The Gambian man who stood up to a tyrant and made history

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Ebrima Solo Sandeng

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sierra Leone-born Gambian writer Ade Daramy pays tribute to a man whose death nearly seven years ago is believed to have changed the history of The Gambia.

Short presentation gray line

Short presentation gray line

Ebrima Solo Sandeng did not have the traditional form of an African freedom fighter. He was not Amílcar Cabral, the liberator of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, or a Thomas Sankara, the anti-imperialist revolutionary who led Burkina Faso—two men killed before their life’s work was completed.

But as an opposition politician in the Gambia, he stood up to tyranny, when few dared to do so. This week – nearly seven years after his assassination – he was honored at a state funeral.

Pallbearers carry Solo Sandeng's coffin at his funeral in Banjul, Gambia - January 10, 2023

A state funeral for Ebrima Solo Sandeng was held in the capital Banjul on Tuesday

Sandeng’s fight was against the small West African country’s electoral laws – legislation designed to perpetuate oppression and unfairness that allowed then-President Yahya Jammeh to remain in office indefinitely after initially taking power after a coup in 1994.

He was angry that the fee to run as a presidential candidate had risen from 10,000 Gambian dalasi ($161; £132) to 500,000 dalasi ($8,050).

In addition, opposition candidates were given just two weeks to campaign and appear on national broadcast, while the president’s nationwide meet-the-people tours were widely broadcast.

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In April 2016, armed with nothing more sinister than a megaphone, the 57-year-old led a march demanding change.

But in full view of the public and caught by cell phone cameras, he and several other protesters were assaulted, arrested and bundled into a vehicle.

News soon came that they had been beaten, tortured and, in Sandeng’s case, it was feared that he had been killed by members of the infamous National Intelligence Agency (NIA).

Two days after his arrest, when he failed to appear in court and rumors gained momentum, his family and members of his United Democratic Party took to the streets demanding that they want him back “dead or alive”.

Disappearances and murders were not uncommon for those considered a thorn in the side of Mr Jammeh’s regime.

Gambia's then-President Yahya Jammeh and his wife pictured on the campaign trail in September 2006

President Jammeh (R) received a lot of attention on the national broadcaster and opposition politicians were hardly mentioned

It could be argued that his death and the march that took place two days later were the pivotal events – they ignited the spark that ultimately led to Jammeh losing the presidential election eight months later.

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People just had enough.

After initially refusing to budge, Mr Jammeh eventually went into exile after his defeat and the repressive measures used during his 22 years in power were exposed by the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). ) which was established by the new government.

Collected forensic evidence

Evidence provided by the TRRC led to the discovery of Sandeng’s body in Tanji, a small fishing village.

The body was exhumed in 2017 and forensic experts were called in to analyze the remains at the request of the Attorney General.

Relatives of Ebrima Solo Sandeng walk behind the hearse carrying his coffin at a funeral in Banjul, Gambia - January 10, 2023

The widow of Ebrima Solo Sandeng, seen here in white, and his family fought tirelessly to bring his killers to justice

They built a case against his killers, with evidence that the abrasions and trauma on the remains proved he had been tortured to death and not died of “shock and respiratory failure,” as a false death certificate that later emerged stated.

Last July, the Supreme Court convicted five members of the former NIA – and the doctor who delivered the death certificate – for their role in his murder.

Sandeng’s widow and his nine children never let his memory fade and were in court when they were sentenced.

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NIA chief Yankuba Badjie and four of his agents were sentenced to five to 10 years for various crimes. The doctor was sentenced to 10 years for forgery.

For those who wanted to bring international attention to Sandeng’s case, he was hailed as Gambia’s Steve Biko, a reference to South Africa’s famed anti-apartheid activist who died in captivity in 1977.

But to most Gambians he is remembered as an ordinary man who showed extraordinary courage.

His cousin said he had been warned his march could be dangerous, but Sandeng had replied, “Please don’t advise me; I will fight to the end. This is a point of no return.”

Thousands of mourners

The turnout at his funeral this week is testament to this courage. It was attended by his family and many other dignitaries, including senior cabinet ministers.

Although a few ironies were noticed on the day he was laid to rest.

Mourners line the streets in Banjul during Ebrima Solo Sandeng's funeral - Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Thousands of people lined the streets of Banjul to pay their respects to Sandeng at his funeral

Funeral rites in the capital, Banjul, were conducted at a monument originally built to commemorate Mr Jammeh’s coup d’état. Known as Arch 22 (the number refers to the date of the coup, July 22, 1994), it has since been renamed Never Again Arch.

And despite all the fine words and eulogies, the electoral laws that Sandeng fought to change and died are still in the statutes.

The most fitting memorial to the man considered a hero in The Gambia would be to withdraw them.

More letters from Africa:

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A composite image with the TBEN Africa logo and a man reading on his smartphone.