Opinion: Gambian Civil Society: Our Role And Contributions

by Madi Jobarteh 

Since January 19 when TANGO convened the first-ever national press conference of non-state actors, it has repositioned itself to play a more effective and engaging role in the New Gambia. But, instead of this being welcomed by all and sundry, there have been some individuals who have been rebuking TANGO and Gambian CSOs as being useless and good for nothing during the Jammeh era. It is therefore important that one sheds light on this matter so that we do not miss the point but ensure that all remain on course to building democracy and good governance in our country.

Yes, TANGO and CSOs in the Gambia never staged a direct open protest against the dictatorship but that is not because TANGO did not want to. To blame TANGO for that would be to ignore or even deny the fact that APRC was a tyrannical and violent regime. It is also to deny or ignore the fact that there were laws in place that limit the ability of citizens to protest such that in the course of 22 years, I can think of only two protests against the excesses of the dictatorship, i.e. the April 2000 student protest and the April 2016 Solo Sandeng protest all of which resulted in heavy casualties.

While Gambian civil society has not been openly confrontational, it would interest Gambians to realize that indeed our CSOs played a strategic role in fighting the dictatorship in various ways. Gambia CSOs as a collective maintained their independence during the dictatorship and refused to be co-opted by the regime. CSOs continued to provide the necessary goods and services to our people and reached communities that never received any support from the government, and sometimes with a heavy price!

For example, we recall that in 2002 ActionAid International The Gambia embarked on a project in URR to enlighten communities about the Constitution in their own languages. Immediately the regime clamped down on the organization, threatening to close it down and ordered its country director to leave the country within 48 hours. ActionAid was nearly closed if not for the intervention of TANGO.

Furthermore Gambian CSOs had been the source of lot of reports and information that were shared with various stakeholders across the world including the United Nations, African Union, ECOWAS, European Union and foreign governments and international human rights organizations. Some of those reports were instrumental in determining the position of those organizations and governments and the pressure that they came to place on Yaya Jammeh and his regime.

Some of these reports are NGO Shadow or Complementary Reports submitted to the UN committee on women or CEDAW or the committee on children (CRC) or to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on general human rights in the country. CSOs had also submitted reports to the African Children’s Committee as well as to the ECOWAS Early Warning Department. These reports had been instrumental in putting pressure on Yaya Jammeh. For example the banning of FGM by Yaya Jammeh was not just because of his recognition of the rights of women but because of Gambian CSOs contribution to international efforts to compel him to respect international standards.

Gambians could recall that in the 2011 presidential election ECOWAS boycotted the election following a fact-finding mission in which they met the Gambia civil society who told them in no uncertain terms that Yaya Jammeh and APRC were involved in massive malpractices.

Gambian CSOs also took part in several regional and international forums where they shared information about the state of affairs in the Gambia, sometimes at great risk to their lives. I know Mr. Ousman Yabo Executive Director of TANGO was on more than one occasion removed from Government delegations because of Yaya Jammeh's unhappiness at Yabo's participation in forums around the world where he exposed the dictatorship in the Gambia.

At the local level, TANGO members took part in many technical and policy meetings with government officials where they raised the necessary concerns and issues, even though to no avail. Hence Gambian CSOs never relented or condoned or aided the dictatorship in anyway. Despite the dire circumstances and the limitations, yet Gambian CSOs spared no effort to challenge and expose the dictatorship.

Since 2012 TANGO instituted bi-monthly ‘Policy Dialogues’ where we bring public, private and civil society actors, institutions and companies as well as political parties, academia and community leaders among others to deliberate on the policy environment in the country. In those forums, we used to recognize the presence of NIA operatives who would be secretly recording those events without our permission. In fact the moderator of the first policy dialogue in 2012 was 'invited' by the NIA for questioning because of the facts and figures he shared about the socio-economic status of the country. TANGO used to receive many calls from concerned public officials to warn us to be careful because Yaya Jammeh was getting information about our activities.

These policy dialogues were also carried out in radio talk shows where TANGO hosted programs on West Coast Radio, City Limits Radio and Unique FM as well as community radio stations in Farafeni and Kerewan among others to promote transparency, accountability and human rights. One can check with these radio stations to confirm. TANGO had even partnered with the NCCE to conduct radio programs to educate citizens about the rights of women.

