Gambian journalist champions migrant rights in Europe

In what turned out to be the best election results for democracy not just in Africa but the world, Gambia’s despotic ruler, Yahya Jammeh was defeated in the polls.

The shocking upset left Jammeh in denial nearly plunging the relatively peaceful small West African nation into a civil war.

A conflict was averted after Gambia’s neighbors rallied behind Jammeh’s rival Adama Barrow to have the outcome of the presidential polls enforced by deploying a strong West African military force to Jammeh into exile.

Barrow’s coming to power, although in a rather bizarre way brought hope to many Gambian youths, most whom were either on a perilous journey to reach Europe or lingering back home waiting for better jobs.

Also hopeful, were many Gambians in exile in Europe, in places like Donaueschingen, a town in the Black Forest in the southwest of the federal state of Baden-Württemberg in the Schwarzwald-Baar Kreis, where they are seeking asylum.

Among them are journalists, opposition activists, and Jammeh’s perceived enemies. Most of them are now willing to go home but is the Gambia any safer and any better for them to return to start all over again.

Assan Sallah was a senior editor of the Daily Observer, a government newspaper that was directly controlled by Jammeh and managed by his undisputed loyalists.

Jammeh and his supporters tolerated no dissent from the press, not especially for those that supposed to be employees of a pro-government newspaper. Most worked at the paper only to earn a few thousand dalasis, less than €75 a month.

Journalists were arrested on flimsy charges, tortured, prosecuted and jailed. Journalists were subjected to harassment and attack by Jammeh’s supporters, who often rough handle them and Assan Sallah was not spared.

He was arrested in the Spring of 2013 after his colleague Alhagie Jobe was dragged to court on sedition and other superficial charges. Jobe’s arrest was politically motivated, according to human rights defenders.

He was later freed on bail but had to report to the notorious state intelligence bureau daily. Sallah became a target when he refused to become a state witness against Jobe.

He was forced to flee the country after being implicated in another case by one of Jammeh’s loyalists managing the pro-government newspaper. The former President Yahya Jammeh asked for his sacking and incommunicado detention.

He has since lived in exile, first in Dakar until 2015 and then to Spain, far away from the Gambia, where his life is at risk. He continued to contribute to some of the newspapers abroad that were seeking to have the world’s attention on Jammeh.

Sallah was the keynote speaker in Donaueschingen, discussing the current situation in The Gambia and challenges migrants are facing in Germany.

He is now actively engaged in addressing the concerns of Gambians and other migrants in Donaueschingen, Villingen and
surrounding cities, forwarding their plight to social workers, and government representatives.

According to Sallah, the new Barrow administration is making all efforts to ensure that freedoms and rights are protected, maintain peace and stability, and help rebuild the economy.

But despite the change of government in Gambia and the new efforts, the country is still facing a lot of challenges, especially in security, job creation, and press freedom.

Jammeh’s departure was expected to see a U-Turn in trends but the Gambia’s press is still being forced into self-censorship. While it may not be apparent from senior officials, attitudes towards journalists have not changed.

Government supporters ridicule and threaten journalists for reporting on stories that are not favorable to the new administration. Barrow, notwithstanding, called the press his partners in development.

Gambian journalist Kebba Jeffang was attacked and mishandled by government supporters, shortly after a press conference organized by three senior members of the unity government.

Jeffang was accused of being a journalist for a newspaper that was seen as being a propaganda tool for a socialist party, which did not see eye-to-eye with the position of many political leaders in the Barrow administration.

A huge junk of Barrow’s government are carryovers from Jammeh’s regime, still leaving the same system entrenched. President Barrow himself is facing threats to his life with reports of armed opposition to his rule.

The number of Gambian migrants seeking to reach Europe plunged after Barrow’s sudden rise to power. His government with IOM has help repatriate no less than 373 stranded would be migrants to the Gambia since April from Libya.

Barrow has promised jobs and greater freedoms that would come with doing away with Jammeh’s system of governance. But eight month’s into his rule and with the EU pumping more than €75 million to create jobs and stabilize the economy, frustration is starting to grow.

The Gambia’s foreign exchange reserve has increased fivefold, an impressive progress but jobs remain scarce and prices of goods and services skyrocketing. This is refueling the migration crisis again.

The threats of an external attack are still keeping investors at bay and Jammeh and his men, seem not have given up on their attempt to have the former absolute ruler returning home as he promised his supporters.

Before Jammeh boarded an unmarked plane to Equatorial Guinea, he vowed to return. Less than three months into his departure, it was established that he was in touch with senior military officers that remained loyal to him.

A leaked intelligence brief indicated that some 300 Gambian army deserters and mercenaries were camping in at least three neighboring nations seeking to destabilize The Gambia.

Gambia’s new government has not responded well in their attempt to allay the fears of the citizens and while trying to dismiss the report, it emerged that 17 soldiers were implicated and at least eight arrested for trying to revolt against Barrow, attempting to assassinate him and destabilize the country.

Whiles these challenges leave many wondering if the country is any different from what it was, and pro-democracy defenders advocate for a complete system change, Gambian refugees like Assan Sallah have called on his peers in Germany and Europe to be peaceful and productive members of their new home country.

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