(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • No way back: New law adds pressure on asylum seekers in Italy

    Over the last five years, some two million migrants and refugees have made it from the north coast of Africa by sea to the perceived promise and safety of Europe. Almost 650,000 people have survived the longest, most dangerous crossing via the central Mediterranean to Italy.

    Lamin Saidykhan, a 21-year-old Gambian, is one of them.

    Saidykhan fled difficult conditions in his home country in 2016, hoping to find a better life in Italy. But things have not been easy. The recent repeal of two-year “humanitarian protection” status for a broad class of asylum seekers leaves people like him even more vulnerable.


    From 2015 to 2017, almost 26,000 Gambians sought asylum in Italy. Under the old law, those who didn’t immediately qualify for asylum could still stay in Italy for a certain period and receive some social benefits. But the rules were tightened late last year to include only victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, and other very specific criteria.

    Read more: New Italian law adds to unofficial clampdown on aid to asylum seekers

    Prominent Italians, including the mayors of Milan and Naples, have publicly opposed the new measures on ethical grounds, while the governors of Tuscany and Piedmont have said they will challenge them in court.

    But dozens of migrants and asylum seekers have already been evicted from state-organised housing, and thousands more remain concerned. Unwilling to return home and unable to build a future in Italy, they fear they may end up on the street with no access to services or support.


    *The production of this film was supported by a Migration Media Award

    No way back: New law adds pressure on asylum seekers in Italy
  • Returning from Libyan detention, young Gambians try to change the migration exodus mindset

    Mustapha Sallah knows all about taking the “back way”, the Gambian expression for migrating to Europe, a journey that for many citizens comes to a brutal halt in a Libyan jail.


    Having experienced detention first-hand, 26-year-old Sallah and the group he set up last year, Youths Against Irregular Migration, are now using the airwaves in his home country, as well as social media and roadshows, to try to deter others from following in his footsteps.


    “The phone-in discussion was on the consequences of migration – good or bad,” Sallah told IRIN after his recent weekly half-hour segment on Capital FM radio. “One guy called in and said, ‘Italy is already full. There are many things you can do here [in The Gambia].’”


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Mustapha Sallah and Jacob Ndow on the air.

    According to the World Bank, Gambians make up Europe’s second largest diaspora as a share of home-country population (in their case 1.9 million).


    “The Gambia has never had a group of returnees trying to discourage youths from travelling irregularly,” Sallah said. “We went there [Libya] and saw and experienced everything, so when we talk [here] we use our own stories on their level. When people see us, they say ‘this is what we needed, you are really supporting society’.”


    The Gambia is emerging as a test case for international efforts to reverse irregular migration across the Mediterranean. Sallah was among 2,674 Gambians flown home from Libya by the UN’s International Organization for Migration between January 2017 and June 2018.


    These operations only became feasible with the fall of president Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorial regime to a democratic coalition government in January 2017.


    Concerns remain over the capacity to assist large numbers of returnees, but the strategy appears to be working: recent IOM data shows that The Gambia has dropped out of the top 10 league of migrant nationalities arriving in Italy for the first time since the Mediterranean crisis began in 2014-2015.


    Anecdotally, there is consensus that fewer people appear to be leaving, but there is no hard data to support this assumption.


    Benefits of staying


    As well as highlighting the perils of migration, YAIM seeks to draw attention to the potential benefits of staying in The Gambia.


    YAIM member Saihou Tunkara, a 22-year-old who returned from Libya with Sallah, told Capital FM listeners about enrolling in a hairdressing course sponsored by the anti-trafficking campaign “I’m Not for Sale”.


    “If I had had that support before, I would not have gone the ‘back way’,” he said after the radio show. “Gambia is a place where people don’t support you at the grassroots level. If you are on the journey [to Europe] then they support you, they start sending money, but that is not the right solution.”


    The belief that you can only make it in Europe is so entrenched among most Gambians that many families would still rather bet their last dalasi on the hope their youngsters will succeed on the dangerous journey than support them in developing livelihoods at home.


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    YAIM co-founder Jacob Ndow.

    “Changing the minds of the sponsors [relatives and friends] of this irregular migration is the most difficult thing. They lack confidence in the youths and this country,” Sallah told IRIN. Sitting in his crowded family compound with friend and co-founder Jacob Ndow, they explain the organisation’s genesis and why they think their message really hits home.


    Treated like slaves


    “Youths Against Irregular Migration was created by migrants in the [Libyan] prison. We were there for each other against the hardship. Everybody was saying I wouldn’t even want my enemy to take this journey,” said Sallah, who spent four months in detention.


    “We were treated like slaves; we didn’t take a bath for months, so we tried to escape and they beat us seriously,” added Ndow. “That’s when I met Mustapha. He was also punished and he couldn’t stand. That’s when we decided that we must make people aware that the ‘back way’ is a bad road.”


    YAIM has just completed the second of its “youth caravans”, with funding from the German Embassy in Banjul. They travelled to communities in two regions particularly affected by irregular migration, sharing their experiences in market squares and meeting places.


    A female member of YAIM, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how on the tours she recounts her experiences of being kidnapped and sold. “The ‘back way’ is a dangerous journey, especially for women. We face too much maltreatment,” she said.


    Such tales are softened by performances. Ndow is one of the star acts, singing the song he made up in prison. Upon his return he recorded his single, “The back way isn’t an easy road”, which gets regular airplay.


    “Even the kids and elders are singing that song, and it will change their concept of travelling because they will know it’s not an easy road,” he said.


    Coming home is not an easy option either, and another returnee group is trying to establish its own reintegration project to overcome the stigma of being a so-called “failed migrant” and to lead by example.


    “Libya was full of ugly experiences: slave labour, torture. It became a living hell. But how you are looked upon as a returnee is really stressful,” said Pa Modou Jatta, a member of Returnees From The Backway (RFTB), which was also founded in a Libyan detention centre.

    “You feel that you have betrayed yourself and your family because you had aims of becoming someone great.”


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Tea with the Returnees From The Backway association.

    A new dawn?


    Gambians are great tea-drinkers, and often make an elaborate ritual of it, called attaya, which is especially popular among young men. So RFTB uses attaya sessions to spread its message, often after football training sessions.


    RFTB has been given farmland in the Kerewan Local Government Area by village elders inspired by their cause. The grand plan is to establish a farming cooperative with other returnees and become role models for local youths, then spread the scheme across other regions.


    None of RFTB’s members are farmers, so they have persuaded IOM to fund their agricultural training. “You have to seize opportunities to do well in life,” said the group’s chairperson Alhagie Camara.


    This optimistic spirit appears to be part of a bigger shift following decades of economic stagnation under the previous regime, which controlled most of the country’s meagre industries.


    New government programmes to tackle high levels of youth unemployment and under-employment are being hastily implemented, bankrolled by the EU’s Trust Fund for Africa, which was controversially launched in 2015 to stem the flow of irregular migrants to Europe.


    EUTF’s 11-million-euro Youth Empowerment Project is generating an “entrepreneurial awakening”, according to Raimund Moser, a YEP project manager from the International Trade Center, which runs the market-led skills and job creation scheme on behalf of the government. “For those who have the skills and determination this is a better time,” he added.


    But YEP schemes are aimed at the general youth population, and the programme has drawn criticism over an onerous requirement to fill in a three-page business plan.


    Migrants from The Gambia were the least likely to have completed formal education and were most likely to be unemployed at time of departure, according to IOM’s survey of the top five migrant nationalities in 2017.


    More EUTF funding is going into developing short-term practical programmes for low-skilled migrants and they will be linked through a referral system to the IOM-EU’s Migrant Protection and Reintegration Programme that launched in November. IOM Gambia expects to provide tailor-made reintegration packages to 3,000 migrants within 12 months.


    Its chief of mission, Fumiko Nagano, said: “It is building on the ‘you can make it in The Gambia’ motto. We believe that’s what will ease the whole return process.”


