By Lawyer Emmanuel Daniel Joof
Ladies and Gentlemen I should begin by thanking the organizers of this event and I must say I feel honoured to have been invited to address this august gathering of the family members and friends of Solo Sandeng, well-wishers, students and all present here today to honour and celebrate the life of an industrious son of the Gambia, a father, an Uncle, a relative to many, a politician, a human rights activist and a friend to many people present here today.
Memorial lectures serve to preserve the memory of someone who is dead or of a past event. It is therefore indeed significant to have such a commemorative event dedicated to the life of a martyr (the Late Mr Solo Sandeng) whose life was brutally cut short by a dictator for merely exercising his fundamental rights and freedom- a fundamental right that is entrenched in our own 1997 Constitution.
Here was a man who was exercising his right to freedom of association, his right to freedom of assembly, his right to freedom of expression, his right to belong to a political party of his choice, his right to demonstrate against injustice. These fundamental rights as I have stated are not only guaranteed in our Constitution but also guaranteed in the international and regional human rights treaties and Conventions that the Republic of the Gambia ratified over the years.
This memorial lectures therefore serve as a remembrance of the death of
Solo Sandeng one of the martyrs of a brutal dictatorship that lasted for 22 years.
Ø A dictatorship that had no regard for the rights of its citizens and those living within its borders.
Ø A dictatorship that arbitrarily arrested, detained and tortured its own people.
Ø A dictatorship that forced many of its citizens into exile.
Ø A dictatorship that illegally and unlawfully appropriated the property and assets of its citizens.
Ø A dictator that used public funds and state revenue as his own personal bank account.
Ø A dictatorship that humiliated and imprisoned Imams and opinion leaders
Ø A dictatorship that operated death hit squads in the name of the jugglers, the green boys, the bulldozers and mystery gun men that carried out extra judicial killings of many Gambians that they regarded or perceived to be opponents of the regime.
This was a dictatorship that turned law and order state institutions like the NIA, the Paramilitary, the Police Services, the Prison Services, the Immigration Services and Customs into accomplices of all the hideous and hideous crimes that was directed and committed by the regime on Gambians.
The key rule of law institutions like the Judiciary which is supposed to be the chief guardian of the rule of law in any democratic and free country had its powers usurped and commandeered through the use of threats, coercion and the appointment of mercenary judges and with the assistance and connivance of some members of our own legal profession rendered the Judiciary an appendage of the rogue regime whose decisions was directed and dictated to by the beck and call of X-President Jammeh especially when he had an interest in a matter to be adjudicated.
The role of the Ministry of Justice was transformed into a persecution authority and not a prosecution authority and under successive Minister of Justices each trying their very best to outdo their predecessors by legitimising all that was evil and by so doing, became accomplices to all that was unlawful and illegal and the murderous spree of Jammeh by aiding and abetting him in his abuse of fundamental rights and freedoms of Gambians–that is to say, his unlawful arrest, detention, torture and killing of his opponents and perceived enemies, legitimizing of his illegal appropriation of peoples properties and looting of public coffers.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this was
Ø A dictatorship whose leader (supported by unscrupulous Gambian doctors and medical personnel) sent many to their deaths by his bogus claim that he could cure HIV & AIDS, Diabetes, Hypertension, Infertility and etc., etc. and by so doing, he forcibly prevented HIV & AIDS patients from taking their conventional treatments in substitute for phony and fake treatments.
Ø A dictatorship that was supported by some religious leaders who told Gambians that he was ‘God Fearing’ and conferred tile such as Sheikh and Nasurudeen upon him even when he imprisoned and tortured religious leaders who disagreed with him and when it was glaringgly obvious to many that X-President Jammeh personified all that was evil.
