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Gambia’s president is under pressure to step down. Is it time for a change?

- May 17, 2016
A giant billboard celebrating the long regime of Gambia President Yahya Jammeh sits on an empty street in Banjul, Gambia, after a failed coup attempt in 2014. Popular protests since April 2016 have called for Jammeh to step down, and the government has responded with arrests and gunfire. (AP)

Is #GambiaRising? Since mid-April, a popular movement with this tagline has called for President Yahya Jammeh to resign. Jammeh has ruled Gambia’s small population of just under 2 million people for more than 20 years. His unpredictable and highly repressive leadership draws comparison to the regimes of some of Africa’s most infamous dictators.

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An April 14 demonstration to demand reforms before the December 2016 national elections has morphed into widespread calls for Jammeh to step down from power. The current demonstrators have continued to stage peaceful protests despite the violent reaction by government forces, including mass arrests, physical assaults and the use of live ammunition. This represents the most sustained act of collective defiance to date against Jammeh and his ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).

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Jammeh himself seized power during a similar groundswell in Gambia. Indeed, similarities between the current situation and the country’s not so distant past raise questions of whether history will repeat itself.

Gambia saw unprecedented public discontent directly before the country’s first and only transition of power in 1994. A series of street protests occurred, opposition parties gained their largest victory ever in the 1992 elections and a string of high-profile corruption scandals rocked the country.

Junior military officers, with Jammeh at the helm, brought down President Dawda Jawara, who had led Gambia since its independence from Britain in 1965. Though regarded internationally as a responsible statesman and applauded for promoting human rights, Jawara faced growing internal criticism in the early 1990s for failing to drive the country’s overall development.

In the year leading up to the coup, market vendors, taxi drivers, women’s organizations and university students took to the streets to express their growing discontent. Some of these demonstrations were localized, but others coalesced and grew. For example, just weeks before the July 1994 coup, thousands turned out for protests over water access, which ended in violent clashes with the police.

During this period, Gambian soldiers also began to express their grievances to domestic media — which has since been decimated under Jammeh — and staged high-profile mutinies. Wholesale military restructuring and an officer corps led by Nigerian soldiers further fractured the armed forces. Although the military’s dissatisfaction was well known, many Gambians were caught off guard by the coup, which took place during a U.S.-led military exercise in Banjul, the capital. Requests for assistance by then-President Jawara in the midst of the coup were denied, and the act was carried out with little resistance and no bloodshed.

Jammeh seemingly delivered the change many Gambians had wanted, but not in the manner that most had envisioned. Once regarded as a regional bright spot in regards to human rights, Gambia under Jammeh has become one of the most systemically repressive countries on the African continent. While its constitution includes protection for political freedoms and basic civil liberties, these rights are rarely respected in practice. By 2016 the Jammeh government had earned rightful rebukes from every corner of the globe, including recently from the United States, the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union — with repeated denunciations over the years from the United Nations.

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What’s different now?

Today, Jammeh faces a collection of challenges similar to those that ushered in his own regime 22 years ago: an increasingly vocal and inspired political opposition, popular protests demanding change, and armed forces with low morale (including reports that senior officers have refused recent orders). Jammeh also confronts rising international isolation, including the suspension of aid from major donors and the country’s dismissal from several U.S. aid programs, including the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Gambia’s security forces are one key difference in the recent protests, however. Jawara had intentionally kept the security services small and focused primarily on external missions. Jammeh, on the other hand, expanded the armed forces and created specialized units such as the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and a violent paramilitary hit squad known as the “Jungulars.” Both units report directly to Jammeh and have created a palpable “layer of fear” throughout the country, according to a recent visit by a U.N. expert. The role of Jammeh’s security forces and paramilitary units in arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, torture and unlawful killings of government critics and dissidents are well documented.

These same forces also pose the most significant potential threat to Jammeh’s stranglehold on power. Jammeh has allegedly repelled at least eight coup attempts and related plots since 1994. The most recent attempt occurred in December 2014 when a group of former Gambian military officers, including dual U.S.-Gambian citizens, laid siege to the state house. The aftermath of the failed coup resulted in a pronounced human rights crackdown, including secret trials that sentenced eight people to death. In the United States, four men pleaded guilty to various firearms violations and for conspiring to violate the Neutrality Act, ultimately receiving light prison terms by a federal judge in Minnesota last week.

There are wide cracks within the military’s senior levels, following a bizarre pattern of hiring, firing, rehiring and “reshuffling” of military personnel. Understandably, this has created widespread resentment within Gambia’s armed forces. Purges and arrests of soldiers are so prevalent that Gambians morbidly joke that the Fourth Battalion of the Gambian Armed Forces has its base in the cells of Mile II Prison, the country’s maximum-security institution.

The repression that has long stifled public dissent in Gambia now seems to be fueling it. In fact, support for the protests noticeably swelled after Gambian security forces reportedly tortured to death a prominent opposition youth leader while in custody at Mile II. Growing demonstrations persist to this day despite a wave of arbitrary arrests and brazen calls by one of the country’s top diplomats to “open fire on anybody” seen protesting in the streets.

With only one transition of power in the country’s history, the odds are surely stacked against #GambiaRising’s goal of instigating meaningful change. Still, as Jammeh himself has shown, politics in Gambia are characterized by unpredictability, and the ongoing protests continue to exceed all expectations.

Maggie Dwyer is a research fellow at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh. Follow her on Twitter: @MagDwyer 

Jeffrey Smith is an international human rights consultant and the executive director of Vanguard Africa Movement. Follow him on Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT