By any account, Bakary Sanneh is a brave man. Surrounded by supporters of The Gambia’s ruling party and knowing well the likely consequences of his actions, he refused to be intimidated, instead choosing to hoist a flag of the main opposition party on his roof.
To add fuel to the fire, he called a meeting of supporters of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) in his compound.
An observer of The Gambia’s politics at that time would say what happened next was inevitable: The authorities and his neighbours came down on him like the proverbial tonne of bricks.
‘’They came with sticks and other weapons and said the meeting would not take place. I asked them if UDP supporters did not have the right to hold meetings in Jabang, but [village headman] Colley’s close friend and relative punched me so hard I fell to the ground. The rest joined him and started beating me,” he recounts.
Sanneh is quick to acknowledge that he is lucky to have survived. “They could have killed me and nothing would have happened to them.”
Bakary Sanneh, 59, has not always been at loggerheads with his neighbours and the authorities. He has lived in Jabang village with his wife and their 12 children since 1997. The Jola and Mandinka tribes dominate the village population. The Jolas supported the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party because President Yahya Jammeh is a Jola. The Mandinka’s are deemed to be oppositionists because the leader of UDP, Ousainou Darboe, is a Mandinka.
Sanneh acknowledges that for many years he lived in harmony with his neighbours, sharing the problems typical of village life in The Gambia – poverty and poor living conditions.
Looking at his unfenced compound, half-built house, children playing, clothes hanging on the lines, and girls going about their chores, I can easily imagine the picture in Sanneh’s mind as he remembers those long-ago days. The place reminds me of the villages in old documentaries that I used to watch as a child, not imagining that such places existed in The Gambia.
He must also have been remembering the sense of community that is common among village folk, who care about one another and share the little they have with their neighbours and visitors. I had shortly before our interview been honoured with that hospitality, being welcomed with lunch served by Sanneh’s daughter and respectfully left alone to enjoy my meal.
All was well until 2006, when politics started to bring out the rivalries between the supporters of the ruling party and the opposition.
It seems few people in The Gambia could escape the pervasive effect of the abuse of Yahya Jammeh’s regime. Even poor villages like Sanneh’s in Jabang were not untouched by the beatings, torture, and harassment that characterised the 22 years Jammeh and his cronies held sway. Some villages suffered more, experiencing the killings and forced disappearances that were so common at the time.
Sanneh blames the divisions and tensions in Jabang on the village headman, Pap Colley, who was also a police officer. He says Colley usually called meetings to discuss issues affecting the villagers. But as the 2006 presidential election approached, Colley’s tone changed. He would start talking politics. He would berate the Mandinkas for supporting the opposition.
Colley would use his position as headman and police officer to force the villagers to support APRC. He would harass those supporting the opposition. But Sanneh would not be swayed. He knew he had the right to support the political party of his choice, and so did not fall into Colley’s trap. He was determined to maintain his stand and was not afraid to be a target of Colley’s harassment, thus the incident with the flag.
Colley was infuriated. He sent some men from the village to stop the planned meeting at Sanneh’s home.
After the fracas, Sanneh’s friends took him to the police station to report the attack, but the officers declined to take any action. They just gave him a permit to get treatment at the hospital. The doctor did not run any tests even though Sanneh was in severe pain. He only gave him paracetamol and told him to go home. His wife cleaned his wounds and massaged his sore muscles.
He keeps a careful record of the things that happened to him, writing down the dates in a book. When I ask him about the dates of events, he reads them out from his book.
Sanneh’s tribulations multiplied after Jammeh won the 2006 election. Colley would send children to destroy the vegetable garden on which his family depended. And he would watch helplessly as his hard work went to waste. “If I had said a word or tried to stop them, they would have beaten me up again.”
Life became even harder for opposition supporters. They lived in constant fear of being attacked anywhere in the village. They were treated like outcasts and even their children were afraid to leave their homes. They would be attacked at the market, on their farms, and even in public service vehicles. Sanneh said the intention was to intimidate all the Mandinkas in the village. The harassment went on until 2016, when Jammeh lost the presidential election to opposition coalition leader Adama Barrow.
Sanneh is happy that he and the other Mandinka in the village are now free, but he has paid a high price. He is in poor health due to the beatings. He can no longer support his family because he could not continue his business of supplying sand and other building materials. His wife has now taken up the responsibility of looking after the family.
He has registered with The Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations. Like many other victims, he wants to see justice prevail.
As I leave Sanneh’s home, I wonder what could have been done to stop the abuse this man and so many others in The Gambia have suffered. I marvel that these violations happened in this small country, and yet no one knew because they were never even reported in the news. It makes one realise how truly voiceless and powerless the citizens of this country were. And no one did anything about it.