Tensions have flared up in The Gambia where anti-riot police were involved in angry exchanges with protesters who took to the streets on Thursday to call for an end to former president Yahya Jammeh’s exile in Equatorial Guinea.Thousands of pro-Jammeh demonstrators converged on a major highway 24km west of Banjul for a march before handing over a written demand to officials at the nearby African Union building calling for Mr. Jammeh to be given clearance to return to the country.
However, before this there were minor scuffles with the police whose permit for the protest came with restrictions, including confining the demonstrators at their point of convergence and not any further as they may wish.
“Our leaders received the permit this Thursday morning, only to discover that it comes with restrictions…is this democracy?,” complained Cherno Jallow, a senior member of Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party which ruled The Gambia until 2016 when he lost that year’s election to current president Adama Barrow.
Many protesters among the surging tide of APRC green wore T-shirts emblazoned with the proud portrait of Mr. Jammeh.
“Babili Mansa our leader then, now and always must come back,” were some of the words written on other T-shirts and placards, as demonstrators chanted “Jammeh must come back”.
One Aminata Tamba told the African Press Agency that after a flurry of protests in recent weeks including one by a pro-Barrow movement, “it is now our turn to demand the return of our beloved leader Yahya Jammeh”.
For APRC stalwarts Amie Bojang and Maimuna Manga, “Yahya Jammeh is a Gambian and has the right to return to his native home and that’s what we are demanding”.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the centre for the supposed victims of alleged human rights violations under Jammeh, Sheriff Kijera has strongly condemned the police’s decision to grant the APRC a permit to stage a demonstration.
“Yahya Jammeh presided over extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances during his over two decades in power and granting a permit to his party is an affront to the sensibilities of his victims who are still waiting for justice” he argued.
He said what the government should be doing is to issue an international arrest warrant for him to face justice for his alleged crimes against the Gambian people.
In a recently leaked Whatsapp conversation made available to APA, Jammeh could be heard instructing his party executives to engage the new authorities in Banjul over his unconditional return.
The exiled former strongman said an agreement was reached between his successor Barrow, the West African regional grouping Ecowas, the African Union, the European Union and UN that he can return to The Gambia at a time of his choosing after an undisclosed period in exile.
54-year-old Jammeh who staged a successful coup in 1994 and ruled the country until he lost elections to successor Adama Barrow in 2016 was referring to the terms of a joint agreement between the current government and those international bodies safeguarding his right to return.
His volt-face after initially conceding poll defeat to Barrow, plunged the country into a post-electoral crisis which eventually ended when he agreed to give up power and leave The Gambia temporarily but with a chance to return at any time to be determined by him.
During his tour of Jammeh’s home region of Foni last month, President Barrow had not ruled out his predecessor’s return but categorically pointed out that the former strongman should never expect to rule The Gambia again.
Some among Jammeh’s supporters still entertain hope that he would not only make a triumphant return home but would win back the presidency he lost unexpectedly to Mr Barrow.
His detractors warned that he can only return to The Gambia in chains after revelations at the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commissions suggest egregious human rights violations during his 22-year rule.
Meanwhile, government spokesman Ebrima Sankareh has warned against Jammeh’s unauthorised return, pointing out that his safety and security cannot be guaranteed.