Pressure is mounting on Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh after a series of unprecedented opposition protests demanding an end to his 20-year rule. Citizens first took to the streets of Banjul in mid-April in the biggest act of public defiance against the president since he took power in a coup in 1996.
But loyal security forces quickly descended, arresting dozens of opposition party members and reportedly firing live ammunition into the crowd. In total, an estimated 55 people were arrested on 16 April, with many of them allegedly tortured while in detention.
But it was the news that Ebrima Solo Sandeng – head of the opposition party’s youth wing – had been killed while in police custody that galvanised further unrest, with hundreds of residents returning to the streets two days later, demanding the release of the remaining detainees.
Led by the United Democratic Party’s (UDP) leader, Ousainou Darboe, the crowd had barely started their march before Darboe and more than 30 of his supporterswere also arrested by police.
In the two weeks since, the 35 activists have appeared several times in court accompanied by a heavy security escort, while their families, fellow party members and sympathisers have turned out in large numbers to voice their support.
The Freedom Newspaper, a diaspora publication, reported that the “impoverished nation of The Gambia has been rendered economically and politically unstable in view of recent political developments gripping the country.
“Protesters have taken over the streets. Hardly a day passes without people thronging the streets or court premises demanding for regime change. Jammeh’s government has been threatened politically.”
On 28 April a large crowd marched to Darboe’s home chanting “we need Solo Sandeng dead or alive”, while several videos have surfaced on Gambian social media showing hundreds of people protesting against what they called the country’s “killer regime”.
Disappearances are not uncommon in Gambia, and this is not the first time Jammeh has cracked down on resistance in the country. In his 20-year reign, there have been reports of state torture, deaths in detention and security forces using live ammunition against protesters.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous examples of mistreatment of journalists, opposition members and human rights activists. Their investigation found that security services and guerrilla groups routinely use intimidation, violence, arson and forced disappearances against people who speak out against those in power.
In December 2015, the European Union cancelled more than €10m million in aid to Gambia, citing ongoing human rights violations.
Unrest is expected to continue this week when Darbroe and his supporters return to Banjul’s high court on Thursday.
A version of this article first appeared on Global Voices