It was a decision that would bring him comparisons to the likes of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe; nonetheless, the choice appeared to satisfy Gambia’s own long-reigning leader, President Yahya Jammeh. On 02 October 2013, Jammeh suddenly announced his country’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth, declaring that the West African nation would “never be a member of any neo-colonial institution”. Then came accusations of a foreign coup conspiracy. Just six days after confirming The Gambian departure, President Jammeh released a statement via a state-owned television channel, in which he claimed that both the UK and US had launched “a vigorous smear campaign” against his leadership. For Jammeh, this campaign consisted of “outrageous lies and false allegations”, a game of dirty politics he believed were part of a grand design to remove him from office. What followed next was perhaps predictable. Both the US and UK denied the allegations, whilst the Gambian diaspora have since tried to call attention to the plight of their fellow citizens from abroad. Jammeh, meanwhile, has chosen to stand by his convictions that he is coming under fire from foreign interests which would like nothing more than to unseat an authoritative African leader in order to achieve their unspecified neoliberal agenda. The President’s defiance perhaps begs the question: what are his motives?
Whilst the nature of Jammeh’s personal ambitions may be impossible to confirm, the evidence suggests that the President could be trying to deflect domestic criticism in order to maintain his fledgling grip on power. Indeed, President Jammeh’s history of human rights abuses, combined with his questionable foreign policy, could be the real catalyst for his undoing – and not, as he claims, the conspiratorial goals of Western powers.
A History of Human Rights Abuses
President Jammeh’s Commonwealth ‘exit’ initially sent shock waves to leaders in the UK, as well as Gambians, many of whom are now worried about the political and economic ramifications of the decision. In London, the announcement was ultimately met with muted concern, as the UK’s Foreign Office confirmed it would “very much regret Gambia, or any other country” deciding to leave the fifty-four member body. Despite the UK response, it quickly became evident that the Jammeh manoeuvre did not manifest from a vacuum, given the ongoing dispute between the two nations. Indeed, relations between London and Banjul have soured over the years after President Jammeh accused the UK of supporting opposition organisations, namely the United Democratic Party (UDP), ahead of The Gambia’s parliamentary elections.
The UK, meanwhile, has been critical of The Gambia for its poor human rights record. In early 2013, the Foreign Office issued a reported alleging that Jammeh’s government had been responsible for discrimination against minorities, “unlawful detentions” and repeated censure of the press. Jammeh’s position on homosexuality is perhaps even more concerning. In September 2013, Jammeh, who rose to power following coup in 1994, ordered all homosexuals to leave The Gambia or face “beheading”. Trying to change Jamme’s, however, appears virtually impossible. Activists claim that even “mild” critiques of Jammeh by journalists have angered the president – so much so that the self-styled “Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh” has allegedly ordered the arrest, torture and even assassination of dissidents. According to IRIN, an international human rights and analysis news network, media outlets, such as radio stations and newspapers, are “routinely closed” for publicly addressing issues which may offend the president. More recently, in 2012 Jammeh ordered the closure of the popular radio station Teranga FM, as well as demanded that independent newspapers, The Standard and the Daily News, cease operation. Former journalist Musa Saidykhan, meanwhile, claims to have been kidnapped and tortured by The Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency. His case proved so controversial that the Court of Justice for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had to intervene in the matter, demanding that The Gambia pay US$200,000 to Saidykhan and his family. For his part, President Jammeh has yet to compensate Saidykhan or admit to complicity in the ordeal. Nevertheless, the case perhaps illustrates another interesting facet of the Jammeh regime – that of the President’s relationship with neighbouring African states, and his questionable foreign policy.
Jammeh’s Foreign Squabbles
ECOWAS’ decision to intercede on behalf of Gambian journalists suggests that President Jammeh may be better served turning his attention to the concerns of his immediate neighbours, rather than immerse himself in Western meddling. Indeed, many African states, let alone Western powers, are suspicious of Jammeh’s leadership. To his credit, Jammeh does have the political approval of at least some regional authorities, including Zimbabwe’s infamous President Mugabe. However, a seal of approval from Mugabe is not exactly desirable, given his own history of impropriety.
Jammeh also appears to be interested in the affairs of bordering states; but even then, he is accused of interfering for strategic purposes. Sénégal is perhaps the most notorious case: diplomatic relations between Dakar and Banjul are at best, ‘uneven’, given repeated accusations that Jammeh has been fostering insurrection in the restive Casamance, a tiny sliver of Sénégalese land separated from the rest of the country by The Gambia. Most reports suggest that, immediately following Jammeh’s ascension to power in a 1994 coup, the president ‘welcomed’ Casamance rebels with open arms – literally and figuratively – by shipping weapons and offering political support for the Mouvement des forces Démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC). Jammeh’s backing is allegedly a quid pro quo for the MFDC’s support of bodyguards charged with protecting the president. For his part, Jammeh vehemently denies allegations he is assisting the MFDC. Nevertheless, the already tenuous relationship between The Gambia and neighbouring Sénégal reached a crisis point in late 2010, when Nigerian authorities claimed to have intercepted a consignment of weapons which Jammeh allegedly purchased for MFDC forces via Iran. As expected, the fallout from The Gambian weapons affair proved to put a stop to any illusions that the countries would eventually find harmony, and instead resulted in the a steep loss of Sénégalese public support for The Gambian Government. Undeterred by these developments, Banjul officials later retaliated against their Dakar counterparts, going as far as to accuse the whole of Sénégal of “harbouring hatred” for their country.
These series of questionable announcements and decisions made by the Jammeh regime suggest that the recent ‘Commonwealth exit’ is more than simply the result of outrage over “UK neo-colonialism”. Indeed, as the evidence shows, leaving the Commonwealth is just one incident in a list of faux pas which are likely to isolate President Jammeh and his country even further from the international community. Worryingly, Jammeh’s decisions may detach his nation from the very same foreign governments which regularly provide much-needed financial aid to his country, where one-third live on less than US$1.25 per day.
So far, his anti-Western stance has already hurt The Gambia’s fiscal situation. Early this year, the European Union (EU) confirmed it would withhold some US$60 million in assistance until Jammeh undertakes much-needed human rights reforms. Keeping in line with tradition, President Jammeh refused to budge from his platform, and in January 2013 accused the EU of trying to “destabilise” his government. Jammeh’s recalcitrance, however, angered his own citizens. Indeed, when pressed for comment, many expatriate Gambians regularity described their president a “despot” who is simply afraid of being embarrassed on the world stage. In particular, Ebrima Sankareh, the US-based Editor in Chief of ‘The Gambia Echo’, claimed that Jammeh’s constant blaming of foreign nations and Commonwealth withdrawal was likely due to fears his country would be ‘singled out’ for its disregard for human rights ahead of the Commonwealth summit, scheduled for 16 November 2013 in Sri Lanka. For Gambian opposition supporters, Jammeh’s ‘blame game’ cannot last long. Much like Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe, Jammeh may soon run out of ‘neo-colonial scapegoats’ to criticise for The Gambia’s political and economic failures, a scenario which could eventually result in his removal from power.