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Baby Aisha & the Challenge to the Gambian State

By Sanna Camara

She was born a few weeks ago to freedom-loving parents. Her father gathered the courage to take to the streets to demand freedom and was arrested. Her mother, unable to sit at home with her husband imprisoned, goes to court each day with her child to show solidarity. Baby Aisha has become one of the faces of the ongoing Gambian uprising against the country’s 22-year dictatorship.

Kaddy Samateh-Fatty, Aisha’s mother, was arrested while leaving the high court in Banjul. She was there to watch her husband’s bail hearing following his arrest for participating in marches that, since April 14, have rocked the Gambia’s Greater Banjul Area. She was later remanded in prison while her still nursing, weeks-old infant was taken into the custody of the Police Intervention Unit, a paramilitary wing of the Gambia Police Force. When she was taken into police custody, Aisha reportedly had a swollen head as a result of the scuffle between paramilitary and protesters that occurred while her mother was arrested. Reports said she might have been hit by a baton.

Aisha after freedom, seen here with the deputy party leader of the UDP

She was not the only one arrested that day. On May 9, 45 protesters from the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) were arrested and detained—39 men, who were reported to have been transported about 185 miles away from Banjul to Janjang Bureh prison and six women, who were kept at the Police Intervention Unit barracks overnight. 

Deaths from Torture and Beatings

It all started when a group of democracy activists from different political backgrounds, led by Solo Sandeng, took to the streets in Sere Kunda, Gambia’s commercial city. They wrote their demands on white banners and addressed the crowd as they called for electoral and political reforms. As expected, the activists were arrested by anti-riot police, bundled into trucks, and taken to prison, where they were tortured and beaten.

“Their demands [were] very simple and legitimate … such as electoral and political reforms. Besides, the protests were peaceful. We therefore demand the unconditional release of all the protesters arrested,” said Alkali Conteh, an opposition UDP activist. 

Reports later emerged that five of the protesters—including three women and Sandeng himself—died as a result of the beatings and torture they endured while in custody. This led the leader of the UDP, Ousainou Darboe, a human rights lawyer, to call a press conference and tell journalists the state has to produce Sandeng “dead or alive.”

Solo Sandeng has to be produced dead or alive, says the opposition

Darboe, joined by an estimated 150 Gambians, including the top executives and supporters of the UDP as well as Aisha’s father, Modou Fatty, were arrested while marching for these demands on April 16. They have since been placed in state custody at Mile 2 Central Prisons and are facing several charges, including unlawful assembly, riot, incitement of violence, interfering with vehicles, and holding a procession without a permit.

No Protests Allowed in Gambia

The Gambian government has been known for its repression of dissent, including the freedom of assembly. Freedom House acknowledged this in its 2015 report on The Gambia, warning that the government’s repression of opposition leaders and journalists would intensify in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections.

The country’s 1997 constitution guaranteed freedom of assembly and association, even though, as stated in the Freedom House report, it is “constrained by state intimidation in practice.”

And though the international community has criticized the heavy-handed measures used to squash the protests, detainees have started appearing in court to answer to charges leveled against them.

Despite unprecedented security presence in strategic locations in Banjul, fettering movement and gatherings and preventing access to the courthouse, hundreds of opposition supporters turned up to show their support for the accused. However, Darboe and 46 others were again denied bail and were driven back to the prison while the crowd went wild.

Unable to do much, hundreds of demonstrators, some prepared for conflict, marched from Banjul to Sere Kunda (about 6 miles) to register their frustrations against the court decision to deny their colleagues bail. Though they held national flags and banners and wore T-shirts, protesters were armed with nothing, with the exception of the women who waved gourd spoons and brooms—adopted symbols of the revolts.

Gourd spoons and brooms, women's armor against a dictatorship, now adopted as symbols of revolt

Arriving at the Westfield square, they were attacked by paramilitary forces and clashes ensued. More injuries were sustained, including one paramilitary. According to an eyewitness, the street was like an army camp, with a heavy presence of armed police and soldiers in the vicinity along Kairaba Avenue, near Darboe’s home.

Threats of Deaths by President

President Yahya Jammeh started a tour of the country last week in the midst of this chaos. Observers say he is using the trip to sow fear as well as anti-opposition and anti-change sentiments among the population. In Farafenni, a commercial border in the north, he took a swipe at the opposition. “They are opportunistic, being used by the West to destabilize the country,” he said. He promised to “kill and bury anybody 9 feet deep.”

The president’s tone has made it clear that political dissent will not soon be tolerated. Former Gambian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sidi Sanneh wrote in a blog post dated May 19, referring to the president: "His venom was not reserved only for the political class but for anyone who dares challenge his authority, be they protesters demanding electoral reform or ordinary Gambians of different political hue from the dictator's. Jammeh dislikes anyone with a different political viewpoint or challenges his infallibility as the absolute rule (sic) of Africa's tiniest country." Tragically, Baby Aisha became one of the victims of the state’s repression of opposition activists.  

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Sanna Camara is a Gambian journalist and blogger, and a former teaching assistant at Gambia Press Union School of Journalism. He is currently living in exile.

[Photos courtesy of Bjørn Christian Tørrissen and the United Democratic Party]

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