Tensions escalate in the new Gambia

Political rivalries have increasingly taken an ethnic hue in the West African country. If left unchecked the government risks alienating a segment of society and laying the groundwork for future problems. James Courtright reports

Jammeh’s ever-present face still watches from the 200 Dalasi note (USD$4).

‘We are very happy now that we have democracy,’ beamed Ismailia Bah, a taxi driver on the outskirts of the Gambian capitol, Banjul. Suddenly his face became more serious, ‘but tribalism has also come to Gambia, and tribalism is evil.’

When the previous president Yahya Jammeh fled Gambia last year, his successor, Adama Barrow, promised reconciliation after 22 years of state repression. Now, a year into Barrow’s administration, the new president’s agenda is being threatened by political and ethnic divisions.

Jammeh ruled Gambia, a small West African country of just under 2 million people, with an iron fist. Political opponents were disappeared. Journalists were tortured. He even had his own family members murdered. A 2015 Human Rights Watch report describes a population living ‘in a climate of fear in which government justice and accountability for abuses is utterly beyond reach.’

Then in 2016 Gambia’s fractured political opposition united behind outsider Adama Barrow and defeated Jammeh at the ballot box. Since assuming power, Barrow’s administration has announced a series of reforms aimed at building a democratic and prosperous society.

‘The principal objective is we do not slide back to the kind of government we just emerged from,’ says Abubacarr Ba Tambadou, Gambian Minister of Justice. ‘That means we need to conduct an inquest in how we got to that point in the first place.’

In that spirit the Commission of Inquiry was established early last year to investigate Jammeh’s financial misdeeds. Soon afterwards the Ministry of Justice began prosecuting six members of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) accused of murdering an opposition candidate in 2016. In December, the National Assembly voted to establish the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which will tour the country seeking testimony from victims and perpetrators about abuses committed under Jammeh, compile a report, and issue recommendations on further reforms and prosecutions.

However, over the last year political rivalries have increasingly taken an ethnic hue. If left unchecked the government risks alienating a segment of society and laying the groundwork for future problems.

Symposium on transitional justice at the University of The Gambia.

Gambia does not have a history of ethnic conflict. The recent tension has its roots in a series of vitriolic campaign speeches Jammeh, gave to supporters in June 2016 where he referred to Mandinkas as ‘enemies and foreigners’ and threatened to ‘bury them six feet under.’

The inflammatory remarks hung heavy in the air – no more so than in the Foni region where Jammeh hails from and where Jola, Mandinka, and Fula communities have lived side by side and intermarried for generations. Up until the 2016 election Jammeh, a Jola, balanced the country’s ethnic communities in his cabinet and ministerial posts, but his lurid statements on the campaign trail led many Mandinka, the largest ethnic group in Gambia, to abandon Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) when they went to the polls on 1 December 2016.

The day after the votes were cast electioneering officials announced to a breathless nation that Barrow and the coalition had won. Jammeh initially conceded, but a week later he abruptly reversed his position and refused to hand over power, thrusting the country into a period of uncertainty known locally as ‘the impasse’.

During the impasse political tension seeped into everyday life in communities across the Foni region. Houses were already festooned with political colors – green for Jammeh and the APRC, yellow for Barrow and the coalition’s largest party, the United Democratic Party (UDP) – from the presidential election. The country was awash in political tee-shirts and wax fabric. Residents report that political arguments turned into scuffles in the markets. Allegedly some even stopped attending the traditional ceremonies of their political rivals.

Ethnicity had become linked to political persuasion – Jolas with the APRC and Mandinkas with the UDP – despite the fact that both parties were multi-ethnic in leadership and supporters.

‘Because there was a lot of uncertainty about the future of the Gambia, people leaned on identities and collectivities within grasp,’ says Niklas Hultin, a Gambia scholar who teaches at George Mason University. ‘And ethnicity, because it is a fact in the Gambia, was a readily made one.’

The impasse ended and the tension eased when Jammeh fled in late January, but the cornerstone of communal tension had been laid.

