Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Replicating the Gambia Press Union Model

It took 19 years of brutal dictatorship to reveal a weakness in Gambia's opposition to Yaya Jammeh i.e. the absence of strategy thinking in the fight against repression.  Most, not all, of the successes in the campaign with any degree of international legal force has been in the area of press freedom, and practically nothing else in the other areas of human and people's rights, prisoners' welfare including, but not limited to torture and executions, judicial reforms and the like.  

Perhaps if we examine the relative success in the area of press freedom led by the Gambia Press Union and its affiliated organizations, we could draw lessons; and from those lessons learned we may be able to mimic or replicate the successes in the other areas mentioned above that are not, by any means, exhaustive or even suggestive in the order of importance or priority.  They are illustrative and should be seen as such.  

The presence, 'on the ground' in Banjul, of the Gambia Press Union (GPU) and the effective way it manages its relationships with affiliates abroad, in my view,  is making all the difference.  These affiliates are the GPU members in exile, the international press freedom advocacy groups like the International Federation of Journalists, but especially the Media Foundation for West Africa and its highly dedicated and effective Executive Director, Prof. Kwame Karikari whose impressive record in this area is indisputable.  He had successfully fought the case of Ebrima 'Chief' Manneh in the ECOWAS Court, although the order of the Court to compensate the Manneh family has not been honored, as far as I am aware.  He had also championed the case of the 44 Ghanaians killed in The Gambia - killings subsequently attributed to 'rogue elements of the Gambia security forces" by a U.N fact finding team.  The Professor's dogged pursuit of the case with his own government in Accra forced the hands of the late president Mills which led to Jammeh's mea culpa by agreeing to a financial compensation to the families of the six Ghanaians whose bodies, the Jammeh regime claimed, were the only ones found within its territory.  As part of the agreement between Ghana and Gambia, the bodies were exhumed, handed over to loved ones for reburial in the victims' respective homes.  Even if the bodies were not of the actual victims as claimed by some members of the skeptical public, the handing over of the bodies to the families was admission of responsibility - a significant achievement in and of itself given that Yaya Jammeh rarely takes responsibility for anything; it is always someone else's fault. 

Lately, Gambian human rights activists in the U.K. have adopted a similar model by working closely with Amnesty International on human rights issues.  The same may be occurring in the U.S.  It makes perfect sense to adopt a model - the GPU-model - that seems to be working.  The GPU and its allies successfully fought the 1999 Media Commission Bill leading to the amendment of the most objectionable sections.  The personal involvement of the then American Ambassador played a key role.  The campaign against the new Media bill that targets the internet and online journalism has begun with resounding criticisms coming not only from the GPU but  from the Media Foundation for West Africa, Amnesty International, International Federation of Journalists, to name but a few. 

There is ample evidence to show that the GPU-model works.  Rather than engage in the reinvention of the wheel, the model should be replicated in other fields.  This means remodeling existing organisations engage in advocacy into subject-areas with subject-area specialists whose job it is to pursue specific cases in subject areas like the death penalty which was abolished in 1992/3 only to be re-instituted under the AFPRC regime.  The lack of a sustained campaign against the death penalty and the insistence that Jammeh produce the bodies of the executed is puzzling.   Yes, there was international outcry at first but it died down for lack of a strong and persistent advocate of the caliber of Professor Karikari.  The Senegalese government's silence and apparent lack of interest in the cases of the two Senegalese who were also executed a year ago remains a misery.  Insisting that all of the bodies of the executed be returned to their loved ones would have forced Jammeh's hands to, at least, what he's done with the bodies and why.  There's still time to agitate and advocate for the accounting of the bodies of those extra-judicially executed.   

To sum up, the need to be present locally and be locally active is important.  By locally, I mean wherever you happen to be domicile in - be it London, New York or Banjul.  Developing subject-area specialization, wherever possible, as demonstrated by GPU whose only preoccupation is the welfare of journalists, the guaranteed freedom of the press, of expression - the whole gamut.  Where circumstances exist that do not lend itself to specialization, targeting a few areas may be an option.  The idea is to devote sufficient time focus and resources on few areas rather spread oneself too thinly.  The GPU has shown that affiliations with outside groups is essential.  Managing those associations and affiliation is equally important.  The message must be coordinated well for maximum impact.  We can learn a great deal from the GPU, its affiliates and Professor Karikari of Media Foundation for West Africa.