In this article, we shall discuss the brutal authoritarian regime of Yahya Jammeh in Gambia. We will discuss his rise to power, his policies and actions while in office, with particular attention to the various human rights abuses while in power.
Who is Yahya Jammeh?
Yahya Jammeh is the current leader of Gambia. As a junior officer of the Gambia National Army (GNA), Jammeh, along with three other officers, overthrew then President Sir Dawda Jawara in 2004. This coup removed the People’s Progressive Party from power, the first time they were out of power since 1965 (Perfect, 2010). Following the initial coup, Jammeh, along with Sana Sabally, Sadibou Hydara, and Edward Singhateh organized the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), of which Jammeh was put as the person at the head of the organization (Perfect, 2010). The officers were able to win over many in Gambia by promises of reform, along with stamping out corruption in the country (Perfect, 2010).
In 2006, due to international pressure, the AFPRC allowed for elections in the country. In this vote, Jammeh won the presidency with 56 percent of the vote (Perfect, 2010). Then, in 2011, due in part to a lack of unified opposition, Jammeh won with 53 percent of the vote, well above the next candidate, Ousainou Darboe, who won 33 percent of the Gambian electoral vote share. Jammeh then won again in 2005, with 67 percent of the entire vote (Perfect, 2010). Scholars argue that there are a few reasons why Jammeh was able to win each of these elections with relative ease. Perfect (2010) argues that there are four main reasons for Jammeh’s success. They are:
- “First, Jammeh has clearly retained a degree of personal popularity. His core supporters have been: fellow members of his ethnic group, the Jola, who had previously been of marginal importance in Gambian politics; younger voters; and women, whose political role he has promoted more strongly than Jawara (Saine, 2009, p. 126). In 1996, and to an extent also in 2001, Jammeh benefited from having led the coup that had overthrown the unpopular PPP, particularly as the com- missions of inquiry had provided clear evidence of PPP ministerial corruption” (55).
- Second, Jammeh provided a variety of social services or programs, which seemed to have helped him gain and keep support for the next elections. Specifically, “”These included the establish- ment of a free national television service before the 1996 election, the opening of the University of The Gambia and of a new hospital at Farafenni, both in 1999, and improved roads and communications (Hughes and Perfect, 2008, pp. 60, 160, 236; Ceesay, 2006, p. 212). In 2006, Jammeh was helped by the successful staging of the African Union summit in Banjul in July, only two months before the election, which seemed to indicate his growing importance in African affairs (Saine, 2009, p. 113) (55).
- The third factor for Jammeh’s electoral success has been the divided opposition in each of the elections. Perfect (2010) writes: “in all three elections Jammeh faced a divided opposition: three other candidates stood in 1996, four in 2001 and two in 2006. The opposition’s failure to unite cost it dearly in 2001 and especially in 2006…”(55).
- Lastly, there is also a belief that the government unfairly used resources to help ensure Jammeh would get re-elected. It was believed that the government used state radio, offering unequal coverage of the candidates, and more particularly favoring Yahya Jammeh. It was also said that “government vehicles were used for campaigning purposes and some security personnel openly endorsed the ruling party” (Perfect, 2010: 55-56).
Gambia Under Yahya Jammeh
Since then, he has not only continued to consolidate his political power, but he has established himself as an authoritarian leader who has repressed civil society in his decade plus years of power. In this section, we will discuss the economy of Gambia under Yahya Jammeh, as well as the state of human rights in the country.
Economy under Yahya Jammeh
Scholars have described the economic development plans under Yahya Jammeh as having some positives, but also negatives. For example, Perfect (2010) writes that
The Jammeh government’s overall economic record has been mixed, but generally fairly favourable. After the 1994 coup, The Gambia’s economy deteriorated substantially, as Western aid donors imposed economic sanctions, but had recovered significantly by the later 1990s as sanctions were lifted and The Gambia attracted financial support from Taiwan, Libya and Cuba (Hughes and Perfect, 2008, pp. lviii– lix). After a sharp downturn in 2002, the economy has improved once again, with average real GDP growth exceeding 6% between 2003 and 2008. The tourism sector, the main source of foreign exchange, has fared particularly well in recent years, with the recorded number of tourists rising from 57,231 in 2001 to 142,626 in 2007. Inflation as measured by the consumer price index, which had climbed sharply to 17.0% in 2003, fell to 3.0% in 2008 (Tsikata et al., 2008, tables 1, 9 and 13). A recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report from August 2009 notes, however, that the global financial crisis has significantly affected The Gambia. In 2009, receipts from tourism and remittances are expected to fall by about 20% and GDP growth to fall to around 3.5% (IMF, 2009b, pp. 3–4).
One of the biggest criticisms of Jammeh as it relates to the economy has been his focus on trying to make Gambia into an oil wealth state. The problem with this is that there are no large oil reserves in the country. Much of the country’s population makes their living on agriculture, and Gambia’s high reliance on peanut exports severely limits not only their ability to diversify their economy, but also leaves them highly effected by international price shocks.
Moreover, there have also been criticisms with regards to his lack of success in fighting poverty in Gambia. While Jammeh has spoke about reducing poverty, the number of people in poverty is still very high, and Gambia continues to be one of the most impoverished countries in the world. For example, “The Gambia is one of Africa’s smallest and poorest nations, ranking 165th out of 187 countries in the United Nations Development Programme’s 2013 Human Development Index. Poverty is widespread, but predominantly rural. According to the Multi-dimensional Poverty Index 2014, more than 60 per cent of the overall population are poor. In rural areas, this rises to approximately 75 per cent” (IFAD, 2014).
There are a number of factors as to why rural poverty is much higher. The IFAD (2014) has listed a number of points, which include:
- Low and decreasing soil fertility;
- Low agricultural and labour productivity;
- Poor access to productive assets (land and water);
- Irregular rains that frequently cause crop losses and yields that fluctuate as much as 40 per cent from one harvest to the next;
- Inefficient management of water from rainfall and river flooding, which otherwise could have been used for agricultural purposes;
- Emerging but still poorly functioning input and output markets;
- Lack of regular access to affordable, good quality seeds;
- Weak rural institutions, including those that provide credit, and a lack of basic social services;
- Low prices on world markets for local produce, such as groundnuts and certain types of rice;
- Food insecurity due to insufficient income from the prevalent low-input and low-output farming activities;
- Large proportion of unemployed or underemployed young people in rural areas;
- High rates of rural-urban migration (2).
Human Rights Abuses Under Yahya Jammeh’s Rule
The human rights of Gambia under Yahya Jammeh have been horrible since Jammeh came to power in 1994. Human Rights Watch, for example, has written a detailed report on the human rights violations of Jammeh in Gambia entitled State of Fear: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture and Killings. In the report, they say that “Since taking power in 1994, President Yahya Jammeh has ruled Gambia with often-ruthless repression of dissent, a tight clamp on virtually all independent media, and the use of state security forces and shadowy paramilitary groups to intimidate and silence all deemed critics of the government. The population lives in a climate of fear in which government justice and accountability for abuses is utterly beyond reach.”
Jailing of Reporters
As mentioned above, the human rights violations under Yahya Jammeh are numerous. For example, in 2006, “Ebrima Manneh, a reporter with the then opposition newspaper Daily Observer was detained by government agents in 2006. He has not been seen since. His whereabouts are still unknown. Manneh has never been charged with a crime and the government denies having him in their custody. The government recently claimed he had been seen in the USA, but his family vehemently denied these reports. He is still listed on the Interpol website as a missing person” (Amnesty International, 2013), and as of late 2015, there is still no additional information on Manneh. In 2013, Sherman-Nikolaus said of Manneh’s arrest, “The disappearance of Manneh is extremely worrying. For years no one has seen him or heard from him. Many fear he is now dead but until the government reveals what happened, we may never know his fate” (Amnesty International, 2013). Jammeh has jailed a number of reporters for criticizing the regime. These journalists have either faces fines, long jail sentences (Perfect, 2010), or being disappeared.
There have also been older political prisoners being held in Gambia because of their criticisms of Jammeh’s rule. For example, Imam Baba Leigh was jailed by Gambian authorities in late 2012, for roughly five months (Amnesty International, 2013) (he now resides in the United States). Amnesty International (2013) reported that during that time, “Imam Baba Leigh was effectively disappeared. He was never charged with a crime, was not brought before a court and during his time in detention and was not allowed contact with a lawyer or his family. Amnesty International adopted him as a Prisoner of Conscience.” Furthermore, during his jailing, it was reported that the authorities often stage “mock executions” where they pretend that they will be killing the Imam, only to keep him alive (Secorun Palet, 2015). This sort of torture is sadly just part of the horrendous human rights conditions in Gambia.