This is the regime that killed Solo Sandeng and many other Gambians.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is today recognized that the State has the paramount responsibility and obligation to:
ü Respect (refraining from interfering with the enjoyment of rights),
ü Protect (prevent others from interfering with the enjoyment of rights) and
ü Fulfil (adopt appropriate measures towards realization of rights) i.e. the human rights of its citizen and those living within its jurisdiction
It is not the role of the state to torture, dehumanize, maim and kill its people and or to impoverish them. But this was what the APRC of Yahya Jammeh did to the people of the Gambia including the late Solo Sandeng
The obligation of the state applies in principle to all civil and political rights and all economic, social and cultural rights.
The State also ratifies treaties and it is therefore beholden to implement and uphold treaty provisions and through different mechanisms, has a duty to provide a remedy at the domestic level for violations of rights and when national remedies are not available or insufficient, regional and international mechanisms can be sought.
Attitudes of Gambians to Fundamental Human Rights- Let Us Reflect How
Ladies and Gentlemen, the climate of fear and repression in the Gambia did not happen overnight.
· It was a process that involved the gradual pushing of the boundaries of repression and oppression;
· a process where the former head of state pushed the envelope and tested the patience of Gambians;
· a process when Gambia security personnel became an agent of a repressive regime,
· a process when rule of law institutions aided and abetted a regime that undermined the rule of law and denied Gambians access to justice and turned the country into a police state,
· a process where some religious leaders and opinion leaders mostly in the name of the Gambian Islamic Council, Banjul Muslim Elders and some Christian Pastors abdicated their responsibilities to condemn evil and instead (some of them) preached to their congregation and audience that Jammeh was a ‘God fearing man’ ordained to rule Gambians.
April 10 & 11, 2000 when under the orders of X-President Jammeh, 14 school Children were gunned down and killed and 2 other civilians were also killed and the maiming of many others for demonstrating against the beating to death of secondary school student Ebrima Barry by firefighters at Brikama, and the rape of a 13-year-old girl by a uniformed police officer at the Bakau Stadium –which was followed by a subsequent setting up of a Commission of Enquiry only to be quickly followed by an Indemnity Act absolving the perpetrators of all the despicable acts of criminality committed.
April 10 &11 was the catalyst for Jammeh’s brutality with impunity on Gambians. He had tested the waters and was sure that Gambians were perhaps cowards, selfish and or even hypocrites and who will rather hide behind the cloak of Islam and Christianity instead of speaking out against injustices perpetrated against other Gambians.
Soon after his orders to gun down of the students without any ramifications, Jammeh started with the assassination attempt on the life of Lawyer Ousman Sillah, the assassination of Deyda Hydara, the killing of Chief Ebrima Manneh and many others, the burning of media houses, the unlawful detention and torture of many, the plundering of the economy, his phony HIV/AIDS treatments, his witch hunting exercises, looting of government coffers, being bestowed with titles such as Sheikh, Professor and Nasurudin and his near crowning of himself as king, his usurpation of the powers of the judiciary by the appointment of mainly Nigerian mercenary judges, his detention and torture of Imam Ba Kawsu Fofana and Imam Baba Leigh, the public abuse and humiliation of many Gambian- the list goes on.
Human rights abuses were so entrenched and rampant that in effect many Gambians in the past accepted it as the norm and will even ridicule those who spoke out against the human rights abuses of Jammeh.
The Gambia was in effect a police state and people were arrested in the dead of night, tortured, detained and even killed. The general arrogance and attitude towards ordinary Gambians by security personnel namely the military, police, para military could be felt throughout the country. – Try to cross the Denton bridge to Banjul after 6pm and you know what I am saying.
The police were in the habit of detaining suspects way above the 72 hours without charging them and bringing them before a court as stipulated in our 1997 Constitution and in some instances where a person was charged and brought before a court, the accused person will always almost be denied bail even where they met all the bail conditions imposed by the court or in blatant disregard of court orders, a suspect will be arrested and detained or in some instances those who had been convicted and served their jail term will not be released from jail even after serving their full jail sentence. The dreaded jugglers, green-boys, bulldozers etc. were in the habit of arresting people under the orders of the former president and holding them in communicado for months and years without due process.
Strangely enough, the cynicism demonstrated against those who spoke out against the excesses of the regime sometimes came from some unexpected quarters and by that I mean from our so called ‘elite and professional class’ and even some lawyers.
Apart from the security personnel who actively carried out these atrocious acts, many Gambians were complicit (enablers) either directly or indirectly to these reprehensible acts including lawyers, mercenary magistrates and judges and even some religious leaders who as the saying goes decided to “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil” as far as the X-President or his regime was concerned.
Many turned a blind eye because they perhaps assumed that they were probably immuned from the human rights abuses of Jammeh by falsely believing that they were special because they either were Jola or non mandinkas, or believed that they were his friend, and even some Catholics (not all) assumed that because they brought and raise him up during his high school days, he was therefore their adopted son and brother- but most were soon to learn and realise that they were not exempted from his abuses as he started going after them, their families and religion. He even castigated the Christian faith by calling Christianity a bogus religion and even taunting the clergy of the catholic faith by saying words to the effect that he will find wives for them.
Jammeh’s support base also included members of the Supreme Islamic Council and the Banjul Muslim elders who despite the numerous arbitrary and unlawful detention, torture, disappearance and extra judicial killings remain silent and even apologetic to all the atrocities he committed and decorated him with names like Sheikh and Nausuredeen. The few religious clerics who spoke out against Jammeh’s excesses or refused to dance to his tune and or contradicted his version of Islam were not spared -the likes of Imam Baba Leigh and Imam Ba Kawsu Fofana suffered arrest, detention and torture.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the sum total of all of this is that many Gambians became enablers to the human rights abuses of Yahya Jammeh at varying degrees and for many, they were later to realize that even their families and themselves will be eventually affected either directly or Indirectly- At the end, there were to be no sacred cows as far as Jammeh’s human rights abuses were concerned.
For many It is only when they were directly and personally affected that they decided to condemn and or protest against the excesses and unfairness of a brutal dictator running a brutal regime. By then it was too late as the damage was already done- And to borrow that famous cliché, ‘the chicken finally came home to roost’.
‘This was a classic case of “First they came …” a poem written by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of groups after group. The theme of the poem centers around persecution, guilt and responsibility.’ He sated:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Ladies and gentlemen this was the position that many Gambians found themselves because of their inaction and abdication of their duties and responsibilities as Gambians i.e. the… ‘I don’t care attitude and or it did not affect me or my tribe or religion’ etc.
Indeed in 2013 and 2014, X-President Jammeh under his orders had the Minister of Justice & Attorney General (Lamin Jobarteh), his Solicitor General (Pa HarryJammeh), his mercenary Chief Justice( Joseph Wowo), his Inspector General of Police (Ensa Badjie AKA Jesus) all imprisoned at the same period at the Mile 2 Central Prison. Hitherto, all the named personalities were regarded by many Gambians as chief enablers of X-President Jammeh and his APRC Regime
Ladies & Gentlemen to borrow Martin Niemöller words- when they came for them there was no one to speak for them because they refused to speak for the others. The chicken had come home to roost.
Moving Forward After Two Decades of Repression & Dictatorship
January 2017 ushered in an era of hope following the surprised defeat of Jammeh at the Presidential polls on 1st December 2016 and his subsequent forceful eviction in January 2017 by ECOMIG and thanks especially to Senegal. This was a period when X-President Jammeh without a shadow of doubt intended to overturn the will of the Gambian people by declaring the December Presidential elections null and void.
With the departure of Jammeh and the forming of a Coalition Government, The Gambia has been in transition since then. There are indeed many challenges ahead. But first and foremost, it is imperative to (re)establish the rule of law following 2 decades of dictatorship and repression if we are to build sustainable peace.
This process will require a multipronged approach and this involves recognizing and accepting past wrongs, prosecuting perpetrators, compensating the victims and or their families and permitting forgiving past wrongs and encouraging and nurturing healing. This will be needed during our period of rebuilding after 22 years of dictatorship were human rights abuses have been rampant and the country polarized- this is commonly referred to as “transitional justice.”
