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Gambia becoming police state, arrests lecturer for free speech

Gambia’s State House – Office Of the President

LONDON–Gambia’s President Adama Barrow’s government has begun inheriting some of the tactics of the country’s former dictator, Yahya Jammeh.  At the close of last week, Gambia police arrested a vocal and famed university lecturer Ismaila Ceesay for expressing a political view.

After the unwarranted arrest, the police kept the lecturer in overnight detention for questioning the president’s ability to maintain national security during a newspaper interview.

Several human rights and civil society campaigners have painted the arrest as troubling, saying it was a worrying echo of restrictions on freedom of speech under the former regime of Yahya Jammeh, who was forced to leave the West African country for exile in Equatorial Guinea a year ago.

The new government of President Barrow has repeatedly and consistently promised to protect civil and human rights, including freedom of expression and press freedom, which were fundamentally abused under the country’s strongman and former dictator Jammeh.

Political science lecturer Ceesay

Ismaila Ceesay, a vocal political science lecturer at the University of The Gambia, was arrested on Wednesday evening and accused of inciting violence after several hours of questioning. He was released on Thursday morning.

“I was released this morning. My lawyer said they have told him that they have dropped the charges and that they would apologize,” Ceesay said.

Journalists and several campaigners held a vigil outside the police station where Ceesay was questioned, along with a concerted social media campaign against his arrest and the government of President Barrow, a former real estate businessman who once worked as a security guard for a retail store in the UK.

Eyewitness account maintains that the political science lecturer recently gave an interview to the Voice newspaper in the country in which he said pockets of the Gambian military “feel rejected by the Barrow’s administration” which could “cause pockets of mutiny”.

Since the ouster of the country’s former dictator after a widely publicized electoral win, President Adama Barrow has relied on Senegalese troops deployed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to maintain peace and security.

Jammeh had a strong leverage and hold on the Gambian army where he planted most of his allies, a situation which has made the Barrow’s administration weary to entrust the army with full security pending reform.

In July last year, an alleged coup plot was thwarted and the two of former president Jammeh’s generals who left the country with him returned home through Banjul’s airport this month without anyone sounding the alarm.  These and many other factors are concerning to the current Gambian leadership, but political commentators say those are not good reasons to suppress free speech.

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Paul Stevens

Paul Stevens is a researcher, media issues analyst and senior contributor with Globe Afrique.
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