    But The Gambia is a long way from being ready to absorb the reintegration of tens of thousands of migrants stranded in Europe. A 2017 report on migration governance under the new government highlighted concerns over instability if returns were ramped up too quickly.


    “Many things are getting better, but the job market for youths will take time. Nobody has pressed a switch and The Gambia is suddenly a paradise for jobs,” added Moser.


    The current economic reality doesn’t stop Alhagie Camara from dreaming big. About to start his agricultural training with fellow RFTB members, he said: “We are impatient to begin.”



    The belief that you can only make it in Europe is deeply entrenched
    Returning from Libyan detention, young Gambians try to change the migration exodus mindset
  • One year on, victims of Gambian dictator demand justice

    Ayeshah was just 14 when her father went missing in 2005, never to be seen again. He was a relative of Gambian autocrat Yahya Jammeh, but he had made the fatal mistake of telling the president “what he was doing to people was wrong,” Ayeshah told IRIN.

    When her aunt tried to search for her brother, she too “disappeared”. The family learnt much later on, from listening to a dissident radio broadcast, that they had both been killed. They believe the murders were carried out on Jammeh’s command, by his assassin team known as the Jungulars.

    Her father, Haruna, was Jammeh’s cousin and had been working as a farm manager on the then-president’s sprawling estate in his home village, Kanilai. “My father was more like an older brother to Jammeh. People warned him not to work for him, but he believed his own blood would not harm him,” Ayeshah said.

    “I had to say my dad had travelled [many Gambians take the ‘back way’ out to Europe],” she added. “The only thing I want now is for Jammeh to face justice. I want him to stand up in court before all the people he has harmed.”

    Since Jammeh was forced into exile in Equatorial Guinea a year ago, the victims of his brutal rule have been driving the demand for justice.

    Ayeshah is just one of many who feels she and her family will only get a sense of closure for their ordeal when the former dictator is tried and prosecuted.

    In October, an umbrella group of victims joined forces with national and international human rights organisations to form the “Jammeh2Justice” coalition, with the goal of bringing Jammeh and his accomplices to account for the human rights violations perpetrated under his 22-year regime.

    Lessons learnt

    The Jammeh2Justice coalition is following the lead of the successful prosecution in Senegal of the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for crimes against humanity in 2016.

    To learn how they managed it, members of the Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations met with the Chadian victims that led that campaign.

    “This meeting was so important to the Gambia victims,” said Ayeshah. “When those people came, it gave us confidence. They said ‘No matter how long and how hard you have to fight, you will get justice’.”


    Family or murdered journalist
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    The family of murdered journalist Ebrima Manneh are still looking for answers

    The April 2017 meeting was convened by human rights lawyer Reed Brody, who worked with the Chadian victims for 18 years to help bring Habré to trial.

    Brody is now working with the Gambian victims on behalf of Human Rights Watch, adopting the same painstaking approach that eventually led to Habré’s conviction, albeit, he hopes, in a much shorter timeframe.

    “We start from a very different place; we start with the lessons learned,” he told IRIN from his home in New York.

    “One of the most important lessons is that you have to tell the victims’ stories and put them at the centre; you talk about people who were killed and tortured rather than this abstract idea of prosecuting a dictator.”

    Since leaving The Gambia on 21 January last year following his electoral defeat and a military intervention by West African countries to enforce the result, Jammeh has been a guest of Equatorial Guinea’s strongman President Teodoro Obiang.

    Brody hopes to generate a groundswell of international support that will put enough pressure on Obiang to give Jammeh up for extradition.

    In an interview with Radio France Internationale broadcast last week, Obiang – in power for 38 years – refused to be drawn on the question of surrendering Jammeh to an African court, replying simply: “if there is a request, I will analyse it with my lawyers”.

    The other prong to Brody’s work is to build up the legal case against Jammeh, to show direct responsibility for crimes. In the Habré case, the discovery of police files containing the dictator’s handwriting was key evidence.

    “Victims are coming forward, as well as people who served in the security forces, both within and outside of Gambia,” said Brody. “We are getting a lot of information about what went on inside, and [about] Jammeh’s personal involvement.”

    Not ready for Jammeh?

    But it is widely agreed that The Gambia is not yet ready for Jammeh to be extradited at this point, as recent clashes between pro-Jammeh supporters and political activists have highlighted. Holding a trial in a neighbouring country is also an option the coalition is examining.

    Amnesty International supports the coalition’s aims, but believes the Jammeh2Justice campaign should not distract from the broader work on truth-seeking and transitional justice that is needed in The Gambia.


    jammeh leaves Gambia
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Yahya Jammeh leaves Gambia for exile

    "It is important to have accountability, but this should not just be focused on Jammeh, but also those who are suspected of committing crimes under international law,” said West Africa researcher Sabrina Mahtani.

    “The forthcoming Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission will be an important opportunity to look into the underlying causes of human rights violations,” she added. “Further reform of institutions, such as the security services, is necessary for long-term change."

    The proposed 11-person truth commission will hear the cases of victims and decide on reparations. It had been timetabled by Justice Minister Aboubacar Tambadou to launch last year but is now expected to begin in a few months’ time, once commissioners have been appointed.

    “Now it is about making sure the commission sits as soon as possible,” said Gaye Sowe, executive director of the Banjul-based Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa.

    But Sowe, a human rights lawyer, acknowledged that the government is experiencing “very big capacity gaps” that makes it impossible to do all the transitional justice work on its own.

    “This is why the interventions of the victims’ centre and the campaign to bring Jammeh to justice are extremely important,” he added.

    See IRIN's film on the trial of Hissène Habré: The Gravedigger and the President

    Tracing the disappeared

    At present, many victims feel left in the dark about what has happened to their loved ones, the so-called “disappeared”.

    The Mannehs, for example, were only officially informed last January that their son, Ebrima Manneh, had been killed. He was a young journalist imprisoned in 2006 for a story he had written about the presidential term limit.

    “We know the murder has been reported to the police headquarters and it is under investigation, and I go there to see how far, but still there is no information about him,” his sister, Adama Manneh, also a policewoman, told IRIN.

    The Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations has quickly evolved over the past year from a small support group to a larger lobbying organisation for victims’ voices to be heard.

    Priscilla Ciesay, acting executive director, said victims were being encouraged to register and tell their experiences “so that they can be part of the history-making of the country”.

    Fighting impunity

    So far, close to 1,000 victims have registered, and the centre has documented their experiences and hopes for justice and reparations. Ciesay wants the government to see the centre as a lynchpin for the work of the truth commission.

    “We have a wealth of information which could be extremely useful to the commission so that they are not starting over from scratch,” she told IRIN.

    For now, it appears that the government doesn’t see the prosecution of Jammeh as a priority, but it is aware that this is the ultimate wish of the majority of victims.

    “There will be so much evidence from the truth commission that it will make a mockery of every process if, after that, the government does nothing to prosecute Jammeh,” said Ciesay, adding: “The stories of the victims are so harrowing that something has to be done to address impunity.”


    TOP PHOTO: Gambia's notorious Mile 2 prison where Jammeh's opponents were detained

    One year on, victims of Gambian dictator demand justice
  • Meet the Gambian migrants under pressure to leave Europe

    The Gambia’s leader of 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, used to give Gambians good cause for claiming asylum, even if the majority were fleeing poverty rather than persecution.

    But with the autocratic president’s exit in January, Gambians’ grounds for international protection have suddenly become shakier, making them prime EU targets for rapid return, although they are not the only ones.

    Gambians are one of the top nationalities among the 93,000 mainly West African and Asian migrants who have arrived in Italy already this year. The majority, as in preceding years, are unlikely to qualify for asylum. And yet Italy, like most EU states, has had little success in forcibly returning them home or persuading them to leave voluntarily.

