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The Gambia at 50 – Independence worth celebrating?

Today the west African nation of The Gambia observes it’s 50th year of freedom from British colonial rule. Freedom of the sovereign state should equate to the liberty of its citizens. But whether the people of The Gambia should be celebrating this ‘freedom’ or not, lacks a definite answer

When President Yahya Jammeh strong-armed his way to power in a bloodless coup in 1994, hope prevailed in “The Smiling Coast of Africa”. After all, the 29 year-old army lieutenant led the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council which toppled Dawda Jawara, a leader who had been re-elected five times but whose tenure was marred by a weakening economy and a failed 1981 coup which resulted in 500 and 800 deaths. Surely this was a man who could bring much-needed change in the ailing country. Well, he did bring change, in some ways.

Under the watch of President Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia has seen a growing tourism industry which has been recognised as a growing source of revenue for the State. He created a charity foundation, the Jammeh Foundation for Peace (FJP) to help eradicate poverty in the country, grow the agricultural sector and provide financial assistance for needy students. A World Bank report has listed The Gambia 3rd in trade and economic performance in the ECOWAS region.  President Jammeh was also an instrumental figure in the resolution to the 2012 civil unrest in neighbouring Senegal.

Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh. Photo: Reuters
Gambia’s President H.E. Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh. Photo: Reuters

This rosy picture of the leader who is almost as old as the country he leads is not without its blemishes. Apart from being the 9th longest-serving African head-of-state, his regime is known for its authoritarian style, often violently smothering political opponents. In a 2014 report, Amnesty International detailed how President Jammeh’s opponents were subjected to daily violations. The same report also shed some light on how, as in many other African states, freedom of expression is a luxury that is hard to come by.

“The rights to freedom of expression and assembly are seriously curtailed as the government keeps a tight control of the media, and journalists and human rights defenders continue to be arbitrarily arrested, detained and subject to enforced disappearance,” it said.

“The government unlawfully interferes with the independence of the judiciary, and the culture of impunity, in particular among law enforcement officials, is widespread.”

Fatou Jaw Manneh is a journalist and commentator from The Gambia. She fled the country after Yahya Jammeh’s 1994 coup and received political asylum in the USA from where she continued to be active in exposing the crimes committed by President Jammeh’s government. During last year’s Oslo Freedom Forum she described her experiences when she returned home to pay her respects to her late father. She was charged with three counts of sedition, sentenced to four years of hard labour or a $12,000 fine.

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Jammeh’s outspoken intolerance of homosexuality is nothing new to the African continent. On top of having approved a draconian anti-gay law, he has been quoted as describing gay people as “vermin” who should be treated worse than mosquitoes.

“We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively,” he said in last year’s Independence Day speech.

The president is also not without his eccentricities. In 2007, he claimed that he could cure AIDS with a herbal potion – a view that was condemned by health experts. The World Health Organization and the United Nations said Jammeh’s HIV/AIDS treatment is alarming mainly because patients are required to cease their anti-retroviral drugs, making them more prone to infection.

ambia's President Yahya Jammeh, prays while administering his alleged herbal HIV cure to a patient at the State House in Banjul, Gambia, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007. Photo: Candace Feit/AP
ambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, prays while administering his alleged herbal HIV cure to a patient at the State House in Banjul, Gambia, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007. Photo: Candace Feit/AP

But perhaps it is unfair to slander a leader who has won four multi-party elections, the most recent being in 2011 where he took 72% of the national vote. After all, on the surface, it appears that he has a strong following in his country. But the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) refused to endorse his 2011 victory, saying that the elections were “adjudged by the commission not to be conducive for the conduct of free, fair and transparent polls”. This refusal has cast doubts on his government’s credibility as a true government of the people, for the people and by the people.

But, at the end of the day, it is the people of The Gambia who should, after 50 years of this Independence, have the final say.


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