May 13, 2020, 2:14 PM
It was on April 10 -11, 2000 that former Gambian dictator, Yahya Jammeh, commanded his troops to senseless and brutally gunned down over a dozen student demonstrators for merely demanding justice over ‘‘murder and rape’’ by paramilitary officers. It resulted to one of the most awful and appalling days ever witnessed in the The Gambia. The country was stunned and shocked with the new norm. The international community was also dumbfounded and started issuing protest notes but to no avail.
Even though Jammeh’s own APRC government had publicly acknowledged that the government woefully ‘‘failed to inquire into the causes of the breakdown of public order during the student demonstrations’’, some of his senior officials including a cabinet minister who recently shunned the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), described the murdered students during a political rallies as ‘‘sons and daughters of the opposition’’. It was outrageous and scandalous! But, merely snubbing the TRRC, the ex-official is guilty of contempt of court.
In addition, it was the same regime that cowardly murdered Deyda Hydara, editor and co-proprietor of The Point Newspaper, for routinely asking questions over the murders.
Consequently, Jammeh’s own ‘‘Commission’’ equally accepted that everything ‘‘humanly possible’’ had been done to ascertain the ‘‘primary fact’’ regarding the two incidents: a rape and murder case of two promising Gambian students. But no one was ever brought to justice for the injustice committed. Notwithstanding, Deyda Hydara, who demanded justice for the victims was himself condemned for ever.
Hydara, was one of the most humble and down to earth person who treated people fairly. During a press conference at the State House following the official visit of Amadou Toumani Toure, 3rd President of Mali, Deyda quietly hinted that I asked my question before him even though he was a senior editor. President Toure who was also a former military officer and head of President Moussa Traore’s personal guide later arrested his boss and led a ‘‘revolution’’ as a Colonel. He was in Banjul for a ‘‘friendly visit’’ and reluctant to comment on right violations. But it was due to the APRC government’s excessive powers and total lack of clarity, transparency and fairness-combined with the arrogant slogan of ‘‘Yahya by force’’, resulted to the brave Gambia Students’ Union to defy the status quo and organised a peaceful protest.
But his troops without basic human rights training, and respect for the right to life that beings have the right to live and not to be killed by another entity including the government, forcefully intervened and started to open fire causing untold mayhem. It later led to the untimely death of 14 unarmed students. They were brutally and heartlessly shot and killed in broad daylight. Some lay motionless still with slogans and flags demanding justice and impartiality. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back
The youngest victim was 2-year-old Musa Sembene, even though many media reports both nationally and internationally referred to him as Ousman Sembene. The latter is the father of the deceased. I personally escorted Musa’s dad to the office of Ousman Jammeh, who was the Ombudsman and also a Master of the Court to register the young victim’s name.
The bullet that killed Musa lodged inside his head for few days until he was evacuated by his father to Dakar, Senegal. Few days later, he was pronounced dead. His family was devastated due to his untimely death. I reported the matter from beginning to end and knew the family well. My newspaper reports were recently exhibited at the TRRC. There was no iota of support from Jammeh’s government.
It was a violent, senseless and unnecessary suppression. The demonstrations could have been easily resolved in a democratic manner but the government was unwilling to listen to the students’ concerns and worries. Interestingly, the student leaders had earlier forwarded their worries and grievances for the government to address but the authorities failed to even respond adequately. The students gently gave the government a deadline to investigate the alleged rape of Binta, a female student and the torture to death of Barry, another male pupil. However, as usual, the government refused to conduct an independent or fair inquiry and instead issued threats against the students.
Another death student whose identity and nationality was underreported was Soulaymane Mansare, who was a Senegal national studying Arabic in the Gambia. The young pupil was equally slaughtered during the demonstrations.
Landing Badjie, commonly known as 13 Badjie, a confidant and personal adviser to Yahya Jammeh who was promoted by the Gambian leader as a very high ranking official at the National Intelligent Agency (NIA), publicly acknowledged that the student demonstrations were ‘‘eminent’’. Badjie, one of the senior directors at the NIA, knew that the students were not given the respect they deserved. An amicable solution could have been reached and several young lives spared. But once again, instead of apologising and compensating the families of the deceased, insensitive and inefficient government ministers publicly blamed the ‘‘opposition and troublesome student leaders’’.