    Italy’s threat to close its ports to foreign rescue vessels at the end of June prompted the EU to come up with an action plan promising more support, not only in deterring migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, but also in stepping up returns of those already on Italian soil.

    Left to fester

    Ebrima Gaye was 17 when he disembarked a rescue boat in Pozzallo, Sicily in July 2016. He spent seven months in a centre for minors near Syracuse. After turning 18 in March, he was shunted around several times before being sent to the Frasca Centre in Rosolini.


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Ebrima Gaye in his room at the Frasca Centre in Rosolini

    Like many of the 2,000 extraordinary reception centres (CAS) scattered across Italy, Frasca was once a hotel. A white behemoth of a building, it sits on top of a scrubby hillside on the outskirts of town.

    Residents congregate in a large living area with a pool table, where young men sit slumped on chairs, staring at their phones while daytime television babbles in the background. Others lie on their beds in dorms that sleep up to 30, immobilised by the stultifying heat and boredom.

    The centre is meant to be an “emergency” short-term facility, but the overwhelming demand on Italy’s reception system means camps like this one have become holding pens, while migrants’ asylum claims move through the glacial legal system. Some residents have been there for a year.

    Under Italian law, asylum seekers who have a residence permit can seek work, but residents reported that they had been forbidden from working while living in this centre.

    Gaye’s asylum application was rejected in May and he is waiting to appeal the decision. Almost a year after arriving, the reed-thin boy glumly admits he regrets making the journey.

    Before leaving, Gaye worked as a barber in his home village on the banks of the River Gambia. “I am the firstborn son, so I contributed to my family, but the money I was saving was very small. Many of my friends had taken ‘the back way’ [the irregular route to Europe via the Sahel and Libya], so I decided to go,” he said.

    But Gaye’s savings only got him as far as Agadez in Niger, then he had to beg his family to send him $2,400 to complete his journey.

    Prisoners of hope in Italy migrant camps

    Jason Florio
    Prisoners of hope in Italy migrant camps

    Prisoners of hope

    Gambia’s new government has received unprecedented amounts of development aid from the EU to tackle its “back way” exodus with youth training and job creation programmes. But none of the young Gambians IRIN spoke to were persuaded by the promise of what has been dubbed “New Gambia”.

    “I spent a lot coming here,” Gaye said. “I could have had a good business in Gambia, but now I’ve been here a year and I have gained nothing. So it is better I stay here and try to find something for my future first.”


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Boredom can be the most frustrating aspect of camp life for the migrants

    In a camp for minors in Messina, IRIN found another Gambian, Yahya Damfa*, much of the same opinion. “I’m not thinking about returning anyway,” said the 17-year-old. “I haven’t heard of any improvement yet (in The Gambia), I think it will take some time. I tell myself, ‘if I have made it to Europe I’d rather manage here’.”

    Once migrants like Gaye and Damfa have crossed the Mediterranean, the financial and psychological costs of the often-harrowing journey make the prospect of returning home empty-handed too much to bear. They become prisoners of hope.

    That hope, however futile, combined with the EU’s poor record on returns are the fundamental factors perpetuating Europe’s migration crisis, believes Gerald Knaus, chair of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank.

    “Anybody from West Africa who makes it to Libya [and] survives the boat trip is in Europe forever, irrespective of whether they get refugee status or not. Unless this changes, the flow will continue,” he told IRIN.

    Low return rates

    Last year, 12,000 Gambians arrived in Italy, but just 15 were forcibly returned, according to Eurostat figures.

    There is currently no readmission agreement with The Gambia. The Italian government attempted to negotiate one with Jammeh’s government in early 2016, but was unsuccessful. The Ministry of the Interior did not respond to IRIN’s request for information on whether new negotiations have started.

    Knaus is hopeful that the Italian government will seriously consider ESI’s policy proposal, which is being released this week. The so-called Rome Plan is based on a premise of “return realism”, explained Knaus, who was involved in drawing up the controversial EU-Turkey Agreement.

    Knaus’ new initiative urges the EU and member states to accept that poor countries that rely heavily on remittances currently have nothing to gain from taking back their citizens. According to the Rome Plan, member states should offer migrant-sending countries a certain amount of legal access in the form of scholarships or work visas in return for taking back their nationals who do not qualify for protection.

    “Legal access has never before been linked to controlling irregular access,” Knaus said. “With this [plan] you have less suffering, it benefits the development of the country of origin and it’s in line with the Refugee Convention.”

    For now, Italy’s response to its clogged up asylum and migrant reception system has been a series of immigration reforms introduced by interior minister Marco Minniti in April. They include the creation of 16 new repatriation centres. But without more readmission agreements with countries of origin, detaining more irregular migrants in the new centres will be pointless, believes Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Italy.

    “By law, migrants will only be able to stay [at the repatriation centres] for 60 days,” he told IRIN. “If they cannot be repatriated, they will get an order to leave by themselves. It will only increase Italy’s irregularity problem.”

    The bottom line is that most Gambian migrants, who are unlikely to qualify for international protection or be deported, face a future of trying to survive in Italy’s informal economy.

    Hustling to get by

    In Catania and other Sicilian cities, each migrant nationality has a speciality: Bangladeshis clean car windscreens, young Nigerian women, most trafficked from Edo State, sell themselves, and Gambians push drugs. 

    They loiter in alleyways in Catania’s red-light district of San Berillo, sleep in derelict squats, and wheel their worldly possessions along the streets in shopping trolleys. One Gambian teenager, holding a can of beer, staggers over to slur a greeting to staff from Oxfam’s Open Europe programme, which supports irregularised migrants in Sicily. Back in Muslim-majority Gambia, such behaviour would be taboo.


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Migrants rejected for asylum but unable to return home often end up homeless and dependent on charities

    Migrants like Mouhag Nyang, a 29-year-old Gambian, are completely reliant on charities to support their needs.

    Nyang, who arrived in Italy in 2014, has been living in a homeless shelter in Catania for the past two years since failing to qualify for protection. Nevertheless, he would rather stay in Italy than return home. “For me, I see Italy is better; here they give us a place to sleep. I would have nothing to go back to in Gambia. My uncle sold my family compound to travel [the backway].”

    Di Giacomo believes that helping more of these migrants to return home with at least a small amount of cash could go some way towards addressing the shame issue.

    “Nobody wants to return empty-handed,” he explained. “AVR [Assisted Voluntary Return] is trying to solve this through reintegration packages worth 1,600 euros, plus they are given 400 euros in cash at the airport in Italy, so that there is a possibility to start again when they return.”

    The EU’s action plan urges Italy to partner with IOM to increase the use of AVR and reintegration procedures. However, only one Gambian has opted to return via the programme so far this year.

    IOM is working with the Italian Ministry of the Interior to raise awareness with migrants about the opportunity to leave voluntarily with financial support, but di Giacomo is worried about a surge in demand. “We can only assist a maximum of 2,500 AVRs,” he said, adding that funding for AVR still represents only a small portion of the overall EU budget for returns.

    For Gaye, such an opportunity could go some way towards addressing a difficult homecoming. “We are all praying to go back to our homeland, but to go back without achieving nothing is going to be so hard for me,” he said.

    “My family would not agree to that, it would hurt them so much. Nobody wants to go back a loser.”

    *name changed

    (TOP PHOTO: Ebrima Gaye onboard the MOAS rescue ship 'Phoenix' as he waited to disembark at the port of Pozzallo in July 2016. Jason Florio/IRIN)


    The production of this article has received funding from the Migration Media Award, funded by the EU. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

    Gambians in crosshairs of EU migrant return drive
  • “The right side of history” – Gambians seek justice after Jammeh’s fall

    A year ago, opposition activist Solo Sandeng led the first march in over decade to call for free elections in Gambia. Although the demonstration was a catalyst for the ouster of autocrat Yahya Jammeh, it cost Sandeng his life.

    The court case into his death has now become the first prosecution trial under Gambia’s new elected government for the human rights violations perpetrated during Jammeh’s 22-year reign.

    “The Sandeng case is not only politically the match that lit the fire, it really brought home the injustices of the regime,” said Aziz Bensouda of the Gambia Bar Association. “It’s one of the cases where we have a lot more detail than in the past, and it will really set the tone [of future human rights cases].”

    A key prosecution witness, Nogoi Njie, a member of Sandeng’s United Democratic Party, told IRIN how she and other UDP activists were arrested on 14 April as they marched at Westfield Junction, a busy roundabout in the centre of the sprawling market town Serrekunda.

    In her living room, Njie, a matronly woman in her early 50s, said she was interrogated at the National Intelligence Agency headquarters in Banjul over her political allegiance and repeatedly beaten by masked men known as the Jungulars – Jammeh’s personal squad of soldiers who tortured and killed on his orders.

    In one room, she recalled seeing a noose hanging from the ceiling, before she was ordered to undress to her underwear, her head covered in a nylon bag. “They told me if I don’t lie down they can hang me by the neck and nobody will know. They started to beat me. The blood was coming out all over my body. I almost lost my life,” she said.

    Later she found herself in the same room as Sandeng. The 57-year-old was naked, his body already swollen and bleeding.

    He was beaten again and fell to the floor. She recounted what she believes were his last moments alive: “He called my name ‘Nogoi, Nogoi’.” While lying on the ground, Njie said she heard him make a sound, which she re-enacted as a faint, strangled breath.

    “I called his name so many times and he didn’t answer me. And I cried because I’m very sorry for that man, he’s a family man. And he’s a very strong man, and they killed him like this.”


    Nogoi Njie
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Nogoi Njie - the last person to see Solo Sandeng before he died

    The demand for justice

    Change in Gambia began when Jammeh spectacularly lost an election in December to now President Adama Barrow. But he refused to accept the result, and only stepped down after West African leaders sent in troops to force him into exile.

    There is now a powerful demand for justice as the country transitions from dictatorship to democracy.

    In February, Interior Minister Mai Fatty instigated the arrests of former NIA chief Yankuba Badjie, ex-operations director Saikou Omar Jeng, along with seven other NIA operatives, charging them with Sandeng’s murder.

    But the trial is raising some difficult questions over the direction Gambia’s quest for justice should take, and the implications for its new-found democracy.

    Opinion is divided over whether criminal prosecutions should proceed before the government’s promised truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) is established. The commission’s goal is to encourage people to confess the crimes they committed, and for victims to air the injustices they suffered.

    Last month, Justice Minister Ba Tambadou announced that the commission will begin hearings in September. For some critics, waiting until the TRC process begins would mean delaying the day of reckoning for those responsible for the worst abuses.

    They, like journalist Alhagie Jobe, who was tortured at the NIA and imprisoned for 18 months, want to see justice delivered swiftly through the courts.

    “These people are the enablers of Jammeh and contributed to the killing of not only Solo Sandeng, but many other innocent people and today their families are crying. There was no justice for the last two decades.”

    But some legal experts are concerned the Sandeng case is being rushed to court without adequate planning and investigation. The risk is that defendants could be acquitted or prosecuted on a lesser charge, with implications for future human rights cases.

    Voices of caution

    Sandeng’s remains have been exhumed from a hidden grave near the fishing village of Tanji. But the prosecution has requested more time to gather the evidence, while new indictments have been filed that include conspiracy. The defendants’ bail applications were refused at the last hearing and the trial continues.

    “There is the urgent need to be seen to do the right thing, but urgency shouldn’t compromise standards,” said Gaye Sowe, executive director of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights in Africa (IDHRA), based in Banjul.

    “We have to be cautious. We shouldn’t allow emotions to get the better of us, because if matters aren’t handled well, the so-called perpetrators could end up becoming so-called victims,” he said.

    A further concern for Sowe and other human rights experts is that a trial may not serve all victims equally. Torture, for example, is not currently criminalised under Gambian law. This could have implications for Nogoi Njie and other 14 April protesters who were tortured, and in some cases allegedly raped, Sowe noted. 

    Torture victim Mariama Saine, whose mother was a UDP activist, wants to see her abusers punished. She was arrested on the eve of the 1 December election and interrogated at the NIA detention site known as Bulldozer.

    “They were beating me while I could hear the election results being announced on a television,” said Saine. “When Jammeh was ahead in the polls, the meanest one kicked me and said ‘Tomorrow, your head will be on a plate’. I was really scared.”

    When Jammeh (temporarily) conceded defeat, she was grudgingly allowed to leave the next day. But Saine is still angry at her treatment.

    “Of course, I want to see them prosecuted,” she said. “Not only for my case. I want to see all those people who have committed these atrocities prosecuted, all of them.”


    Mariama Saine
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Mariama Saine - "I want to see them prosecuted"

    Can the system cope?

    Gambia is fast becoming a live crime scene, with more evidence of atrocities committed under the regime coming to light on a weekly basis.

    But carrying out prosecutions in a piecemeal fashion through an already under-resourced criminal justice system is unsustainable, say legal and human rights experts.

    “It is key that the government sells the idea of the truth and reconciliation commission to people so that they understand it is not possible for all cases to be prosecuted,” said Sowe of the IDHRA. “There may be need for reconciliation in some instances.”

    Ousman Bojang, a former NIA operative who turned anti-Jammeh activist when he fled into exile in 2012, believes it is important to take into account how Jammeh’s system of abuse took place.   

    “Jammeh used the security services as a cover for the president’s bad activities. People were arrested, then the Jungulars would be invited to do his bidding – torturing, killing, whatever he told them.”

    He claimed that even though torturing prisoners went against the NIA’s code of conduct, agents could not intervene without facing Jammeh’s wrath


    The TRC process could offer a broader scope for redress, with punishments ranging from prosecution to reparations to a public apology. But the details of how it will operate have yet to be divulged. 

    “We don’t yet know the terms of reference – how far this process will go,” said Jeggan Grey-Johnson, a Gambian who works for the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa.

    “Most of the victims we know of are high profile cases. There may be many people who have disappeared, who have been forgotten about. And will it include violations such as land-grabbing?”

    The 14 April will be a difficult day for Fatoumatta Sandeng and her family. She told IRIN that her father wanted to be “part of those people on the right side of history.”

    So, on the day of the march “I didn’t stop him. I just wished him good luck and he went.”


    “The right side of history” – Gambians seek justice after Jammeh’s fall
  • New Gambia, new migration?

    “I am very happy to be home,” said 18-year-old Mohammed Nyabally, sitting on the steps of his uncle’s house in Serekunda, a town near The Gambia’s coast.

    Just two weeks earlier, he was languishing in a prison near Tripoli; his third spell in detention during the nine months he spent in Libya trying to board a boat to cross the Mediterranean.

    Nyabally’s parents sold the family’s land to send him the $5,600 he needed to pay his way out of his first and second stints in detention and the smuggling fee for him and another relative to take a boat to Italy. But after being robbed by a street gang, he landed up back in one of the squalid and brutal detention camps that have sprung up all over lawless Libya and are used to extort ever greater sums from young migrants trying to reach Europe.

    “Prison is very difficult,” the shy teenager told IRIN, speaking with a slight stutter. “I was beaten; many people were killed in that prison. I saw my friend shot dead because he tried to escape. Another Gambian boy I knew died too.”

    When the International Organization for Migration visited the detention centre where he was being kept and gave him the choice of staying there or going back to Gambia, he opted for freedom.

    “I didn’t want to stay in Libya,” he said. “The treatment of black people is very bad. I came back because it was too dangerous.”

    Nyabally was one of 140 Gambians aboard IOM’s first chartered flight from Libya to Banjul on 10 March. A second flight from Libya carrying 170 stranded Gambians is due to arrive on 4 April, while another 290 have signed up for IOM’s EU-funded voluntary return programme.

