SaharaReporters recently interviewed Gambian activist Banka Manneh who has been one of the leading voices of opposition to Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh. Mr. Manneh was recently convicted in a US court for attempting to overthrow the brutal regime of Yahya Jammeh.
The following are excerpts from our interview with Mr. Manneh:
SR: I understand that you have been convicted by a court in the United States for violating the Neutrality Act regarding some action you took related to the Gambia. Can you describe the events around what the US court convicted you of doing?
BM: Yes I was convicted, along with 3 other individuals, of violating the Neutrality Act, a 1794 law that forbids US citizens from attempting to overthrow regimes that are “friends” with the United States – meaning; technically not at war with the US. I was also convicted of weapons related charges. These charges stemmed from an action we took back on December 30, 2014 to dislodge what is by now considered by the international community as one of the most “brutal regimes” in the world – a regime led by Dictator Yahya Jammeh.
After many years of killings, disappearances, torture, and humiliation perpetrated against innocents Gambians –with total impunity—and after having made numerous efforts to get help from the international community to end these atrocities to no avail, we took it upon ourselves to stop the needless bloodshed and abuse. The event failed and lead to the demise of Captain Njaga Jagne, Alagie Jaja Nyass, and Colonel Lamin Sanneh. In the months that followed, several of us were rounded up by the FBI in the United States and charged, we all pleaded guilty to the charges and I was sentenced to 6 months in Federal prison.
SR: Coup plots of course exist in Africa today however not with the frequency seen during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Can you tell us why you felt the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh needed to be removed in a coup?
BM: As I alluded to above, the kind of human rights abuses witnessed in The Gambia in last 22 years is unlike anywhere in Africa. There is absolutely no freedom of speech, expression, or assembly allowed in the country. The opposition and anyone deemed an enemy is under constant surveillance and threat. The country has only one semi-independent newspaper (it belongs to an opposition party) and any journalist critical of the regime is either dead or in exile. Since coming to power in a military coup in 1994, Yahya Jammeh has effectively transformed this once peaceful tiny country into a “concrete jungle” – killings, disappearances without trace, illegal firings, torture, rape of young girls and wives of perceived opponents, and humiliation of elders and religious leaders have all become common place. He has proudly brandished his dictatorial credentials in public, constantly making public threats of killing his opponents and brazenly carrying them out. The number of people killed by Jammeh and his henchmen is now uncountable, not to mention the number of the disappeared. So many civil servants have been fired, it is now become a fashion statement in the Gambia not to decorate your office for you never know when you will be picked from there, tortured, and fired – even losing years of their retirement pay, without any reason whatsoever given to the victim. We have dealt with many cases of young girls who Jammeh hired as Protocol officers only to find out that they were hired to serve as sex slaves for him. We have been able to rescue some of them but many are still stuck in the State House (the presidential palace) with no ability to escape. All forms of protests are crushed mercilessly - dozens of students were gunned down at close range during a demonstration in 2000. Their grievances were the regime’s refusal to investigate the rape of a schoolgirl and the death in the hands of fire service officers of another student. Opposition party leaders are routinely arrested and held without cause while some of their members are killed, tortured, or disappeared. Witch hunts are carried out to arrest people accused of being witches, most of whom end up being tortured, raped, and humiliated – some have died during these incidents. Even the Gay and Lesbian community is not spared – raids were carried out on several occasions to “wipe out these vermin” (Jammeh’s words) from The Gambia. Many of these innocent LGBT community members were also tortured severely and humiliated. Jammeh recently ordered the arrest and torture of the opposition United Democratic Party members who were only holding a peaceful protest leading to the death of the youth leader of the party, Solo Sandeng. As if that is not criminal enough, Jammeh has since illegally incarcerated almost the entire leadership of the party including the party leader, Ousainou Darbo. His latest act is the one sending chills in the spines of the world community – he has recently publicly threatened to kill all Mandinkas (the largest ethnic group in the country) because according to him, these people are ungrateful, wicked, and foreigners. This has already led officials of the UN and newspapers around the world – including New Times of Rwanda to raise the alarm demanding the international community to act before it’s too late. As long as this list goes, it still doesn’t do justice to the outrageous number of crimes committed by Yahya and his regime. It is against this backdrop that The Gambia’s case should be situated.
SR: Yahya Jammeh is considered one of the world's worst dictators. Describe what it is like to live as a Gambian under his regime and why you think the international community has taken so little action against him?
BM: Amnesty International summed it up best in one of its yearly country reports: The Gambia Fear Rules was the headline. Gambians having been living under an absolute state of fear for the past 22 years. This is due to the harassment, abuse, and brutality visited on them during this period – and it is unfortunately still going on unabated – and with total impunity.
