Muhammed Sandeng Recalls the Morning His Father Left Home to His Death
Early in the morning on April 14, 2016, Solo Sandeng, a firebrand activist with the then main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) sat down his son Muhammed for a brief talk. They spoke about a few different issues including the need for Muhammed to focus on education. Solo’s final words to the 19-year-old son were, “Never disclose your whereabouts to anybody, not even your closest friends.” Muhammed promised to do as he was told and Solo shook his hands and left the house.
As Muhammed watched his physically strong and energetic father leave, his chest was beating fast and he had a lot to think about. He knew that Solo was walking into darkness and he might not come home anytime soon.
“He told me that morning that there was going to be civil disobedience to push for electoral reforms. That’s the way he put it. But prior to that, I was privy to discussions about how he and Falang Sonko and others would take to the streets to confront Yahya Jammeh. So I knew he was going out to lead a street protest that morning,” he recalls.
Solo’s initial plan was to take Muhammed along to the protest and stand shoulder to shoulder with him to push for his electoral reforms agenda. But Muhammed stayed at home because he was preparing for an exam.
“I was ok to go out with him. I wasn’t afraid but at the end I had to stay. I concerned about his safety and security, but I also knew that my dad was a brave man and what he was going to do that day was for the greater good of the country and the people. So I wished him well.”
A few hours after Solo left, video clips and pictures started emerging on the social media featuring a small group of people marching along Westfield and holding banners calling for electoral reforms. Street protest was very rare and suicidal. Solo was seen being roughed and arrested up by plainclothes officers of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), an agency which gained notoriety for torture and other inhumane treatments. By then it was clear that there was a protest and Solo Sandeng was its leader.
Muhammed’s mother, Nyima went out to search for her husband, starting from the police station where he was initially taken after being arrested; then to Mile 2 Prison; and finally to the NIA headquarters. Everywhere she went, the authorities denied holding him.
The on April 15, Muhammed received sketchy information that something had happened to his father. “I first received insider information at night that he and his colleagues were tortured and were in coma. I didn’t hear about his death yet.”
Muhamed went to bed that night hoping and praying that either the information about torture and coma was wrong or his father and colleagues woke up from coma. His worst fears were that his father would be charged with a crime and be sent to jail, but would come out one day. Solo was arrested and detained a few times prior to April 14 over his political activities. On each occasion, he was released after brief detention.
But on April 16, news spread around like a raving tornado that Solo Sandeng had died in detention. UDP leader Ousainou Darboe held an emergency press briefing at his residence to officially confirm that Solo was tortured to death and his colleagues were also brutally tortured, with some of them between life and death.
“That was the moment it was clear to me that my father was no more. I didn’t see that coming. I thought strongly that they’d charge him for protesting, parade him before a kangaroo court and jail him. But to torture someone and take his life in that manner never crossed my mind,” Muhammed says, looking into the empty sky.
Darboe and UDP members took to the streets to demand for the body of Solo Sandeng and the release of his colleagues from NIA detention. The protest was met with heavy-handedness as armed security agents beat them with batons and yanked them into police trucks and took them to Mile 2 Central Prison where they were held for about eight months.
Muhammed and his family fled to neighbouring Senegal for fear they’d be arrested. It followed a public statement issued by Muhammed’s sister, Fatima blasting the authorities for killing Solo and calling President Jammeh a ruthless dictator.
On Saturday, hundreds of people marched through the same streets Solo took three years ago, to commemorate his protest and celebrate his legacy. Muhammed told the gathering, “When my father went out to protest, he didn’t do it for any party or group, but for the entire country.” He described the anniversary as a moment of closure for his family and called on Gambians to embrace the legacy of his father.
UDP leader Darboe paid tribute to Solo Sandeng and colleagues for staging a protest he referred to as the catalyst for the 2016 regime change.
Former Vice President Fatoumata Tambajang described Solo Sandeng as a selfless Gambian, adding that the fact he didn’t inform the UDP leadership before he staged the April 14 protest showed he protested for The Gambia.
Fatima Sandeng told The Chronicle that “even though I feel very bad for losing my father, I feel fulfilled to know that he didn’t die in vain and that Gambians appreciate his sacrifice for the country.”
It would be recalled that a group of NIA officials, including the Director General at the time were arrested over Solo Sandeng’s death. Their trial is ongoing.