Sentenced to six months in prison after falling foul of Gambia’s Jammeh government, democracy and human rights activist Edwin Nebolisa talks to Pan-African Visions’ Ajong Mbapndah about his ordeal
Jailing and deporting Edwin Nebolisa may not be the good riddance of a nuisance as the Government of President Yaya Jammeh thought. Far from keeping quiet, the prison ordeal described by Nebolisa as inhuman has greatly fortified him in his crusade for democracy, human rights and good governance in Africa. It is this crusade that led him to create the civil society organisation Africa in Democracy and Good Governance with Head Quarters in the Gambia.
The activities of his organisation and the outspokenness of Nebolisa landed him in the bad books of the Jammeh government and the result was a six month prison sentence “for providing false information to a public official in March 2010. Jailed in September of last year, Mr Nebolisa was released in January 2011 and deported from The Gambia to his native Nigeria.
As gruelling as the prison experience may have been, Mr Nebolisa tells Pan-African Visions’ Ajong Mbapndah that he feels stronger than ever and what he went through only justifies the need for Africans to be more engaged in the struggle to entrench democracy and better respect for human rights across the continent. The determination of Nebolisa is clearly seen when asked about the assessment of human rights in the continent and the future of Africa in governance and democracy. Nebolisa says much still has to be done.
President Yaya Jammeh, who many do not know besides the fact that he claims to cure HIV/AIDS and frequently changes his names, is described by Nebolisa as a brutal dictator who wants to cling to power by all means. The Judiciary yields to the dictates of Jammeh Nebolisa says and free and fair trials are inexistent when it comes to political issues.
PAN-AFRICAN VISIONS: Mr. Nebolisa you recently got released from prison in Gambia, so why were you imprisoned in the first place?
EDWIN NEBOLISA: I was accused of giving false information to the office of the president, that African Democracy organisation and Good Governance (ADGG) is a non governmental organisation and seeks the nomination of Ms. Mariama Jammeh daughter of the president as ADGG/WWSF Geneva general ambassador, known same to be false. It was later amended to giving false information to a public officer. This was exactly how their charge sheet read.
PAN-AFRICAN VISIONS: Prior to your imprisonment had you had any issues with the authorities in Gambia?
EDWIN NEBOLISA: Yes indeed, 2009 was the worst year for me and my organisation in the Gambia; prior to my imprisonment I had suffered a series of arrests and detentions without trial by the notorious national intelligence agency. This was also due to my interviews with various local and international medias, including the BBC Network Africa on series about the Gambia, ADG press releases and petitioning of various government departments for grave human rights violations; and of course our biannual magazine which had been critical of the government human rights records. In September 2009, Jammeh promised to cut off the head of all human rights activists if they did not leave the country.
PAN-AFRICAN VISIONS: So how was the judicial process, did you have a lawyer, can you describe the trial process for us, was there anything in it you considered fair?
EDWIN NEBOLISA: In the first place we must understand that the Gambia is an authoritarian state with a democratic setting only in theory. In today’s Gambia, everything revolves around one person, President Jammeh. The ruling party, government institutions and all the fundamentals of the state revolve around him alone with hardly any distinction between them. Jammeh systemically neutralized the powers of the judiciary and parliament thereby rendering them ineffective. He frequently sacks judges, other judicial workers and at times even parliamentarians within his ruling APRC without due process of the law. My charge was trump up and thus I do not expect any fair process because there are no independent judiciary/judges, though I had one of the best lawyers in the Gambia that absolutely had no meaning. In the Gambia unlike anywhere else in the world, the judges are the real prosecutors, before the trial they will first find you guilty. This is even more worst with the Nigerian mercenaries that Jammeh imported into the Gambia to carry out his dirty work of using the court to silenced his critics in the event he is unable to abduct and assassinate them without public knowledge.
Getting a Nigerian as a chief justice of the Gambia and a host of Nigerian Judges, Magistrates and State Counsel was a very important and strategic move by the tyrant Yaya Jammeh.
- First, it will help to shut the eyes and mouth of the Nigerian government because they will see it as a great honour and thereby shutting their eyes and mouth in the face of egregious crimes against humanity even when it involves her citizens;
- Secondly, it helps Jammeh to seek for increased financial aid and more support in technical assistance from the Federal Government at the expense of the Nigerian tax payers’ money;
- And thirdly, these are the only people that can carry out Jammeh’s dirty works without conscience at the expense of their career and reputation just for some few tokens of the dollar.
PAN-AFRICAN VISIONS: How were the prison conditions, where you tortured were there a lot of political prisoners that in the jails?
EDWIN NEBOLISA: It was a terrible place, in fact, one can sum it up as a deliberate slaughter house; it also made me to appreciate some certain things, during my incarceration I had the opportunity to speak with some officers and older inmates who gave me terrifying informations about the way the prison is been operated and how people are silently killed with their foods being poisoned or injected; and there is no coroner’s inquest to ascertain the cause of death before burial. The prison is over crowded coupled with lack of medication and poor feeding which can also be attributed to one of the reasons for a high death rate that frequently occurs. I was tortured mentally, I was denied access to my visitors which was a gross violation of my rights and it contravenes the prison codes.
PAN-AFRICAN VISIONS: So one of the precursors to your woes was writing a letter asking President Jammeh to make his daughter a good will Ambassador of the Africa in Democracy and Good Governance NGO you head. Why did you do that and what is it the President’s daughter did to deserve the honour?
EDWIN NEBOLISA: You know there is a popular adage that says ‘when you want to kill a dog, you now give the dog a bad name in order for you to be able to kill it’, there is this annual event of world day for the prevention of child abuse and violence against children in synergy with the international year of the child which was initiated by Women’s World Summit Foundation (WWSF – Geneva) since the year 2000, which ADG became a partner only in 2007. The programme encourages local initiatives. So, our 2009 initiative was to create greater awareness which was a huge success.
It was a committee that was set up that nominates all the personalities which includes the daughter of the president. The reason behind her nomination was that each year she took some gifts to the SOS Children’s village which was clearly stated in the letter that we wrote to her; moreover, we did not write any letter to the president or his office as they claimed, rather we wrote to Mariama herself in-care of her mother, Zainab.
Before the celebration of the week long programme in question, there was series of electronic and print media adverts; we were given a march-past permit by the Inspector General of Police, the march-past was led by the Army band which service we paid for; one of the recipients of the award was ASP Yamundow Jagne-Joof, the officer-in-charge of the child welfare unit at the police headquarter. The programme was covered and aired by the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) which is a state owned and the only television service in the country, various media also covered and published it. If all these things took place, so where is the false information and who is that person that it was given to, that never appeared in court?
They knew quite alright that there was nothing against me that was the reason they never tendered the said letter as evidence against me in court.
PAN-AFRICAN VISIONS: What kind of leader would you say President Jammeh is, little is heard about him apart from claims that he can cure HIV/AIDS and not much is known either about Gambia, how will you describe the country?
EDWIN NEBOLISA: Jammeh is a brutal dictator who wants cling to power by any means necessary even if it means to wipe away Gambians, this is one man that controls all three arms of government, he is gradually grabbing all the lands in the Gambia; systematically using his people as mordern day slaves by making them labour in his farms without recourse to salaries or allowance.
His claim of curing HIV/AIDS and other diseases are all false.
PAN-AFRICAN VISIONS: The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights is based in Gambia In the face of what you have been through, are there any other avenues you are seeking to get redress?
EDWIN NEBOLISA: Yes, I intend to challenge it before the Ecowas Court of Justice sitting in the Nigerian Capital, Abuja. The African Commission are sluggish and the method of their procedures so frustrating; their decisions are not binding and in most cases not respected.
PAN-AFRICAN VISIONS: Did human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch come to your defence?
EDWIN NEBOLISA: The rapid responds by human rights families was overwhelming. Amnesty International, Frontline Defenders, Media Foundation for West Africa, IFEX, Elomah, Civicus, Lokarri, Foroyya Newspaper, BBC News, Radio France International and a whole lots of others that am unable to mention here. Their hard campaigns and petitions is the very reason why am alive today, because it is just like me being thrown into the lion’s deen and you know what that means.
PAN-AFRICAN VISIONS: How does this sordid experience affect your sustained work in human rights and democracy?
EDWIN NEBOLISA: It does not affect me personally because it help to raise my moral and credentials but rather it hampers the work of the organisation, for us to be on our feet again, it needs a lot of finances and time.
PAN-AFRICAN VISIONS: What is your assessment of democracy and human rights in the continent and what next for Africa in Governance and Democracy?
EDWIN NEBOLISA: Available evidence indicates that many of the new democratic regimes remain fragile and some of the euphoria of the early 1990s had evaporated. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the authoritarianism and statism of the early post-independence years was in retreat, and, where it persisted, was vigorously contested in a context in which democratic aspirations were firmly implanted in popular consciousness and the pluralization of associational life was an integral part of the political landscape. It was indeed a mark of the changed times that, whereas previously development had been regarded as a prerequisite of democracy, now democracy is seen as indispensable for development.
The challenges confronting Africa's democratic experiments are many and complex and include entrenching constitutionalism and the reconstruction of the postcolonial state; ensuring that the armed forces are permanently kept out of politics, instituting structures for the effective management of natural resources; promoting sustainable development and political stability; nurturing effective leadership, and safeguarding human rights and the rule of law.
