On the evening of Wednesday 30th November 2016, the Gambia became the latest country to face an internet shutdown, orchestrated by the then President Yahya Jammeh, ahead of national elections in which 886,578 Gambians were due to vote.
Prior to polling stations opening on December 1st, the President, who came to power in a 1994 military coup, shut down the internet and blocked international calls. Officials have also enforced a ban on demonstrations to avoid unrest as a response to the blackout.
Malik*, a Gambian now living in the UK says, “It’s been going on since [President Jammeh] came to power. Any criticism is met with absolute force; people have been disappearing. Now people have said that they want him out, the opposition groups have formed a coalition against him and that gained momentum and lots of support. He knows he's going to lose this election so he’s doing everything possible to cling on to power and oppress people so he can stay.”
This is not the first time Jammeh, who previously amended the constitution to remove presidential term limits, has worked to oppress Gambian citizens says Malik. He explains: “[President Jammeh] has made numerous threats, saying, for example, if you don't want to become a refugee, you vote for him. That's a direct threat to the people. He’s also made lots of threats against the Mandinka ethnic groups with his incitement of genocide, and said he will kill all of the Mandinka people. The UN picked this up and said this is a dangerous statement for a President to say. So obviously, all he is trying to do is to put people under complete duress so they will vote for him out of fear. I think that international communities should do something, but unfortunately Gambia is overlooked.”
Malik noted the fear that internet shutdowns cause, “Everyone goes into self censorship, and won't say anything because you don't want the repercussions, either to you or to your family. Gambians are so careful because if you [speak out against the shutdown], and you are not there then [the government] go after your family members. So everyone is scared. You don’t want your name out there, because if they can’t get you they will get someone else who is close to you.”
Despite the ban on protest, Malik commented on the potential of uprising, saying “It is likely that they will take to the street - but they will also be aware that if they do this we will likely all be killed. There is a likelihood that there will be violence. So that’s putting people’s lives at risk, and keeping us from one of our fundamental human rights: freedom of expression, because we can't speak with our loved ones back home in Gambia. That’s a serious infringement and a direct violation to our rights, and to my rights as an individual.”
Malik ends by noting: “It’s so sad - that one man can control the entire nation...It’s horrible.”
*Malik isn’t this man’s real name. We’ve changed it, because he can’t openly share his story without fear of repercussions. This is just one story of just one person affected by an internet shutdown. There are millions more.