Gambian civil society optimistic as new democratic era dawns

The Gambia has recently gone through a major democratic transition. CIVICUS interviews Sohna Sallah, the Vice President of the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists about the major political change and implications for human rights in the Gambia.

1. What were the core human rights challenges under the previous regime?

The most pervasive human rights violations under the regime of former President Yahya Jammeh were firstly, the lack of an independent press, and the victimisation and even murder of journalists. At one time, the entire executive of the Gambia Press Union were outside the country for fear of reprisals. This environment created an uninformed population who were oblivious to many of the atrocities and human rights violations that were occuring in the country.  Secondly, arbitrary arrests, and the 72-hour detention clause in the Gambian Constitution was the most abused of all rights in the Gambia.  Many people spent months or years in jails across the country, some incommunicado with no access to lawyers and many still remain unaccounted for. Lastly, impunity was the mechanism that perpetuated the lack of rule of law and the repression in the country. The Jammeh regime, despite their battle cry of "accountability and transparency" in the early days of the regime, presided over one of the most closed societies in the world.  Accountability and requests for information were simply dismissed by the regime.

2. What were some of the actions taken by the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists (DUGA) to address these over the years?

DUGA has become known to many as the activist side of the Gambian movement to restore democracy. Outside of Gambia DUGA held dozens of protests in the United States of America against former President Jammeh, and even lobby firms that represented him in the USA. Our boldest moves that really put us on the map was the protests we and other Gambian activists held in New York during the United Nations General Assembly that kept Jammeh hostage in his hotel room while other leaders were attending important meetings.  There was also  DUGA's occupation of the Gambian Embassy in Washington DC in which three of us were arrested. In addition, DUGA has partnered with many organisations by compiling and submitting information to the Universal Periodic Review process and for many reports on Gambia by several global human rights organisations. We have also lobbied the USA Congress and the State Department and our members have been panellists on several events on Gambia. We successfully protested and had a large ethnic supermarket in the Washington, DC area stop importation of Kanilai Family Farms products (owned by Jammeh family). We embarked on a sensitisation trip to Senegal to demystify Jammeh to the Senegalese population and formed partnerships with movements such as Y'en A Marre to further our cause. Inside Gambia we had our team there distribute tens of thousands of leaflets, tagging campaigns as well as placing loud USB speakers with pre-recorded sensitisation messages in heavily populated areas. We also ran mass texting campaigns in the country.

3. Tell us about some of the opportunities for the opening of democratic spaces in Gambia with the coming of a new government

The opening of the democratic space in the Gambia will create opportunities for citizens to become more informed and involved in a true participatory democracy. Journalists can operate freely without hindrance and citizens will have unfettered access to information. There will be a stronger and more permanent civil society footprint in the country that will serve as both partner and watchdog to the new administration. Business opportunities will grow for thousands of Gambians as former President Jammeh had monopolised much of the business in the Gambia, even putting small-time vendors out of business. Finally, Gambia will be welcomed back to the family of nations around the world were democratic norms and procedures are respected.

4. What role can the thousands of Gambia civil society activists, journalists and citizens in the diaspora play in the new democratic project?

Gambian civil society and activists and journalists can continue to highlight issues plaguing The Gambia. We must be realistic that even though the future is bright for the tiny nation, the removal of former President Jammeh is not a magic bullet that will rid the country of all its problems. This is going to be a long road and the country needs all hands on deck to ensure that it continues on the trajectory of a sustainable democracy and prosperity.

5. How can the international community assist in promoting democracy in Gambia?

The international community can assist in promoting democracy by supporting civil society, journalists and citizens to continue promoting democracy and economic prosperity in the country, and most importantly, speak up and demand rectification if conditions start deteriorating or deviating from the democratic path.

Civic Space in Gambia is rated as 'repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor