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Opposition Leader Says Gambia a Police State as country Observes 44th Independence Anniversary

The Gambia, Africa's smallest country, celebrates 44 years of independence from British colonial rule Wednesday. After surviving an earlier attempted coup in 1981, founding father Sir Dawda Jawara was overthrown in 1994 by Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh. In an editorial, the government-run Daily Observer newspaper says independence brought an end to colonial domination.

But opposition leader Ousainu Darbo told VOA that while Gambians should celebrate their freedom from colonial rule, their country under Yahya Jammeh remains a virtual police state.

"Gambians have reason to celebrate independence on Wednesday, 18 February because if for nothing, it remains the day that we severed our connection with the British and took charge of the running of the affairs of The Gambia by ourselves. It is also a day on which every Gambian should rededicate himself to ensuring that this is taking to higher heights," he said.

But Darbo said when it comes to political dispensation, there is very little Gambians should celebrate on this their 44th independence anniversary.

"The democracy that is now being practiced is not what the founding fathers of this nation had anticipated and it's not what the founding fathers had envisioned for the country. The country is really under dictatorship; it's a virtual police state. No one feels secured about his freedom; no one knows when laws will be changed to suit particular situation; the courts gave out orders and the orders are disregarded. I hope that Gambians today (Wednesday) will rethink the situation in the country and make a decision in order to change that situation," Darbo said.

He rejected any notion that there is some semblance of political freedom in The Gambia, including freedom of speech.

"The fact that I as a political party leader am able to express my views particularly on the VOA doesn't mean that there is freedom of expression. What I'm doing on your media I cannot do it on Radio Gambia or on Gambian Television. So there is no freedom of the press in this country. Currently you have the editor of The Point newspaper being tried for publishing stories about a Gambian diplomat who was arrested and detained in the Central Prison," he said.

Darbo also said Gambians are having a tough time economically, particularly the country's farmers.

"The situation in the country is very deplorable. The farming season, we had a good rain last year, but then the main crop, that is groundnut we have not got market for it. The farmers who constitute 75 percent of the Gambian workforce have remained unpaid for their labor. Of course, we've been very dependent on remittances from abroad. And as you know the (economic) situation in the United States and in Europe is such that those Gambians who are living and remit funds to The Gambia are no longer in a position to do as they were doing," Darbo said.

He criticized the Jammeh government for what he called remaining insensitive to the plight of the Gambian people.

"The government, personified by President Jammeh, who is now called Professor Jammeh, is engaged in wasteful spending in areas that do not deserve such attention. It is difficult for the majority of Gambians to put food on the table for their families. This is the situation in which we are," he said.

Darbo rejected the criticism that the Gambian political opposition has given Gambians no alternative all because of its polarizing tendency.

"I do not think that is a valid criticism. The fact that we have many opposition political parties in the country doesn't mean that the opposition is divided. After all the more you have opposition political parties the wider the range for The Gambians to make choice be that for president or for the national assembly," Darbo said.