    Winds of change

    The Gambia is one of Africa’s smallest nations, with a population of just under two million. And yet its citizens have consistently ranked among the top five nationalities taking the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy. Until recently, the potential for convincing Gambians not to risk the “back way” to Europe was limited. That changed in January, when the country’s first democratically elected president Adama Barrow took office and former president Yahya Jammeh was exiled after a six-week political impasse.

    Jammeh, who held onto power for 22 years, had viewed migration as unpatriotic and refused to accept that young people were leaving the country to escape poverty and his autocratic rule. Even those migrants who didn’t find what they were looking for in Europe were reluctant to return home. 

    By contrast, the new coalition government has made tackling irregular migration a priority. It plans to focus on creating jobs and training opportunities to reduce the 40 percent unemployment rate among young people, the main push factor behind The Gambia’s exodus.

    “The improved political situation and stability in The Gambia is one of the factors that’s helping migrants to take this decision [to return from Libya],” said Michele Bombassei, IOM regional migrant assistance specialist.

    For the government, creating an environment that positively reduces migration is a matter of urgency. According to UNICEF, which analysed Italian immigration data, nearly 0.5 percent of The Gambia’s population migrate every year – the highest rate in Africa.

    The Gambia also ranks highest among sub-Saharan African countries in terms of the numbers of its migrants who are unaccompanied minors. In 2016, 13 percent of unaccompanied children arriving in Italy were Gambian, according to UNICEF. In total, nearly 12,000 Gambians arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean in 2016, a 36 percent increase from 2015.

    “The back-way trend is only going to be addressed if there are policies to attract the young people to come back and fulfil their dreams,” Employment Minister Isatou Touray told IRIN.

    Rebuilding bridges

    With an estimated inherited debt of more than $1 billion, the new government has been shoring up international donor support to kick-start development stalled for decades by Jammeh’s isolationist policies.

    This has included restoring cooperation with the EU. Jammeh expelled the EU’s charge d’affaires in 2015 just as tentative talks were under way to restore aid frozen over human rights concerns.

    “It made it impossible to roll out programmes,” explained Attila Lajos, the EU’s ambassador to The Gambia.

    “Jammeh’s government ignored the existence of migration… now we have absolute engagement across the government. They are open to exploring avenues on how to address the root causes of migration.”

    Brussels has seized the opportunity to work with the new government on reducing the number of Gambians heading for Europe. It has already pledged a total aid package of 225 million euros, some of which will go towards projects aimed at encouraging economic growth and employment opportunities.

    Neven Mimica, EU commissioner for international cooperation and development, made his first diplomatic visit to The Gambia in February, and on 16 March President Barrow met Mimica and foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini in Brussels to discuss the aid package and cooperation on migration.

    Getting started

    With 11 million euros in funding from the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, a four-year project to deter migration through vocational skills training has already been launched.

    While jobs and skills creation programmes may only yield results after many years, Lajos suggested that work on increasing voluntary returns and re-admissions of Gambian migrants stuck in transit could have “an immediate impact on reducing migration to Europe”.

    Convincing migrants already en route to Europe to return home will be the focus of a regional project covering 14 countries expected to begin in May, also with funding from the Emergency Trust Fund. It will be the first of its kind run by IOM and will include a 3.9-million-euro programme targeting Gambian migrants.

    But, if this approach is to succeed, much more needs to be done to support returnees, said Lamin Darboe, executive director of the National Youth Council.

    The NYC runs an IOM-funded livelihoods programme for returnees that focuses on developing livelihoods from selling ocean-caught fish to communities inland where demand is high. But Darboe said, so far at least, its impact has been limited.

    Ebrima Sisoho, 35, has been part of the programme since returning from Libya last September, after two failed attempts to reach Europe. He received a start-up grant to buy fish stocks and shares a refrigerated vehicle with nine other returnees. But after divvying up their weekly profits, what he earns amounts to little more than the price of a bag of rice.

    “It’s a nice project, but at the moment it’s not really benefitting me,” said Sisoho, whose main living is still selling second-hand clothes from a wheelbarrow. “It’s given me ideas for making a business. If I could, I would buy a motorbike and do this on my own.”


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Ebrima Sisoho participates in an IOM-funded livelihoods programme for returned migrants but still earns his main living from selling second-hand clothing from a wheelbarrow

    Short window

    Effective reintegration needs to go deeper than start-up funds, said Darboe. Many returnees face stigma and blame from their communities for coming back empty-handed, often after having sunk their families into debt. Some are also suffering psychological trauma from their experiences in Libya and elsewhere along the route.

    “The degree of reintegration support will go a long way in determining whether the returnees will stay here or plan to return,” said Darboe, who noted that past initiatives have merely enabled some returnees to attempt the back way again.

    He added that if the harrowing experiences of the recent repatriates from Libya could be shared with their communities, perceptions of the risks that accompany irregular migration might change.

    Nyabally’s uncle, Alieu, agreed: “I think experiences like Mohammed’s will discourage others from taking the back way because the rate of failure is much higher than the success.”

    Time will tell whether becoming a democracy will reverse Gambia’s back way trend or only temporarily reduce Europe’s appeal. 

    “There is an overall feeling of ‘let’s stay here and do our bit for Gambia’,” said Bombassei of IOM. “How long this will last will depend on how quickly the economic situation improves.”

    (Additional reporting by Jason Florio)

    (TOP PHOTO: Mohammed Nyabally, 18, is one of 140 Gambians who recently abandoned their dreams of reaching Europe and accepted voluntary return from Libya. Jason Florio/IRIN)


    New Gambia, new migration?
    Louise Hunt won Migration Media Award's second prize in the online category for her story.
  • Can Barrow deliver on the promise of a “New Gambia”?

    The Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, received a hero’s welcome when he returned to Banjul after his makeshift inauguration in neighbouring Senegal at the end of January.

    Tens of thousands of well-wishers came out to rejoice at the democratic victory that ended more than two decades of rule by autocrat Yahya Jammeh.

    Barrow and his coalition government are riding high on a wave of popularity. But they have major challenges ahead in reforming a country that effectively has to be rebuilt from scratch within a self-imposed three-year term.

    If the honeymoon period is to last, their first test is to prove to the nation that “New Gambia” really is a different country.

    Great expectations

    “We have got to start on the right footing,” said Sait Matty Jaw, a Gambian PhD student who went into exile in Norway after being arrested and imprisoned in 2014 for his human rights work. “Everything under Jammeh’s regime was tailor-made to suit his interests, so for us to move forward, the government has to show it is different from the former regime.”

    After 22 years of not being allowed to criticise the government, Gambians – especially the younger generation of educated professionals that played a major role in pushing for political change – are already scrutinising the new administration.

    For some, Barrow’s cabinet announcements last week carried disappointing echoes of the old ways of appointing: entitlement over merit.

    Out of the 11 filled posts (there are seven remaining), each of the seven parties that form the coalition got a major post, while Barrow’s United Democratic Party got three. One blog suggested he had chosen a “cabinet that attempts to reward and preserve the coalition that brought him to power”.

    “The potential for patronage is still there,” noted Jeggan Grey-Johnson, a Gambian who works for the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa and hopes to play an active role in the reform process.

    “Barrow doesn’t (yet) have the experience and gravitas as a politician, and those surrounding him have 10 times the amount of authority, so he will have to defer to their competing interests.”

    The cabinet is old (the average age is above 60) and predominantly male, and that demographic has also come in for criticism.

    “They may have the wisdom, but they lack the dynamism required to deal with the modern challenges of the Gambian youth population,” argued Salieu Taal, a lawyer and founder of the #GambiaHasDecided opposition umbrella movement.


    New Gambian President Adama Barrow
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    By popular demand

    Youth power

    It is the younger generation that has been the driving force behind political change, voting in unprecedented numbers in the 2016 election. It is no surprise they want to make sure their voices are heard and represented in government after decades of repression.

