22 July 2015 marks the 21st anniversary of Yaya Jammeh’s rise to power in Gambia. Since then, activists, journalists and political opponents have lived in fear. Alioune Tine reflects on what the anniversary means to him.
Today, 22 July 2015, as a human rights defender and as a West African, I have nothing to celebrate. I am not proud that, in a country neighboring mine, human rights violations are committed every day and people are denied the most basic human rights.
I have nothing to celebrate. Since Yaya Jammeh came to power after a military coup in 1994, there has been an alarming decline in human rights. Torture is widespread. The security forces carry out abductions, disappearances and unlawful detentions almost on a daily basis. In this climate of fear, activists and journalists are harassed, threatened and detained to stop them speaking out freely. One of the bleakest moments was when the authorities started to use the death penalty, this at a time when other countries in the region were moving towards abolition. Nine prisoners were executed in 2012; at least two of them had no chance to appeal against their death sentence.
Unfortunately, I have been personally affected by Yaya Jammeh’s lack of respect for human rights. Deyda Hydara, editor of the Point newspaper and president of the Gambian Press Union who was killed on 16 December 2004, was a friend of mine. Not many people know this but we attended secondary school together between 1966 and 1967. He was a real journalist, totally convinced of the power of words and the freedom to use them. Yet there are no words to express how shocked I was when I learnt about his killing.
I was also informed, by very reliable sources, that when I was the president of the RADDHO human rights organization, the Gambian security services were keeping an eye on me. They watched me right on the doorstep of my office in Dakar. For almost a year, a man would park his car in front of my office. At first, I didn’t pay much attention but then I noticed he was always there. One day, while I was speaking at a press conference I realized he was there too. I called him out publicly and asked the journalists present to film him. From that day, he disappeared.
Dakar is not just the capital of Senegal. It is also the first port of entry for those fleeing Yaya Jammeh’s abusive regime. As a human rights defender based in Senegal, I have met many former political prisoners who were seeking protection in my country. From Colonel Ndour Cham to Captain Gomez, even former junta Vice Chairman Sana Sabaly. All their testimonies confirmed the fear that dominates Gambia and the total lack of respect for human rights, as well as an entrenched culture of impunity in the country.
I have nothing to celebrate today because my fight against Yaya Jammeh’s lack of respect for human rights has been a constant life battle for me. I fought hard to prevent the execution of the nine detainees in 2012. I issued a statement calling for the involvement of the African Union. President Jammeh lied blatantly, claiming the nine had never been executed. Yet we were able to publicly disclose the full list of the names of the nine people who lost their lives. The African Union immediately condemned the executions.
These 21 years of human rights violations and abuses in Gambia are ignored by the international community. Ignored by the many tourists and visitors who continue to spend their holidays on Gambia’s beaches. Ignored by our own regional body, ECOWAS, when Gambia, the smallest country in the region, fails to implement the rulings of the ECOWAS Court, such as the judgment calling on Gambia to investigate the killing of my friend Deyda Hydara. Ignored by many Senegalese across the border who speak the same language and share the same culture. The dreams we had at independence are being trampled by Yaya Jammeh and we close our eyes.
No, no, I definitely have nothing to celebrate today. There is nothing to celebrate for the Gambian people at home, nor for those who have been forced to flee and leave their families and their country behind. Nothing to celebrate for West Africans or for those who, like me, firmly believe in human rights.
However, I truly like celebrations. I am more than ready to celebrate another Gambia where human rights are fully respected and where its citizens can live without fear. For that I am ready. That day you can call me. I will be ready for those celebrations because that day, I and all those who believe in human rights will have plenty to celebrate.
Alioune Tine is Amnesty International’s regional director for West and Central Africa