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Commitment, perseverance, and ingenuity: Changing The Gambia's climate of impunity

To counter impunity under the Yahya Jammeh regime, the Media Foundation for West Africa, together with their local partner the Gambia Press Union, undertook a determined and focused campaign to seek justice for journalists who, for over 20 years, had been subjected to harassment, intimidation, censorship, torture, cruel and degrading punishment, enforced disappearances, and murder. We outline the impact, strengths, and drawbacks of this unique and transformative campaign which can help inform impunity strategies in other countries.

People call for an investigation into the murder of journalist Deida Hydara during a protest in front of Gambia's high commission in Dakar, Senegal, 22 December 2004
People call for an investigation into the murder of journalist Deida Hydara during a protest in front of Gambia's high commission in Dakar, Senegal, 22 December 2004

SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images


Journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh's forced disappearance and Musa Saidykhan's detention and torture were pivotal events in the reshaping of the Media Foundation for West Africa's (MFWA) strategy to combat impunity in The Gambia, both under the regime of former president Yahya Jammeh and later under Adama Barrow, democratically elected in the country's historic 2016 election.

The MFWA had to adopt an approach that would contest Jammeh's tyrannical behaviour and hold the government accountable for its actions. This approach had to be adjusted when the new Adama Barrow-led government came into power in 2016 and the MFWA engaged its leadership on broader media reform, with the ultimate objective of making it safe for journalists to pursue their profession without risk or harm.

Their commitment, perseverance and ingenuity led to successful outcomes on two different levels for the MFWA and their local partner, the Gambia Press Union (GPU). Firstly, under the new government, compensation awarded by the courts to the families of attacked journalists like Chief Embrima Manneh and Musa Saidykan has finally started to flow.

Secondly, the two organisations are working closely with President Barrow's government on media reforms which include legal changes, decriminalisation of libel laws, and the creation of a safer environment for the media.

Here is an account of the key actors, activities, events and processes that led to these successful achievements, and some of the important lessons learned.

Key Actors

The National Intelligence Agency (NIA), now known as the State Intelligence Services, is the secret police and intelligence-gathering arm of The Gambia. Established in 1995, a year after former president Yahya Jammeh seized power, the NIA reported directly to Jammeh. It was composed of former and current members of the security services of The Gambia, who were often handpicked by Jammeh himself. The NIA was notorious for extra-judicial killings, kidnapping, arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as the torture of perceived opponents and critics of the Jammeh regime - particularly journalists, human rights defenders, religious leaders and politicians.

The Gambia Police Force (GPF) is part of the Ministry of the Interior and comprises about 5,000 uniformed and plain-clothed police officers. The GPF is commanded by the Inspector General of Police, who is assisted by a Deputy Inspector General, administrators and regional commissioners. Despite their mandate to uphold the laws of The Gambia fairly, to protect, assist and reassure the community, and to do so with integrity, the Gambian Police Force was one of the worst perpetrators of rights violations in the country.

The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice (CCJ) was created as part of the Revised Treaty of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The mandate of the Court is to ensure the observance of law and of the principles of equity in the interpretation and application of the provisions of the Revised Treaty, and all other subsidiary legal instruments adopted by ECOWAS. The Court is comprised of seven independent judges, appointed by the Heads of State of the governments of ECOWAS. The judges must be nationals of Member States and serve a four-year term of office, upon recommendation of the Community Judicial Council.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is the largest and most influential independent media development and freedom of expression advocacy organisation in West Africa, with national partner organisations in all 16 countries of the region. The MFWA also serves as the secretariat of the Africa Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX), a continent-wide network of free expression and media advocacy organisations. For over two decades the MFWA and its partners have successfully promoted freedom of expression rights, media professionalism, media-led advocacy for peace building, and participatory governance across West Africa.

The Gambia Press Union (GPU) was founded in 1979 by a group of journalists in the private media. Over four decades, the GPU has advocated for freedom of expression, the safety of journalists, and access to information in The Gambia. The GPU is undertaking a comprehensive media reform project and is working with various partners, including the MFWA, to advocate for the reform of repressive laws and the passage of progressive laws such as new Right to Information legislation.

The context and the cases

Since 1994, when he seized power from The Gambia's first president Dawda Jawara, Yahya Jammeh relied on violence and repression to shore up his rule.

Jammeh was intolerant of critical opinions and opposed to any form of collective voice - political opponents, human rights defenders, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersexual (LGBTQI+) community, student leaders, religious leaders, judiciary officials and the media. For over two decades, threats, intimidation, assaults, arbitrary arrests, detention, torture, extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances were a way of life in The Gambia. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Jammeh used "state security forces and shadowy paramilitary groups to intimidate and silence all deemed critics of the government." The report documented human rights abuses by those forces, including unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and other ill-treatment, and the enforced disappearances of people.

With absolutely no consequences for his tyrannical behaviour, Jammeh's repression continued to intensify in volume and extent. Journalists were a primary target. The most prominent of these cases were those of Ebrima Manneh, Musa Saidykhan, and Deyda Hydara.

