Wearing a black T-shirt with the words Power of Freedom emblazoned in red, rapper Jerreh Badjie (stage name Retsam), is part of a tight circle of young Gambian dissidents pushing for an end to the country’s totalitarian regime. It has been 22 years since President Yahya Jammeh took office, but unprecedented levels of protest in recent months signal that he may be losing his iron grip on power. Badjie says the 2016 presidential election on 1 December is the first real chance young Gambians have had to vote for change.
“People are starting to see if they don’t express themselves now, their lives and their children’s lives are at risk. They have to face the situation and talk now. If we have the same leader for another 20 years there won’t be any change – that means Gambia has no future,” he says, sitting on a beach in the Senegal capital, Dakar, where he now lives in exile.
President Yahya Jammeh has ruled the Gambia since seizing power in a military coup in 1994. He is standing for a fifth term in office, but faces stronger opposition than ever before.
The election comes at the end of a transformative year for the small west African country. In April and May there were civil uprisings that revealed the extent of discontent with Jammeh’s rule. These protests resulted in the alleged torturing to death in custody of opposition activist Solo Sandeng and the jailing for three years of most of the members of the main opposition party, including its leader, Ousainou Darboe.
But out of this adversity, previously fractured opposition parties realised their only chance was to unite and form the Gambia’s first coalition, which is giving many young people hope for a breakthrough.
Well known for his politically critical lyrics – Power of Freedom is the title of his election song, which demands “Jammeh must go” – Badjie fled across the border to Senegal fearing arrest after being part of one of the violently halted protests. Dakar has become a hub for Gambian activism, and Badjie is part of a group trying to inform and motivate peers in the Gambia through a social media revolution.
Young people make up the majority of the country’s population (approximately 65% are aged under 30), but they have also tended to be disenchanted during elections, distrustful of fragmented party politics and raised in a culture of self-censorship.
But a lot has changed since the last election in 2011, says Badjie. “In previous elections, youths didn’t vote that much – the situation wasn’t that drastic … Five years later they are realising.”
Youth unemployment stands at 38%, exacerbated by the failing agricultural sector and a lack of job opportunities in urban areas, which Gambians complain is because large international investors are deterred by high taxes and the government’s unpredictable meddling with the private sector.
For Alhagie Touray*, 27, who has a college diploma in IT but could only find work as a low-paid security guard, the election is the time to call for big changes. Speaking from his home near Banjul, he says: “We are hoping that it will give us a new president who can really move the country forward. There are a lot of people not working and the economy is totally falling down. We need a government that can encourage foreign investors; if people have work they will not go the back way [leave].”
In addition to the scarcity of jobs, the lack of freedom of expression suppresses people’s potential, says Badjie’s fellow hip-hop activist Ali Cham (Killa Ace), who is also in exile in Dakar. “If you are restricted from doing certain things you cannot show who you really are, and that gives a limit to what you really can be, especially as a youth.”
In this environment, many young people believe the only option is to take the increasingly risky route to Europe. The Gambia has a population of 2 million, yet its people made up a fifth of those arriving in Italy via the Mediterranean this year.
“People are dying or having very hard experiences – almost every family has gone through that and it’s so devastating,” says Fatoumatta Sandeng, 22, daughter of Solo Sandeng, who had been a passionate youth advocate for the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP). “We need a government that invests in the youth to give them employment and a stable life. And if that’s not happening you devastate the youth and make them do things they would not have imagined doing.” She and her family are now in hiding in Senegal.
There are signs that young people are beginning to speak up more vociferously against the government. In November 2015, young people living in a coastal area called Kartong formed a human shield to prevent further destructive sand mining by a company believed to have been owned by the president’s brother.
But organised, radical demonstrations are rare, and Ali Cham laments that the Gambia lacks the youth leadership for protests to spread on the scale that proved so effective in Burkina Faso against the re-election of Blaise Compaoré as president in 2014.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a youth movement that’s structured to social awareness. If that were available, it would be like the movement in Burkina Faso, where people spoke up as one force. But if you speak up individually, it won’t work,” says Cham. “Before you mobilise people it needs to be based on knowledge of what they’re getting into, and right now there’s a low rate of civic education in the Gambia.”
Cham, 31, and Badjie, are collaborating on a project called Team Gom sa bopa (Believe in yourself) that they hope will become a social-media driven movement for raising social and political awareness among young people.
While revolution may not be taking place on the streets, young people in the Gambia are becoming emboldened on social media. “After the death of Solo Sandeng, lots of people changed their Facebook profiles to black or the Gambian flag in solidarity – his death was an awakening for us because we felt the reality hit close to home,” says Lamin Manneh*, a young writer based near Banjul.
He adds that social media is helping young Gambians to overcome their fears. “This is not an age where you can stop people from communicating – you can secure your internet with VPN so everybody is getting more information than before,” he says
Nobody expects change to come easily in the Gambia, and the clear message from all the dissidents is for young people to use their votes. “This is a do-or-die situation. We cannot live in this hell forever,” says Badjie. “Young people are tired of going the back way. We would rather change the situation of the state than leave the state.”