Early this year, federal prosecutors in Minnesota charged four people of dual U.S. citizenship for their alleged involvement in a New Year’s Eve armed attempt to overthrow the government of the small West African country of the Gambia. The defendants’ reason for taking matters into their own hands, according to court papers, was that they could see no other way of effecting change in their homeland.
But now, another path is being explored.
A conference of Gambians held recently in Manhattan with the support of human-rights organizations is asking Western powers to place tougher sanctions against their country’s president, Yaya Jammeh, and members of his inner circle.
“One of the things we want is for the international community to impose tougher sanctions on the Gambian regime and these should include travel or visa bans,” said Dr. Amadou Scattered Janneh, chairman of the organization Coalition for Change Gambia, which organized the Oct. 1 conference.
Janneh said he would also want to see Gambian security personnel excluded from international peacekeeping missions, especially those under the United Nations.
“We know it’s beneficial to the individuals who serve in those missions,” Janneh said. “But our main worry is that many of the folks who have been accused in involvement in atrocities were rewarded by sending them on these peacekeeping missions.” He added that Gambian security forces compete for loyalty to the president and he returns the favor by sending them on peacekeeping missions.
Gambia under President Jammeh, according to human rights groups like Amnesty International, has witnessed a lot of human rights abuses, tortures, and disappearances. There are also numerous reports of press freedom violations and the harassment and detention of journalists, according to the New York-based press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists.
Janneh, a dual Gambian and U.S. citizen, was sentenced in 2011 to life imprisonment in the Gambia for trying to foment an Arab Spring-type revolt when he distributed t-shirts with the imprint “end to dictatorship now.” He was released a little over a year into his sentence following intervention by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“The goal,” said Janneh, “is to bring together civil society leaders and members of our political parties . . . to come with a common framework in terms of addressing the issues.”
The conference, dubbed the International Civil Society Forum on Gambia, was held at the New York Marriott Downtown Hotel. It involved international human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human rights.
Gambians from different states around the country attended the event, listening to presentations and discussing the political problems affecting their country and how to solve them. Leaders of two opposition parties in the Gambia were also present at the conference.
“It is important to come together especially a year from elections particularly, to start talking about these key issues, consensus issues for everyone to come together on,” said Jeffrey Smith, senior advocacy officer at the Kennedy Center.
“Gambia is special in many different ways,” said Smith. “Number one, it’s special in the sense because the level of repression is so high and I think it’s begun to gain international radar. People have begun to pay attention to this.”
Smith said that the Gambia government is a highly repressive one not only within the African continent but the world over. “It’s a very unique situation in which you have one leader for 20 years and essentially rules the country as his own kingdom, and for many years that have been thrown under the radar,” Smith said.
And Janneh said one of the objectives of the conference “is to intensify the attention that is now focused on Gambia [for] a great deal of media attention.”
He added: “We hope we could provide some form of advice to the international community in terms of how they should react to the political crisis in the country.”