‘During the national assembly election campaign in March people started peeling the old wounds,’ says Samba Kieta, director of the Ding Ding Bantaba Federation, a community development and conflict resolution civil society organization in Foni. In the town of Sibanor, he ‘sensed conflict between the people based on the remarks made. People started realigning themselves to tribal lines.’

The day after the election he was proved tragically correct when clashes broke out on the main road between UDP and APRC supporters in Sibanor. Stones were thrown and multiple houses were damaged before the police arrived.

In July protestors from Jammeh’s hometown Kanilai were shot as they approached Senegalese peacekeepers. One person died and a dozen others were wounded.

Most recently in January of this year APRC supporters returning from a rally were attacked by youth supporters of the UDP in Busumbala. Four people had to go to hospital and there was extensive damage to property. For the first time the political violence occurred outside Foni.

Government missteps and poor public relations have exacerbated the problem. Historically, Gambian leaders have balanced the ethnic groups in their cabinet, but many point out the dearth of Jolas in the coalition government.

Last August a handful of mostly Jola soldiers were detained and discharged without reason – they insist they were fired because of their ethnicity. The Gambian Armed Forces vehemently denies this accusation.

Independent observers say these tensions can be chalked up to an inexperienced government trying to re-start a country previously run into the ground. The government is trying to provide a clean break from the previous regime, which means vetting Jammeh loyalists. In the military there is legitimate concern of mutiny. The problem, says Sait Matty Jaw, director of Gambia Watch, is how the government has gone about it.

‘If you’re going to dismiss people it should be done in a professional way. Let there be evidence to suggest that the people are guilty or people will interpret it in a different way.’

Building on the events of the past year, the APRC are subtly offering an interpretation that accuses the coalition government of ‘tribalism’ and stokes a sense of victimization, directly undermining the government’s reconciliation project.

In November Seedy Njie, the APRC spokesperson, described the Commission of Inquiry as a ‘witch hunt’ and called into question the prosecution of NIA members accused of killing an opposition candidate in 2016. More recently he pointed out that unlike Sierra Leone or South Africa, the Gambia had no war or apartheid, and the commission must take that into account.

Meanwhile, minister Tambadou defends the TRRC, pointing out that the TRRC Act requires the commissioners to represent the diversity of the Gambia, and forbids the appointment of a commissioner who is involved in any political party. He also points out the often understated fact that all of the Gambia’s ethnicities are found in both the perpetrators and victims of Jammeh’s abuses.

Last weekend an Inter-party Youth Political Dialogue was held at an up-scale hotel outside the capital. Representatives from the major political parties attended and exchanged messages of tolerance and peaceful coexistence in the lead up to local government elections next month. The summit ended with representatives exchanging flag colors and holding hands in solidarity for peace.

It remains to be seen whether this message will reach rural communities across the Gambia. Last August the Ministry of Justice completed an 11 day cross-Gambia tour to consult communities about the TRRC – yet today many Gambians are still unaware of the commission and those who do know about it are confused about its mandate and scope. Over the past year various government figures have organized a hodgepodge of outreach trips to Foni in response to clashes, but in some cases the government representatives have caused more problems than they solved.

Recently president Barrow finally made the three hour journey to speak to an assembly of village heads in Sibanor. In his remarks the president called for peace, reminding the chiefs to avoid identifying themselves with any political parties and warning supporters on both sides that violence would not be tolerated.

‘The president’s visit was very well received,’ says Kieta at Ding Ding Bantaba. ‘While Foni is not pro-Barrow, or pro-UDP specifically, the fact that Barrow came, the way he spoke, people appreciated it.’

It will take more than meetings in hotels and one high profile visit to heal the tensions of the last year. However, as Barrow’s visit has showed, it is not too late to engage with the region without victimizing specific communities. The future of the country may depend on it.

James Courtright is a freelance journalist based in Dakar, Senegal. James studied African history and politics at Denison University before serving in the US Peace Corps in southern Senegal from 2013-2016.