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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner