Environmental Activists Deaths Invoke Painful Reminders Of Gambia’s Dark Past

Invoking painful memories of the previous Gambian Government, three environmental activists were killed during clashes that erupted between Gambian paramilitary forces and activists in Faraba Banta, south of the capital Banjul. Activists were peacefully protesting on June 18th against Julakay Sand Mining, a company that many residents argue is destroying their farms and rice fields and threatening their livelihoods. Despite the new President, Adama Barrow, as well as the nation of 2 million residents envisioning a transition from the country’s dark history to a peaceful democracy, the recent deaths of environmental activists demonstrates that more work is needed.

The sand mining industry in Gambia has been at the centre of corruption and controversy for decades, with the concomitant pollution severely affecting villages’ health and livelihoods. The former dictator, Yahya Jammeh, owned sand mining interests and remains under international sanctions after withdrawing USD$50 million in state funds before escaping the country. With the mining company continuing to destroy farms, health, and livelihoods, it is unsurprising that protesters continue to fight for their cause. However, the excessive use of lethal force by Gambian paramilitary forces against the protesters highlights how Barrow’s government needs to accelerate necessary reforms, especially for security forces to follow international human rights standards.

In a promising step, Gambian police have opened an investigation into Monday’s shooting, leading to police arresting five officers and six civilians. The country’s inspector general, Landing Kinteh, and Interior Minister Ebrima Mballow, have both denied instructing to shoot protesters, causing confusion over the origin of the demand. Nonetheless, Kinteh tendered his resignation and the president has suspended all mining activities until further notice.

While visiting the injured in Banjul hospital, Barrow explained that the west African state “…cannot afford a repetition of what used to obtain in the new Gambia. The loss of lives has changed the whole game. However, it saddened me and I was completely disappointed in the attitude of the police who did not act professionally in handling the crisis.”

The Minister of Justice, Aboubacarr Tambadou, continues to appeal for patience, as the country’s reforms that are aimed at avoiding any recurrence of the previous dictatorship, takes significant time. Good governance and economic development are both emphasized in the new National Development Plan, with the plan stating, “…the systematic breakdown of the country’s laws and institutions, the crisis in the economy, the need for national reconciliation to heal the wounds and divisions arising from decades of a brutal dictatorship, the rising frustration of all segments of society, but particularly so with the youth, all require immediate attention on the part of the new Government.” It remains to be seen how, and if, the optimistic National Development Plan will be effectively implemented.

The African nation is making strides away from it’s dark history, with an 11-member review board overseeing revisions to the 1997 Gambian Constitution. The democratic transition is delicate, with tensions between Jammeh supporters and the new government remaining a concern. Alongside the recent deadly protests, the detention of a Gambian academic earlier this year shows traces of authoritarianism. Even though there is lower inflation and a higher economic growth rate, the economy continues to struggle with high unemployment. Despite these positive steps, the violent and deadly protesting incident on Monday represents another wound that the new government administration will have to overcome. Overall, the process to closing The Gambia’s dark chapter remains a colossal and daunting task.