In July 1994, a group of soldiers seized power in Gambia, ending the 30-year rule of President Dawda Jawara. Jawara’s government had been synonymous with corruption and nepotism, and the bloodless coup, led by Yahya Jammeh, had the support of most Gambians.
Looking back at Jammeh’s almost two-decade-long rule since the overthrow, however, it is apparent that his government has not delivered on the junta’s promises of “transparency, accountability and probity”. Instead, the administration is, like its predecessor, tainted with evidence of corruption and misappropriation of state resources.
Before the military takeover, Jammeh was a lieutenant in the Gambia National Army. In 1994, frustrated with the government, Jammeh along with other junta established the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) and took over government, banning political parties, suspending the constitution, and leading the country by decree.
A two-year transition followed before a referendum in 1996, in which 70% of the voters opted for a new constitution. Following this, Jammeh and other leading military men took off their uniforms, called themselves civilians and formed a political party: the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).
Jammeh went on to win the presidential election in 1996 with 56% of the votes, although foreign observers did not deem the vote free and fair. The incumbent was re-elected in 2001 and again in 2006 despite opposition claims of voter fraud and intimidation.
On the eve of last year's presidential election, the West African bloc ECOWAS announced that it would not send observers to The Gambia because it believed the polls would not be free, fair and transparent. Jammeh, as predicted, won again, capturing 72% of the votes. And, once again opposition leader Ousainou Darboe, who emerged with 17% of the votes, rejected the results, labelling them “bogus”.
Jammeh has held onto power not just by winning elections, however, but by managing opponents or suspected opponents.
In March 2006, for example, the regime announced that it had thwarted an attempted coup and arrested a number of military personnel and civilians on charges of treason. Following their arrest, they were paraded on national television and radio, and confessed. Whether they spoke at their own will or under duress remains unclear, but ten soldiers along with other alleged conspirators were convicted and are now serving long jail terms, four for life. On the other hand, five of those arrested, including former director-general of the National Intelligence Agency Daba Marena, may have been “extrajudicially executed or victims of an enforced disappearance”, according to Amnesty.
Four years later, in July 2010, the government claimed there had been another plot to overthrow the government. Jammeh’s administration arrested eight men, including the former head of Gambia's Armed Forces, Lang Tombong Tamba. The eight were found guilty and sentenced to death for treason. And in January this year, Jammeh’s former Information Minister Amadou Scattred Janneh was sentenced to life in jail for distributing t-shirts with the slogan: “End to Dictatorship Now”.
It is not only perceived threats to Jammeh’s power that the president vehemently pursues, however. Jammeh has threatened to behead all homosexuals and has urged citizens to stop buying newspapers so that journalists would starve to death. 20 people are currently on trial for homosexuality while numerous journalists have been jailed, tortured or forced into exile. At least two radio stations and two newspapers have been forcibly closed by the government and the exact whereabouts of Ebrima Manneh, a journalist arrested six years ago by intelligence agents, remains shrouded in mystery.
To help consolidate his power, Jammeh has also cultivated his image, exaggerating his qualifications and supposed abilities. For example, Jammeh goes by the full title ‘His Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh’ and dresses as a Ghafir of the Quran, despite the fact he holds none of the religious or academic credentials to do so.
Jammeh has also embarked on an unsuccessful attempt to become King of Gambia. In 2010, traditional chiefs started campaigning for the president to be transformed into a king, arguing that he had brought development to the country and that it would ensure stability.
In September of that same year, the pro-government newspaper the Daily Observer reported that Jammeh had received four awards, two coming with an accompanying letter from US President Barack Obama praising Jammeh’s “exemplary dedication, determination, and perseverance for the development of the Gambia”. The White House denied this.
Jammeh has even gone as far as saying he could cure HIV/AIDS, asthma and other diseases. Shortly after this pronouncement patients started lining up at the gate of the State House. Jammeh is also said to have sent ‘witch-hunters’ across the country in 2009, who reportedly rounded up around 1,000 people. Abductees were allegedly forced to drink a hallucinogenic substance that made them dizzy and sick with at least two people dying from the experience.
Despite the ridicule of Jammeh’s more far-fetched claims from outside The Gambia, inside the country it has been increasingly hard to criticise them. The UN country representative in The Gambia, Fadzai Gwaradzimba, for example, was kicked out of the country for expressing doubts over Jammeh’s claims of having healing abilities.
Amidst all this sound and fury, Jammeh's reign is credited with numerous infrastructural developments from the building of schools and hospitals to a new airport and the country's first university. But whether this will be enough to quell discontent with his regime remains to be seen.
Last year, Jammeh summed up his position over the presidency as he proclaimed: “I will deliver to the Gambian people and if I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will, if Allah says so”. Jammeh’s reign is beginning to rival the longevity of Dawda Jawara's three-decade rule and, as the president continues to clamp down on dissent and opposition, it seems that if the Gambian people want change, Jammeh may also have to suffer the same ultimate fate as his predecessor.
Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: email@example.com