A press freedom advocate and a fierce critic of Jammeh, the co-founder and co-editor of The Point newspaper Deyda Hydara was shot and killed on his way home from work on 16 December, 2004. Each year on the anniversary of his death the GPU holds a public event to honour this iconic figure of Gambian media.

Editor-In Chief of The Independent, Musa Saidykhan, was arrested and detained by the Gambian police on 28 March, 2006. His 22 days in detention included "three nights of systematic physical and mental torture that left scars all over my body as well as my hand broken in three places". Saidykhan, who was also held incommunicado, believes he was only released because President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa had threatened to boycott the African Union summit hosted by The Gambia in July 2006.

On July 7, 2006, Ebrima Manneh was picked up from the newsroom of the Daily Observer by two officers from the Gambian National Intelligence Agency. It would be the last time he would ever be seen by his colleagues, friends and family. The reasons for his arrest were never provided.

According to Freedom Now, "organizations worldwide condemned Manneh's unjust detention while Amnesty International labelled Manneh a prisoner of conscience." The global pressure did nothing to daunt the Jammeh-led government, and several attempts by local, regional and international organisations to glean more information about Manneh's location and situation were met with sketchy or conflicting details.

The compensation eventually awarded to the victims and their families by the Gambian courts is a significant result of successful engagement by MFWA and GPU with the issue of impunity, and is profoundly meaningful to both the families and organisations involved.

For the family, the compensation symbolises responsibility. Manneh's father and siblings spent over a decade trying to unravel the mystery around Manneh's forced disappearance.

For MFWA and GPU, the payout is a significant victory in fighting for and upholding the rule of law. It has been a journey of tenacity coupled with anxious and emotional moments that transformed into deeper resolve. Fighting against the culture of impunity became inextricable from the struggle for freedom of expression and media freedom in the region.

For all, such compensation brings a measure of accountability for the forced disappearance of Manneh and all other journalists brutalised by the Jammeh regime. It also marks a significant step forward in the fight against impunity, given that such crimes often go unpunished, not only on the African continent but in countries around the world.

The campaign

In a context of increasing threats under the Jammeh regime, MFWA and GPU employed a strategic, sustained and reserved approach to seek justice and eradicate the climate of impunity for those involved in crimes against journalists. When that context shifted and new opportunities arose under a new government, they immediately transformed their approach, adopting a more responsive, non-combative strategy of engagement.

Manneh's forced disappearance and Saidykhan's detention and torture were central in defining the steps MFWA and GPU needed to take.

The filing of a petition on Manneh's behalf before the Community Court of Justice (CCJ) of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was the springboard on which the impunity campaign was first launched.

"The strength of the strategy in using the ECOWAS court process lies in its accessibility, as the process of filing a case is easier in comparison to requirements by other regional bodies. More importantly, ECOWAS allows for the filing of a case without requiring the complainant to exhaust local remedies before approaching the CCJ," explained Sulemana Braimah, executive director of MFWA.

The judgement handed down in 2008 declared Manneh's detention a violation, and ordered The Gambia to release him, and to pay him $100,000 in damages.

The second case that MFWA brought before the CCJ was that of Musa Saidykhan, in 2010. The court found The Gambia culpable and ordered the government to pay $200,000 in damages for his arbitrary arrest, detention and torture.

Deyda Hydara's case was taken up in 2006 by two of his children and supported by the International Federation of Journalists. The CCJ judgement was eventually handed down in 2014, and $50,000 in damages were awarded to Hydara's family.

The Gambian government, which did not defend itself in any of the CCJ proceedings, ignored the rulings in all 3 cases. If anything, Jammeh was defiant in his response and made it clear that he would not abide by the ECOWAS ruling.

"Yes, it was disappointing to deal with the fact that the ECOWAS court did not have enforcement rights, and that governments can opt to not adhere to these decisions, especially when you consider the regional body was set up by heads of state," added Braimah.

While this was a setback, it was not a deterrent. It just meant a change in tactic.

Identifying entry points at regional gatherings became an integral part of the campaign. Over the years, numerous petitions were presented at key heads-of-state summits and meetings whereby the MFWA would remind participants of Gambia's non-compliance with the CCJ rulings. "Even though there were no direct responses, our concerns resonated with those within the corridors of power at the ECOWAS level," recalls Braimah.

During Ghanaian President John Mahama's term as chairperson of ECOWAS, MFWA filed a petition outlining the ineffectiveness of the CCJ. It pointed out that "by allowing a country to ignore rulings there was no need to fund the court or appoint judges." While no concrete action was taken, Mahama's response acknowledged that the CCJ's inability to enforce legal decisions undermined the process and the institution.

On the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists in November 2016, MFWA, along with 35 West African civil society organisations called on ECOWAS Chairperson, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, to suspend The Gambia for its continued refusal to comply with judgments of the ECOWAS Court on rights violations against the three journalists.

