In the village of Sittanunku, in northern Gambia, Lamin F. Jammeh was being eulogised with little ceremony.
“It is weeks since he was killed and the state did not give us his body,” an uncle to the deceased complains. “We can’t even do a fitting burial for him.”
Ja’bo, as he was fondly called, was admired by different people for different reasons in that rural settlement. There was more to him than being a soldier.
True, he never rose to national stardom. But at the village level, he was one of the finest footballers ever. Besides, as a close friend of him recounts, his building he saw to near-completion, but could not see it complete, for his father’s extended family, still remains one of the biggest there.
These, among other admirable legacy of the once famous native, had apparently fed into the air of grief which was still alive when hundreds of mourners gathered to observe a charity for him.
This was one week after he was ‘put before a firing squad’, alongside eight others, including a woman, of Senegalese nationality.
But the atmosphere was no less charged than on Tuesday Sept 4 in neighbouring Senegal, Denmark, UK, US and Holland. There, Gambians abroad, sympathised by other nationalities, embarked upon ‘Occupy’ Gambian foreign diplomatic missions, otherwise National Day of Outrage.
“The protests galvanise Gambians because, they, for the most part, have been complaining that the reason they did not get involved in the struggle was that they didn’t see anything of substance. These protests give them that,” a Gambia human rights activist, Banka Manneh, told KissykissyMansa.
In the UK, Gambian High Commission staff reportedly took to their heels as demonstrators stormed the premises. In Senegal, nameless children who were among the protesters held up banners reading: ‘Where is my father, President Jammeh?’.
27 years of moratorium ends
Since independence in 1965, The Gambia, tiniest country in mainland Africa, carried out execution only once in 1985, before it went on to abolish it in 1993.
An abrupt change of government in 1994 saw death penalty re-instated only two years later, in 1995, one year after then-Junta leader, now President Yahya Jammeh, took over.
He passed a decree which was eventually included in the 1997 constitution in the return to civilian rule.
Since then, dozens had been sentenced to death for murder and treason – the two offences that attract capital punishment in the country. None had been executed, neither had anyone been pardoned.
Accordingly, Amnesty International had classified Gambia as “abolitionist in practice - one of the 141 countries (more than two-thirds of states) worldwide which have abolished the death penalty either in law or practice.”
However, the government had ended 27 years of moratorium recently, when President Jammeh’s government once again sent shock waves across the world by executing nine of the forty-seven death-row prisoners.
Credible reports have it that the executions were carried out on Thursday Aug 23, though the government, who initially indirectly dismissed the claims as untrue, later confirmed that it was on Sunday Aug 26.
Whatever, three weeks now, Gambian authorities are yet to disclose where the executions had been carried out. Neither did they disclose where they were buried, nor did they surrender the bodies to the families.
And the mysterious manner under which the nine prisoners were executed confounds human rights activists, family members, opinion and some independent religious leaders.
“In Islam, the execution should be a transparent process where the families of the condemned are involved,” says outspoken imam, Baba Leigh, reacting to claims that Gambia is Muslim-dominated and such penalties are accepted in Islam, even when the constitution guarantees the country’s secular status.
Leigh rhetorically quizzes: “Where are the bodies of those killed? Their bodies should be returned to their families which has not happened.”
Human rights activist, Banka Manneh, a mastermind of the Tuesday demonstrations, expresses similar sentiments, arguing that due process was not followed.
“We can all disagree on whether the death penalty is right or wrong, as a form of punishment, but what we cannot debate about is whether we should have due process or not. These people were not executed legally but instead [allegedly] murdered...”
Also, Amnesty confirms that the executions carried were done without notifying the prisoners, families or lawyers.
“The government confirmed the executions only after substantial international pressure to do so,” the global human rights watchdog believes.
Murder or lawful executions?
The executions might have come as a shock, done under circumstances that remain shrouded in thick clouds, but none would perhaps complain of not have seen it coming.
For Gambia’s military-turned-civilian president, Yahya Jammeh, chose a sacred day - Muslim feast of Tobaski - to renew his long promise to carry out executions in this largely Muslim-dominated country.
“All punishment prescribed by the law will be maintained in the country to ensure that criminals get what they deserve, that is, those who killed are killed...” President Jammeh had vouched.
