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Something Unprecedented Is Happening in The Gambia and You Probably Have No Idea

People waving in a protest against president Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia.

People waving in a protest against president Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia. Image: YouTube

Last month witnessed an unprecedented uprising in the tiny West African nation of The Gambia. The protests haven't garnered much attention in the international media, thanks in part to repressive efforts by the country's erratic leader, Yahya Jammeh.

In April 2016, protests started with a peaceful demonstration for electoral reforms led by Ebrima Solo Sandeng, the youth head of the main opposition party, United Democratic Party’s (UDP). By the end of the protest, security forces rounded up and detained Sandeng and more than a dozen other UDP supporters who joined him at the rally.

Within 48 hours of those arrests, news broke that Sandeng and two other UDP members had died in police custody. This led to new demonstrations, now led by UDP's leader, Ousainou Darboe, who demanded the release of the remaining electoral reform protesters, dead or alive.

After barely marching for 300 meters, Darboe and at least two dozen supporters were arrested by police. Some protesters were later released, but Ousainou Darboe and 19 others remain in custody, charged but awaiting hearings for bail. They have since appeared several times in court with heavy security escort, while their families, fellow party supporters, and sympathisers turn out in large numbers during their hearings to chant solidarity slogans, demanding their release.

Several videos and pictures have surfaced on Gambian social media showing hundreds of people protesting against what they called the country's “killer regime”.

Solidarity With Detainees

A large crowd was seen marching to Ousainou Darboe's home chanting “We Need “Solo Sandeng Dead or Alive”:

Protestors in Banjul in the Gambia. Photo taken from the main opposition party (UDP) Facebook page.

Protestors in Gambia's capital Banjul. Photo: UDP Facebook page

Social media users are calling the demonstrations an act of great defiance against President Yahya Jammeh:

The PIU [Police Intervention Unit] and police being address about why change must happen. Bravo youths.#Banjul high Court. The ground for defiance

The Role of Religion

More than 90 percent of The Gambia's population are Muslim. In December 2015, Jammeh, a self proclaimed Muslim and spiritual healer, declared the country to be an Islamic republic, but many have challenged this claim.

In Gambia, politicians often use religious cults to gain popularity, while religious leaders trade favours with those in the corridors of power. Being a predominantly Muslim nation, it comes as little surprise that protesters have invoked religious sentiments in their demonstrations.

A group of women showed up in court waving calabash in the air and chanting slogans of freedom from the country's national anthem. (The waving of calabashes is seen as a form of curse in African culture and show of determination during difficult times.)

Similarly, another group of protesters led by several Muslim imams turned up outside the high court chanting praises to God.

Meanwhile, the courts have repeatedly relied on technicalities to deny the detained protesters release on bail. The court case continues on Thursday, May 5, 2016, for a bail hearing. UDP supporters and sympathisers are expected to turn out in large numbers. But analysts say the dragging of the case is meant to frustrate court attendees and slowly kill the enthusiasm for change generated by the opposition.

Missing in Court

There are fears over whereabouts of 8 detained activists who were arrested during the demonstrations who have not appeared before any court. Solo Sandeng and two others who allegedly died in detention are among the eight. Disappearance without trace is common in the Gambia.

Amnesty International and a host of other human rights organisation have called for the release of all detainees.

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