Forever adorned in flowing white robes, a fez, dark glasses and clutching a Koran and an African walking stick, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh is feared and loathed by his enemies in equal measure.
And indeed those in the strongman’s wrong books have a course to worry now more than never before, especially those languishing in his deplorable jails.
A few weeks ago the self declared “King of Gambia” grabbed the headlines after ordering the execution of nine death row convicts through the firing squad, a first in the country in the last 27 years. The inmates included two Senegalese, which triggered the summoning of the Gambian ambassador to Dakar by President Macky Sall.
Senegal holds a lot of sway in matters Gambia since the latter is literary eclipsed inside the former, save for a small strip of the Atlantic coastline.
“All those guilty of serious crimes and are condemned will face the full force of the law,” Jammeh vowed during a televised address to mark the Islamic holiday of Eid-ul-Fitr in August. “By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would has been carried out to the letter. There is no way my government will allow 99 percent of the population to be held to ransom by criminals”.
But after intense pressure the regional leaders the Gambian leader has retracted the order and suspended the executions. Many believe this is just a ploy to let things cool off before eliminating the remaining 38 prisoners in death row. European Union, the major donor to Gambia at the tune of Eur65.4 million (Sh….), has also threatened to impose sanctions if the executions continue.
“The relationship between Yahya Jammeh and the Gambian people is a marriage that has never worked well, not even for a single day, and the time for it to end came and went with each extraordinary abuse of power that has included the deaths of fellow citizens,” writes Mathew Jallow, a Gambian blogger in the Diaspora. “The execution in Mile Two Prisons of so many innocent Gambians is more than anyone can bear, and if Yahya Jammeh thinks this egregious act of violence will just go away like the massacre of the sixteen students or the execution of forty-four Ghanaians, he is clearly underestimating the resolve of the Gambian people”.
But the Gambian leader, presiding in a country where more than 80 percent of the population is said to live below the poverty line, is no stranger to controversies.
After seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1984 Jammeh’s reign have been dogged by accusations of human rights abuses and silencing critics through unorthodox means like indefinite incarcerations, exile, death, torture, mysterious disappearances besides supporting and arming rebels fighting the Senegalese government in the border region of Casamance.
On a personal level, many observers have said, his antics border those of infamous despots like Iddi Amin Dada and Jean-Bidel Bokassa. From instructing a gathering of traditional elders to ordain him king of Gambia, threatening to behead all gays to purporting that he can cure HIV/Aids using herbal concoctions, His Excellency the President Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh is a man of many personalities, and names.
Apart from ruling the tiny nation as a fiefdom in the last 17 years and earning the title of the “West African Muammar Gaddafi”, the most controversial facet of his dramatic life is his lofty claims that he has divine powers to cure Aids.
“Whatever you do, there are bound to be skeptics, but I can tell you my method is foolproof,” he told an Associated Press journalist in Banjul in 2007. “Mine is not an argument, mine is a proof. It’s a declaration. I can cure AIDS and I will”.
The infamous presidential treatment begins with Jammeh applying some mysterious paste on the patients’ body before forcing them to swallow some herbal concoction. After ordering them to eat two bananas, the maverick leader then holds up the Koran and points it at each of the patient chanting “in the name of Allah, in three to thirty days you will be cured”.
He conducts the ritualistic ceremony occasionally and free of charge, with only a handful of patients being lucky enough to have him lay his gloved hand on their foreheads. To partake in Jammeh’s bizarre treatment programme patients are required to stop taking their antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and stay in seclusion for 30 days.
Advising patients to stop taking their medication has put him loggerheads with HIV/Aids experts, most of whom has classified him alongside former South African leader Thabo Mbeki as among African leaders whose policies are hampering the fight against the killer disease.
To prove the veracity of his cure the Gambian president has gone to the extent of sending blood samples of purportedly healed patients to laboratories in Senegal, but doctors have said the samples do not support the claims of healing.
After claiming the position of number one faith healer in Gambia, Jammeh coerced a bunch of mostly illiterate traditional leaders to declare him king last year. They went around the country campaigning for his coronation arguing that it was the best way the nation can reward its “great leader”.
“The president has brought development to the country, and for that he deserves to be crowned King of The Gambia,” Junkung Camara, a chief from the western region of Foni Brefet, was quoted by the Gambian media saying. “This is the only way the Gambian people can express our gratitude to a leader who has done a lot for his country”.
But even though he is yet to be officially declared a monarch Jammeh, who claims to have gotten a vision from Allah to rule Gambia for the next three decades, is a king in all essence but the word. He is currently serving a third term after coming to power in a coup and winning four disputed elections consecutively.