I covered the entire student demonstrations and saw for myself what happened during the incident. I witnessed the action of our security forces from Westfield junction towards the Gambia Red Cross headquarters where the late Omar Barrow, a journalist and a Red Cross volunteer, was identified, shot and killed by the Paramilitary Police. Barrow was killed at point-blank range while helping wounded students. The shooting of the late journalist took place in public view at the Gambia Red Cross, even though the victim was still wearing a visible Red Cross dress. When journalists, were later invited at the Red Cross headquarters to see first-hand how Barrow was killed, including his bloodstained belongings, emotions were high.
Barrow’s bag, belt and other personal effects were soaked with blood. Andrew Sylva, was the Director of The Gambia Red Cross. Officials recalled how the late journalist and Red Cross volunteer hid under a desk to escape his assassin. We found it difficult to digest that the Gambia Red Cross building could be targeted and invaded. Barrow was a defenceless and vulnerable target. The journalist left a young spouse and a little baby.
Also, I also saw troops roaming and driving fully armed with riot gears towards Bakoteh and Kotu where many students from school were still on their school uniforms. Some students were arrested on the spot by armed men, beaten and tortured in the streets and in public view. It was appalling and dreadful! Some of them changed clothes in order to avoid recognition. They were innocent pupil just returning home from school. Others were randomly arrested and taken away, school computers and belonging smashed and destroyed. Female students later alleged that they were sexually assaulted and raped inside military barracks. They were frustrated and angry.
The APRC government's press released and translated in various local languages blaming the students was outrageous and malicious. It was a propaganda! What journalists discovered and witnessed was completely different from what authorities told the nation. Due to the emotions and anger across the country and abroad, a controversial and contentious ‘‘Commission’’ was set up to look into the event. It was biased in setting, selection and lack impartiality. It predictable outcome, prompted severe criticism both nationally and internationally. It was even described as a ‘‘kangaroo court’’.
Under pressure, the authorities finally decided to organise a press conference on the matter. I attended the press conference organised by the Justice Department regarding the unrest but the content of the briefing was even more shocking. Pap Cheyassin Secka, then Attorney General and Minister of Justice, read out a lengthy statement mainly blaming the students and the opposition for the disturbance. Minister Secka, mainly concentrated on the amount of money and belongings damaged and blamed “unruly students” and their alleged ‘‘instigators’’.
Wearing a white halftan (traditional dress), Pap Cheyassin Secka, a former convict implicated in the 1981 bloody coup d’état led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang against President Sir Dawda Jawara, shamelessly refused to answer any questions following his statement. He was quickly escorted briskly using a backdoor in the building. Journalists were stunned once again.
Furthermore, Ousman Jah, one of the Commission’s senior members selected from the religious community and also a member of the Supreme Islamic Council (SIC) and a Religious Studies teacher was among those selected. Taking into consideration the importance of his duties in a religious point of view, I personally met him and he granted me an interview. He strongly denounced the action of the security forces. At least one individual within Yahya Jammeh’s ‘‘Commission’’ was prepared to defend justice. But I was wrong. I quickly reached my desk at the Independent Newspaper, Kairaba Avenue to receive a rude shock. The news editor called my attention to inform me that Jah ''begged'' to withdraw his statement. I asked politely: ‘‘So he has decided to change his mind so quickly?’’ The editor simply responded: ‘‘Yes, he is withdrawing…that’s his right’’. The story was withdrawn.’’ That was it. My efforts went in vain!
Finally, if it is really true that the country means ‘‘Never Again’’ from any form of injustice and abuse in the future, it will be incomprehensible for anyone regardless of his or her status to either trivialize or belittle the killing of defenseless students. It will be gross injustice for the victims and their families as well as an affront towards the Gambians, TRRC and the international community to slur and smear the victims.
The good image of The Gambia abruptly tarnished by Yahya Jammeh and his cohorts must be restored without further delay. Foreign donors, partners and international investors are eagerly waiting for a restoration. We need them urgently! Thus the country cannot be compromised and further stained for the selfish interest of few individuals who are unconcerned about its prosperity including national and international rules. The world is watching attentively.