In Africa, as elsewhere, democratic government and respect for human rights are closely linked. Democracy is the best means the world has produced to protect and advance human rights, based on individual freedom and dignity. In turn, respect for human rights is the only means by which a democracy can sustain the individual freedom and dignity that enables it to endure.
Despite some improvements in some parts of the continent, Africa remains the site of very serious human rights problems. For example, in Sudan, the armed conflict in Darfur continues amidst the international arrest warrant issued for President Omar El Bashir and the dismal human rights situation shows no signs of improvement. Both government and rebels commit horrendous abuses. In Somalia, the civil war continues unabated and the human rights situation goes on deteriorating; the civilian population has been the ultimate victim, and more recently the political unrest in North Africa. The ousting of democratically elected presidents and intention to change the constitution for a third bid by some leaders is tantamount to constitutional coup d’état that is eating the continent like cankerworms. Only a handful of countries that hold the regular multi-party elections in Africa are rated as free, and in line with international and regional standards.
In addition, most of the countries in Africa operate ‘semi-authoritarian regimes’ because they have the facade of democracy; that is, they have political systems, they have all the institutions of democratic political systems, they have elected parliaments, and they hold regular elections. They have nominally independent judiciaries. They have constitutions that are by and large completely acceptable as democratic institutions--but there are, at the same time, very serious problems in the functioning of the democratic system. Semi-authoritarian regimes are very good at holding multi-party elections while at the same time making sure that the core power of the government is never going to be affected. In other words, they are going to hold elections, but they are not--the regime is not going to lose those elections. Semi-authoritarian regimes intimidate voters, as it happened in Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Semi-authoritarian regimes manipulate state institutions for self-ends—governments don’t respect the laws, and don’t work through institutions. Semi-authoritarian regimes amend constitutions anytime they want.
Semi-authoritarian regimes will not introduce fully participatory, competitive elections that may result in their loss of power, and some are even unsure of how far they really want to go toward political pluralism in their countries. African politics in generally speaking is a matter of personality, not programs. For example, during the Obasanjo administration the prevailing idea was that the president was the father of the nation, the big man, or Kabiyesi, which means king, that is, no one dared question his authority.
A strong and effective democratic process should be able to establish a functioning administrative structure; and address the issue of how leaders are chosen; the issue of how different institutions relate to each other; the issues of how officials should act, for example, how the judiciary should act, the independence of the judiciary from other branches of government, and the problem of how the decisions that are taken by these democratic institutions can be implemented.
To move Africa forward, emerging democratic governments would have to confront a legacy of poverty, illiteracy, militarization, and underdevelopment produced by incompetent or corrupt governments. The syndrome of personal dictatorships and the winner-take-all practice as we continue to witness would need to be addressed, and there must be full respect for human rights; constitutional government and the rule of law; transparency in the wielding of power, and accountability of those who exercise power.
The basic rule of the democracy game is that the winners do not forever dislodge the losers. It is important for the consolidation of democracy that losers believe in the system and think that they can get back into the game. African governments must create an enabling environment in which traditions and values of the constitution will be able to take root and where rights and duties are set out. In this process, the separation of powers must be facilitated. Government must allow institutions to work and must allow citizens to exercise their rights, to live in accordance with their religious beliefs and cultural values, without interference. The legal order must be based on human rights, societal awareness of the instrumental and intrinsic values of democracy, a competent state, and a culture of tolerance.
Democracy requires that those who have authority use it for the public good; a democratic system of government begins by recognizing that all members of society are equal. People should have equal say and equal participation in the affairs of government and decision making in society, because, in the final analysis, government exists to serve the people; the people do not exist to serve government. In other words, governments must enhance individual rights and not stifle their existence. Repressive laws on many African countries’ statute books against personal liberty and habeas corpus must be removed from the statute books.
In most African countries, a tremendous amount of information does not circulate beyond a small portion of the urban population, owing to illiteracy, language barriers, and costs. Because the individual ignorance of personal rights and understanding of what democracy means has encouraged authoritarianism in Africa, political education at the grass roots is necessary. If a genuine democracy is to become a reality in Africa, the participation of the masses has to be sought by politicians, and not bought by manipulators. Politicians should try to understand what the masses know, because they sometimes lack the ability to articulate their interests and grievances. However, politicians also should be educated about human rights and respect for the constitution. Education is crucial to the development of a culture of tolerance, which, it is hoped, would contribute immensely to the creation of an enabling environment for democracy.
We must therefore encourage citizens to learn the habits of civil disobedience on a massive scale, rather than taking up arms and ammunitions. We must encourage people to go out and demonstrate peacefully, to show their opinion regarding issues, because eliminating the culture of fear is crucial to our democratic growth.
Mr. Nebolisa, thanks for talking to Pan-African Visions.
EDWIN NEBOLISA: The pleasure is mine.
This article first appeared on Pan-African Visions