And there was widespread uproar. The African Union, ECOWAS, the French government, Nigeria’s president, Jonathan Goodluck, and rights groups, all but warned against any executions.
But the Gambian leader, who is criticised as undemocratic, was undeterred. Four days after the Amnesty disclosure, his government came out plain to admit the executions.
Top on the list of those executed was Dawda Bojang, a Gambian convicted in 2007 for the murder of a Briton. His appeal against life sentence was dismissed and substituted with death.
Malang Sonko, Tabara Samba, a Senegalese, BubaYarboe, Gebe Bah, another Senegalese, and Lamin B.S. Darboe were all convicted for separate murders. The remaining three were Lieutenant Lamin Jarjou, Lt. Alieu Bah and Lt. Lamin F. Jammeh, who were convicted of treason and murder in 1998.
The government of The Gambia insists that those executed had exhausted their appeals, thus the executions were lawful. This was backed apparently by a minority, and they included the Supreme Islamic Council, who faces criticism of siding with the ruling cliché to the extent of shying away from the reality.
Imam Baba Leigh, however, holds a different view from the council. “The Supreme Islamic Council should have gone further than just declaring their support for the executions. They should not say that if you kill, you should be killed, because it goes beyond that. Execution should be the last resort or option if someone kills another,” he says.
Beyond the religious arguments in a country whose constitution guarantees secularity is what has developed into a wrangle over the legality or otherwise of death penalty.
Among those whose analyses fault the executions is Mai N.K Fatty, a lawyer-cum-political figurehead of opposition-GMC party.
HalifaSallah, another outspoken politician of opposition-PDOIS, shares Mai Fatty’s views, arguing further that in fact, one of those executed was a lifer, and not on death row.
“Lamin Darboe was sentenced to death on 3 December 1986 and had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment on 14 November 1991,” he says in a petition he addressed to President Jammeh. “It is not reasonable and justifiable to condemn him to death after the restoration of the death penalty.”
A sigh of relief
Amnesty says it had confirmed from the government of The Gambia that prior to the recent execution of nine prisoners, forty-seven inmates were on death row.
The global human rights watchdog warns that the remaining 38 people still on death row are at ‘imminent risk of execution’.
“Family members of those who remain on death row have been unable to access the prison, or communicate with the inmates,” says PauleRigaud, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Africa.
“One can only imagine the terror the death-row inmates and their families are facing, knowing that at any moment, they could be pulled from their cells and put in front of a firing squad,” Rigaud posits.
The wife of one death row prisoner was quoted as saying: “These past few days have been something like a nightmare. We don’t know what’s happening – who is dead and who is alive. And we don’t know who will be the next.”
So far, the governments of US, UK, Senegal, and Germany, and UN, AU and EU have warned against any further executions.
Despite the concerns about the legality of death penalty in the country, and the mounting international pressure, the Jammeh administration maintains that ‘all sentences prescribed by the law would be carried out to the letter, including the death penalty’.
His governing-APRC party’s chief propagandist was recently quoted as saying that they would not bow down to international pressure.
A mother to one of the death-row inmates says she had been in a state of worry since the August 23 executions, knowing that any day, she could lose her son.
“For the past one month, we could not speak to ******. We did not know whether he was alive and there were rumours that more people were executed,” she says.
However, on Thursday Sep 13, for the first time since the execution of nine death-row inmates, President Jammeh, who is on his annual leave, had entertained a foreign diplomat for discussions on the issue.
The mother to the death-row inmate had been glued to the GRTS-TV as flood of delegations – local and international – make it into State House before for a similar purpose of pleading with the government for clemency, were mostly received by the vice president, Isatou Njie-Saidy.
The meetings ended without anything to assure the 55-year-old woman that her son would be spared.
But this was not the case for the visit of the former Senegalese Prime Minister, Sulayman NdeineNdiaye, who after a closed door meeting with President Jammeh at State House, told the press that “Right now, the president has decided to suspend the execution”.
Seemingly, a bit relieved after the broadcast on Friday of the outcome of the former Senegalese No.2’s visit, the depressed mother of the death row inmate, said: “We are happy that the president had promised to suspend the execution. This is a sigh of relief and we pray that he executes no more.”