They are being put under surveillance “throughout the evening and at very odd hours” as activists take caution not be abducted by secret agents of The Gambia’s government. They are on a peaceful campaign for The Gambia’s outgoing President Yahya Jammeh to allow a smooth transition. They are strong in their conviction and risen above intimidation.
A ducktape holds the rear windscreen of a vehicle together. Underneath the tap reads a sticker: “#GambiaHasDecided.”
Mariama went for a day of relaxation on the beach outside the Gambia’s island capital, Banjul but the vehicle with the sticker is not hers. It’s just one of many vehicles with it just like her own. It is very untypical of Mariama to go to the beach, but the harassment of Gambians by security forces on the golden beaches of its tourist development area has been dormant since the country’s longtime authoritarian ruler, Yahya Jammeh lost elections last month.
On her way home, she stopped at a clinic outside the perimeters of a square where unprecedented opposition protests that rocked the tiny West African nation was birthed.
“Remove this thing” a soldier commanded, referring to a #GambiaHasDecided bumper sticker on Mariama’s vehicle. Mariama gazed back amused with defiance.
Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh is refusing to step down. The country is facing prolonged political deadlock as Jammeh lets the clock run to hold on to power. His rejection of the elections has stoked international concerns about the future of this peanut exporting country.
Gambia’s government under Jammeh committed serious human rights violations against perceived critics and political opponents, perpetuating a climate of fear and repression. This did not stop a grassroots campaign from springing up, demanding the African strong man to hand over power peacefully to Adama Barrow, a political novice, and businessman who was little-known to the people.
Jammeh suffered a shocking defeat in the hands of Barrow, who is leading a coalition of seven political parties.
The pro-democracy campaigners came up with the hashtag #GambiaHasDecided. Their hashtag was made into giant billboards that replaced Jammeh’s at Westfield and other strategic locations.
Jammeh dispatched his presidential guards to take down the billboards in the capital and its suburbs. But more sprang up like weeds on a deserted farm – one kitchen doors, on cars, on stalls. #GambiaHasDecided campaigners resorted to making more campaign materials like bumper stickers that they could plaster on their personal property.
“Remove it or you will be in trouble,” the soldier screamed.
Hesitantly, Mariama did as she got cautioned that “the next time it will be different” because “she will definitely be in trouble” if her vehicle is seen with the sticker on it.
It was new year’s eve, the first in the world’s newest but soon to be most short-lived Islamic Republic. Gambians were in their festive mode, not deterred by Jammeh’s choice of war over a peaceful exit to attend a music festival.
#GambiaHasDecided t-shirts were everywhere and the crowd screamed: “ayegee,” sending a roaring message for Jammeh to step down.
Raffie Diab posed for pictures and hand over shirts to the many joyful youths, who are anxiously looking forward to a new Gambia with better economic prospects.
Nearly 50,000 Gambians are making a perilous journey through the backway, a route that takes them across five nations and the Sahara to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Jammeh’s poor economic and repressive policies have forced them to leave. Many changed their mind not to risk their lives to reach Europe, but with Jammeh refusing to leave and the country at the brink of war, they are reconsidering.
Raffie and his friends stood cheerfully on the streets of a busy highway not far from the U.S. Embassy. A tinted and unlicensed pickup truck drove by slowly. Soon after, Raffie and his friends were gone. The truck drove by again and a skinny-tall-dark middle-aged man, in a suit slightly bigger than him approached a watchman and asked if he knew the men that just left, showing him a blurry picture of Raffie and his friends that he took from a distance.
Two men wearing a #GambiaHasDecided t-shirt were arrested by the NIA, a spy agency that is only answerable to Mr. Jammeh. Jammeh wanted to intimidate the activists and bring their campaign to a stop. Alpha Sey was one of them. He was pushed into a white pickup truck and taken to an abandoned building with brown high walls. Some 10 miles south of Banjul, Daba Kuyateh was arrested as he walked home too.
But they are not relenting either.
Westfield Square has become the epicenter of defiance against a ruthless dictator. Solo Sandeng, the activist tortured to death that awakened Gambians from a political coma was arrested there. His killing by the NIA was the backdrop of the April and May protests.
At the square Sheriffoe Sambou owns a mini-market where he sells condiments, mostly imported items like biscuits and ice creams from Europe. But during the campaign period, he had added one unusual item: campaign materials supporting the opposition coalition. After a decisive victory, he is now selling campaign materials to put pressure on Jammeh to step down.
Sheriffo Sambou and Mamie Gaye were standing outside his shop, blown away in a conversation. Across from them, a sign reads ‘World Mobile,’ a cellphone shop were many buy cheap smartphones. President Yahya Jammeh’s regime is facing its strongest opposition on the internet. On election day, Gambians were thrown into the stone age that Jammeh claimed he liberated them from. Gambians went to the polls disconnected from the world: no internet and no international calling.
As they stood outside the shop, they were arrested by the NIA and whisked away.
“They were interrogated for hours,” says Buba Manjang, Sheriffoe’s brother. “They took them from 8 PM and got released after 1 AM the next day.”
During that period, Raffie’s friend Salieu Taal had invited him to his home where they were having casual talks, as usual.
“They are coming for you all tonight,” a voice on the phone told them when a call came through from an unknown number. Raffie and Salieu were tipped off that a team has been dispatch to arrest them.
They had to leave The Gambia.
They packed some few belongings and disappeared into the night and across The Gambia’s porous borders with Senegal to Dakar.
Dakar is home to many Gambian refugees: former soldiers, journalists, civil servants, senior government officials, political activists. Nearly 10,000 Gambians live in the Senegalese capital, a majority of them exilees that fell out of favor with Jammeh.
For Raffie and many Gambian youths, the movement cannot be stopped and no amount of scare tactic can deter them. They have amassed support and the continuous repression is crumbling Jammeh’s regime and growing dissenting voices. They crackdown from Jammeh is only pushing them to press on.