Protests sweep Bulgaria following a self-immolation in Varna

Government resigns as high electricity bills force people onto the streets.

Bulgaria erupted in protest last week, as a campaign against high electricity prices morphed into a general collection of protests against corruption and abuse of power.

 

5 March: People attend a vigil outside the city hall of Varna, on the site where Plamen Goranov immolated himself

The spark for the progression of the protests was the self-immolation of 36-year-old Plamen Goranov, an amateur photographer and rock climber, in the town square of Varna on 20 February. Goranov's move prompted the Varna protestors to turn their focus from their bills to the long-term mayor, who they accused of corruption and favouritism.

 

February 24: Protesters shout slogans during a protest in Sofia

The day after Goranov's stand, the Prime Minister, Boiko Borisov, submitted his government's resignation, saying "the people gave us power, and today we are returning it". His last-ditch attempt to cling to power had involved pledging to cut electricity prices by 8 percent, and even promising to revoke the license of the Czech power supplier CEZ.

But Borisov's government has presided over many of the corruption scandals which have angered protestors. In just one example, the nominee of the state electricity regulatory commission—which sets the price of electricity, itself an unpopular body—was accused of selling cigarettes illegally online.

 

21 February: Outgoing Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (R) leaves the parliament in Sofia

Two days before Borisov's resignation, his finance minister, Simeon Djankov, stepped down to try and take heat off the government. Djankov was the architect of Bulgaria's austerity programme, which—naturally—lies at the heart of many of the country's problems. His resignation did little to sooth tempers. Reuters quotes one protestor:

"We can't take it any more. How can I have a bill for 200 levs for electricity and all the job offers that I find are for salaries of 300 to 500 levs per month?" said jobless Monika Vasileva, 25, among a crowd in central Sofia.

 

March 5: Miners shout slogans during a protest in downtown Sofia

Even Borisov's resignation has not put an end to the crisis. On Sunday, waves of protests again swept Bulgarian cities, hitting Sofia, Plovdiv, Burgas, Blagoevgrad, Ruse, Sliven and Varna. The protestors demand the interim government heed their demands, but are faced with the problem that, while Borisov's party has lost much support, the opposition Socialist Party has not made equivalent gains. With no-one to turn to, and a movement united more through opposition to the current government than support for any future one, the protestors have a difficult task ahead. Borisov, meanwhile, was reportedly hospitalized with “high blood pressure and general weakness”.

Protesters wave a Bulgarian flag as they block a road in Varna. All photographs: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

LORRAINE MALLINDER
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A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times