“The Gambia’s problem, in a nutshell, is that we have a ruthless dictator sitting tight at the helm of our polity. He has demonstrated his unwillingness to climb down calmly, instead exhibiting behavior that would require all of us to muster the courage to send him crashing down from the peak.”
Statement Prepared for Raleigh Conference on The Gambia,
May 17-19, 2013
by Dr. Amadou Scattred Janneh,
Coaliton for Change – The Gambia (CCG)
The deplorable character of The Gambia Government’s human rights record is widely known. And I doubt we will make any new revelations here. However, before prescribing any changes to the current political dispensation, one must at least highlight its shortcomings.
The Gambia’s problem, in a nutshell, is that we have a ruthless dictator sitting tight at the helm of our polity. He has demonstrated his unwillingness to climb down calmly, instead exhibiting behavior that would require all of us to muster the courage to send him crashing down from the peak.
Our task ought to be centered on how we can marshall significant momentum to bring Yahya Jammeh down. But equally important is setting the stage for a controlled demolition of the dictatorship so as to prevent a catastrophic collapse.
ANATOMY OF THE DICTATORSHIP
Even though the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights is headquartered in Banjul, the Gambian regime’s behavior towards that institution and its resolutions could best be described as contemptuous. In The Gambia, we clearly have an authoritarian ruler who makes a mockery of both our national laws and international obligations.
President Jammeh treats Gambians with disdain and the nation’s coffers and resources as his own. Despite constitutional prohibitions, Jammeh is actively involved in virtually every sphere of economic activity in the country — from selling diapers, used clothing, bread, and beef to vegetable gardening. In the process, he has used not-so-subtle bullying tactics to stifle competition in the economic arena. From targeted tax audits to outright theft of private property, the President blatantly uses state power for the advancement of his narrow, private economic interests.
The judiciary has become largely an arm of Yahya Jammeh, doing his bidding in dealing with enemies, both real and imaginary. The outrageous, ill-advised, and overtly unfair decisions taken by the highest courts of the land confirm the widely held contention that the institution is run by foreign mercenaries paid with public resources, but loyal only to their master and their pockets.
The legislature on the other hand is a big joke. The chamber is packed with a bunch of puppets whose task is primarily to carryout Yahya Jammeh’s dictates; flying even before he says jump. Jammeh manipulated the constitution to ensure that he becomes Puppet-in-Chief. After cheating in elections and gaining almost total control of the National Assembly, he got his cronies to amend the constitution to his tune. For instance, any member who is expelled by his party automatically loses his seat in the legislature. As Jammeh is the only one empowered to expel members from his APRC party, he uses the threat of expulsion to ensure total conformity.
Even religion is not immune to Yahya Jammeh’s transgressions. There is a reason why the President wants to be called Sheikh, Alhaji, and Nasiru Deen. In his mind, he is the foremost Islamic scholar in the country. The imams are expected to subscribe to his interpretations and to legitimize his government’s policies and actions. Not only that, they are expected to act as sycophants working tirelessly in support of his partisan agenda. To ensure this, he uses a mix of carrots and sticks. Vehicles, rice, sugar, oil, and cash to the conformist religious leaders; and arrest, detention, torture, and even exile for those who defy him or fail to act according to his dictates.
In the area of the media, the same overall pattern of domination and intimidation prevails. It’s Yahya Jammeh’s way or the highway. The national broadcaster is treated essentially as Jammeh’s private property, airing his every sneeze. No one dares broadcast anything that’s remotely critical of the regime. The president is involved in the station’s personnel decisions at all levels. He calls to cancel or reschedule programs. He had been known to call the studios to order that a program be repeated because he enjoyed it or missed part of it. This is done without regard for the station’s schedule or program commitments. To ensure that his personal dominance of the media remains, Yahya Jammeh has over the years consistently opposed any recommendations for allowing private intervention in television broadcasting.
Radio stations have been reduced to just provide music and sports programming. Those that tried to take a different path — such as Citizen FM and Teranga FM — were arbitrarily shutdown. Newspapers have not fared any better. The killings, arrests, disappearances, etc. of journalists and media practitioners makes The Gambia Government stand out as one of the worst abusers of free expression in the world. In addition, the President through the notorious National Intelligence Agency (NIA) closed down papers such as The Daily News and The Standard without following due course or policy guidelines.
Citizens access to information is also severely restricted by the regime’s practice of blocking websites that are critical of Yahya Jammeh or exercise editorial independence (example: FreedomNewspaper.com,
Yahya Jammeh’s reach extends to hiring and firing at all levels of both the national government and regional and local administrations as well. From ministers and governors, to village heads and district chiefs, Yahya Jammeh is the only determinant of who gets hired or fired.
In the education realm, the concept of academic freedom is alien under the present regime. Jammeh holds the title and position chancellor enabling him to micromanage the University of The Gambia as a way to maintain his grip on the institution and to mould the students who enroll at the school.
ALTERNATIVE TO DICTATORSHIP
Cataloguing the authoritarian tendency or dictatorial nature of the Gambian regime is the easy part. I believe it is rotten and cannot be reformed. It must be uprooted in its entirety and replaced with a political dispensation that is more apt to reflect the will of the people and to have a government that is truly responsive and responsible.
The new political dispensation must ensure that we have:
(1) Free and fair elections (redistricting, establishing a truly independent electoral commission, prohibiting the use of public resources for partisan political activities, ensuring the neutrality of the armed and security services in the political sphere, etc.);
(2) Term limit (two-term limit for the President);
(3) Equal access to public media by the political parties;
(4) Freedom of expression (free speech and freedom of the press);
(5) Freedom of association;
(6) Rule of law (end arbitrary arrests, detention, extrajudicial killings, torture, and so on; investigate all cases of mysterious deaths and disappearances);
(7) Free all political prisoners;
(8) Freedom of Religion; and,
(9) System of checks and balances (independent judiciary, review judicial appointments and tenure, legislature with real powers, executive with limited powers, etc.).
THE WAY FORWARD
How can we end dictatorship in The Gambia and guarantee that future generations will never again be burdened with the type of political environment we now have in the country?
First and foremost, opposition parties and civil society groups must come together with a unified agenda to bring about meaningful democratic change in The Gambia and to selflessly pursue that common objective. Gambians in the diaspora must play an active role in the process beyond merely criticizing political leaders on the ground. We must all extend support to the common agenda and be willing to play all the necessary parts.
Secondly, I believe we should take ALL nonviolent means to attain the desired change in The Gambia. We have to start seriously considering all the peaceful avenues at our disposal; and I am sure these could be effective in ending Jammeh’s dictatorship.
In the meantime, and as we strive to set up a solid front to tackle the dictator, our various organizations should work diligently to secure the following:
(1) means of ensuring that the Gambian public has access to information;
(2) travel bans against Yahya Jammeh, cabinet ministers, National Assembly members, mercenary judges, and their close associates and family members;
(3) freezing assets belonging to Yahya Jammeh and his innercircle and family members; and,
(4) diplomatic isolation of the regime.
It is my contention that a well-coordinated and sustained campaign along these lines, particularly within the framework of a united front, would definitely spell the end of our national nightmare.