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Goodbye to all that: The Gambia’s ultra-paranoid dictator, Yahya Jammeh, rejects the Commonwealth

One of Africa’s most vibrant dictators has cut a symbolic link with his nation’s colonial past and, some say, with normality

The Gambia’s ultra-paranoid dictator Yahya Jammeh and international donors have been at loggerheads over human rights abuses in his tiny West African country since he suddenly ordered the execution of nine death row prisoners in August last year.

So when Jammeh announced on Wednesday night that he was pulling The Gambia out of the Commonwealth, only one month before the biennial summit of the 54-nation body in Sri Lanka, nobody should have been completely surprised. A statement read out on state television informed Gambians that Jammeh had decided that The Gambia would leave “the British Commonwealth” because it “will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism”.

However, Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, did not receive prior notice of the decision by The Gambia to become the first nation since Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in 2003 to voluntarily withdraw from the grouping. Mr Sharma reacted with “dismay and disappointment” to the “media reports” about the withdrawal, and was seeking clarification, a spokesman said in a statement. The Foreign Office expressed regret.

But in the region, “people were shocked, but not surprised. This is part of a pattern we’ve seen,” said Lisa Sherman-Niklaus of Amnesty International who covers the former British colony from neighbouring Senegal which surrounds Gambian territory. The Senegalese authorities were particularly incensed because two of those executed were Senegalese. Jammeh was in violation of Geneva conventions by failing to provide advance notice of the executions to the government in Dakar.

But this is how the mercurial Jammeh operates. In January, sensing that the European Union – previously The Gambia’s biggest donor until it cancelled 22 million euros in budget support in 2010 – was about to suspend its regular political dialogue with Banjul over the executions, Jammeh moved preemptively.

He was the one to unilaterally suspend the dialogue, just before the EU meeting, accusing the EU of trying to destabilise him by pressing for press freedoms and the banning of the death penalty. Since that time he has courted Taiwan for funding.

According to reports circulating among diplomats in the Gambian capital Banjul, Jammeh ordered the executions by firing squad because he had been warned by a marabout, or witch doctor, that a coup against him was in the offing, and that he should carry out human sacrifices.

Despite the continued tensions with Jammeh and his government, all the signs were that the Commonwealth, and the EU which has recently renewed its dialogue with Banjul after months of internal debate, hoped to obtain reform by working with the government.

Senegal, too, needs to keep Jammeh onside because of a Muslim insurgency in its restive Casamance region whose rebels have a haven near the Gambian leader’s village, according to diplomats. But there were reports that Commonwealth pressure since last year to create commissions on human rights, media rights and corruption had been the last straw for 48 year-old Jammeh.

Only last month, the Gambian leader was scathing about the international demands for reform, in his speech to the UN General Assembly. “Today, after fighting for our freedom and developing our continent we are being prescribed a new religion – democracy, human rights and good governance,” he said. According to Ms Sherman-Niklaus of Amnesty, reached by telephone, Jammeh may have acted “because his back was against the wall. He wanted to snub the international community”.

In his 20-minute speech to the UN General Assembly, Jammeh also reiterated his total rejection of homosexuality which he described as “very evil”. He notably said: “Those who promote homosexuality want to put an end to human existence. It is becoming an epidemic and we Muslims and Africans will fight to end this behaviour in our countries. We will never accept this.”

He also denounced governments – in a veiled reference to Britain – for promoting homosexuality as a human right. Jammeh believes that Aids can be cured with a herbal body rub and bananas. Over the years, as he has become a more hardline Islamist and has justified torture by stating that it is authorised by the Koran.

Ms Sherman-Niklaus said despite the widespread condemnation of last year’s executions, and a visit by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jammeh continued a crackdown on the political opposition and journalists. He has shut down newspapers and harassed journalists. Last March, the vice president of the journalists’ union, Baboucar Ceesay, was arrested by intelligence officers in Banjul, having previously served a jail term related to protests over the executions of eight men and one woman.

His population of less than two million is cowed. Gambians are fearful and intimidated. The government even sends its spies abroad to eavesdrop on dissidents. Even Jammeh’s aides are terrified, diplomats say. Between last November and March there were 11 ministerial reshuffles.

Earlier this year, the Foreign Office accused Jammeh, who likes to be called His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Jammeh, of consistently disregarding international human rights obligations.

According to some reports, he is so paranoid that he was even said to be behind the setting up of at least one opposition group in Britain as a cover to smoke out dissidents. Jammeh has accused Britain of funding the opposition to his 19-year rule ahead of 2011 elections in The Gambia.

He seized power from Sir Dawda Jawara as a young lieutenant in 1994, then was elected two years later and re-elected in 2001, 2006 and 2011.

Despite the climate of fear in The Gambia, Ms Sherman-Niklaus says that the people want human rights groups to continue to speak out.

“Gambians want us to stay to report on human rights abuses because they say we are their voice,” she said.