Human rights campaigners are expressing concerns over Russian involvement in The Gambia ahead of the West African nation’s critical winter polls.
Banjul in early September signed a defense agreement with Moscow, which will give The Gambia’s army training and technical aid. But activists say The Gambia may also get military equipment from Russia.
The Gambia used to get military training and equipment mainly through former Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadaffi. After his ouster, the country depended on Turkey, which on the other hand gave training mostly to The Gambia’s police force.
“The Gambia can now receive weapons that the like of U.S. will not give to any dictatorship,” says activist Awa Sey. “We cannot sit back and see this happen. It means more silent deaths.”
Activists say that Moscow partnering with and providing substantial assistance to The Gambia’s military raises numerous red flags. The Gambia’s armed forces have been implicated in serious human rights abuses over the past two decades, including torture, disappearances and other crimes that have been committed with brazen impunity.
“Leaders in Moscow have zero regards for human rights, as evidenced by their own desultory track record back home. That autocratic regimes like Russia and China continue to invest in African dictatorships should compel the United States, and other countries concerned with fundamental freedoms, to redouble our efforts to promote and advance democracy in the region,” said Jeffrey Smith of Vanguard Africa.
Rights defenders said the U.S. needs to translate its occasional statements on rights abuses in The Gambia to action. Smith agreed that much of the backsliding seen in African countries ruled by dictators, including in The Gambia, is because the United States has unfortunately taken a back seat.
The Gambia is heading to the polls in December and security forces have used excessive force to crackdown on the opposition. At least two opposition detainees have died in custody and those tortured are denied medical care, the UN confirmed.
The timing of Russia’s agreement with Gambia is concerning to many campaigners ahead of the polls, given that two autocratic, abusive regimes cooperating together in the lead up to an important election should concern everyone committed to democracy in the region.
Russia has been trying to get a foot hole in the Atlantic as well. In November 2014, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia will maintain a military presence in western Atlantic and in July 2015, President Vladimir Putin approved a measure to give his country a strong presence in the Atlantic in response to a NATO troops expansion following the invasion of Ukraine and threats to neighboring nations.