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17.01.2020 Europe

Gambia presidential issues come to the fore

By Laura Angela Bagnetto - RFI
LISTEN JAN 17, 2020

Thousands of supporters of Gambia's former strongman Yahya Jammeh have taken to the streets of Banjul to call for his return, according to local news outlet The Chronicle. It follows last week's release of an audio recording, reportedly of the ex-president saying he wants to come home.

“I am coming back. They said they drove me out of the country. Apart from Allah, nobody can take me out of the country,” according to the audio file released by a deputy spokesperson of Jammeh's Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party. The tape has not been independently verified.

Barrow presidential adviser Do Sannoh said he did not know of any ongoing negotiations regarding Jammeh returning to The Gambia, but indicated that he would be welcome to appear before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which has been investigating human rights abuses under Jammeh for the past year.

“Obviously, we've heard the testimonies at the TRRC and he's been accused of committing and also masterminding many of the atrocities that were committed under his regime,” said Ismaila Ceesay, senior political analyst and political science professor at the University of Gambia in Banjul.

Some of the most chilling testimonies came from former members of the Junglers, an unofficial paramilitary unit that answered directly to Jammeh. They have been implicated in numerous human rights violations, including torture, murder, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, and killings.

“So there is a case to answer. Coming home is one thing, but coming home to do what is another question,” said Ceesay.

Gambia not handling Jammeh case well
“The Barrow government have not been handling the Jammeh case very well, unfortunately,” said Sidi Sanneh, Gambian former senior minister and ambassador.

Jammeh, who wielded power for 22 years, lost the 2016 presidential election to Adama Barrow and refused to leave the country. After an intervention by the United Nations, African Union and the regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a joint declaration was issued ensuring that the new government would not intimidate or harass the former president nor his entourage.

 It stated that Jammeh would be “at liberty to return to The Gambia at any time of his choosing in accordance with international human rights law and his rights as a citizen of the Gambia and a former head of state.”

The document also assures the security, safety and rights of Jammeh and his family.

Ebrima Sankareh, Gambia's presidential spokesman, told the BBC he didn't "know what document the man is talking about,” adding that President Barrow had never signed the joint agreement.

"The Gambian government cannot guarantee his safety and security,” said Sankareh.

Former diplomat Sanneh said that in Jammeh's 44-minute taped conversation, he makes a reference to conversations he had with then President-elect Barrow, as well as the joint declaration.

Sanneh said he contacted the UN regarding the document, and while the world body said it was not legally binding, it is a “live document”, which he said he interprets as a political document and a basis for talks between the government and the former president.

“I believe the Barrow government should issue a very clear, declarative, non-ambiguous statement with regards to the status of this document,” said Sanneh.

Although the former dictator is living in exile in Equatorial Guinea, more than 3,000 kilometres away, he is very much in touch with his political base, said Sanneh.

“There are indications that he receives security briefings from the side of the Army or the security forces he's very well connected,” he said.

Not every Gambian is happy with the current state of affairs, as tensions over the length of Barrow's term have emerged.  In March 2017 the umbrella body for Gambian political parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which included a text that if Barrow were to win, he would serve a transitional three-year term.

The president has indicated that he would remain in office for five years, in accordance with the Gambian constitution. A pressure group, Three Years Jotna, meaning 'three years is now' in a mixture of English and Wolof, hit the streets of Banjul, the capital, in December to call for Barrow to honour the original three-year agreement.

“He sees, in my view… a weak government and he wants to seize that opportunity to take advantage of it,” he added.

How Gambians regard his return
Professor Ceesay had taken a poll to understand what Gambians thought of Jammeh after he left, but since the TRRC has made its testimonies public, it would be interesting to compare what Gambians thought of Jammeh today.

“I think that the numbers would either increase or stay as they are, but I think that he still has some following in the country,” said Ceesay.

“The mood in the country is that he's committed a lot of atrocities. The majority of Gambians who follow the TRRC, want Jammeh to face justice,” he added.