SSF Graduates Critique Gambia’s Transition to Democracy
Amadou Ceesay remembers the excitement when, in December 2016, the Gambian people voted out a dictator who had ruled them brutally for 22 years. There were a few tense weeks when the autocrat, Yahya Jammeh, refused to step down. But after ECOWAS, an organization of West African nations, sent troops to his border, he finally left the country.
“Hopes were high,” Amadou recalls, as the newly installed president, Adama Barrow, outlined plans for a transition to democracy. It was to include a new constitution, accountability for stolen public funds, and creation of Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission to hold hearings on murders, kidnappings, torture and other crimes alleged to have been committed by Jammeh’s regime.
Amadou, 24, who grew up in a family of Salikenni farmers, this year completed, with SSF support, a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of The Gambia. He plans a career as an advocate for human rights, a larger role for youth, women and other groups, and peace.
He already has a reputation in those fields. In 2017 he founded a group called Rise of the Young Gambia, which advocates for these goals in schools and public forums, and which campaigns against hate speech. Breakenyang, a Gambian human rights organization, recently gave him its Young Human Rights Champion award.
In an interview with SSF, conducted in text messages, mainly in August and September, Amadou said, “My passion for human rights grew from the troubles I experienced growing up. I did not have access to lots of social services, and I witnessed the street lives many young people were living."
Through the lens of political science, he has closely watched the country’s attempted transition to democracy. He has concluded, sadly, that important parts of the transition are “on hold.”
Ba Alagie Conteh, another recent SSF graduate, agrees. He earned a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of The Gambia in 2020. During the past year he has been studying for the bar at Gambia Law School. In a separate interview, he described the transition process as “one step forward, two steps back.”
Both agree some progress has been made. “People can speak more freely,” Amadou said. A National Human Rights Commission was created, and an Access to Information law was passed. The new government seized assets of the former dictator, sold them for $1 million (US), and has used some of that money to compensate people who were permanently injured by torture during the Jammeh years.
But Amnesty International said in a report September 22, 2021 that, “Most of the laws which were used to oppress human rights defenders and journalists during Jammeh’s rule are still in force.” It cited laws allowing surveillance of communications without effective judicial oversight, arrest of journalists for “inaccurate” reporting about the government, requiring police permission to hold a public protest, and providing a degree of civil and criminal immunity for a president who has left office.
A draft constitution, proposed by a Constitutional Review Commission, would have reined in much of this executive power. It also included a limit of two terms for the presidency, political inclusion of women, youth and people with disabilities, and a list of human rights that met international standards. And it would have abolished the death penalty.
But in September 2020, the draft was blocked in the Gambian legislature, the National Assembly. It failed to get enough votes for third reading. Many of the blocking votes came from members of Jammeh’s party, which is still active. Members voiced more than 20 concerns. But Amadou believes it was the term limit provision that did in the draft. It would have applied retroactively to President Barrow. He is now completing his first five-year term that began in 2017. If he were to win in elections scheduled for December 4, 2021, the draft would have allowed him only one more term.
“The draft failed because of its retrospective nature,” Amadou said. “Barrow doesn’t want his current term to be counted … The country is governed by the same constitution Jammeh used to commit crimes against innocent Gambians.”
Barrow was elected by a coalition of political parties. That coalition was the main force behind the goal of transition to democracy. Ba Alagie said the transition’s prospects began to weaken in April 2017, soon after Barrow’s election, when candidates began campaigning for seats in the National Assembly on separate party tickets rather than under the coalition.
In 2019 Barrow formed his own political party, the National People’s Party (NPP) to run in the December 4 presidential election.
“The coalition agenda was deliberately stunted and sacrificed in order to have a longer term in office,” Ba Alagie said. “I believe he was misguided by individuals who surround him not to assist in providing for needs of the masses but to serve some purpose of their own.”
On September 2, 2021 came another apparent blow to the transition. The Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), Jammeh’s party, and the NPP, Barrow’s party, reached an agreement to jointly support Barrow in the December 4 elections. As part of the agreement, the APRC, according to its press release, would be part of the next government, and Jammeh himself would be allowed to return from exile in Equatorial Guinea and live in The Gambia “peacefully with dignity”
Many Gambians and victims organizations want Jammeh to be put on trial. That could be influenced by the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, the third leg of the transition. It has interviewed more than 300 people in televised hearings that kept many Gambians glued to TVs and cellphones. A procession of witnesses confessed, often in gruesome detail, to crimes they committed in the service of Jammeh. The commission has power to recommend forgiveness or prosecution in individual cases.
