President Yahya Jammeh
Yahya Jammeh of Gambia

Gambia, the tiniest country on mainland Africa is in the grip of a despotic egomaniac who has held the country by the jugular for 21 years – and now intends to keep power for life! He goes by a large-sized title that mirrors his psychiatric ailment: His Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa.

Having stolen his country blind in two decades of unrestrained looting, Jammeh has hit on an idea that will help him retain power for life. Last week, he declared his country an Islamic Republic at the top of whose pyramid he would sit as both temporal and spiritual master.

How did Gambia become so accursed? It all started in 1994 when 29-year-old Yahya Jammeh teamed up with fellow disgruntled soldiers to overthrow Sir Dawda Jawara who had presided over the country since independence in 1965.

Jammeh had joined the Gambian National Army in 1984 at the age of 19, was commissioned a Lieutenant in 1989, and in 1992 became commander of the Gambian Military Police. Jawara was accused of overstaying his welcome.

Now, things have rolled full cycle and Jammeh is not only overstaying his welcome but is insisting on ruling the country for life. He was elected as President on the platform of his Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction in 1996; re-elected in 2001, 2006, and 2011. Henceforth, he will no longer need an election, or has anyone heard of an Emir subjecting himself to universal adult suffrage?

The illegal declaration of Islamic republic is a masterstroke of sorts. The Gambia is 90 percent Muslim. Religion and ethnicity are the twin demons tearing many African countries apart, and they are the weapons of choice of leaders who have nothing to offer their people. Jammeh hails from a small ethnic group which accounts for only 7 percent of his country’s population.

But when he casts himself as a spiritual leader, it is a different ball game because he can easily invoke passages from the holy book where the faithful are enjoined to obey their leaders.

Jammeh is richer than his country. His personal worth is around $1.8 billion. He has choice properties in the major cities of the West and owns most of the high rise buildings in Banjul, his country’s capital. Gambian economy is dominated by farming, fishing, and tourism. About a third of the population of 1.7 million people live below the international poverty line of US$ 1.25 a day. But their president is a billionaire who owns a $30-million dollar mansion in Morocco; $10-million mansions each in five Eastern European capitals and two Western European countries, in addition to heavy investments in Dubai and other Middle Eastern countries. At home, he has over 100 farms allegedly run on forced labor.

According to one analyst who has written authoritatively on the despot, “Jammeh exhibits complete disregard for accountability of tax payer’s money and public funds. He does whatever he likes with public funds with impunity and regards the Central Bank and funds of public institutions and parastatals as his own money. He claims to get his money from *Allah’s World Bank* and he regards and deals with donor aid and funding as his own personal funds. Jammeh engages in all manner of businesses in the country and it is alleged that his businesses do not pay the required taxes….”

The world has since found out that slain Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was one of those chief cashiers at Jammeh’s *Allah’s World Bank*.

He has so comprehensively cowed the local population that no one dares challenge his reign of terror. It is alleged by Gambians in exile that many of Jammeh’s opponents have either disappeared or met some other gruesome end. The judiciary is in his pocket. Jammeh has usurped the independence of the judiciary. Mercenary Judges mainly from other West African countries and with the support and connivance of unscrupulous Gambian lawyers and Judges have over the years rendered the judiciary toothless.

As if borrowing from Idi Amin’s Book of Joyful Sadness, Jammeh sometimes plays Santa Claus in open displays of cynical philanthropy. His donations in 2012 included $2,563,138 to the National Youths Conference and Festival (NAYCONF) and “two truckloads of turkey” to the Gambia Christian Council for delivery to the Christian community.

A couple of years ago when I visited the Gambia, the first piece of advice offered by an academic was never to say anything negative about Jammeh while in the Gambia. Poverty is so endemic in the Gambia that many young men earn a living as gigolos. Wherever you turned, it stared you in the face. Groups of middle-aged white women from Western Europe regularly visit the Gambia on sex tourism. When I expressed outrage at what I had seen in a hotel swimming pool, a guide told me not to venture near the beach in the evening if I was queasy about people ‘getting down’ in the open beachfront.

I wondered what kind of leader would reduce his country’s young men to male prostitutes for want of anything better to do. Yet that is the same man declaring his country an Islamic republic with himself, to all intents and purposes, as the Emir.

So, what does the future portend? Is the Gambia doomed? A columnist, Mathew K. Jallow, hopes not. He says, “The failure of Gambians to muster the courage to end the political nightmare in our country was exacerbated by the deafening silence from ECOWAS and the African Union. Additionally, the indifference of Senegal, Gambia’s neighboring sister country; a country with which Gambia shares cultural values, tribal distinctions and common geography, has been deafeningly loud in its unforgiving silence.

And I say, when is ECOWAS (and indeed the African Union) going to speak up against bad governance and self-perpetuation of useless egomaniacs in power?

Source: Daily Trust