During former Dictator Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule of The Gambia, only three protests against his government were held, all of them brutally suppressed.
It was the effect of the combination of these protests that became the last straw for Gambians in April last year.
Jammeh’s presidential guard soldiers had killed 14 students in April 2000, who were protesting the torture-death and raping of their colleagues. The gruesome crackdown instilled fear in the people.
Parliamentarians backing Jammeh passed an Indemnity Act giving security forces a license to violate civil and human rights with impunity.
Since then, political activists and student leaders have avoided any form of demonstrations in the small West African nation of fewer than two million people.
16 years after the unjustifiable shooting of student protesters, a senior opposition member, Ebrima Solo Sandeng held a protest against Jammeh’s regime. It is the first protest by an opposition activist against the autocratic ruler.
Sandeng and a handful of opposition youths rallied at the Westfield Square demanding electoral reforms ahead of the country’s presidential polls. They were arrested and tortured.
Sandeng’s arrest and reported death forced the main opposition leader Ousainou Darboe to lead senior members of his party to demand Sandeng’s release – dead or alive.
Gambia’s riot police opened fire and threw teargas at the demonstrating opposition members. They were slapping, kicking and torturing them in public.
Gambians were taken aback by Jammeh’s disregard for a Gambian life and disrespect to opposition leaders, who were senior citizens.
“Is Solo Sandeng the only person to die in custody,” asked Jammeh, who callously refused to investigate the activists killing and prosecute those responsible for torturing him.
“You know, this time I sent the paramilitary police but next time I will send the army and they will wipe you all out.”
At least three opposition detainees died: Lamin Marong, Ebrima Solo Nkuruma and Ebrima Ceesay.
Gambians were so appalled, the opposition united and secured enough votes to defeat Jammeh in the polls. Sandeng’s electoral reform protest ushered the birth of a New Gambia.
Gambia’s new President Adama Barrow is from Sandeng’s party, the UDP, which also has the majority in the parliament for the first time.
Amnesty International has urged the new Gambian authorities to consecrate the right to peaceful protest with security forces instructed to avoid the use of force to disperse peaceful gatherings.
Under Jammeh’s regime, opposition parties and activists were denied permits to hold processions and their assemblies were regularly prohibited or dispersed.
In the spirit of Sandeng’s legacy, offenses such as holding a procession without a permit under the Public Order Act should be repealed and the right to protest should be protected.