Gambia after the Calabash Revolution

Gambia after the Calabash Revolution

By Gunnar Westberg

March 26, 2019

Gambia – or properly The Gambia – a small country in West Africa with about 2 million inhabitants, was peaceful since its internal independent rule was established in 1963. There were good relations with its only neighbour, Senegal. For a long time there was no military force in the country.

One could then expect that there would be no militant coups, as in so many other African countries. However, in 1981 a “Revolutionary Council” took power. The revolutionaries were soon ousted by troops from Senegal who reinstated the president. 

Now obviously Gambia needed an army “to establish stability” and an army was established. The outcome was that in 1994 a group of soldiers, led by lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, took power. He became the leader of the country, and was elected and re-elected president in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011.

At least in the early years of his reign, he was popular in parts of the country and in his own tribe. However, repression of the opposition became common, political leaders and journalists were intimidated, jailed or tortured and murdered.

Considering that the opposition was weak and unarmed it is difficult to understand the cruelty of the repression.

Jammeh took control over large segments of the economy and could distribute gifts and bribes to win the elections. “For seven generations my family shall not feel any need” he was reported to say. In the election in 2016 Jammeh, who by now had accrued the titles of ”His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mans, lost his support, but he refused to hand over power to his opponent.

Daily demonstrations followed. Women, especially older women, began to sweep the streets before the presidential palace. Who can stop an elderly lady from doing her duty to clean the street? Many of them were, however, arrested and mistreated.

This civilian resistance movement came to be called the Kalamaa/mbartu revolution. Kalama is the word for a calabash ladle in the Mandinka language, mbartu in the Wollof language. This word symbolizes the fight of the women for survival.

Finally, military forces from Senegal and from ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States – countries assembled around and in the country in an operation supported by the UN.

Ex-president Jammeh at last understood that he had lost and when he had gathered together enough of his treasures he flew and found refuge in Equatorial Guinea, where he still lives.

In several international reports of these events you may get the impression that the president was forced to leave because of the action of the foreign troops. It would be more accurate the emphasize that the was forced to leave through the courageous action of the people who felt that they had had enough.

Photo by Gunnar Westberg

The dictator is gone. A new democratically elected government was installed in early 2017. A Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, TRRC, has been established. The TRRC is a body of a dozen persons from different professions and organisations in The Gambia. 

Violations of human rights, arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances and executions were frequent during the 22 years reign of Yahya Jammeh. It was dangerous to speak about the disappearances.   A child in school was not allowed to say that his father had been arrested and maybe killed; that could be risky for the family.

Two young American men were arrested because the dictator has got it into his head that the visitors intended to start a rebellion.

extent of the violations of human rights will be learnt from the
interviews at the TRRC. The sessions are sent live and in summaries by
Gambian QTV. Many Gambians are reacting
with horror and surprise when they hear of the extent and brutality of
the violations. So far few of the perpetrators have been heard. One of
them confessed to a half dozen cases of torture and murder and asked for

Forgiving? – is that possible?

That question must be answered by the families of the victims. It is expected that most will demand some kind of punishment, a prison term and some kind of reparation, e.g. help to medical and psychological rehabilitation. Many of the offenders hold public or military office today.  A added problem is that many will leave the country when threatened to be taken to court.

Photo by Gunnar Westberg

A “Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations” has been established. Here family members of victims of the violence are at last free to tell their story. The procedure of sharing what you have not been allowed to speak about is therapeutic in itself.

Psychological and medical rehabilitation is also provided, however on a limited scale, as the Centre is entirely dependent on donations.

Can the wounds be healed at all? For some, yes – for some no. One woman who has become the “mother of all victims” because of the consolation and understanding she brings, says of her son who was tortured and killed: “I thank God every day that my son was not a murderer”.

At the present time the people of Gambia have many other problems to wrestle with. The Gambia is very poor and the economic development is among the slowest in West Africa. The educational level is low; a majority of the population cannot read a newspaper in English, the only common language.

Although the tribes, with five major languages, get along well in their daily lives, it is difficult to hold a democratic debate and to establish a feeling of national unity.

As elsewhere, corruption is a  great obstacle to democracy and development.    

The author

Dr. Gunnar Westberg,
TFF Board member


One Response to "Gambia after the Calabash Revolution"

  1. Vibeke Larsen   March 26, 2019 at 10:08 pm

    Thanks for article about Gambia. Not fair to all the people.


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