Human rights theater, like the global outcry over Gambia’s death penalty, only obscures the real nature of lawless, despotic rule.
It was in the summer of 1845 that Thomas Eyre Poole parted from his family, picked his way through the jagged lanes of Wapping, and descended to the Thames docks at Shadwell Basin, boarding the fast-sailing brig Soundraporvy, bound for Senegambia. Prior to accepting the post of colonial and garrison chaplain of Sierra Leone, Poole had been warned that he was en route to a “lovely charnel-house,” a region “no less remarkable for a peculiar kind of beautiful scenery than its hostility to human life.” In his diaries, published five years later as Life, Scenery, and Customs in Sierra Leone and the Gambia, Poole worried that his chaplaincy on the west coast of Africa could prove “little better than a stepping-stone into an unnatural grave.” His concerns were hardly misplaced.
Fifty years earlier, Poole’s destination had earned the sobriquet “White Man’s Grave” after three-quarters of the founding European settlers perished in the first year of the Sierra Leone Company’s existence. And yet, for this altruistic Oxford-educated doctor of divinity, the cause of morality and religion required his presence in the budding colony, no matter what the risk. So he took leave of his native England, cabined as the sole passenger on the “dirty, heavy timbered” Soundraporvy, and made for tropical climes.
If ever Poole imagined his posting to be a comfortable equatorial sinecure, he would have been quickly disabused of this notion by his arrival at the dreary Freetown Gaol. There was nothing lovely about this particular charnel house. The poorly constructed yellow daub jailhouse offered too few cells to properly separate murderers from debtors and men from women. Many prisoners had no clothes. Ague and elephantiasis ran rampant. “The sight of them was revolting to every feeling and sentiment of decency,” Poole wrote. “Their wild and vacant stare, their grinning and chattering, I cannot soon forget.”
In the high-walled prison yard, past the well, the cook house, and the woodshed, Poole stumbled upon a “melancholy spot” of well-churned earth, the resting place of “the most guilty of the guilty,” whose graves were routinely disturbed to accommodate “the kindred and disfigured remains of a brother felon.” Here, at the most macabre place in this colonial “Land of Death”—rendered all the more noxious by the wafting stench of the nearby slave yard—the Reverend Doctor Poole mused upon his surroundings and his mission:
Of all clerical ministrations, those at the prison are, perhaps, the most unsatisfactory and discouraging….What can be more distressing than the uncertainty and difficulty of arriving at any conclusive convictions, particularly in extreme cases, of the genuineness of criminal repentance, when the law is left to take its last awful course!
One such extreme case was soon encountered: Williams, a murderer whose guilt was not in question. Prayerful and contrite, his fettered hands clasped in quivering supplication, Williams begged to receive last rites, which Poole duly provided on the Sunday night before the prisoner’s Monday appointment with the gallows. On that fateful morning, the chaplain witnessed a scene bearing little resemblance to those spectacular public executions then taking place at English sites like Tyburn, Newgate, or Horsemonger Lane. In this dilapidated prison yard, Williams addressed the modest crowd gathered silently before him, exhorting those who would survive him to avoid his wretched path. “God bless you all! I am going home,” the condemned man concluded, moments before the long drop silenced him forever.
Poole wrote that the spectacle was increased by the “gross mockery of office which was displayed by the wretch of a hangman,” who painted his face red and white and plied his grisly trade while sporting a smile and a Tom-fool’s cap. It was too much for the sensitive bystanding man of the cloth.
A question presented itself: Was capital punishment effective? Terror of the scaffold was proving no deterrent. In less than five years under Poole’s watch, five men were executed for murder, and he doubted in any case that the fear and shame associated with such a punishment would translate from European society to African. The punishment of death, he suggested, had “little to say in its favour.”
By all appearances, Poole was asymptotically approaching an abolitionist position, but at the last minute he pulled back:
And, yet, to abolish the punishment of death in Sierra Leone, viewing the question entirely apart from every argument but that of expediency, would be to let loose upon the community the most ungovernable and wildest elements of the worst portion of its society. Released from this check, inadequate as it often proves in its operation…there would be no security for life and property.
Poole’s conclusion: “Justice and necessity require its continuance, at all events in Africa.”
A GREAT MANY YEARS LATER, on the night of August 23, 2012, nine prisoners emerged from the crowded, poorly ventilated, mosquito-infested cells of the Mile 2 State Central Prison, located on the outskirts of Banjul, Gambia, a city the Reverend Doctor Poole knew as Bathurst. The detention facility, erected by the British colonial authorities, is today as ill-built as anything the chaplain witnessed in his Senegambian wanderings, though the wattle-and-daub architecture of Poole’s day has since been replaced by ordure-stained concrete. That night, eight men, Alieu Bah, Gibril Bah, Dawda Bojang, Lamin Darboe, Lamin Jammeh, Lamin Jarju, Malang Sonko, and Abubacarr Yarbo, and one woman, Tabara Samba, would be dispatched by a firing squad. There were no last-minute ministrations, no speeches, indeed no mummery on the part of the executioners. Just the cracks of rifles, the hail of bullets, the thud of their impacts, and nine terminal breaths.
Those nine prisoners were among 47 Gambian and foreign individuals on death row in the Mile 2 facility, all of whom were the subjects of a chilling August 19, 2012, television address by Gambia’s leader, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen, better and more conveniently known as Yahya Jammeh. Gambia had not carried out an execution—at least an officially recognized one—since 1985, but marking the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, President Jammeh announced that all existing death sentences were to be “carried out to the letter,” posthaste, by mid-September. “All those guilty of serious crimes and are condemned will face the full force of the law,” Jammeh declared. “There is no way my government will allow 99 percent of the population to be held to ransom by criminals.” In other words, the wildest and worst portions of Gambian society, from Jammeh’s distinct perspective, were to be held in check for the sake of life and property, through acts of annihilation if necessary.
A humanitarian hue and cry was promptly sent up from within and without the tiny, serpentine African republic, as the inmates in Mile 2 State Central Prison instantly became global causes célèbres. Gambian expatriates like journalist Mathew Jallow urged international action against the “demented megalomaniac” holding the reins of state in Banjul. Members of the Gambian diaspora demonstrated at sites as far-flung as Seattle and Oslo, with September 4, 2012, declared a “Day of Outrage.” At the regional level, Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, spearheaded an effort to “engage all African and international institutions,” with the goal of implementing economic sanctions. It was not long before the European Union and the United Nations were weighing just such a course of action.
Members of the capital punishment abolition movement quickly entered the fray. Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, expressed her revulsion at the executions, stating that “Gambia has, for almost three decades, been one of the increasing number of states that did not practice capital punishment—until this sudden, grave, unfortunate change of course.” The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a statement calling on Jammeh to ensure that Gambia “complies with its obligation under the African Charter by refraining from the use of death penalty and to continue to observe a moratorium pending the eventual abolition of death penalty.”
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