Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

GAMBIA: Cautious Eyes On Gambia As Election Process Gets In Gear

LONDON, Sep 3 1996 (IPS) - Tall and slim and smartly-dressed, with a bushy head of hair and equally bushy beard, all that remained for Ibrahima Njie to look the part of a griot — or traditional West African praise-singer — was a long, flowing African dress.

But unlike the famed griots of West African folklore, he is not retained by any chief or political leader. He is a London-based Gambian exile who would like to say — and do — quite a few unprintable things to his country’s military rulers.

“The problem with the Gambia, even the whole of Africa, is that these people feel that because they have guns they have a God- given right to rule over you, to overturn democracy, kill and imprison you and drive into exile people who love their country and their people,” says the 30-year-old former marketing executive.

The ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), formed by Captain Yahya Jammeh, who became head of state in a military coup that ousted president Dawda Jawara in July 1994, was one of four parties that said Tuesday they would register to participate in forthcoming elections in Gambia.

Four parties plan to sign up to contest the votes; the National Reconciliation Party (NRP), led by Amath Bah; the People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), headed by Sidia Jatta; and the United Democratic Party (UDP) of Ousainou Dabo. All four are expected to register their candidacies at the polls on Thursday.

The main challenge is expected to come from the UDP, which Monday called a rally at Birkama, about 40 kilometres from the capital Banjul that drew an estimated 100,000 people — said to be the biggest rally ever seen in Gambia.

Most of the crowd were thought to be supporters of three banned parties: the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the National Convention Party (NCP) and the Gambian People’s Party (GPP).

The APRC has come under persistent international censure for banning the opposition parties and other violations of basic human rights such as the freedom of expression and of association.

Various instances of torture and arbitrary arrests and imprisonment — of politicians, activists and journalists — and at least 15 extrajudicial executions, have been recorded by international human rights organisations.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have made frequent representations to the junta for the release of at least 35 politicians and alleged supporters of the former government held since October 1995.

Although a court ordered their release on bail last January, they were rearrested later that same day, Jan. 12, when the junta issued a decree with retroactive force. Many others continue to be held without any formal reference to any decree, while some seem to have “disappeared”.

Caroline Norris, Gambia researcher at Amnesty International, said: “These cases are particularly worrying, since these are people who should be released so they can participate in the political process. Their basic human rights — freedom of association and expression — are being violated.”

Despite stern criticism by the Gambian community for allegedly “being soft” on the Jammeh-led junta, the Commonwealth Secretariat has threatened to “reconsider” their position towards the Gambia — and possibly suspend the country’s membership — should the APRC continue with its plan to exclude bona fide politicians from the elections.

Gambia’s national electoral commission has ruled that members of banned parties can form new ones before presidential elections due to be held on Sep. 26 and general elections due in December — provided they have not previously held cabinet office or are a serving soldier. Jammeh is expected to quit the army this week.

The deputy director of information at the Commonwealth, Cheryl Borall, described the banning decrees as “a retrograde step”.

“If this means the people of the Gambia are denied their right to elect a government of their choice, the Commonwealth will have to reconsider its position… The secretary- general would be consulting with the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) on the way forward.”

The CMAG was set up at last November’s Commonwealth summit in New Zealand to press for the restoration of democracy in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Gambia, a former British colony which lies along the river of the same name, creating an enclave inside Senegal.

Successful elections which ended military rule were held in Sierra Leone in February.

Campaigners have also expressed concern over provisions in the Gambia’s new constitution granting total immunity from prosecution for APRC members and appointees guilty of rights violations.

The new constitution also retains the death penalty — reinstated by the APRC in 1995 — and allows fundamental human rights to be removed in a “state of emergency”.

These provisions, according to Amnesty, contradict Gambia’s international treaty obligations and pose a potent threat to human rights in any post-APRC political dispensation.

“Victims will be denied their right to judicial remedy and there will be created a climate where such violations are tolerated,” says Norris.

“And as the criteria for determining a state of public emergency are not specified, it leaves the fundamental human rights of Gambians potentially as vulnerable to the discretion of future governments as they have been under the APRC.”

She added: “We’re calling on Jammeh and any other candidate for the presidency to come forward with their proposals for respect for human rights in the future so that voters can make an informed choice at the elections.”

While she declined to comment on allegations by many in the Gambian community that Britain and the Commonwealth were not doing enough to put pressure on the APRC to respect the basic human rights in the Gambia, Norris maintains that a lot more can be done by “all members of the international community” to force the pace of human rights and democratic reform in the country.

According to Njie, many of his compatriots are not optimistic the Commonwealth will take any serious action against Jammeh and his APRC should they decide to go ahead with their “flawed” elections. “The Commonwealth can’t say that it was they who brought democratic change to Sierra Leone. Things were already moving that way,” he says.

“Just look at Nigeria. What have they done about military rule in that long-suffering country. They are just playing games with the generals there and making a lot of really meaningless noises. The same goes for Britain, which can really put the boot in if they want to.”

Neville Johnson, a spokesperson at the British Foreign Office, said: “We refute allegations that the United Kingdom is not doing enough as far as the political situation in the Gambia is concerned.

“We regret the decree preventing major parties and politicians from contesting the elections and, together with our partners in the European Union and the Commonwealth, we’re considering whether we are going to condemn the APRC.”

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