It’s report was scheduled to be given to President Barrow on Sept. 30, 2021. But that didn’t happen. The Commission announced that it was delaying submission until the last four volumes of 16 volume report were finished, which it said would happen “shortly.”
“So the entire transition is on hold,” Amadou said. “This only sends a signal that we’ve wasted three good years doing something we are not going to implement.”
As Ba Alagie sees it: “Political differences overshadowed the coalition agenda of ensuring a peaceful democratic transition. In my opinion the transition process has already been compromised and will not be successful under this government.”
Ebrima Marong Receives Bachelor of Science with Honors
In grade 7 at the government school in the village of Salikenni, Ebrima Marong was always quick to raise his hand, sometimes both hands, waving his arms eagerly to answer a question.Ebrima has maintained that enthusiasm for education ever since.
On May 8, 2021 he graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Minnesota State University, Mankato, becoming the first SSF student to reach that level in a school in the United States. He begins work as an intern at a Minnesota engineering firm next month and plans to earn a master’s degree at Mankato during coming year.
Ebrima grew up in the village of Mandori, which had no government school. Its children walked 45 minutes each way to and from Salikenni to attend classes conducted in English, which is the official language of The Gambia. He is the youngest of seven children of Bubacarr Marong, a farmer and teacher of the Koran, and he was the only one of his siblings to be sent to the government school.
It would be wrong to imply there was no learning in Mandori. Young people came to his father’s house to study the Koran in Arabic. Children have long attended an “Arabic school” in the village. His father required all of his own children to have this training. “Before I got to elementary school I was able to read the Koran at a certain level,” Ebrima recalls.
“I was interested in reading and getting to know numbers,” he said in an interview in early 2020. “A friend of my dad used to come to our house. He would examine us. He would say, ‘If you can count from 1 to 50 [in English] I will give you a present.’ He would do that for all the children. I could count from 1 to 100 and I could recite the alphabet from A to Zed. And so they said maybe we should send him to school.”
His grade 1 teacher was amazed that he could count and write his name, and the principal quickly moved him to grade 2.
“I was with friends. We were learning to read. I started loving it. I started becoming a person. I enjoyed going to school. I enjoyed reading books. We had books for grade 2, 3, 4. There was a passage about a woman who was going to the market, leaving her children in the house. I don’t remember the rest of the passage. I could read fluently by grade 3 or 4. There was an SSF library in the school.”
His enthusiasm carried him through the science program at Nusrat, one of The Gambia’s best senior secondary schools. “I made a lot of friends at high school,” he said. “There were a lot of good students in my classes. We dug into our courses and we loved what we were doing. That made high school more fun. We got to grade 12 and worked on some projects. High school was a great experience. It was just a terrific place I thought.
“And I began to learn science. I was more into the physics aspect and the mathematic aspect, and that has given me motivation to explore engineering, and develop a passion for engineering.”
In 2017, his final year at Nusrat, Ebrima was chosen to be one of five Gambian high school students to represent the country in an international robotics competition held in Washington D.C. With no previous knowledge of the subject, the team spent three months in The Gambia doing research on the Internet and building a robot designed to demonstrate a way to remove impurities from water. When they took it to the competition arena in Washington, their entry won 77th position among 163 countries, beating high school students from the United States and Russia.
“It was an amazing experience,” he recalls. “It gave me the chance to explore the world, to meet people from China, Nepal, Tunisia, England. And I still know some of those people from other parts of the world. We are friends on social media. So it was a life-changing experience.”
The experience confirmed his ambition to become an engineer — and refined it. He would be an electrical engineer. But there was no way to pursue that goal in The Gambia. The University of The Gambia had no department of engineering. The country’s main technical training school was getting bad reviews from students who enrolled there.
Unable to pursue engineering, Ebrima enrolled in the University of The Gambia’s medical school and began classes. He also applied online to the university in Mankato, which he had heard about during the robotics competition.
On December 14, 2017, Ebrima emailed us that he had been accepted into the university’s engineering program. He already had a US student visa. A Gambian mentor had promised to buy him an airline ticket.
A few days later he arrived in Mankato. “It was very cold,” he recalled later. “I felt very nervous, because I didn’t know anyone in that city. I was the only one there. And it was just a terrible experience. But everyone was welcoming.” Local people took him to a store to buy warm clothing. The university arranged housing. “Minnesota people are friendly to immigrants,” he said.
The Salikenni Scholarship Fund has financed Ebrima’s study at Mankato in large part through private donations. Our budget does not permit us to finance education outside The Gambia with SSF funds.