nogoi outside, she saw Solo for the last time. He was lying abandoned on the ground: naked and bleeding.
Drunken torturers dressed head to toe in black assaulted Nogoi with pipes and batons and sprayed her with water. They only paused to ask why she supported the opposition. And when she gave her reasons, they slapped her and jumped about in excitement before they resumed the beating. They left her gasping in pain for her life and carried Solo to the back of the building. She heard him groaning as they beat him again with vengeance.
Solo would lose consciousness and die soon after. As for the three female activists, Nogoi would suffer from high blood pressure and diabetic complications. Fatoumatta Jawara would collapse into a coma. And Fatou Camara would develop breathing problems.
The regime’s response to all these subhuman viciousness was to send three sheep to the torturers for a barbecue. The following day, the NIA officers got a cow to throw a feast.
By the second day, the news of Solo’s murder and the bestial treatment of other protesters leaked out. The UDP leader led the senior members of the Executive Committee on a peaceful demonstration to demand the body of Solo and the release of his fellow protesters. To no one’s surprise, the Police Intervention Unit swooped on them. Lawyer Ousainou Darboe sustained a dislocated shoulder and injuries on his forehead. The 75-years old Femi Peters was kicked in the hip, hit with a baton and thrown into a picked up truck. All seventeen of them were whisked away to the PIU headquarters.
The following evening, they were transported to Mile Two Prison and locked up in solitary confinement. The tiny cells had no mattresses and were infested with rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes. And none of these elderly men were allowed access to lawyers or their loved ones.
The public prosecutor pressed trumped-up charges against them, and a mercenary judge convicted them in a kangaroo trial. They are now serving three years at Mile Two Prison.
The three female activists, Fatoumatta Jawara, Fatou Camara and Nogoi Njie, were similarity charged along with their fellow detainees. They are currently serving time at Janjanbureh Prison. And before these horrendous sentences were handed down, Yahya Jammeh declared at a political rally that he now banned all peaceful protests in the country.
The outrageous cases in point are examples of what pass for the rule of law in The Gambia. The President reserves for himself and his minions a culture of impunity that has given birth to a climate of fear. Real fear of arrest without cause, detention without trial, prosecution with no Due Process, forced disappearance, losing one’s properties without compensation or one’s job to political reprisal are effectively turning the country more and more into a Gaddafi-style one-party state. In addition, the entrenched corruption and abuses of public finances only exacerbate the enduring economic hardship. While much of Africa is striding toward democracy and good governance through free and fair elections, it is too disheartening to see The Gambia further dragged into a strongman rule reminiscent of tin-pot despots.
Little wonder then, other disillusioned citizens from the military to dissident groups have made several attempts to overthrow him through violent uprisings. It goes without saying that the UDP neither supports nor condones such methods. However, it doesn’t take a sage to recognize that his willful intransigence to comply with the Constitution coupled with his machinations to make peaceful change all but impossible will only encourage more adventurist attempts to topple his regime.
The country is in a political purgatory. The upcoming election may be the most consequential for its future. The outcome may very much determine whether the change The Gambia must have is democratic and peaceful or undemocratic and violent.
We urge the Germany and European authorities to accommodate the human rights request of Gambian youths seeking asylum in Europe and Germany in particular. We hope that the Germany authorities will play more concrete role in enhancing the capacity of the Gambian youths seeking asylum. These youths are fleeing from all forms of persecutions. To brush aside their claims is avoiding the fundamental aspect of their human rights. The youths take dangerous journey to Europe because the asylum system in Africa and Asia is largely not fit for purpose.
Having said that, the UDP is fully committed to ending the quasi-military dictatorship. We are resolved to keep fighting to:
Restore the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and press freedom
Amend the Constitution to limit all future presidents to serve only two terms in office and repeal all repressive laws.
Build institutions to make the government accountable to the public.
Establish a free-market economy that spurs investments and development.
Reform the healthcare system to make access to quality care for all.
Invest in education as a social service for economic prosperity.
Rejoin the international community as a responsible member state and fulfill all treaty obligations.
The above points sum up what will constitute our governing program. We have the will and tenacity to prevail.
Special appreciation to all the youths who came from different areas in Germany to hear us. To all the research students on Africa and the Gambia in particular, we say thank you. Siaka Jatta who spoke in local languages capture the essential history of the UDP and his excellent speech was translated in German. The UDP Diaspora thank the organisers and cultural centre for making all available logistics in making the event successful.
Long Live The Gambia.
Long Live The UDP