Gambia: elections in a climate of fear and impunity

On 1 December 2016, Gambians will go to the polls to elect a president with the likely scenario being the incumbent, President Yahya Jammeh will be re-elected for a fifth time. Twenty-two years ago, Jammeh was a young army officer when he took power in a military coup. He was then elected in 1996, and re-elected in 2001, 2006 and 2011. After having repealed presidential term limits in the Gambia, Jammeh has, once more, been put forward by his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, to compete for a fifth consecutive term.

Under Jammeh’s watch, the human rights situation, as IRRI has documented, has deteriorated, so it is no surprise that the electoral landscape has been one studded with violence, arbitrary arrests, torture, forced disappearances and killings.

Last April, a peaceful demonstration demanding a transparent electoral process in the streets of Serrekunda was violently broken up by security forces. Since then, more than 90 opposition activists have been arrested for taking part in demonstrations, 19 have been sentenced to three years in prison, and two opposition activists have died in detention in yet unknown circumstances. Among those sentenced was the well-known Solo Sandeng, the National Organising Secretary of Gambia’s largest opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP). Another member of the UDP, Ebrima Solo Kurumah, died at the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Banjul after four months in the infamous Mile 2 prison.

When the main opposition leader of the UDP, Ousainou Darboe, protested and asked for the release of Sandeng “dead or alive”, he was, in turn, jailed for three years for organising “unauthorised protests” against the regime. When asked about the deaths in an interview in May 2016, President Jammeh said: “What is the problem? People die in detention or during interrogation, it is very common.” He went on to say that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Amnesty International could “go to hell” for asking for an investigation. He has also threatened to “bury [the opposition] nine feet deep”.

The recent Gambian withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) fits into the state’s strategy. Disengagement from international institutions allows the Jammeh regime to further crack down on the opposition without being held accountable. Arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances as well as detention, torture and killings of journalists and opposition members are used by the regime to silence opponents and critics.

This repression, along with the very limited access for opposition parties to the national media, is undermining free and fair elections in the country. These already compromised elections, combined with the continuous downward spiral of human rights abuse, will only contribute to further undermining peace and stability in the Gambia. The disproportionally high number of Gambians fleeing to Senegal, and further afield to Europe, are evidence of this.

Although there have been no incidents of civil unrest as yet, Gambians that IRRI has spoken with fear that if Jammeh wins, which he is likely to do, the ongoing crackdown may intensify, with more political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders being arrested. Such a crackdown could spark popular protests, which are likely to be subject to heavy handed tactics which would increase tension and possibly lead to further violence and unrest.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and the international community all need to put more pressure on Gambia to restore the two-term limit on the presidency and to ensure free and fair elections.

In addition, the government should reconsider its withdrawal from the ICC. The ICC has the potential to play an essential role in providing justice to the victims of crimes perpetrated by the Jammeh regime. Despite the genuine African frustrations around the efficiency of the ICC and related grievances, those are best addressed through engagement with the governance structures of the ICC, not withdrawal. In this case, it seems clear that Jammeh’s decision to withdraw from the ICC is motivated by the self-serving search for impunity.

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