The three cases cited were Chief Ebrimah Manneh v. The Gambia (2008), Musa Saidykhan v The Gambia (2010), and Deyda Hydara Jr. and Others v. The Gambia (2014).

Exactly a month after this call was made, Jammeh's 22 years of tyranny finally came to an end when he was resoundingly defeated at the polls. Initially Jammeh conceded his loss, but jubilation turned to trepidation when, according to a Reuters report, he rejected the results and insisted on "fresh and transparent elections, which will be officiated by a god-fearing and independent electoral commission."

"That's when we saw the power of ECOWAS in guaranteeing citizens' rights," says Braimah. The regional body, backed by the African Union and the UN, insisted that the verdict of the Gambian people be respected, and Jammeh was eventually compelled to leave power on 21 January, 2017. He went into exile in Equatorial Guinea.

These political events had a direct and positive bearing on the MFWA campaign. "Once that change happened, one of our objectives was to see how we could get the new government to implement the decisions of the court. Because it is a government, not a person, and government is a continuum, we decided to follow up on the compensation with President Barrow," explained Braimah.

First, MFWA and GPU met with journalists in exile on January 26, 2017 in Senegal to get their perspectives and sentiments on whether the incoming government would oppose or support the legacy of Jammeh on press freedom.

During a subsequent mission to The Gambia from March 18 to 25, a delegation which included members of MFWA, GPU and some journalists, participated in discussions with government officials, and specifically the Minister of Information and President Barrow, who confirmed his commitment to press freedom and fighting impunity in The Gambia, and that he did not want to follow the repressive trajectory of the Jammeh government.

Following this meeting, MFWA programme manager Vivian Affoah was posted to The Gambia for six months to work on the activities agreed on by the two organisations. She was assigned to GPU to support efforts of the secretariat who - while vibrant and committed - were also volunteers in an economically battered country that had experienced years of repression.

Her role in weaving the aspirations of the families - which was to get justice - together with the principles of the MFWA and GPU into their negotiations with President Barrow and his government gave the two organisations credibility and allowed them to maintain their integrity.

Even when it was emotionally taxing, there was never a moment that Braimah or Affoah were compelled to give up. "I remember one meeting when Manneh's 96-year-old father told us how he would go to the Ministry of Information and ask: 'just tell me where my son is? If he's dead, just tell me where his body is?' This brought me to tears," recalls Braimah.

"All this did was strengthen my resolve to fight for these families," added Affoah.

Lessons learned

The lessons learned from the Gambia strategy can help MFWA replicate its success in other countries where the organisation has anti-impunity campaigns - namely Nigeria and Guinea.

• The situation in The Gambia was fluid, often pushing MFWA to take reactive measures. Over time, the organisation learned to adapt and mould their campaign to end impunity, positioning it as part of a broader campaign for democratic reform.

• Developing a close and collaborative working relationship with GPU allowed MFWA to gain easy access to all the relevant local stakeholders. It also helped shape a unique campaign that took into consideration both context and possibilities.

• The decision to send programme manager Vivian Affoah to The Gambia for six months to drive the campaign was the best possible move to ensure it did not lose momentum. Affoah established a strong rapport with the families of the victims, which strengthened their confidence in allowing the two organisations to represent their interests in negotiations. Affoah worked directly with Hawa Sisay-Sabally, a lawyer contracted by the two organisations to draft a legal position paper on the CCJ court judgement, and to provide justification for the compensation that had been awarded. Sisay-Sibally was present throughout the negotiating process with the Gambian government and so she was able to guarantee the payments were made. Affoah's efforts on the ground also helped strengthen the interactions of MFWA and GPU with the government.

• The ability to identify key entry points for advocacy initiatives in the prevailing context at the time was critical. Building regional strength by constantly following up with key policymakers to raise the issue of non-compliance with the court judgements at strategic regional meetings kept the issue under the spotlight. At the same time, important relationships were formed with key policymakers from the region.

• The strategy to embrace President Adama Barrow's interest in building credibility and a legacy of good governance was also central to the campaign's success.

• The multi-level campaign was constantly being modified in response to an evolving situation on the ground; one which required the organisation to react quickly and ingeniously. Sometimes this meant changing course from one previously agreed-on with donors. Braimah expanded on the need for flexibility on occasion: "If we are to continue on this trajectory in terms of combatting impunity and seeking justice for journalists, it requires funding that is flexible, so that you are able to adapt the strategy."

• Perhaps the most important element in the success of this campaign is the dedication that MFWA and GPU sustained throughout the process - even though 14 years passed before Manneh's family received the compensation awarded by the courts. Even when MFWA underwent a change of directorship, neither the focus nor the momentum was lost.

In closing…

Neither MFWA nor GPU ever lost sight of what they were fighting for.

For the media to operate freely and without adverse influence from any quarter, there is a need for the rule of law. A culture of impunity for crimes against journalists eats at the very foundation of the democratic project, which is inextricably linked to the promise of access to justice.

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