Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, a dictator and ‘proud’ of it

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled with an iron first for the past 22 years, has tried to remain in power by contesting the results of the nation’s presidential poll before the Supreme Court, after initially conceding defeat in December.

AFP | Longtime Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh smiles as he concedes defeat in the country's presidential election on December 2, 2016

For many in Gambia, the moment when President Yahya Jammeh called opposition candidate Adama Barrow on December 2 to concede defeat in the country’s presidential election was a historic one.

“The Gambian people have spoken, and I have no reason to contest the will of the almighty Allah,” said Jammeh, a self-avowed “proud” dictator. “The country will be in your hands in January [2017] and you are assured of my guidance on your transition and in selecting your new government.”

Yet less than a week later, the outgoing president did an about-face. Jammeh appeared on national television to reject the election, which he described as plagued by “serious and unacceptable abnormalities”.

He also condemned the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), prompting the body’s president to flee to neighbouring Senegal out of fear for his safety. Jammeh later formally challenged the outcome before the country’s Supreme Court, which is due to hold a hearing on the motion on January 16.

‘Ban Ki-moon and Amnesty can go to hell’

Jammeh, 51, is notorious for his bizarre and, at times, belligerent behaviour. In May 2016, he told French magazine 'Jeune Afrique' that then UN Secretary General “Ban Ki-moon and [the human rights group] Amnesty can go to hell” after they called for an investigation into the death of Gambian opposition leader Solo Sadeng while in prison. “Who are they to ask that?” he demanded.

The Gambian president is also believed to have deployed countless members of the National Intelligence Agency to spy on, and if necessary, arrest his political opponents. The country’s capital Banjul is thought to be one of the most closely watched in Africa.

Disappearances, unlawful imprisonment, mysterious deaths… Jammeh has been accused of using any and all means at his disposal to repress political dissent in Gambia. His ruthless tactics have earned him a reputation as a dictator – a reputation he has embraced. “I’m proud of it,” he told the magazine Jeune Afrique in May.

Jammeh also claims to have miraculous healing powers. In 2007, he boasted to having cured HIV/AIDS using medicinal herbs and magical incantations. He has also alleged to have successfully treated asthma, epilepsy and infertility, often demonstrating his special abilities – which he says he inherited from his father – on television.

Politically isolated

Jammeh was born on May 25, 1965 in Kanilai, a small, touristy village in western Gambia. He is a member of the Jola ethnic group, which is found in Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

His professional career began at the young age of 19, when he joined the military police. Ten years later, Jammeh – a mere army lieutenant – led a mutiny that ended in the downfall of the country’s then president, Daouda Diawara. Although several soldiers tried to challenge Jammeh’s claim to power, the 29-year-old responded with brutal force. Overall, approximately 40 people were killed in the violence.

After seizing power in 1994, Jammeh was elected president in 1996, before being re-elected in 2001, 2006 and again in 2011. A devout Muslim, he replaced Gambia’s official language English with Arabic in 2014.The next year, he proclaimed Gambia an “Islamic Republic”.

While a number of countries worldwide have taken steps in recent years to scrap anti-LGBT legislation, Jammeh has taken the opposite tack, signing a law in 2014 making some “homosexual acts” punishable by life imprisonment. “Homosexuality is not human,” he said at the time.

Yet Jammeh’s increasingly conservative policies have isolated him on the international stage. To make matters worse, he decided in October 2016 to withdraw Gambia for the International Criminal Court (ICC), where his former advisor Fatou Bensouda works as a prosecutor.

“Gambia is at maximum isolation. Some dictators force themselves to play the game on the international level. Not him,” Mehdi Ba, Jeune Afrique’s correspondent in Senegal, told FRANCE 24.

With less than two weeks before Jammeh’s mandate ends on January 19, he has shown no signs of relinquishing power. On January 1, intelligence agents stormed private radio stations Teranga FM, Hilltop Radio and Afri Radio, forcing them to shut down. There have also been numerous arrests, including six opposition sympathisers who were detained for wearing or selling T-shirts with the logo #Gambiahasdecided, according to Human Rights Watch.

“The risk of the repression of all independent and dissident voices will certainly grow as calls for Jammeh to leave power intensify ahead of the end of his mandate on January 19,” Sabrina Mahtani, an Amnesty International researcher who specialises on West Africa, told FRANCE 24.

In the meantime, the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) is working to find a solution in order to ensure a peaceful transition of power. The regional bloc’s president, Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ruled out on Saturday the possibility of deploying soldiers to Gambia, after initially raising the possibility back in December.

"We are committed to a peaceful mediation and a peaceful transfer of power in The Gambia. We will continue to pursue that for now," she said.

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