    Last week, youth groups staged the country’s first peaceful demonstration without worry of harassment by the authorities. Around 1,000 youths protested outside the National Assembly, calling for all members of parliament that supported Jammeh’s motion for a state of emergency to resign.

    The National Youth Council is also launching the Not2Young2Run campaign to encourage and support young people in contesting for parliament in the National Assembly elections in April.

    The coalition government has already made clear it is a transitional administration with the primary goal of righting the wrongs perpetrated under Jammeh.

    Speaking before he was appointed as foreign minister, Ousainou Darboe, a former opposition leader, acknowledged that three years was too short a time to repair all the damage, but said “the foundations will have been laid”.

    So far, the government has not shared any kind of roadmap for what it specifically aims to achieve, and it runs the risk of failing to manage expectations.

    “The government needs to identify the magnitude of the challenge and where to prioritise its interventions,” said Grey-Johnson. “People need to be reassured that the coalition understands the challenges and to communicate there is a plan in place and how they’re going to go about it.”

    Economic crisis

    The economy is in dire straits. The Gambia’s poverty rate is 50 percent and its debt repayment rate is 100 percent of GDP, according to Grey-Johnson. “So, whatever we make goes straight out of the country,” he said. “Gambia is insolvent. We are broke.”

    Add to this the thousands of tourists during the December election crisis that went home in the middle of the season, the hotels that are only half booked, and the reality is “unemployment is about to shoot up”, Grey-Thompson added.


    New Gambia
    Jason Florio/IRIN

    It is unlikely the rate of youth unemployment can be tackled anytime soon. And this is the most urgent employment problem the government faces, with thousands of youths attempting the illegal “backway” Mediterranean route to Europe.

    “The backway trend is only going to be addressed if there are policies to attract the young people to come back and fulfil their dreams,” Employment Minister Isatou Touray told IRIN.

    That means “finding jobs and addressing the human rights situation, and having freedom of movement so that they can help themselves under this regime”.

    Donors on board

    The coalition is already making good on its promise of improving international relations and encouraging long-term business investment, development, and, ultimately, job creation.

    In its first weeks, ministers have met with officials from several donor countries, including China. There have been talks with the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the signing of the first World Bank-funded project to promote child and maternal health.

    A decision by the European Union to reinstate its 33-million-euro development fund, frozen from 2015/16 over human rights concerns, is also a welcome move.

    Abdul Aziz Bensouda, secretary general of the Gambia Bar Association, believes that establishing a truth and reconciliation commission will also be an important part of the reform process – a step towards healing after decades of human rights abuses and embezzlement under Jammeh.

    “We need a commission of inquiry to investigate the crimes over the years, to allow civil society to decide what to do with them,” he said.

    Momodou Sabally, a former minister who was imprisoned twice by Jammeh, agrees on the need for a truth and reconciliation process, but sounds a note of caution.

    “I know there’s a lot of anger and zeal for vengeance, but we should be careful,” he said. “So many people have served in Jammeh’s regime; some of the victims now have been villains too in this long stretch of time.”

    If not handled properly, “the government won’t be able to do any work,” said Sabally. “They’ll be having to deal with these things piecemeal until their time is up. So, it’s important to address this in as mature a manner as possible.”

    The young, in particular, are in a rush to create New Gambia, but how much real change can be achieved in just three years under a coalition government? For Bensouda, simply “righting the wrongs and democratising the country” would be a start.


    Can Barrow deliver on the promise of a “New Gambia”?
  • Bye bye Jammeh: Hope and challenges in The Gambia

    Only disgraced ex-president Yahya Jammeh’s most hardcore supporters turned up to watch as he boarded a private jet at the weekend for exile in Equatorial Guinea. Some soldiers and members of his political party cried and shouted: “Daddy, Daddy”. Others aggressively jeered at supporters of The Gambia’s new coalition government.

    But once he took to the skies, most of the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

    “This day is amazing. We didn’t see it coming. We didn’t believe that he would leave, and the fact that this has happened democratically is the greatest achievement,” said 24-year-old Aminata, part of a youth group helping Gambian refugees as they arrived back at the ferry terminal in Banjul.

    “A year ago, we thought this would be impossible. But now we are hopeful that things will change. Now, we feel that destiny is in our hands, because leaders will have to be more accountable. Now, we know the power of our vote.”

    The moment was all the more remarkable because of what was at stake if the situation had unravelled. “We are in disbelief that we have come out of this in peace. We are glad that Jammeh has gone, but in a solemn way, because we came so close to war,” added Aminata’s friend, Khadija.

    Adama Barrow, The Gambia’s new president, was sworn in last week. For his safety, the ceremony had to take place in Dakar, Senegal, and he was not planning to return home until a West African military intervention force had secured the country.

    They were poised across the border the night Barrow was sworn in, and the threat of force was crucial in buttressing mediation efforts by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS that eventually succeeded in pressuring Jammeh to accept his electoral defeat and step down.

    ECOWAS troops and military vehicles now patrol the streets of Banjul, cheered as they pass. Gambian soldiers are meanwhile being disarmed because of a concern that rogue elements, still loyal to Jammeh, could cause trouble.


    Adama Barrow - the man of the moment
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Adama Barrow - the man of the moment

    From total power to ignominy

    Jammeh, along with a group of other young officers, came to power in a coup in 1994. After 22 years of oppressive rule, in which arbitrary detention, torture, and disappearances were common, he suffered a shock electoral defeat in a 1 December ballot that most analysts assumed he would rig.

    At first, Jammeh magnanimously accepted the result, only to change tack a week later and declare the poll void. He petitioned the Supreme Court for a fresh election, but as he had sacked most of the judges 18 months previously the court could not hear the challenge before May.  

    He then declared a state of emergency that technically would have allowed him to stay in power for another three months. This desperate, last-ditch attempt to cling to power was ignored by the West African leaders who were working to resolve the crisis.

    By then, Jammeh’s grip on power was already slipping. Most of his cabinet had deserted him and his army chief, General Ousman Badjie, had conceded that his soldiers would not resist the ECOWAS intervention force.

    Barrow’s inauguration speech embraced the history-making moment. “This is a day no Gambian will ever forget,” he said. “The capacity to effect change through the ballot box has proven that power belongs to the people in The Gambia. Violent change is banished forever from the political life of our country. All Gambians are therefore winners.”

    But the fact that Barrow’s much-anticipated swearing-in couldn’t take place on Gambian soil is a bitter reminder of the regime’s far-reaching net of oppression.   

    Jammeh had ordered there to be no inauguration celebrations. In the event, nothing could stop at least several thousand young Gambians defiantly taking to the streets.

    At Westfield Junction – the symbolic location just outside Banjul where opposition activist Solo Sandeng was arrested in April last year after calling for electoral reform (he was subsequently tortured to death) – the crowd grew and grew. Above the throng was one united cry: “Gambia has decided”.

    Throughout the political impasse, activists had been peacefully campaigning to ensure Gambians’ democratic choice was upheld. #GambiaHasDecided became a social media phenomenon, also appearing on billboards and T-shirts, defying Jammeh’s attempts to silence dissent.


    Gambians that fled come home
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Gambians that fled come home

    What now?

    Having put themselves on the line, young Gambians who voted for change are determined to see a new Gambia achieved.

    “The day the coalition was formed – that was the day the whole country smiled,” said Momodou Jallow, 28.

    But Jallow also offered a sobering reminder to the coalition not to lose sight of how they came to power. “I voted for Adama Barrow not because I liked him but because I didn’t want to vote for Jammeh,” he told IRIN.

    Jallow, who was recently arrested for posting views critical of Jammeh’s government on social media, wants to see a change in the constitution, in particular the introduction of a two-term presidential limit.

    And there are plenty of other challenges facing the new administration. After more than 22 years of Jammeh’s autocratic rule, it must start pretty much from scratch: having to install a cabinet, institute a proper rule of law, and launch much-needed military and political reforms amid a climate of both uncertainty and expectation.

