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Giants Awaken: Gambia's Civil Society Revives Its Role

By Sanna Camara

The announcement of President Adama Barrow’s swearing-in was made via his Twitter account on Jan. 19. The general public was invited to the ceremony held at the Gambian Embassy on a narrow and dusty street in Dakar, Senegal. In the absence of the chief justice of the Gambia, the oath of office was administered by the president of the Gambia Bar Association, Sheriff Tambedou, before members of diplomatic corps in Dakar, the prime minister of Senegal, and the chairman of the ECOWAS Commission.

Many saw this as the peak of defiance against President Yahya Jammeh’s continued hold on power, following boycotts and public recognition of Barrow’s presidency by universities, unions, and other institutions. Traditionally, tens of thousands would gather in the country’s independence stadium outside Banjul to witness the president take the oath of office. Abdul Aziz Bensouda, secretary general of the Gambian Bar Association told the radio broadcaster RFI that the main requirement for the president-elect’s swearing-in is the “prescribed oath.” He elaborated, “Traditionally, it has been a judge but any commissioner of oaths can, or a lawyer even. In fact, he can self-administer and hold the Koran and swear.”

Earlier during the political crisis in Banjul, the bar association was among the first to call for a boycott of the courts when Jammeh reneged on his concession speech on TV, in which he congratulated Barrow on his victory at the Dec. 1 polls. After this about-turn, the outgoing president seemed to want to use the courts to challenge the same results. It didn’t work. If anything, it resulted in what political analyst Ishmaila Sarr called the awakening of the dormant civil society bodies in the country.

The overwhelming support from teachers, transport unions, real estate developers, the hoteliers’ association, University of The Gambia’s students and faculty unions, and the Islamic and Christian councils peaked with the initial allegiance for Barrow sworn by the army chief. The involvement of all these groups represented an unprecedented level of defiance and outspokenness, unlike what anyone had seen since the country gained independence in 1965. The population has been furious at the incumbent president’s attempt to take away their victory against a 20-year-old dictatorship and they are willing to defend this win.

Under Jammeh, the democratic space was constricted and the inherently weak democratic institutions (the executive, legislature, judiciary, press, political parties, and civil society organizations) were decimated by decrees and draconian laws. The violations of human rights and rule of law have been formidable, including increased detentions without trials, abductions, disappearances, false imprisonments, extrajudicial killings, executions, and unbridled corruption, according to statements made by Edrissa Sanyang, a diaspora activist and political analyst, upon his return from 16 years of exile to the Gambia.

Civil society movements in the Gambia started with a clergyman, teacher, and government clerk named Edward Francis Small, who is now known as the father of the Gambian independence struggle. In 1928, Small successfully managed to launch the country’s first labor walkout. He held the conviction that organization and motivation were the most useful traits for national liberation. It took 10 years of discussions, fights, and strikes before his efforts began to bear fruit. 

Trade unions were very active players in the fight for independence and self-determination, influencing politics and promoting accountability under the colonial regime, but many of their leaders then moved into political careers through strong associations with, and patronage from, the ruling class. Whether it was a deliberate policy or not, the government of the first republic did not show any interest in the vibrancy of civil society voices. As a result, most of them became involved in the formal political process, becoming politicians themselves or forming parties. Civil society therefore remained sidelined during the first republic and following the 1994 military coup that brought Jammeh to power.

Today, the emergence of social media is presenting civil society groups with an effective tool of mobilization that heralds the re-emergence of their participation in the governance process. They will become powerful forces in the new political landscape.

Gambian citizens are directly participating in national debates from far away as Taiwan and the U.S., and as close as the city of Basse in east Gambia. They are questioning and vetting every action of their leaders and institutions. For example, when Vice President Fatoumata Tambajang was nominated, many questioned why the choice was someone over 65 years old, which is the maximum age for candidacy according to the constitution. The same public reaction arose when a former army chief under Jammeh, Masaneh Kinteh, was appointed as military aide to President Barrow during the time of ECOWAS military presence in the country. People want a fresh beginning and do not want the incoming government to be affiliated with Jammeh, so many opposed the appointment of an official who had been implicated in controversial decisions under the former president.

At the same time, the seven-party coalition government under Barrow is listening and noting all concerns expressed via social media and other outlets. In a recent press conference, Barrow told journalists he wouldn’t have won without social media because he had no access to state media leading up to the election. He campaigned through constant engagement with voters on social media, and the coalition campaign team and other officials maintain a strong presence online, interacting with citizens and responding to issues that emerge each day. After all, it was their campaign promise to create a new Gambia “for the people and by the people.”

In spite of these promises, however, journalists are still not very optimistic about what awaits them in the new Gambia. The government’s nine-page manifesto included provisions to protect media freedom and establish an independent broadcasting regulatory body, but the coalition’s media committee barred local journalists from accessing the airport and allowed only foreign correspondents when President Barrow returned to Banjul from his sojourn in Dakar. “From what happened at the airport, we must not be too optimistic about promised press freedom by the new government. The lack of respect for journalists, press freedom, and free expression in the Gambia is not only about draconian laws. It is also about the unacceptable public officials’ attitude toward journalists. This new government must fulfill in practice its promises on freedom and democracy or lose public trust in its early days,” says Modou Joof, a local journalist and editor of Front Page International.

A similar outcry was heard when reports alleged that Jammeh signed an immunity deal that prohibited prosecution for crimes committed under his regime, and allowed his “loot” to follow him out of the country. A coalition leader Mai Ahmad Fatty came online to clarify:

“We won together as a people. Let us govern together. We have serious business at hand: to reconstruct a nation totally destroyed. Let us focus our energies on that. There will be some mistakes. We will not get everything right at the start, but we will not shy away from taking responsibility if we go wrong. That is not to say that we will give in to pressure if it is not right to do so. We can take the heat.”

The coming three years of transition from a dictatorship to an elected government will be interesting. The mantras now on everyone’s lips are that #GambiaHasDecided and that dictatorship will never again be allowed in the country. A citizen’s movement has already been launched to safeguard the voice of this awoken giant in civil society.

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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 Wikimedia Commons]

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