By Con Coughlin
When the Prince of Wales represents the Queen at next month’s Commonwealth summit for heads of government in Sri Lanka, he will no doubt be relieved to find that he no longer needs to deal with an African dictator who indulges in witchcraft and puts his foes before a firing squad.
Commonwealth conferences have a long and undistinguished history of providing dictators with a public platform they would otherwise be denied as a consequence of their murderous domestic policies. For example, Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe liked nothing more than to berate the “imperialist” Western powers when he was still allowed to participate in the summits.
There have also been occasions when members of the Royal family have not covered themselves in glory, such as the time the Duke of Edinburgh, when introduced to the Nigerian secretary-general of the Commonwealth, who was dressed in ceremonial robes for a state dinner, remarked: “You look as though you are ready for bed.”
But at least Prince Charles will now be spared the discomfort of having to deal with “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia” after his surprise announcement that he is ending his country’s association with the Commonwealth because of its “neo-colonial” associations.
It is a moot point whether, by announcing Gambia’s immediate withdrawal, Mr Jammeh jumped before he was pushed. These days, thanks to the principles set out in the 1991 Harare Declaration, the Commonwealth does not tolerate repressive dictatorships. Having been initially suspended for breaching the Declaration in 2002, Zimbabwe was forced to withdraw its membership the following year.
And there was every prospect that Gambia, given its recent human rights record and Mr Jammeh’s wanton disregard for the rule of law, would be only the second country to follow suit, had not its long-serving dictator spared the Commonwealth the trouble of going through the expulsion formalities.
Since seizing power as a 29-year-old lieutenant in 1994, Mr Jammeh’s rule has been marked by his increasingly eccentric conduct and a ruthless determination to suppress any hint of political dissent. In a country where the average tenure of the interior minister amounts to no more than a few months, and the infamous “Mile 2 Hotel” prison on the outskirts of Banjul, the capital, is filled with political prisoners crowded into mosquito-filled cells, Mr Jammeh has established himself as one of the region’s most enduring despots.
But thanks to the economic benefits – built mainly on a thriving tourism industry – that the country has experienced as a result of Mr Jammeh’s political dominance, the Commonwealth has tended to turn a blind eye to his wanton disregard for some of the more important principles of the Harare Declaration, such as the rule of law and respect for individual liberties. After all, the African continent can hardly boast too many economic success stories.
It has only been in recent years, as Mr Jammeh’s conduct has taken a more bizarre turn, that the outside world has begun reviewing its relations with one of Africa’s more outlandish characters.
Before coming to power – a feat he achieved through the simple expedient of being the first officer to reach the presidential gates during the 1994 overthrow of his predecessor, Sir Dawda Jawara – Mr Jammeh had a reputation for blending witchcraft with statecraft. After one of his aunts died, apparently the victim of witchcraft, more than 1,000 “sorcerers” were rounded up at gunpoint by the “Green Berets”, the presidential guard unit, and forced to drink hallucinogenic poisons designed to “exorcise” them.
Mr Jammeh’s passion for witchcraft has also led him to claim that he has invented a herbal cure for Aids, forcing hundreds of Gambians to risk their lives by undertaking his programme instead of the standard retro-viral treatments used to deal with HIV.
But it is the brutal treatment meted out to Gambia’s political dissidents that has caused most concern, especially after the president made the surprise decision in August last year to suspend the country’s 27-year moratorium on the death penalty and executed nine prisoners by firing squad, deliberately ignoring pleas from other Commonwealth governments to show mercy.
His decision was particularly harsh given that, in Gambia, political opponents can be jailed without charge simply for questioning Mr Jammeh’s declaration that he intends to rule for a “billion” years. Nor did he endear himself to world leaders at last month’s UN summit when he declared that homosexuals were “very evil” and posed the greatest threat to human existence.
The dictator’s irascible conduct laid the foundations for Gambia’s political isolation, a process that ultimately has led to the country’s decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth.
Certainly, the Commonwealth, which stands to nurture the principles of democracy and the rule of law in countries where they might otherwise wither on the vine, will be strengthened by no longer having to tolerate a regime that openly treats such values with contempt. The tragedy for the Gambian people is that they must now face the vagaries of their deranged dictator on their own.