    Barrow began announcing his cabinet on Monday. A notable pick was Vice President Fatoumata Tambajang, a former minister and United Nations Development Programme staffer credited as the main force in galvanising the previously fractious opposition parties.

    One of the new administration’s first tasks will be to support the return of the 46,000 refugees estimated by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to have fled to Senegal and Guinea over the past weeks, fearing impending conflict.

    An estimated 25,000 have also been internally displaced, according to the Gambian Red Cross Society. Almost everyone in the capital sent family members – mainly women, children, and the elderly – away to the sanctuary of relatives in other parts of the country.

    Extra pressure is being placed on already stretched food supplies and sanitation in the some of The Gambia’s poorest communities, according to a rapid assessment survey by United Purpose, an NGO.

    Jammeh’s stubbornness also hurt Gambia’s already ailing economy by dealing a blow to its main revenue earner – tourism. As the crisis deepened, Western governments sent charter planes to pick up holidaymakers, right in the middle of peak season.


    Watching the inauguration
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    The revolution is televised - watching the inauguration

    Tackling impunity

    But uppermost in many Gambians’ minds is how Jammeh and his accomplices will be made to pay for the wide-ranging crimes and abuses perpetrated under his regime.

    Jammeh is free to return to The Gambia in the future under the exile terms set out in a joint statement by the UN, the Afrcian Union, and ECOWAS. These state that he, his family, and his senior aides should have the same rights to dignity and safety as any former president.

    The unsigned communique implies that he will have impunity from prosecution but it doesn’t impose any legal obligations on the new Gambian administration. Barrow has since referred to it as a “resolution, not an agreement”.

    Barrow’s administration intends to establish a truth and reconciliation committee, which will gather evidence. But some people do not think this process will go far enough.

    The new government’s spokesman, Halifa Sallah, has already hinted that it may not be in the national interest to delve too deeply into the past.

    But Fatou Jagne, West Africa director of human rights NGO, Article 19, has welcomed a homegrown reconciliation process, saying: “We need to give Gambians a chance to set up a mechanism that will work for them to get to the justice and the truth.”

    New Gambia has begun. It’s a place where people can now speak freely and have hope for the future, but the new administration will need to carefully manage the soaring expectations of its people, according to Abdul Aziz Bensouda, secretary-general of the Gambian Bar Association.

    “People have expectations for rapid development, but [this will be difficult] with a budget that’s just enough to pay the bills,” he said. “It is a case of trying to right the wrongs under Jammeh’s regime, and move us [forward].”


    TOP PHOTO: Gambians welcome West African ECOMIG troops to Banjul. CREDIT: Jason Florio

    Bye bye Jammeh: Hope and challenges in The Gambia
  • The challenge of building “New Gambia”

    Last Friday, the unbelievable happened in Gambia: after 22 years of autocratic rule, Yahya Jammeh peacefully conceded defeat in a historic presidential election. By Monday, 19 political prisoners, including former opposition leader Ousainou Darboe, had been released from jail.

    It has been a head-spinning few days for the nation as it breaks free from oppression to rebuild what the incoming coalition government, headed by Adama Barrow, has branded “New Gambia”.

    The challenges ahead are daunting. Ensuring a safe transfer of power and reassuring the country that the new government has a strong reform plan are the immediate tasks.

    But after more than two decades of misrule, Gambians are also impatient for change and the list of problems is long: a prostrate and undiversified economy, a high rate of outmigration, heavily politicised state institutions – including a military and a criminal justice system used to operating by fear.

    Expectations are sky-high as so much already seems to have happened so quickly.

    Coalition 2016, officially formed only one month before the election, swept to victory on Friday with 46 percent of the vote, to Jammeh’s 37 percent. Independent candidate Mama Kandeh trailed on 18 percent.

    Soon after the announcement that Jammeh was to stand down, delivered by the reportedly trembling chair of the Independent Electoral Commission, Gambians began pouring onto the streets, shouting for joy and dancing as car horns wailed.


    The jubilant scenes shared through social media were a collective release. “It was like we had been under a magician’s spell and the spell had just broken,” said Alieu Bah, a 24-year-old activist and writer.

    “Twenty four hours earlier we were in the polar opposite situation. It was like a dream. No one saw this coming, even the most optimistic of people.”


    Gambia celebrates
    Steve Cockburn/Amnesty International
    Gambia celebrates

    The coalition’s popularity was no surprise. Its two weeks of electoral campaigning had culminated in youthful and energised crowds packing streets for several kilometres in the rallies held in the urban coastal areas. But nobody expected Jammeh, who had vowed that only God could remove him from power, to accept defeat without a fight.

    “People were ready for change, but knowing the type of person Jammeh is, they did not believe that he would concede defeat without contesting the results,” said exiled journalist Alhagie Jobe, reporting from Dakar, Senegal. “Hopes were not high for a peaceful transfer of power.”

    Gambians were bracing for the worst after Jammeh, without warning, imposed a total internet and telecommunications ban at 8pm on the eve of the election. “We thought there would be Ivory Coast-style electoral violence,” said Jobe, referring to a 2010-11 crisis that led to civilian massacres.

    But the communications blackout ultimately failed to intimidate voters, and activists and journalists within the country published rolling results via SMS and on satellite phones, in a victory for transparency.

    “Jammeh was not happy,” said Jobe, who had been tortured and imprisoned for 18 months by the regime. “He fought behind the scenes. He did all he could to hold on to power, but because there was such a strong atmosphere for change he knew he couldn’t stop it: the people had spoken.”

    What next?

    There are now great hopes – and pressures – on the coalition to deliver their promise of a New Gambia, especially among youths who voted for change in unprecedented numbers.

    “Youths came out and voted in this election and their voices have been heard,” said Dakar-based rapper Jerreh Badjie (stage name Retsam).

    Youth activist Mariama Saine said she hoped that once the new government took back all the industries owned by Jammeh, including farms and factories, there would be more employment opportunities that would provide an alternative to high-risk migration.

    “Jammeh has monopolised any sector youths could fit into, now these will be areas the new government can develop for youths.”

    For Bah, a new referendum should be held on the constitution to guarantee the secular nature of the country, introduce term limits, and guarantee human rights, and freedom of movement.

    “Jammeh also needs to be held to account,” he said. “He should face justice through a fair trial."


    Jammeh concedes
    Steve Cockburn/Amnesty International
    Jammeh concedes in a phone call to Adama Barrow

    Bintou Kamara, a Paris-based Gambian who founded an organisation to disseminate information about migration, said: “Now, there is a new window of hope for the entire population.

    “Some migrants I have spoken to who are in a deplorable situation in Europe are thinking of going home. They will be empty-handed but they will be coming back to hope. There will be lots of returnees.”

    Freedom of speech

    The most immediate change for Gambians is the ability to speak freely. Over the weekend, the scenes from former businessman Barrow’s victory parade showed partying crowds and people tearing down and stamping on Jammeh’s paternally smiling election banners.

    Bah, one of the few activists to criticise the government through social media while living in Gambia, told IRIN that before the election he could have been arrested at any time. “People really feared for my life, but I survived. This is what it means to triumph over a dictatorship. Gambia has become a beacon of hope. This is what we want to be remembered for.”

    Photojournalist Alhagie Manka also needs no reminder of the brutal regime the country has just broken free from.

    He was one of three journalists detained by the security forces at the start of the electoral campaign in a bid to intimidate the press and the electorate. “I was held for seven days, but they did not tell me why. They just kept asking me who I work for in the diaspora.”

    Commenting on what the outcome means for him, Manka said: “I am overjoyed, knowing that I have witnessed history. We have been living in hell under Yahya Jammeh, and we thank God he is leaving now, and I hope he will leave in peace.”

    Who’s in charge?

    Behind the grins, people are understandably nervous about the transfer of power.