Again, these sorts of actions are not rare under Yahya Jammeh in Gambia. As “Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, West-Africa researcher at Amnesty International” writes, ““Tragically, the story of Imam Baba Leigh is not unusual in the Gambia where the authorities seem to be carrying out a campaign of illegal arrests, harassment, and death threats against anyone who dares to speak up on human rights” (Amnesty International, 2013).
Banning of Political Parties
There exists very little in terms of the allowance of free political parties in Gambia. As Human Rights Watch (2015) explains, “Currently, there are several opposition parties in Gambia, but opposition leaders and party members are frequently arbitrarily arrested and jailed. Their activities often result in intimidation by state security forces, or are blocked by cumbersome administrative hurdles, such as requiring opposition parties to obtain a permit to use loudspeakers. Senior civil servants perceived to support the opposition have appeared to be targeted for arbitrary arrest and dismissal. Gambia’s National Assembly counts just one opposition and four independents out of a total of 53 members of parliament.” Moreover, the financial cost of forming a new party are quite high, as it costs a million dalasi, which is the equivalent of 24, 527 USD to register a political party (Human Rights Watch, 2015).
Control During Elections
Yahya Jammeh continues to oppress political voice, even when he attempts to set up “elections” in Gambia. For example, Gambia will hold its presidential elections in December of 2016. It was widely expected that Jammeh would win his fifth term in office, given the tight control that he has on the political system in the country. However, Amnesty International reported on concerns they had for those critical of the government, speaking about how the climate is one where it is “dangerous to dissent.” Jammeh’s brutal rule has left it very difficult for anyone to criticize his regime (Yahoo News, 2016). In their work, entitled “Dangerous to Dissent: Human Rights Under Threat in Gambia,” they speak about the challenges for those who criticize Jammeh.
Sadly, this is something that has been happened before in Gambia. For example, Amnesty International (2016) explains that “The cost of dissent in Gambia came into sharp focus most recently when, in April and May 2016, Gambian security forces arbitrarily arrested and beat up dozens of members of the United Democratic Party (UDP), including its leader Ousainou Darboe, as well as supporters and bystanders who were peacefully protesting. Fifty-one people are currently on trial, and one man – Solo Sandeng, the UDP National Organizing Secretary – died in custody following torture at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Others were also seriously injured and tortured at the NIA, while at least 36 people arrested at a protest on 9 May 2016 are currently detained without charge.”
In 2012, Gambia reversed their decision on the death penalty. Where the country law was against the death penalty, this changed in 2012, as the state authorities carried out a number of executions (Hirsch, 2013).
Outlandish Comments by Yahya Jammeh
Yahya Jammeh has made a number of statements that are cause for concern. For example, in an attempt to heighten his own reputation in Gambia and elsewhere, in what looks to be his aim for setting a “cult of personality” in the country, Jammeh claimed that he has found the cure to AIDS. It was reported in 2007 that “The rush for Mr Jammeh’s alleged cure began on 18 January after the west African country’s state television service devoted most of its evening news to it. The President, who believes he has mystic powers, was seen laying his hands on the heads of patients at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Banjul. Since then, Mr Jammeh has addressed diplomats and the broadcaster has shown interviews with alleged patients who say they are feeling better and putting on weight” (Smith, 2007).
Speaking on this AIDS cure, Jammeh is quoted as saying that “”The cure is a day’s treatment. Within three days the person will be negative” (Smith, 2007). Smith (2007), who reported on this in The Independent, wrote about Jammeh’s comments. The President was quoted as saying: “”I am not doing it for money or popularity,” he said. “For asthma I have to choose between Saturday and Friday. I am also not authorised to treat more than 100 people. The one on HIV/Aids cannot be mass-produced because I am restricted to 10 patients only on every Thursday and Monday.” He said he may have to cancel surgerieson Thursdays if they clash with cabinet meetings” (Smith, 2007).
As one can imagine, making such false claims has led a number of individuals to criticize Yahya Jammeh. For example, ” South African HIV specialist Jerry Coovadia, who heads the HIV research team at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban” was quoted as saying, “”I’m astonished. The danger of a president saying this is shocking” (Smith, 2007). This has affected some with AIDS in the county, since “Several hundred people have enrolled on a special treatment programme, but in order to do so have ceased to receive antiretroviral treatment, and a number of deaths of HIV-positive people have been reported (Cassidy and Leach, 2009) (in Perfect, 2010: 57).
