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Fear of Justice? Decolonisation? Gambians Speculate About Country's Wish to Quit International Criminal Court

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh who has been in power since 1994 is widely accused of human rights violations. Public Domain photo by the White House uploaded online by Wikipedia user Alifazal.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh who has been in power since 1994 is widely accused of human rights violations. Public domain photo by the White House uploaded online by Wikipedia user Alifazal.

Following an announcement to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), Gambians have dismissed the government's reasoning. Activists and ordinary people both at home and abroad are discussing what they perceive as the “real” reasons the government decision to withdraw the country from the ICC.

The government has accused the world body of unfairly targeting African leaders while ignoring leaders of the Western world. While announcing the withdrawal, Gambia's Minister of Information Sheriff Bojang said that the ICC is “an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of colour, especially Africans.”

The announcement follows moves by South Africa and Burundi to quit the court.

Since its establishment in 2002, the ICC has opened inquiries involving nine nations – all except one involve African nations. Early this year, members of the African Union backed a Kenyan proposal to push for withdrawal from the court.

Independent presidential candidate Dr. Isatou Touray in a press release condemned the Gambian government's wish to withdraw and said it reflected current President Yahya Jammeh's rule:

Fellow Gambians the removal of the Gambia from the ICC, just like the withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 2013 is an unconstitutional act that reflects once more President Jammeh’s disregard for the constitution and the laws of the Gambia.

Dr. Touray, a human rights activist, is the first Gambian woman to launch a bid for the presidency. Presidential elections will be held in the Gambia on 1 December 2016. In October 2013, the country left the Commonwealth, calling it an “extension of colonialism”.

But for Mama Linguere Sarr, a Gambian journalist and activist based based in Sweden, the government is withdrawing from the ICC for fear of justice. In September 2016, President Jammeh removed his interior minister and longtime friend Ousman Sonko. Shortly after his dismissal, Ousman Sonko, who has been named in extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, sought asylum in Sweden.

However, some people agree with the government's desire to withdraw from the ICC, hailing it as part of a decolonisation project. Benjamin Mpofu wrote on Facebook:

The act of continental defiance against a court system created to perpetuate a racist justice system is critical and the timing of it all reminds me of the 50s and 60s when former colonies raged against the machine thanks to the weakening of the colonisers due to the world war. The current redesigning of the worlds geopolitics presents the perfect time for Africa to advocate for its own interests. The project of decolonisation in its totality must begin and leaving the ICC creates that very precedent.

But for lawyer Malick Jallow, the decisions of African countries to quit the ICC is based on the wrong premise. He wrote:

I have followed the debate on the recent declarations regarding withdrawal by a few African Countries from the ICC, including The Gambia. A lot of it confirms my long held notion that the ICC and International criminal justice is perhaps the most misunderstood concept in Africa.

The ICC chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who is Gambian, has since responded to the departure of African states to leave the ICC. “We must remain strong,” Bensouda told reporters in the Hague last week. Bensouda previously served in President Jammeh's government, appointed as minister of justice in 1998, serving as the chief advisor of government on legal matters. But she was sacked two years later.

The Gambia is yet to submit divorce papers to formally begin the withdrawal, but analysts are optimistic that there is no turning point for the tiny West African state. Over the years, the country has increasingly shifted its focus from the West to the East. In 2016, it opened an embassy in Russia and resumed diplomatic ties with mainland China (both countries are not members of the ICC).

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