In fact since 2011 to date, TANGO developed a comprehensive human rights training program through which we trained and sensitized various sectors of the state and society about human rights. Trainings were conducted right inside the police headquarters. We provided training to parliamentarians as well policy makers, local councilors, community leaders and ordinary people. In those trainings we did not spare or avoid any issue in this country. So many other organizations also embarked on human rights promotion, be it about children, women, persons with disability or people living with HIV/AIDS, among others.

Therefore we can say with pride that the Gambian civil society had indeed played a crucial role to defend human rights in this country under the circumstances. Because of that stance, we know that lot of CSOs faced direct attack from the regime.

For example in 2015, TANGO received a letter from the Secretary General demanding that Concern Universal, which is now United Purpose to close down immediately. After a stiff resistance and determined engagement by TANGO management, that decision was rescinded. We can also recall in 2012 when TANGO stood up to defend Gamcotrap when its Executive Director Dr. Isatou Touray and her deputy Amie Bojang Sissoho were arbitrarily arrested, detained and put through a false trial on trumped up charges. TANGO wrote letters and sought audience with the Interior Minister Ousman Sonko to express our concern while at the same time keeping solidarity with our colleagues at Gamcotrap.

In the course of those terrible times, TANGO also had a partnership with GPU to promote and defend freedom of expression and the media. Every year TANGO staged joint public events with GPU to hold marches and symposia to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, the murder of Deyda Hydara and other media events. In those events, I had presented various papers where we stated the facts and made direct demands for the protection of journalists and proper investigation into the murder of Deyda.

Finally TANGO had always made its premises available to the then opposition leaders to have closed-door meetings as well as engaged political parties to enhance democracy. In 2013 TANGO conceived a project to enhance the quality of women’s participation in politics as well as to increase the representation of women in power and decision making structures. This was a project intended to effectively influence the entire governance environment in reaction against the dictatorship. All political parties, especially their women leaders were engaged in series of meetings for that purpose.

In that same year, TANGO planned the first-ever political debate in Banjul for the mayoral elections. After much preparation and excitement from the general public, that debate was abruptly stopped at the last minute, as it was about to begin.

Above all we cannot forget to mention that when Yaya Jammeh rejected the results on December 9 it was the Gambia Bar Association that first came out on December 13 to publicly denounce Jammeh. The Bar stated without equivocation that Jammeh’s actions tantamount to treason. The Bar statement opened the floodgates for scores of other Gambian individuals, communities and CSOs to also rally behind president-elect Barrow in defense of democracy. Well before that even, TANGO leadership had already gone to meet president-elect Barrow to express our solidarity.

Therefore when we got to this stage, folks must understand what the Gambia went through and how different stakeholders in the country played their part to defeat dictatorship. There are many more activities and efforts that Gambian CSOs and individual civil society activists contributed to bringing about change, all of which cannot be enumerated here.

For that matter, it is indeed disheartening and a derailment for anyone to seek to rebuke and frustrate CSOs when they wish to take advantage of this change in order to play a more effective role so as to ensure that democracy and good governance prevail in the Gambia once and for all. On hindsight one can ask if our efforts were enough or not, but one cannot dispute the fact that Gambian CSOs indeed stood up with and for the people in the most trying times.

Hence when TANGO Chair John Njie gave that apology, it was a matter of honesty and humility to realize that even our best was not enough. But indeed no single citizen, organization or political party’s best was enough even for those who had lost lives and limb such as Deyda Hydara or Solo Sandeng!

TANGO therefore shall continue to engage after learning lessons from our history and experiences. As the Chairman John Njie noted, never again will we be found wanting or hesitate in addressing the pertinent issues of the country. We may disagree with the approaches and objectives, but surely we will continue to uphold the principle that CSOs will be active participants in the Gambia forever!

Therefore those who are fond of ridiculing other people and organizations by asking them what they did during the dictatorship are actually harming the Gambia. Fighting a dictatorship is no child’s play hence it is indeed insulting to ourselves and disrespectful to victims, dead or alive to now question anyone who seeks to speak out in order to ensure that another dictatorship does not arise in our motherland. When we ask such questions, are we therefore saying that we must allow another dictatorship to emerge? If we condemn citizens for speaking out it means we want to silence them, which was how Yaya Jammeh became a dictator. Therefore I do not think any self-respecting Gambian should ever tell another Gambian that he or she was silent before.

For the Gambia Our Homeland.