    With Barrow’s inauguration not taking place until mid-January and a large military presence remaining on the streets, it’s clearly a highly sensitive security matter.

    Human rights organisations Amnesty International and Article 19 have called for a “safe transfer of power”, but said they cannot comment further.  

    Sheriff Bojang, a Gambian journalist at West Africa Democracy Radio in Dakar, said there was still uncertainty about who is in charge of the military.

    “It worries many people that the military hasn’t said anything so far to assure the population that there is no need for concern and that the country is safe and that the will of the people will continue to prevail,” he said.

    President-elect Barrow is due to meet outgoing Jammeh at State House soon, and address the nation. In the meantime, the release on bail of Darboe and the 18 other political prisoners arrested during protests in April is a “positive step”, according to Amnesty International.

    Fatoumatta Sandeng, whose father Solo Sandeng was allegedly tortured to death by the regime for protesting in April, told IRIN the new government is “a dream come true. It means freedom for the Sandeng family. It means justice.

    “We are glad that my father didn’t die in vain, and his efforts – and that of all those who have contributed their part in making sure the Jammeh regime ends – have paid [off].”


    TOP PHOTO: Celebrating a historic election victory CREDIT: Steve Cockburn/Amnesty International

    The challenge of building “New Gambia”
  • Will a united opposition finally unseat Gambia’s strongman?

    There has been unprecedented popular protest this year against the regime of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. But as the country heads to elections this week, hope for change is giving way to trepidation he will win and extend his 22-year stay in power.

    Human rights organisations have warned that the conditions leading up to Thursday’s vote are not conducive to a free and fair election. There has been a spate of arrests of journalists and opposition activists in a country in which disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture is commonplace.

    The Sandeng family is all too aware of those dangers. In April, they were forced to flee, crossing the border with Senegal at night, at a point they hoped would be unguarded.

    A week before, on 14 April, the head of the family, opposition activist Solo Sandeng, had allegedly been tortured to death by Gambia’s security forces for leading a peaceful protest near the capital, Banjul.


    The family, five adults and five children, spent a week in hiding, knowing their home was under constant surveillance. Then, realising they had no choice but to leave, they sought refuge in Senegal.

    It is a well-trodden escape route for the many Gambians who find themselves on the run from political persecution. “I was told to walk across the border and not look back,” said 22-year-old Fatoumatta Sandeng.

    In their new home in exile, the Sandeng family crammed onto sponge mattresses on the floor as Fatoumatta related how her father, a leading member of the opposition United Democratic Party, had been marching with youth activists against new rules introduced by Jammeh to scupper his opponents’ chances in this election.

    It was the first opposition demonstration since 14 students were gunned down by the army in 2000.

    “People were protesting for electoral reforms so that there could be a change of government. Because if the elections were free and fair, which is very rare in the Gambia, people would be at least hopeful that it could bring a better Gambia for its citizens,” Fatoumatta explained.

    Exiled Gambians pin hope of return on a new president-elect

    Jason Florio and Louise Hunt/IRIN
    Exiled Gambians pin hope of return on a new president-elect


    Jammeh’s regime has a long history of hounding dissenters, but due to the government’s tight control over the media Gambians are often unaware of the scale of human rights violations. The very public nature of Sandeng’s arrest was a wake-up call.

    “In Gambia, we know there wouldn’t be any protests without the government trying to stop them,” said Fatoumatta. “But to the extent of arresting, torturing and killing someone: that was shocking to the Gambian people.”

    Over April and May, Sandeng’s death ignited an unprecedented public outcry against the government’s brutality.

    “Before, you didn’t see people protesting on the streets. People didn’t dare hold a banner that insults the president. Now, it’s happening,” noted Alhagie Jobe, a journalist who was tortured by the secret police and spent 18 months in prison before being acquitted of sedition charges. He now lives in exile in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

    “It’s changing gradually. He [Jammeh] himself knows he is coming to the end of his administration. What people weren’t doing before for the past 20 years; it’s happening now. So that’s the signal that he’s losing power, gradually.”

    Opposition re-set

    Jammeh, who came to power in a military coup, responded to the bout of protests by arresting most of the UDP hierarchy, including party leader Ousainou Darboe. They were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for unlawful assembly, destabilising the party in the lead-up to the election.

    Out of this adversity, the previously fractious opposition parties realised their only chance was to unite and form Gambia’s first opposition coalition. But one leader, Mamma Kandeh, refused to join, and there is concern he may split the opposition vote.

    The “Coalition for Change 2016”, headed by the relatively unknown Adama Barrow, is nevertheless giving some Gambians hope that this time around there could be an upset at the ballot box, after four straight electoral wins by Jammeh.

    “Gambians need big changes,” said 31-year-old Abdoulie Touray*, speaking quietly over Skype from his home near Banjul.

    Touray left his rural village to study for a qualification in IT but could only find low-paid work as a watchman in a residential compound.

    “In the early years, Jammeh did good work in developing the country, but now he is overstaying,” Touray told IRIN. “We need a new president who will move the country forward. A lot of people are not working and the economy is falling down.”

    Gambia’s failure

    The Gambia is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranked 175 out of 188 in the Human Development Index. Children and young people under 30 make up the majority of the population and youth unemployment stands at 38 percent.


    Gambia police station
    D. Piris/Flickr
    The opposition rarely gets such a welcome

    In recent years, Jammeh’s autocratic decisions have increasingly isolated the country. In 2013, he withdrew Gambia from the Commonwealth; last year, he changed the title of the moderate Muslim-majority country to the Islamic Republic; and, in October, he opted to exit the International Criminal Court, on the grounds that it was biased against African countries.

    Touray hopes that if the new seven-party opposition coalition wins on Thursday, it will have a better relationship with the outside world.

    “We need people who can stabilise the country and bring in foreign investors. If people have jobs, they won’t go the backway,” he said, a reference to the illegal migration route to Europe.

    Last year, Touray’s two brothers undertook the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean. The Gambia, with a population of two million, is currently the fifth largest contributor of migrants arriving by sea in Italy.

    Exiles rally

    In Dakar, political activist rappers Jerreh Badjie (stage name Retsam) and Ali Cham (Killa Ace) both have a strong following among Gambian youths. They are part of a tight circle of recently exiled young Gambians driving a social media movement to inform and motivate their peers back home to push for change.

    “People are starting to see that if they don’t express themselves now, their lives and their children’s lives are at risk. They have to face the situation and talk now,” said Badjie, 27.

    Cham believes the lack of freedom of expression is inhibiting young people’s potential and contributes to the “backway” mentality.

    “It’s not that the backway is the only option, but to them it’s the easiest route [to improving their lives],” he told IRIN from his home recording studio, which is decorated with posters of revolutionaries and the Gambian flag.

    Combatting apathy

    Cham and Badjie accept that a lot of young people feel apathetic towards politics and want to boycott the election as a stand against what happened to the protesters in April and May.

    But Cham insists inaction won’t help: “The only thing youths can do is vote against the system, even if they’re disgruntled. There’s not much else they can do.”

    Meanwhile, in Gambia, locals report an edgy calm as the election approaches. “Everything is normal right now, but we are scared of what will happen if Jammeh gets voted out but refuses to leave,” said Touray. “We think there could be a lot of violence.”

    Lamin Manneh*, a young writer, is taking a philosophical view: “My gut feeling is that the guy [Jammeh] will triumph. But the coalition is really unsettling the whole system; people are not as gullible as before. For me, this is bigger than politics. It’s about creating a mass movement for democracy.

    “Even if it all ends as the year that something could have happened, but didn’t, I believe the seeds for democracy have been sown and are starting to take root.”


    * Not their real names

    TOP PHOTO: President Yahya Jammeh, by Erin Siegal

    Yahya Jammeh looks to extend his 22 years in power in elections this week
    Will a united opposition finally unseat Gambia’s strongman?

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