“He goes around in a convoy of armoured cars and whenever he comes across a crowd he throws packets of biscuits as gifts,” a Kenyan based in the Gambian capital Banjul who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons told DN2. “The education levels are pathetic and most teachers are from Ghana and Sierra Leone and there are only two recognized institutions of higher learning”.
Many locals believe the biscuits are laced with juju to ensure the masses remain loyal to him and his regime. The source says the security agents openly campaign for Jammeh going as far as plastering their official vehicles with his campaign posters and donning t-shirts many months after the elections are over.
“But he has managed to create an atmosphere of political tolerance where the majority Muslims lives in harmony with minority religions like Christianity,” the Kenyan explains. “He has managed to suppress religious fanatics who would like to sow seeds of animosity and religious hostilities”.
Unlike in other countries where voters cast ballot papers, Gambians usually drop marbles in bins marked with contestants’ name. The marble strikes a bell inside the bin as a precaution against multiple voting. The bin with the most marbles determines the winner. In last year’s general elections Jammeh was declared the winner in an election termed as a sham by both regional and international observers.
The totalitarian leader has the affairs of this tiny West African clenched in his iron fist. Besides being defense and agriculture minister Jammeh also heads the Cabinet Office, Parliament, Public Service Commission and National Intelligence Agency among others.
Under his government, several prominent journalists have been shot dead and others jailed indefinitely for criticizing his rule. Deyda Hydara, the editor and co-founder of independent newspaper The Point and one-time Gambia correspondent for AFP, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen while driving in the outskirts of the capital Banjul in 2004.
Stressing that “I will also not sacrifice Gambia’s peace and security at the altar of freedom of expression,” Jammeh has strongly denied his government’s involvement in these assassinations and others in the past.
“Being a journalist here is a dangerous affair,” our source in Banjul explains. “If you are not jailed you will definitely get yourself shot dead if you are not working for the state owned media”.
And Jammeh does not hide his venom against anybody who tries to interrupt his absolute rule either from within or without, especially those from the civil society.
“If you think that you can collaborate with the so-called human rights defenders, and get away with it, you must be living in a dream world,” he told the nation during a televised address in 2009. “I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it. If you are affiliated with any human rights group, be assured that your security and personal safety would not be guaranteed by my government”.
Ironically, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, whose members are elected and report to the AU Assembly, is headquartered in Gambia’s capital Banjul. The commission is tasked with the duty of interpreting the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and dealing with complaints about the Charter’s violations.
There has been a consistent campaign by lobby groups to have the commission relocated from the West African country.
But despite his apparent dubious record on human rights and ruthless treatment of opponents and media Yahya Jammeh boasts of several honorary degrees from recognized universities in the west besides having his former Attorney General and Justice Minister Fatou Bensouda appointed Chief Persecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Asked during a television interview why she accepted to serve in the despotic regime back in 1998 Bensouda was categorically defensive, stating that whether her homeland was democratic or not was subject to discussion.
“I can always contribute to my country’s development in whatever capacity,” the 41 year-old Prosecutor said. “I have to say that my work as justice minister has never been in doubt. I was able to contribute to the cases that were going on then and looking back I don’t regret what I did.”
With the Gambian Diaspora calling for Yahya Jammeh to be tried at The Hague-based court for crimes against humanity it would be interesting to see how the prosecutor handles his former boss and political benefactor in such an eventuality.
The West African strongman gave The Gambian citizenry a dose of free presidential soap opera two years ago when he married then 21 year-old model Alimah Sallah against the will of his trophy wife Zeinab Suma Jammeh. The First Lady and mother of two is said to have fled to the United States with her children.
Independent newspapers and bloggers claim that the strongman, who gropes to the First Lady’s whims, had to divorce Sallah and entice the Guinean-born Zeinab with gifts and promises of exotic holidays. The First Lady is known for his shopping trips in exotic destinations in Europe, Asia and America where she is said to spend millions of dollars on clothes, jewelry and shoes.
“All her shopping transactions are done in cash. There is no paper trail (Credit Card, Checks or Master Cards) to account for the source of the funds,” Freedom Newspaper, an online Gambian publication, claims. “She also does not have any business to do with the Gambian Embassies in the places she visits”.
With his son Muhammed Yahya Jammeh being only five years old, the leader’s claim that he had a vision to rule The Gambia for 30 years is a ploy to buy time in order to bestow power on young Mohammed when he comes of age.
The Gambia has been mentioned as one of the key transit routes for drug traffickers from Latin America to Europe. In 2005, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released a report mentioned the country among those preferred by traffickers in West Africa. During the same year, 15 people were arrested, among them senior government and military officials, and more than two tones of cocaine with a street value of more than a billion dollars (Sh82 billion) seized.