The past few days have seen calls by the opposition for electoral and democratic reform in The Gambia, which lead to disproportionate force and deliberate repression on the part of the state. Since President Yahya Jammeh overthrew sitting President Dawda Jawara by means of a coup d'état in 1994, he has put in place mechanisms to entrench his power and close off the democratic space. In March 2016, it was reported that the government plans to introduce a bill at the next parliamentary sitting (likely to be in April) that will extend the two-year term limit (which has already expired) of the Electoral Commission Chairperson and his entire team. The bill proposes an amendment to section 42 of the Constitution, which currently provides for 'one further term' and, if approved, it would see the members of the Electoral Commission being eligible to serve 'further terms of office'. Legal experts suggest this could amount to indefinite terms, as no term limits are stipulated or alluded to in the bill. Presidential elections are planned for 1 December 2016 and President Jammeh, who has been in power for 21 years, has indicated his intention to run for a fifth term. His candidacy was approved at a meeting of his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, in February 2016.
The events from 14 to 16 April unfolded as follows:
On Thursday, 14 April 2016, Gambian youth and activists held a demonstration to push for electoral reforms in advance of the 1 December 2016 presidential election. According to people who were present at the protest, the demonstrations were peaceful. The protests were dispersed by police and security personnel, who are said to have opened fire on the crowd. Police arrested 25 demonstrators, including several leaders of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP). Among those arrested was UDP National Organising Secretary, Solo Sandeng.
According to reports, on Saturday, 16 April 2016, Solo Sandeng died while in state custody. Another UDP member arrested on Thursday, Fatoumata Jawara, is still being detained and is believed to be suffering from serious injuries. Nokoi Njie, also detained, is said to be in a coma.
Following the news of Sandeng's death, opposition supporters and activists gathered again on Saturday, 16 April 2016, to call for the release of those in custody. UDP opposition leader Ousainou Darboe was arrested together with other supporters, all of which are currently still detained. Darboe belongs to the majority ethnic group of The Gambia, the Mandinka, who have suffered political hardship over the years, with many of their political heads being either arrested or forced into exile.
The government has defended the arrests. Sheriff Bojan, the Communications Minister, says that police permission for the demonstrations had not been obtained and that protesters demonstrated in defiance of the Gambian Public Order Act. Section 25 of the Constitution of The Gambia guarantees the right to peaceful protest.
According to a statement released by the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon on Sunday, 17 April 2016, two other members of the UDP are suspected to have died while in police custody following the demonstrations. A number of international organisations have called for the immediate release of the detainees and for investigations into the alleged police brutality and deaths of the demonstrators. In a press statement issued by the Gambian Minister of Information, the government neither denied, nor condemned the reported unlawful arrests and deaths. The statement merely emphasised the importance of 'state sovereignty' and said that the state expects the international community to 'desist from interfering in the internal domestic affairs of the country' and that national interest is a primary concern for the government of The Gambia.
In 1987, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) decided that the Secretariat of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (African Commission) should be based in Banjul, The Gambia, where it has been located ever since. At the time when this decision was taken, the choice of Banjul made good sense. Much of the drafting of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (African Charter) took place in Banjul, to the extent that the African Charter is often referred to as the 'Banjul Charter'. In fact, The Gambia was one of a very few states in Africa that could claim any democratic credentials in those years. The Head of State at the time, President Jawara, strongly supported the drafting of the Charter, and assisted in overcoming political difficulties that arose during the process.
The African Commission, the University of The Gambia and the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria have partnered to organise the 25th African Human Rights Moot Court Competition in The Gambia, from 16 to 21 October 2016. The African Union has declared 2016 the African Year of Human Rights, and will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the African Charter coming into force. On this occasion, the three human rights bodies of the African Union – the African Commission, the African Court and the African Children's Committee – have planned to hold simultaneous sessions, with the Moot Court as the central event of this large human rights gathering.
Over the last 25 years, the Moot Court has trained a generation of lawyers to challenge human rights violations in Africa and to promote the idea of an Africa based on development, peace and human rights. It was hoped that the Moot Court Competition would generate the same debate and discussion on the burning issues around human rights in Africa, including those for which The Gambia has become known. The recent events have once again confirmed The Gambia's utter disregard for human rights and laid bare the impunity of the country's leadership.
Against this background, the Centre therefore makes the following statement:
We express our alarm and sadness at the reported events, in particular the death in detention of opposition politicians and the detention of peaceful protesters, in violation of their rights to life, fair trial, association and free speech, guaranteed under the Gambian Constitution and international human rights treaties to which The Gambia is a party. We call on the government of The Gambia to investigate all these incidents; bring to justice those responsible; release from detention those engaged in peaceful protest; and provide adequate medical attention to those injured in the protests and in detention.
We reject the Gambian government's reliance, in response to these reports, on the principle of 'state sovereignty and non-interference in its internal affairs' to negate its obligations, freely undertaken under the human rights treaties to which it has become a party, including the African Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We deeply regret the silence of the government on the allegations, and its apparent attempt to justify its actions as being 'in the national interest'.
We call on the African Commission, as it meets in Banjul for its 58th Ordinary Session, to express its grave concern about the reported death in detention of opposition politicians and the detention of peaceful protesters, and to use its presence in The Gambia as a basis to urgently engage with the Gambian authorities with a view to conducting an independent and prompt investigation into the circumstances and securing the release of the peaceful protesters.
We call on the South African government to condemn the reported death in detention of leaders of the political opposition in The Gambia, and the detention of peaceful protesters, and to call for an urgent and independent investigation into the circumstances of these deaths and for the release of peaceful protesters.
We call on the African Union to express its grave concern about the reported death in detention of opposition politicians, and the detention of peaceful protesters, and to call for an urgent and independent investigation into the circumstances of these deaths and for the release of peaceful protesters.
We call on the AU's Governance Architecture (AGA), and its component institutions, to use all the means at their disposal to engage with the government of The Gambia to ensure the protection of the rights of all persons and to uphold commonly accepted international standards of good governance, democracy and human rights.
We call on the AU political organs to include on the agenda for discussion at their upcoming session in Kigali, Rwanda, consideration of the appropriateness of The Gambia as the seat of the AU's principal human rights body, the African Commission, in light of its human rights record; and to invite other member states willing to host the Africa Commission to come forward as potential host countries for the Commission's Secretariat.
We call on the relevant bodies of the AU to move the joint celebration events elsewhere in Africa in order to avoid tainting this singularly important gathering with the stigma of appearing to endorse some of the worst human rights violations in contemporary Africa. We commit ourselves to working with our partners – the African Commission and the University of The Gambia – in endeavouring to move the 25th African Human Rights Moot Court Competition out of The Gambia.
For more information, please contact:
Prof Frans Viljoen
Centre for Human Rights
University of Pretoria
Tel: +27 (0) 12 420 3228 / 3810
Mobile: +27 (0) 73 393 4181