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Gambia: union leader’s death in prison triggers international outcry

by Chris Burns

Thousands of signatures have been added to calls by international trade unions for Gambia’s hardline government to investigate the mysterious death of a union leader and lift its ban on union activity in the wake of protests over fuel prices.

Sheriff Diba, of the Gambian National Transport Control Association (GNTCA), died at the notorious Mile 2 Prison in Banjul on 21 February, after he and other GNTCA leaders were detained by authorities. The leaders had been calling for a reduction in the price of fuel after a fall in wholesale prices, and were protesting a breakdown in negotiations with the government.

By early March more than 7,000 people had added their names to a petition on the LabourStart website. “We want justice for Sheriff and for his Gambian and Senegalese colleagues,’’ the petition reads, also referring to protests by Senegalese transport unions after Gambia raised the customs tax on lorries a hundredfold.

Four days after Diba died, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) in London sent a letter to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, saying the union leader’s death was “reportedly as a result of abuse and torture received in the offices of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).”

“The ITF and its affiliated unions worldwide strongly condemn the dissolution and prohibition of the GNTCA activities.”

It called on the Gambian government to lift the ban, to drop “all legal proceedings against the leaders and members of the GNTCA,” and for “a national commission of inquiry … to determine the exact circumstances of the death of Sheriff Diba.”

“The ITF will also be asking for an urgent intervention from the ILO (International Labour Organization) on this matter,” the letter added.

Bayla Sow, the ITF’s Ecowas and Francophone representative, tells Equal Times that he wants a “high-level delegation” to Gambia by international trade unions. Diba’s death and the other arrests have “brought fear and suspicion in the ranks of road union activists in Gambia.”

In addition, the government’s prohibition of collecting union dues in stations, now considered by the Gambian government as an economic crime, “makes trade union activity impossible in the road transport sector.”

He also calls for the “resumption of social dialogue with the road transport unions.”

The ILO in Geneva acknowledged receiving a copy of the ITF letter, though a spokesperson said they had no further information.

Adding to the pressure, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) denounced the “continued violations of human and trade union rights in Gambia” and also wrote to the Gambian President, asking him to bring to justice those responsible for Diba’s death.

“The ITUC also calls upon the Gambian government to lift all arbitrary and illegal measures concerning the dissolution of the GNTCA and prohibition of its activities and to withdraw all legal proceedings against the leaders and members of the GNTCA,” the letter read.

At the Gambian Embassy in Brussels, officials were not available for comment by phone. Emails from Equal Times to the Embassy went unanswered.

Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a bloodless coup 21 years ago, declared his predominantly Muslim country of two million people an Islamic republic in December.

He has instituted increasingly authoritarian – and some say erratic – policies, including demanding women staff to cover their hair and then dropping the requirement.

He is also known for homophobic comments and claiming to have cured AIDS.

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