The citizens have been making pleas and have mounted series of efforts for many years to the International community with some success but unfortunately the real push to deal with the core of the problem – impunity; has not yielded much success. I have my humble-self worked with individuals and civil society groups to raise the alarm in the international community by holding meetings with key officials and also organizing protests in Washington, London, Brussels, and Dakar in an effort to get concrete action from the White House, Number 10, EU, and ECOWAS. Gambia’s strategic geopolitical importance is highly underestimated in the international community, its mineral wealth hasn’t made much headline news in the world, the gravity of the country’s human rights disaster is only now beginning to be fully exposed, and its problems are competing for attention with war on terror, Syria, Iraq, and other trouble spots. Finally, lack of political will at UN, ECOWAS, U.S and AU. EU is the only one that has made significant and concrete moves in the last few years – cutting of funding, shifting of direct aid from the government, and most recently the parliament voting to impose asset freeze and travel ban.
SR: This year is supposedly going to be a presidential election. Can you narrate key political developments over the past year, which you think will impact this election?
BM: This year’s election will be like all others in terms of the lack of level playing field because of the bad practices of the regime – so Jammeh’s victory is already a forgone conclusion. However, some major recent events have already delegitimized the process before it even starts and the evidence for the first time is out in the open for all to see. On April 14, the youth leader of the largest opposition party, United Democratic Party (UDP), by the name Solo Sandeng led a peace protest in Serekunda, the largest city in the country, demanding electoral reform. The regime, true to form, responded with its usual callous brutality – the peaceful protesters were all rounded up, taken to the notorious Mile 2 Prison, and tortured, leading to Solo’s death. Upon getting this bad news, the leader of the party, Ousainou Darbo and some senior leaders of the party, launched a peaceful protest demanding for the release of Solo and others “dead or alive.” They too were rounded up, taken to Mile 2 and have since been held without bail, under very horrible conditions. So the election will be held this year with effectively the largest opposition missing in the fray. The international community has already taken note of this and the UN, ECOWAS, and regional leaders have all since sent delegations to the country demanding the release of these detainees and a full investigation into the killing of Solo. These efforts as usual have failed to yield any results – Jammeh will have none of it, even telling the UN Secretary General and Amnesty International to “go to hell.” How this case will impact the election in of itself we don’t know, and since one new and one old political party have declared their intention to participate, in addition to the rest of the existing parties, except Gambia Moral Congress, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. One thing is certain though – no matter what happens, the Solo Sandeng incident has already fully exposed everything wrong with the election process in The Gambia.
SR: What do you believe needs to happen in the Gambia in order to provoke a change in leadership from a Yahya Jammeh-led regime, to one which is more tolerant of political opposition?
BM: What has essentially happened in most countries in the world is what has to happen in The Gambia – the people’s uprising. The international community only has few tools in its toolbox – key among which are sanctions, travel bans, assets freezes, and cutting of aid. Dictator Jammeh has proven that even though these measures will hurt, they will not be enough to bring about the change that Gambians are yearning for – change in leadership. So it is important that Gambians muster the courage to do as the Burkinabes did – take to the streets in large numbers, thereby giving the international community more leverage in pushing for a major change in leadership. Jammeh understands the potential that such a move holds, and that is why he wastes no time in trying to crush it in his usual signature brutal fashion. But he has succeeded so far only because we have not seen the kind of mass uprising that helped in pushing out other leaders like him. The Gambians therefore don’t have much choice but to bite the bullet and go on the streets in very large numbers. It is also important that Gambian dissidents, civil society groups, and political parties meet and discuss a transitional government that will be tasked to draw up and implement the roadmap for a future Gambia. This too has to happen now so as to give the international community a better alternative to Jammeh. Without that, many will find change a very risky undertaking that has the potential to create chaos and further worsening of the situation.
SR: What is next for you following your six-month prison confinement in the US? Will you remain a political opponent to Yahya Jammeh? Do you worry the US could send you back to Gambia for breaking a US law?
BM: This is the just the beginning of my journey. I will use the time in prison to reflect and make a full assessment of our efforts over the years with a view to come up with improvements. I will also reflect more on how to achieve the Gambia of our dreams. So this may turn out to be a good thing, in that, it will allow me time and space to chart the future. I know the US will never send me, or anyone for that matter, back to a country where he/she will be tortured and killed by an evil regime like we have in The Gambia. As far as my prosecution, the US is a country of laws, and any time laws are broken, it is bound to act. It is within that context I view the whole court case, so I have absolutely no bitter feelings towards my adopted country. In fact, if anything, the case has helped strengthen by faith in the justice system – my rights were fully protected and I have throughout the process been treated with the utmost amount of respect – more than I deserved. It has also ironically served as an inspiration for me to fight harder so that we can begin to see such respect for principles of democracy and rule of law in The Gambia.