As part of its ongoing Right to Know campaign, the Never Again Network on Thursday, 12th January visited and held a fruitful engagement with students and staff of Jambur Basic Cycle School. Jambur was one of several sites of former president Jammeh’s infamous 2009 witch hunts. Scores of men and women, mostly elderly persons, were accused of being witches by Jammeh’s witch hunters, assisted by an assortment of soldiers, police and civilian pro-Jammeh vigilantes, the Green Boys. Many residents of Jambur were arrested, detained, often stripped naked, verbally assaulted, humiliated and forced to drink hallucinogenic concoctions that traumatized them and led to some deaths.
Fourteen years later, some of the victims of that witch hunt in Jambur and other parts of the country are still suffering its damaging consequences, including long-running illnesses, stigmatization, social isolation, shame and mental trauma.
In their conversation with the school community, the Network team members said one of their motivations for setting up their organization and conducting outreach activities is to ensure that never again shall a government embark upon such a cruel practice as witch hunting in this country. They explained that witch hunting is one of many types of human rights violations that Gambians must say never again to.
Other types of violations suffered by Gambians under the Jammeh dictatorship include arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, tortures, extrajudicial executions, rape, and enforced disappearances perpetrated against mostly innocent civilians but also a good number of security personnel. The Never Again Network, students heard, advocates for maximum respect for human rights, the rule of law, and due process. The Network holds that if a person is suspected of committing a crime, they need to be charged with that crime, arraigned before a court of law, and given a fair trial. Innocent people must never be arrested in the first place.
The role and functions of the state as well as the proper relationship between government and people were also explained to the students by the Network team. It was particularly emphasized to the students that a government is a servant of the people, not their lord and master. The misnomer that is the use of mansa, burr, or lamdo to refer to the president of a constitutional republic was discussed at length.
The Network’s position is that while these terms may be used to describe the president, they need to be stripped of their absolutist connotations which are not in line with the nature of a constitutional republic such as we have in The Gambia. These terms, which mean king, are used to describe the president because there is no word for president in our national languages. However, the reality is that presidents are not kings like those that existed in Africa before the colonial encounter and the introduction of the nation state system into the continent.
Network team members also addressed the students on the qualities of a good citizen, the rewards of discipline and hard work, and the virtues of cleanliness for everyone, but particularly for girls. They explained that the Network’s other main area of interest is helping enhance social cohesion and national unity through the promotion of mutual respect and tolerance among Gambians. Two female students of the school recited a powerful poem on the need for government accountability, an end to corruption and related social ills currently affecting the country.