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#UDHR70 – “A Struggle to Survive and Thrive Under a Dictatorship”, by Marie Antoinette Corr

In his book “Mein Kampf”, Hitler said "If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed". The dictator Yahya Jammeh knew how to terrorize the masses through threats and cajoling. When he said "Gambia will become an economic superpower by 2012", almost everyone glorified him. This was the lie Gambians lived with for 22 years, enforced as it was through in fear, intimidation, coercion and even death threats. A Gambian adage is: ‘To put a people into submission, wield a big stick, hit a few ruthlessly then break the stick; anytime you cough, everyone will fall in line". ’Buried 6 feet deep’ became the mantra that put everyone into submission.

Jammeh came to power in a bloodless coup in 1994, installing a culture of oppression, torture and corruption that reached all spheres of life in Gambia. Gambians were tortured, raped, imprisoned or shot and killed for demonstrating peacefully, forced into fake HIV ’treatment’ programs; family members were drugged and killed in the name of ’cleansing the witches’.

By September 2016, Gambia could not even produce a single needle, much less become a powerhouse. A bag of rice costs three times as much as ten years earlier and still the government wanted us to believe that things would be better. Teachers are amongst the lowest paid civil servants, yet we were asked to toe the line.

The UNESCO-ILO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers adopted in 1966 has served as a standard for the teaching profession with regard to their rights and professional status. In adopting the Recommendation, the government recognized the fundamental importance of having highly qualified personnel who are equipped to teach the next generation. Although governments claim to support the values and principles of the Recommendation, in practice many do not demonstrate respect for the rights enshrined in it, nor do they implement policies that comply with it. The Gambia is no exception.

The Gambia Teachers Union, representing the voice of teachers, found itself in a dilemma. How to appease the system and survive the status quo, and still find favor? Eureka! The Minister of Basic and Secondary Education, a teacher pulled from our ranks became our firewall.

The Millennium Development Goals, coupled with the Education for All – Fast-track Initiative (FTI) became the cloak with which the junta manipulated citizens to their greatest advantage: building many schools throughout the country, and at the same time promoting the President's image as a man of the people who wanted to erase illiteracy in the Gambia by 2020. Hence his title  ’Babili Mansa’ - meaning ’Bridge King’ or ‘One who bridge gaps’.

December 16th 2016 brought in the new dispensation, with the slogan “Gambia has decided". Yahya Jammeh was ousted through the ballot box in a very transparent election.  In fact, he was so confident that he ordered on-the-spot counting of votes, sounding his own death knell.

The winds of democratic change blew all across the Gambia in January 2017, with the inauguration of President Adama Barrow, who immediately took steps to reverse all of the draconian, authoritative and repressive laws that kept Jammeh in power for 22 years.

The leadership of the Gambia Teachers Union maintained its position of working closely with the new government as it had done with the previous administration, and had a series of meetings with the Secretary General Office of the President to demand that the rights of the teachers be respected.

The issues raised are manifold, and include: an increment on the residential allowance and house rent for teachers,  improvement of teachers’ salaries, appointment of graduate teachers, which has been  ‘halted’ due to budget constraints, faster career development paths for teachers; the need to allocate an appropriate share of the budget (at least 20%) to non-salary expenses at school level to provide sufficient school inputs & learning materials for better learning outcomes;  increase in the budget to build more houses/staff quarters in the provinces ;  improvement of the working conditions of education support personnel and finally,  the need to establish the Teaching Service Commission to address the current challenges.

Furthermore, the #GambiaHasDecided civil society initiative in favour of democracy ushered in a new chapter in the socio-political arena of The Gambia. Consequently,   efforts have been made to reposition organized labour, increase its visibility and capacity to effectively participate in all decision making processes to build a new Gambia that will bring about peace. The leaders of the two national trade union Centres - the Gambia Labour Congress and the Gambia National Trade Union Congress – together with the  Gambia Teachers Union and the Gambia Press Union, and in collaboration with  the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), signed a joint agreement in 2017. The aim of the agreement is to create a united, strong and vibrant national labour movement recognized by the Government and the international community, which will be able to represent the rights of the Gambian working class.

It is important to note that the Government of Adama Barrow responded positively and has since taken action and promised to continue working with the Gambia Teachers Union to improve the lot of teachers.

 

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10 December 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration remains a relevant inspiration for educators and trade unionists worldwide, as it guarantees the right to form unions, freedom of expression and the right of all to quality education. Human rights requires an informed and continued demand by people for their protection. For this special occasion, Education International is releasing a series of blogs bringing voices and thoughts of unionists reflecting on struggles and accomplishments in this domain. The blogs reflect the continued commitment of education unionists, in every part of the world, in every community, to promote, defend and advance human rights and freedoms for the benefit of all.


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Marie Antoinette Corr

Marie Antoinette Corr is the General Secretary of the Gambia Teachers Union (GTU) and a member of EI Regional Executive Committee, Africa.

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