Prisoner Executions Dismay and Galvanize New York’s Gambians

In the 18 years since he seized power in a coup, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has baffled and outraged the world. He has been accused of ordering the murder and extrajudicial arrests of several students, journalists and political opponents. He threatened to decapitate Gambia’s homosexuals. He claimed to have cured AIDS.

So when Amnesty International announced on August 24 that under Jammeh’s orders, nine Gambian prisoners were killed by firing squad, and that an additional 38 prisoners would be killed by mid-September, New York City’s small, tightly-knit Gambian immigrant community responded with more sorrow than surprise.

“[Jammeh] is only doing this to scare the Gambian population,” said Pa Saikou Kujabi, a Gambian immigrant who had his life threatened by Jammeh’s government and was granted political asylum when he fled to New York, “He’s just a ruthless ruler; he takes pride in it.”

In 1997, Kujabi ran for a seat in the Gambian National Assembly with the United Democratic Party (UDP), the main opposition in the tiny West African nation. Kujabi publicly denounced the regime for suppressing his supporters in the election, and he was subsequently arrested, tortured, and held in prison for 11 days. In 1998, agents from Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) arrested and held Kujabi for six days with minimal, poor-quality food. Less than a year later, he fled.

“I decided I needed to run for my life,” he said, “My life was openly threatened.”

Like Kujabi, the executed prisoners and the Gambians still on death row are considered “treasonous” by Jammeh. While some of the prisoners have been convicted of violent crimes, most are Jammeh’s political opponents, many of whom are former military men who Jammeh accuses of supporting a failed 2006 coup attempt against him.

Saihou Mballow is another UDP member and political opponent of Jammeh’s who fled Gambia for New York. Mballow also ran for a seat in the National Assembly, and after many of his supporters were arrested and blocked from voting, he contested the official results in the Gambian Supreme Court, which repeatedly delayed his case. Mballow then faced threats of violence and arrest, and decided to come to America.

“It is practically inconceivable to hold demonstrations in Gambia,” Mballow said, “Either you are arrested before you get out of your house, or they already know your name, and as soon as you get out of your door, they arrest you.”

Along with three others, Mballow and Kujabi have organized a protest against the executions and against Jammeh for Thursday, September 6, outside the United Nations headquarters.

Demba Sanyang and Madi Ceesay are Gambian immigrants who will participate in the protests. Like Mballow, Sanyang will protest partially because he doubts that people will demonstrate inside the country.

“Gambians are so quiet,” he said, “But we know what it takes to change a government. Either you sacrifice to get what you want, or you keep your mouth shut and live in constant fear under dictatorship.”

More than the others, Ceesay hopes the protests will draw international attention to the executions. He thinks that the crisis can be resolved through international isolation of Jammeh.

“We need Senegal to withdraw all diplomatic relations with Gambia and force all other African nations to take their ambassadors out,” Ceesay said, “The United Nations has to stop the government from travelling outside of Gambia. And all their assets and bank accounts should be frozen,” Ceesay said. “If [Jammeh] doesn’t have communication with the outside world, then he knows that this thing is over.”

The Associated Press reported last week that Senegal, which surrounds Gambia on three sides and is home to three of the nine executed prisoners, has already called for sanctions against Gambia. The European Union and the U.N. are also weighing sanctions, according to a report by Voice of America News. The E.U., U.N., the African Union and the U.S. State Department have all condemned the executions.

Nevertheless, Mballow laments that the West lacks concern for Gambia’s problems.

“Gambia is a poor country. We don’t have oil; we don’t have gas; we don’t have coal,” Mballow said, “If Gambia had resources, there would be a lot of American concentration in Gambia, a lot of British concentration in Gambia, a lot of Scandinavian concentration in Gambia. But as it is now, that is lacking. So this is our problem. It’s unfortunate.”

Kujabi doesn’t hold out hope for outside help either, but he sees few options beyond protesting.

“The only way to stop [Jammeh] is with an internal military coup or with a popular uprising. I don’t see any other way,” he said, “[But] we will show the whole world our outrage.”

“If we don’t take any action, [Jammeh] is going to massacre the whole country,” Ceesay added, “We just want him to go.”

Note: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that in 1998, rather than being arrested by members of Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency, Pa Saikou Kujabi was arrested by Yahya Jammeh’s personal security forces, known as “The Dream Boys” and “The Black-Black Boys.”  

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