Yahya Jammeh’s Statements Against Homosexuals
Yahya Jammeh’s statements and actions have made it very unsafe for the LGBTI community in the country. Sadly, he has went after homosexuals by saying a number of horrific things about those in the LGBTI community. For example, “LGBT people have faced particularly repressive tactics since the introduction in 2014 of anti-gay legislation imposing life sentences for a series of new “aggravated homosexuality” offenses” (Human Rights Watch, 2015).
In fact, he has been making derogatory statements about homosexuals and homosexuality for years. In 2008, according to reports, “Mr Jammeh promised laws against LGBTQ people “stricter laws than Iran” and said he would “cut off the head” of any gay person found in Gambia. “The Gambia is a country of believers… sinful and immoral practices [such] as homosexuality will not be tolerated in this country,” the president told a crowd at a political rally” (Stone, 2015).
In 2012, Yahya Jammeh was quoted as saying: ““We know what human rights are. Human beings of the same sex cannot marry or date,” he said. “If you think it is human rights to destroy our culture, you are making a great mistake because if you are in the Gambia, you are in the wrong place then” (Stone, 2015).
In 2013, In an address to the UN general assembly he put homosexuality alongside “greed” and “obsession with world domination” as the three “biggest threats to human existence” that “are more deadly than all natural disasters put together” (Stone, 2015).
In 2014, Jammeh was quoted as saying: ““Some people go to the West and claim they are gays and that their lives are at risk in the Gambia, in order for them to be granted a stay in Europe. If I catch them I will kill them” (Stone, 2015). Also in 2014, Jammeh said: “We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively,”
Also in 2014, he said the following: “As far as I am concerned, LGBT can only stand for Leprosy, Gonorrhoea, Bacteria and Tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence” (Stone, 2015).
Then, more recently in a 2015 speech, “Jammeh said gay people would doom the world and that the “empire of homosexuals” would “go down the dirty drain”. “All empires before collapsed not at the time they were weakest, but at the peak of their might and when they equated themselves with the Almighty Allah. So this evil empire of homosexuals will also go down the dirty drain and garbage of hell,” he said” (Stone, 2015).
These statements are horrible. Jammeh, along with these comments, has also decide to take action against the LGBTI community. For example, Daniel Bekele wrote in March of 2015 that
Since November, for example, at least 16 men and women have been arrested on suspicion of homosexuality, following a widely condemned amendment to the country’s criminal code in October that gives a life sentence to anyone who commits “aggravated homosexuality.” Three remain behind bars today, where, again, credible reports indicate that torture is prevalent and routine. Freedom of expression has also been systematically eroded with the introduction of increasingly repressive laws, including one that threatens up to 15 years in prison for crimes such as spreading “false news or information” about the government.
Because of their statements and actions towards homosexuals, many Western states have withheld foreign aid to Gambia (Bekele, 2015).
Attempted Coups against Yahya Jammeh
There have been a number of reported coup d’etats against Yahya Jammeh in Gambia. For example, there was a more recent case of attempted overthrow in 2014. According to reports explaining what transpired: “The latest, in December 2014, was led by two Gambian-Americans with some military training, according to an FBI affidavit. In August, the men bought weapons (including eight semi-automatic rifles) in the U.S., disassembled them, swaddled them in used clothing and stuffed the whole thing into 50-gallon barrels that were shipped via container to the Gambia. In early December, the men arrived in the country, rented cars and drove them into the front and back of Jammeh’s palace. They figured Jammeh’s guards would flee — being unwilling to die for the dictator — but, oh, they were wrong. (The U.S. has charged the men under the Neutrality Act, which bars Americans from taking part in private military actions against “friendly nations.”)” (Secorun Palet, 2015).
Interestingly, in recent years, Gambian officials have been outspoken against the United States and the United Kingdom, suggestting that they have been supporting actors who are looking overthrow Jammeh and the regime from power. In 2013, Momodou Sabally, who was the Minister for Presidential Affairs, was quoted as saying: “”These two western powers have continued in their relentless efforts to destabilise this country, desperately using every means possible from sponsoring coup plots to financing the opposition and mounting a vigorous smear campaign” (Hirsch, 2013). Sabally also stressed control over their resources, say that would not cease control to “”old vampires and present-day locusts” (Hirsch, 2013).
