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Gambia: 'We are moving from high hopes to a letdown'

Cristina Krippahl
January 27, 2020

Scores have been wounded and dozens arrested after a police crackdown against protesters, raising fears that Gambia's short experiment with democracy might have come to an end.

Protests against Gambian President Adama Barrow
Image: DW/O. Wally

Police in the Gambian capital, Banjul, fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters on Sunday, who responded by throwing stones and setting tires on fire, according to witnesses.

The protests were launched a couple of weeks ago, when President Adama Barrow announced his intention to stay in office for a total of five years, after initially pledging to remain for only three.

Same old, same old

"We are moving from high hopes to a let-down," political scientist Ismaila Ceesey, told DW. "Things have really turned bad. I think the height of this was manifested yesterday [Sunday]."

Ceesay, a lecturer at the University of The Gambia, said that police actions against peaceful protesters exacerbated tensions which were not about to calm down. He pointed out that Gambia is a very young country.

After elections in 2016, which ousted longtime dictator Yahya Jammeh, "young people automatically switched to democracy mode." The state did not correspond with an identical switch, Ceesay added: "The state is still in dictatorship mode, because all the institutions, all the laws and all the structures, all the processes that sustained the dictatorship, are still intact."

The government failed to repel the Public Order Act and reform the paramilitary group used by Jammeh to crack down on dissent. And, said Ceesay, Barrow has "surrounded himself with Jammeh's old cronies."

Read more: Gambia after Yahya Jammeh: Reconciliation no easy task

Gambian President Adama Barrow
President Adama Barrow is being accused by critics of resorting to the same tactics his predecessor usedImage: DW

Police dilemma

The government has announced a ban on the Three Years Jotna, the movement spearheading protests calling for Barrow to step down. It was considered a "subversive, violent and illegal movement" by spokesman Ebrima Sankareh, who said its members were "determined to illegally overthrow the constitutionally elected president." The movement's president Abdou Njie was reportedly among the 137 people arrested on Sunday.

There are more protests and demonstrations going on, including one calling for Barrow to stay in power. One movement, which marched on Saturday on the outskirts of Banjul, is demanding justice for abuse suffered under Jammeh's 22-year rule. Jammeh fled the country in 2017, after losing the presidential election to Barrow.

Another counter-movement wants the former president be allowed back from exile in Equatorial Guinea. Pro-Jammeh marches took place in the country last week, adding to social unrest and confusion. "The police are in a dilemma, they do not really know how to act," said political scientist Ismaila Ceesay.

Supprters of former President Yahya Jammeh demonstrate for his right to come back from exile
Some Gambians want long-term dictator Yahya Jammeh to be allowed backImage: DW/O. Wally

Crackdown on freedom of the press

Among those arrested on Sunday were the director of King FM and one of its radio presenters, who were charged with inciting violence. The head of a second radio station, Digital FM, was also detained and his whereabouts remain unknown, according to the Gambia Press Union.

Both stations were shut down by the authorities, who accused them of inciting violence and broadcasting in favor of the anti-Barrow movement, thereby allegedly threatening the security of Gambia. "It's like a deja-vu: Jammeh's tactics. The media was one of the institutions that suffered most under Jammeh," said Ismaila Ceesay. He cautioned Barrow against reneging on his promise of democracy, which got him elected in the first place.

According to Ceesay: "It's really sad that this government, which was supposed to bring human rights and democracy to the country after 22 years of traumatic rule, is using the same tactics as his predecessor. And Gambians are really disappointed."

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