The Coalition government has made some positive moves towards promoting and protecting human rights. 3 major pieces of legislation recently enacted and assented to by the President I believe will go a long way to redress the abuses that have taken place in the past, to protect the rights of people and hopefully to prevent the recurring of the heinous events that happened during the 22 years of the APRC rule under Yahya Jammeh.
The establishment of the Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC), the setting up a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Constitutional Review Commission Act. All the 3 legislation set up institutions and mechanisms that are timely, necessary and forward looking. They are however yet to be fully functional.
While we learn from the experiences of the Jammeh regime and even the Jawara era, the establishment of the NHRC has for the first time created an independent body given the mandate to promote human rights and protect human rights in the Gambia.
Ladies and gentlemen, we as Gambians regardless of our tribe or tribal affiliation, the respective regions we came from, the political party we support, our religion, sex, our economic and or social status have a responsibility to make sure that adherence to rule of law and due process prevails in this land our ours.
Although the state has the paramount duty to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of the people, it is also our duty and obligation that we conform to the laws of the land, be responsible citizens and also hold to account our elected official and also ourselves. It is a two-way affair. But most importantly, we must orient our children to see themselves as Gambians first and foremost and not just belonging to a particular tribe and or practicing a particular religion. I know this is easier said than done but we must all make a concerted effort starting from our homes and in our schools and colleges to create a Gambian identity and we must by all means try to eliminate biases base on tribe, religion, gender and or social status.
I say this ladies and Gentlemen because I have observed that our social media today carries exchanges that are sometimes distasteful, unpleasant and even hateful and tribalistic. Unfortunately, these statements come from Gambians from all walks of life regardless of their tribal affiliation.
We cannot build a nation in transition based on hate, biases, suspicion and prejudice and outright bigotry. We are Gambians first and this should be our mantra.
As we transition from years of oppression where rule of law institutions were compromised and where the civil space for dialogue was stifled and the only civil society groups allowed to operate were cowed into being mouth piece of a repressive regime, the Coalition Government should by all means create an enabling environment for healthy dialogue and debate.
It is inevitable however that in an environment where freedom of expression is permissible, there will always be some who will proffer unfair, unpleasant and even false statements but the powers that be should exercise restraint and debunk such falsities and inaccuracies by providing alternative facts and not be tempted to use the powers of arrest and detention. I am aware that there are laws against libel and defamation and incitements and I am not advocating that people and the media especially should be irresponsible but we should avoid going the route of being seen as trying to stifle freedom of expression especially given our recent past history.
Ladies and Gentlemen, one cannot underscore the importance of CSO, NGOs, CBOs, including faith/religious base organizations, women and youth groups including professional associations such as the Gambia Press Union, Medical and Dental Associations and especially the Gambia Bar Association in spearheading good governance and rule of law in a country.
These CSOs should play a role in prompting a culture of rule of law and human rights in the Gambia. Many civil society organizations have recorded much success in many countries especially in Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya – and I believe we should emulate them so that we can foster a true democracy.
It is important that Gambians as stakeholders and beneficiaries to a peaceful society should actively be involved in promoting access to justice and adherence to the rule of law. It is not something that Gambians can entrust on any one individual or individuals, to any political party and or to any one institution.
The best and most effective way of promoting and sustaining access to justice and to foster in a culture of rule of law and human rights is when Gambians especially CSOs and CBOs actively and responsibly take part in the process.
In effect, all should be guardians of the rule of law. It is not something one surrenders to the legislature, executive and or the Judiciary. We must all play an active part in the entire process of governance if we are going to safeguard our fundamental rights and freedoms.
May the Soul of Solo Sandeng and the souls of all the victims of Yahyah Jammeh rest in eternal Peace. Theirs was a worthy cause for the attainment of fundamental rights and freedoms and they paid the ultimate price.
Thank you for listening.
Human Rights Activist lawyer Emmanuel Daniel Joof delivered this Solo Sandeng Memorial Lecture on Sunday 15th April 2018 @ the University of The Gambia Auditorium.