Tanji is a traditional fishing village on the Atlantic coast of The Gambia, a place of sunsets and seagulls and tourists who visit to watch the colorful boats and market.
It is also near the site where, last week, Gambian authorities found the body of Solo Sandeng buried in an unmarked grave. It was exhumed in the presence of his father and brother. His remains have been taken to a Banjul hospital for a forensic examination to determine his cause of death – a death that occurred a year ago in April when Sandeng was held in police custody.
Sandeng’s case is just one of the deaths and disappearances that occurred under former President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule. That rule ended in December when President Adama Barrow was elected, although Jammeh – now living in exile in Equatorial Guinea – tried for weeks to remain in power.
On Friday, Gambian Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou told Reuters that a commission of inquiry is being set up to investigate the personal finances of the former dictator, who is believed to have stolen millions of dollars from the West African nation and left Gambians behind with up to $1 billion in debt.
It’s by no means the only thing he left behind. The financial investigation is part of “new” The Gambia’s wider commitment to bring justice to the nation that the mercurial Jammeh ruled by fear, repression and death. The discovery of Sandeng’s remains illustrates the aching sorrow of Gambians optimistic about a democratic and peaceful future, while just beginning to come to terms with healing the wounds.
“Their conduct amounts to total betrayal of the Gambian people,” said Amadou Sanneh, a political prisoner himself under Jammeh who is now The Gambia’s finance minister. Speaking with the BBC last month, he described how the political disaster of the former regime affected every sphere of life under Jammeh, including Gambian human rights.
Solo Sandeng’s leadership and legacy
Ebrima Solo Sandeng, in many respects, was the catalyst for Jammeh’s defeat. The husband and father of nine children – the youngest was just two years old, Human Rights Watch noted – had just been elected as the United Democratic Party (UDP) organizing secretary. Sandeng was leading the opposition party’s April 2016 rally for Gambian reforms in the Banjul suburb of Serrekunda when about a dozen UDP members and supporters were arrested. He never returned. Witnesses arrested with him, including businesswoman Nogoi Njie, testified that he was brutally beaten and tortured by National Intelligence Agency (NIA) officers. His death was confirmed by UDP officials who visited Sandeng’s family two days later.
Ousainou Darboe, the head of the UDP opposition party, was arrested that same day in new protests sparked by the news of Sandeng’s death. Darboe was sentenced to three years in prison, one of 20 participants including American citizen Fanta Jawara who were sent to jail. Barrow stepped into the UDP leadership role after Darboe’s arrest, but resigned in November to lead the coalition to defeat Jammeh.
Defeat him they did, and some observers believe that it was Sandeng’s death that emboldened angry Gambians enough to oust Jammeh at last – a turning point that meant the end of a repressive regime.“What they did to Solo, they created an anger that will not relent,” his daughter Fatoumatta explained.
While Sandeng may have become a symbol, it’s just as important to remember that he was a person, one whose frightened wife immediately took the children away from The Gambia and who – until this week – never knew what really happened to him. A year later, near Tanji, the slow process of closure has begun.
Barrow’s leadership in a new The Gambia
That process is only beginning for The Gambia as well. In February, Barrow’s administration arrested Yankuba Badjie, the former head of the NIA, along with eight other officers implicated in Sandeng’s death. They are the first senior Gambian officials to be charged in connection with the arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings and other human right abuses long associated with Jammeh and his henchmen. Among them is Sheik Omar Jeng, who led police to the unmarked grave near the seaside fishing village.
Gambian authorities say the search for dozens of other missing victims has intensified, and a new panel established by Mai Ahmad Fatty, the head of Gambian homeland security, is making them a priority. Victims of atrocities include Ahagie Ceesay and Ebou Jobe, naturalized Americans who returned to their native Gambia to launch a software business before disappearing – and who, intelligence officials now say, were summarily executed by excruciating means because Jammeh believed they were spies seeking a coup.
Much in The Gambia appears to be changing quickly. Prisoners who were held without trial have been released, including 171 set free last month. Darboe, the former head of the UDP opposition, was released on bail with others in early December right after Barrow’s presidential victory, but before the weeks of stalling and denial that preceded Jammeh’s departure.
Local media said Saturday that neighboring Senegal has extradited a Gambian military general caught on the Guinea-Bissau border, and returned him to face human rights abuse charges, along with other detained former military members. On the financial front, four agency directors under Jammeh have been arrested in connection with the missing millions as that investigation begins. And with Gambian parliamentary elections set for next month – and some fraying of coalition unity already in motion – observers from the European Union will be on hand this time. Under Jammeh’s rule, they were previously denied access.
Yet Tambadou, the new justice minister, asks Gambians to be patient and trust in the process for establishing justice. “Many are expecting that the rapid political transformation the country has undergone will lead to equally swift changes in all other walks of life,” writes Vincent Haiges for Deutsche Welle.
“Reforms cannot be enacted overnight, Tambadou said. Not even in the new Gambia.”
Image: President Adama Barrow