Gambians in the United States are marking the 15th anniversary of the so-called "culture" coup of 22 July 1994 that brought President Yahya Jammeh to power.
While the Banjul government puts on official parades, sporting events and musical entertainment, expatriates in Washington, DC and New York City are staging protests against what they consider to be one of Africa’s most repressive regimes.
In Washington, about 40 demonstrators gathered at the Gambian Embassy on the eve of the anniversary. Opponents of the Gambian regime turned out Tuesday in the United Kingdom, and a march is planned for Wednesday in Manhattan near the United Nations.
Human rights activist and Gambian Press Union (GPU) representative Pasamba Jow attended Tuesday’s embassy protest. He told the Voice of America that President Jammeh’s modest origins belie the great wealth he has amassed since taking power.
“When Jammeh took power, he was earning less than $300 a month. Today, he is claiming to be one of the richest people in Africa. He was so poor that he was extremely malnourished when he came to power. Today he is living an extravagant lifestyle at the expense of the Gambian people,” said Jow.
The protesters, supported by Amnesty International and Gambians’ own Movement for Democracy and Development, represent approximately 8-10,000 expatriates now resettled in the U.S. Jow said they are hoping to raise international awareness about the wave of illegal arrests, detentions, torture, secretive murders, and unexplained disappearances that have characterized the 15 years of the Jammeh military dictatorship.
“What we really hope to achieve is for the international community to know that Mugabe is not the only bad leader in Africa. I don’t have hope that Jammeh will ever change, but maybe he will realize that it does not pay to continue to abrogate the rights of people,” he said.
Tuesday’s protesters were critical of the ruling Alliance for Patriotism, Reconciliation and Construction (APRC), which they say has undermined good governance, human rights, press freedoms, and the rule of law.
The Gambian government has been widely accused of killing prominent journalist and editor of The Point newspaper Deyda Hydara in 2004 and secretly arresting another leading reporter, Chief Ebrima Manneh, who has not been heard from since 2006.
Last month’s detention of seven Gambia Press Union journalists and executives, who still face court dates on charges of “seditious intent,” has muted mounting criticism of alleged government involvement in Chief Manneh’s disappearance.
In explaining the significance of Wednesday’s 15th anniversary protests, Pasamba Jow criticized what he called President Jammeh’s arbitrary, unconstitutional replacement of government officials and the murders and disappearances of 18 other democracy activists, soldiers, and government ministers.
“Since that period, Gambians’ rights have been stifled. People have been put in jail. Some have been arrested daily, and people have even gone as far as being murdered. So to us, it is one of the darkest days in the history of the nation,” noted Jow.
He also said the closure of such media outlets as The Independent newspaper and Citizen FM Radio had hampered public efforts to learn the truth about the government’s rights violations. He added it is encouraging to see a growing international outcry about the crackdown. He said he is especially grateful to U.S. public officials who have begun speaking out and bringing the crisis to the attention of the Obama administration.
“People like Senator (Richard) Durbin, who is the number two person in the U.S. Senate, is in the forefront in asking for the whereabouts of Chief Manneh... so if you have members of Congress, members of the senate, writing to the president, ordering the release of Chief Manneh. If you have somebody like Senator Durbin calling for the release of Chief Manneh on the Senate floor, I think it’s very encouraging to us who’ve been fighting for 15 years to see human rights and democracy in the Gambia,” he said.