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Thousands of supporters of Gambia's longtime dictator, Yahya Jammeh, have protested for his right to return from exile. But accounts differ on whether an agreement is in place for him to do so.
Yahya Jammeh supporters in Gambia gathered on the outskirts of the capital, Banjul, on Thursday carrying banners, placards and photographs of the former president, who ruled from 1994 until January 2017 when he fled into exile.
The protesters from the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction party (APRC) demanded that regional and international bodies honor an agreement allowing Jammeh, who is in exile in Equatorial Guinea, to return.
Late last week, Jammeh was allegedly heard in audio recordings insisting that he be allowed back into his country of birth.
In a recording released on social media by the deputy spokesman for his political party, a person said to be Jammeh says: "I am coming back. They said they drove me out of the country. Apart from Allah, nobody can take me out of The Gambia."
Jammeh was pressured to leave Gambia when he refused to step down after losing elections in December 2016 to the current president, Adama Barrow, triggering massive protests and a political impasse.
"We need [Jammeh] 100 percent. We are ready to die for him," Ismaila Colleyk, a 26-year-old supporter attending the rally, told AFP on Thursday.
"Before Jammeh left here for exile, there was an agreement for him to come back into the country after three years," she said, referring to a promise by the United Nations, together with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU), to work with Gambia's government to ensure Jammeh is "at liberty to return to The Gambia at any time of his choosing."
Government: 'Never signed any accord'
The Gambian government, however, stressed this week that it never signed any such agreement.
Jammeh "consistently references an accord that he claimed was signed by UN, AU and ECOWAS, and Gambia's government as well," Gambian government spokesperson Ebrima Sankareh told DW.
"I have talked to President Barrow about it and the president has never signed any accord or agreement with President Jammeh. He [Barrow] has never seen one and has never been shown one," Sankareh said during an interview in Banjul.
It is unclear what measures Gambian authorities would take if Jammeh were to return.
Gross violations of human rights
Jammeh is accused of grave human rights violations and other crimes while in power, firstly as chairman of the Armed Council and later as president.
During his 22-year rule, Jammeh violently purged dissent, making widespread use of detention, torture, rape and state-ordered killings to intimidate and silence journalists, student leaders, and opposition politicians.
The chairperson of the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations called Thursday's demonstration by APRC supporters "a slap in the face of Yayha Jammeh's victims."
"It is totally unaccepted as the APRC continue to be in denial of all the atrocities committed by Jammeh and his cohorts," Sheriff Kijera told DW from Banjul.
Read more: A new era of press freedom in The Gambia
Government can't guarantee safe return
Rambo Jatta, deputy leader of Jammeh's APRC party, said that "not even the jins can stop [Jammeh] from coming to The Gambia," adding that the former president had not been charged with a crime.
"We haven't heard from any court of law that found him wanting," he told DW in Banjul.
However, if Jammeh returns without permission, the government could not "guarantee his security and safety," spokesperson Sankareh said.
Jammeh could also face charges for pillaging state coffers of an estimated $1 billion (€898 million) before he fled into exile.
Earlier in the week, the Victims' Center called for the former president's arrest if he enters the country. But even though the organization would like to see Jammeh stand trial, chairperson Kijera doesn't believe Gambia is yet ready for such a process.
"The structures are not in place to give a fair trial, because the political environment is not conducive to having Jammeh in The Gambia," he said.
Many Gambians feel betrayed by Barrow
The talk of Jammeh's return comes at a time when many Gambians are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the current president, Adama Barrow.
People are angered over Barrow's decision to renege on his promise to step down as transitional president after three years and instead stay on to complete the full five-year presidential term.
In addition, not only has Barrow failed to tackle corruption, he is also seen as cozying up to former members of Jammeh's party, said Gambian human rights activist Madi Jobarteh.
"Overall, there is gross inefficiency in the delivery of public services," he told DW. "The cost of living continues to rise and citizens hardly notice any changes in their lives since the new government took over," Jobarteh wrote to DW in a statement.
Barrow's poor performance, however, doesn't mean that the majority of Gambians want Jammeh to return, said Jobarteh.
"There is almost total agreement that Jammeh is not good for the country and no amount of bad leadership today will make anyone appreciate him," he told DW.
Omar Wally in Banjul contributed to this report.