The dictator who turned his wrath on death row

The Gambia's ruler has vowed to kill all the condemned by next week - but you won't hear the West protesting. Phil Strongman on a forgotten despot

In the next two weeks, all of the Gambia's death row prisoners could be dead. When the country's President, Yahya Jammeh, announced last month that all 47 detainees would be put to death by mid-September – the nation's first executions since 1985 – the international community responded with outrage. But to many, this is just the most recent sign that all is not well in the Gambia.

The detainees include former officials and military officers held for treason. Some are not Gambian, and others have been found guilty of crimes that would not usually warrant execution, prompting some West African observers to speculate that Jammeh might be bluffing.

But Jammeh rarely bluffs, as several correspondents – including myself – noticed during the 2007 Abolition of Slavery Celebrations.

When locals gathered 'without permission' at Fort Bullen, an anti-slavery post built by the British, Jammeh ordered his troops to disperse them. Many people were severely beaten by the soldiers. Others were shot, according to locals, and their bodies tossed into the River Gambia. There was no inquiry.

Jammeh is Africa's forgotten dictator, the army lieutenant who illegally seized power in 1994 and has never considered giving it back. Critics say his iron-fisted regime's mismanagement of the economy has wasted millions, much of it thrown away on a search for oil that has so far proved fruitless.

One third of the Gambia's 1.8 million population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. As a result, the country has increasingly depended on foreign aid, while vanity projects - which include spending a reported £100,000 on a PA sound system for the country's national stadium – continue. The Gambia has held three elections in the last 18 years. In 2006, a TV journalist was reportedly arrested for publishing the views of the opposition, and there were several reports of 'disappearances'. It was during this election that Jammeh said: "I will develop the areas that vote for me, but if you don't vote for me, don't expect anything." In a country where many villages do not have clean running water, electricity, or easy access to health care – and where a good monthly wage is less than £15 – this statement could have been a matter of life and death to some.

Needless to say, Jammeh won that election, and won again in November 2011. The latter was held under conditions that ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, said were not conducive for the conduct of "free, fair and transparent polls".

Even amongst Jammeh's supporters, there is growing fear. The purge of a fairly loyal army before the 2006 election smacked of Stalinist excess and, months after the election, it was still almost impossible to find any city-dweller who would dare say a public word against the man who now insists on being called by his full official title, His Excellency President Professor Doctor Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh. It is only in the Gambia's rural areas that few would utter criticism. One young farm-hand looked at a photo – of a smartly-dressed woman bearing the slogan "In Jammeh We Trust" – before saying, with quiet anger, "this government's done nothing for us… nothing!"

Jammeh's near-messianic claim in 2007, that he could cure AIDS with the mere touch of his hand, was taken seriously by some in Banjul, the capital. Hundreds would queue outside the presidential palace daily, awaiting their chance to be 'cured'. A few still do now.

Jammeh would no doubt claim a lot more about his personal powers, especially after his 'anti-witchcraft campaign' of 2009, were he not a little constrained by his Islamic faith (his death row announcement was said to be in celebration the Muslim festival of Eid). It is a faith shared by the majority of Gambians but Jammeh's interpretation of Islam has become a cause for concern among many – not least because he has called for the beheading of all homosexuals.

Meanwhile, Christians in the Gambia have reported harassment. British missionary David Fulton was sentenced to three years' hard labour in 2008 after reportedly criticising Jammeh in emails. Mr Fulton served over 20 months for 'sedition' in the notorious Mile Two jail before he was finally released. His wife was also jailed for over a year before being freed.

A few months after Mr Fulton's release, Femi Peters, Campaign Manager for the Gambia's opposition United Democratic Party, walked free after serving 12 months. His crime was helping to organize a single, peaceful, demonstration. These imprisonments brought little comment from an African Union that often turns a blind eye to presidential excess.

However, Jammeh's pronouncement over the fate of the death row inmates prompted AU officials to stumble into action, issuing a plea that the executions be stopped. Within days, Jammeh gave his answer; on 23 August, the killings began.

Three days later, nine prisoners had been shot by firing squad. None of those killed were allowed to say goodbye to their families.

At least two of those killed by firing squad were Senegalese nationals and included Alieu Bah, a man accused of being involved in a plot against President Jammeh.

The EU and AU have now both called for the remaining 38 death row inmates to be spared, but some commentators are wondering why the West has not exerted more pressure on Jammeh before. After all, his abuses have not all been hidden.

Alhaji Sowe, Alieu Bah's brother, had not been allowed to visit his sibling for almost seven years. Speaking from Canada, Mr Sowe talked about his brother's death. "I was shocked, he said. "But I was not surprised because of the history of Yahya [Jammeh]. That man is capable of anything."

The Gambia in a nutshell

One of Africa's smallest countries, The Gambia has been ruled by President Yahya Jammeh since he and his supporters seized power in a bloodless coup in 1994.

With a population of around 1.8 million, the country has been relatively stable under his regime's iron-fisted rule, but poverty remains high. According to 2010 World Bank figures, the nation's gross national income per capita was $450.

Much of the soil is unsuitable for farming, and only about a sixth of the land is arable. Farming relies heavily on peanuts, which are grown mainly for export, and farmers are therefore vulnerable to price variations on international markets.