20 years of President Yayah Jammeh in power

Published: 5 Nov 2014
By: Djibril Balde

Since his accession to power by coup d’etat on 22 July 1994, President Yayah Jammeh has been accused of ruling the Gambia with an iron fist. After 20 years in office, his record has been tarnished by allegations of serious human rights violations including, restriction of the freedom of expression and opinion, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, executions and disappearance.

On 22 July 2014, to mark the 20th anniversary of President Jammeh’s accession to power, Gambian refugees, along with Senegalese, Gambian and international human rights organisations held a sit-in in front of the Gambian Embassy in Senegal. A Gambian human rights activist said the demonstration “was a success, it highlighted … the mistreatment Gambians are going through…All those who gathered here are in one way mistreated, seriously tortured, wrongfully imprisoned, or escaped an assignation attempt.”

The protesters were calling on the African and international community to take a greater interest in the deteriorating human rights situation in the Gambia. They were calling for the Gambian government to allow the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on torture and summary, extrajudicial and arbitrary executions to conduct the mission they had initially scheduled from 12-18 August 2014, but later unilaterally postponed.

The purpose of this event was not only to draw the attention of national and international public opinion to the abuses of the Jammeh regime and denounce the culture of impunity. Protesters also called for the relocation of the headquarters of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) from the Gambia to a country more respectful of human rights and fundamental liberties, unless there is immediate progress on human rights issues in the Gambia. It seems incongruous that the Africa’s primary body charged with “ensuring the promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights throughout the African Continent” is based in a country where, human rights defenders, political opponents and the media are frequently subject to harassment, intimidation and imprisonment with impunity.

A significant number of Gambians, most of whom are journalists, human rights activists, political opponents and soldiers flee the country to seek refuge in other countries, especially Senegal. It is estimated that over eighty thousand Gambians are believed to be living in exile outside of the Gambia, in difficult and often inhumane conditions, especially those living in Senegal. Indeed IRRI regularly receives asylum seekers from the Gambia looking for assistance with their asylum applications. However these, Gambian refugees fear continuing persecution by Gambian intelligence agents because of the proximity of the two countries.

Among the concerns about human rights in the Gambia is arbitrary arrest of political opponents. Over three thousand political opponents are locked in prison in the Gambia, some without trial, some on death row. This number includes politicians, journalists, security officials, civil servants, and even members of the private sector.

More generally, the death penalty is a concern. On 23 August 2012, nine death row prisoners, including two Senegalese, were executed by the Gambian authorities. No one was informed in advance of their execution, their parents, their lawyers nor Senegalese diplomatic representatives in the country and their bodies have yet to be returned to their families for funeral.

In addition, there is no media freedom. The repressive regime has closed media houses, journalists have faced killings, imprisonment, and disappearance. In one particularly high profile incident, the journalist Deyda Hydara was killed in December 2004.To date no credible investigation has been initiated into the circumstances of his murder, even though the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice found in 2014 that the failure to conduct a diligent investigation into the killing was a violation of the right to life (read more about the case here). Another high profile case is that of Ibrima Manneh, a journalist at the Daily Observer. Manneh was arrested by elements of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) on 11 July 2006. Since then his whereabouts remain unknown. The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice also intervened in this case, ordering the government to carry out a proper investigation, but this has still not occurred. Two other journalists were arrested in January 2014 for publishing an article referring to the departure of 19 young people from the ruling party to join the opposition. They were released on bail, but their trial on charges of “spreading false news” is still going on (see previous blog, “Journalist reporting on refugee issues detained in the Gambia”).

On 21 September 2009, President Jammeh uttered threats against human rights defenders on national television, reportedly saying “If you think that you can collaborate with so-called human rights defenders, and get away with it, you must be living in a dream world. I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it.” (See, All Africa, “Jammeh Threatens to Kill Human Rights Defenders,” 24 September 2009). The ACHPR adopted Resolution 145, which expressed serious concern about the threat made by the president and recommended that the government withdraw the threats and ensure the respect of the rights of human rights defenders. However, the government appears not to have taken no such action.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement
Regions: Western Africa, Gambia
Type: IRRI Blog