2016 Gambian Elections
The controversy regarding Yahya Jammeh intensified in late 2016 following the Gambian presidential elections. In these elections, which were held on December 1st, to the surprise of many, Jammeh was defeated by Adama Barrow. Barrow won 43.3 percent of the vote, compared to Jammeh’s 39.6 percent of the vote. This election thus signaled the end of Jammeh’s long rule. However, and quite rightly, given Jammeh’s authoritarianism, many were skeptical as to whether Yayha Jammeh would actually give up power and transition authority to Barrow. Initially, Jammeh stated that he would recognize the election results.
However, shortly after offering such an assurance, Jammeh changed his position, saying that he would not step down. This caused criticism both internally in Gambia, regionally, and elsewhere, where people have called for him to recognize the results and abdicate the presidency. Among the critics of this move are neighboring African states within the regional bloc of ECOWAS, which have said that they would consider an intervention into The Gambia if a transition of power is not realized on January 19th, the day the transition is to be carried out according to Gambian law. Jammeh viewed this position as a “declaration of war” (The Guardian, 2017).
What made this situation even worse was the changing positions of a top figure in the military. General Ousman Badjie initially came out and supported the results of the election, saying that he would back Barrow victory. However, in early January, 2017, he went against this position, instead offering his “unflinching loyalty” to Jammeh (The Guardian, 2017). Without key military support, Jammeh would have had a tough time holding onto power; this development surely complicated the ability to have a more peaceful transition of power.
Yahya Jammeh References
Amnesty International (2013). Activist freed-journalist still missing in The Gambia. 14 May 2003. Available Online: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2013/05/activist-freed-journalist-still-missing-gambia/
Amnesty International (2016). Dangerous to Dissent: Human Rights Under Threat in Gambia. May 2016.
Bekele, D. (2015). Too Small to Care in Gambia? Foreign Affairs, April 14th, 2015. Available Online: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/west-africa/2015-04-13/too-small-care-gambia
Cassidy, R. and Leach, M. (2009) Science, politics, and the presidential AIDS ‘cure’, African Affairs, 108(433), pp. 559–580.
Ceesay, E. J. (2006) The Military and ‘Democratisation’ in The Gambia: 1994–2003 (Victoria, BC: Trafford).
Guardian (2017). Gambia army chief reverses pledge and stands by embattled president Jammeh. The Guardian. January 4th, 2017. Available Online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/05/gambia-army-chief-reverses-pledge-and-stands-by-embattled-president-jammeh
Hirsch, A. (2013). The Gambia accuses UK and US of ‘relentless efforts’ to arrange a coup. The Guardian, Wednesday 9 October, 2013. Available Online: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/09/the-gambia-accuses-us-uk-coup-attempts
Hughes, A. and Perfect, D. (2008) Historical Dictionary of The Gambia, 4th ed. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow).
Human Rights Watch (2015). State of Fear: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture, and Killings. September 16, 2015. Available Online: https://www.hrw.org/node/281046
International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) (2014). Investing in rural people in The Gambia. IFAD. August 2014. Available Online: http://www.ifad.org/operations/projects/regions/PA/factsheets/gm.pdf
Perfect, D. (2010). The Gambia under Yahya Jammeh: An Assessment. The Round Table, Vol. 99, No. 406, pages 53-63. February 2010.
Saine, A. (2009) The Paradox of Third-wave Democratization in Africa: The Gambia under AFPRC–APRC Rule, 1994–2008 (Plymouth: Lexington Books).
Secorun Palet, L. (2015). President Yahya Jammeh: The Worst Dictator You’ve Never Heard Of. Yahoo News. December 28, 2015. Available Online: https://www.yahoo.com/news/president-yahya-jammeh-worst-dictator-080000515.html
Smith, A.D. (2007). The President who claims he can cure AIDS on Monday. The Independent, 2 February 2007. Available Online: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/the-president-who-claims-he-can-cure-aids-on-mondays-434797.html
Stone, J. (2015). The 7 worst things Gambia’s president Yahya Jammeh has ever said about gay people. The Independent, Wednesday 14 January, 2015. Available Online: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/the-7-worst-things-gambias-president-yahya-jammeh-has-ever-said-about-gay-people-9977170.html
Yahoo News (2016). Gambia tightens noose on dissenters-Amensty. Yahoo News. June 1st, 2016. Available Online: https://www.yahoo.com/news/gambia-tightens-noose-dissenters-amnesty-012204369.html