The decision on Tuesday, December 23rd by the White House to strip The Gambia of its designation as a beneficiary of preferential status under the U.S.’ African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a clear indication that the international community has had enough of Yahya Jammeh’s tyrannical rule. It’s about time that effective and concerted measures are devised to help end dictatorship in The Gambia.
Yahya Jammeh’s ongoing onslaught against individuals presumed to be gay in The Gambia should be viewed within the context of a dying regime that is facing unprecedented and daunting challenges. His international support base is crumbling. A delay in the disbursement of aid from the European Union (EU) due to human rights concerns, the loss of Taiwan as a principal financial backer and trading partner, as well as a worsening economic situation, characterized by a rapid decline in the value of the local currency, have combined to put Jammeh and his heavy-handed regime on the defensive.
With the threat of western sanctions and the ever-increasing assertiveness of Gambian dissidents and civil society groups in the Diaspora, Jammeh is banking his political longevity on shifting the debate to convenient topics that are familiar to long-ruling despots across Africa. In fact, Jammeh’s rhetorical venom is an expedient means with which to divert attention from truly pressing problems in the country, including the imminent threat of food shortages and potential famine.
Two recent examples highlight this strategy: first, the EU acted in the face of mounting human rights abuses in 2012 by outlining 17 reforms that The Gambia should undertake, further backing up their stance this year by delaying a 150 million euro aid package. Not once did the EU mention the issue of LGBT rights specifically. Nevertheless, the Gambian government brazenly twisted the facts, claiming on state television and in print media, both of which are tightly controlled by the Jammeh regime, that the EU was somehow forcing homosexuality onto the devoutly Muslim and religiously conservative country. But don’t be fooled: despite cloaking itself in Islamic garb, the Jammeh regime has repeatedly targeted Imams who refuse to toe his government’s hardline stances.
Second, the White House recently issued a statement that expressed “dismay” about the dire human rights situation facing Gambian citizens, particularly regime critics. The U.S. echoed similar concerns at the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this year. In both instances, the issue of LGBT rights was mentioned only peripherally and noted as one example among many human rights abuses that prevail in the country. The Gambian government reacted swiftly, claiming that the U.S. was attempting to “impose its values” and staged an absurd media spectacle wherein a television reporter asked citizens their thoughts on “homosexuality.”
Since wresting power in a so-called “bloodless coup” in 2004, which toppled a democratically elected president, Jammeh and his cronies have abused human rights with total impunity. Prior to this period, The Gambia was widely seen as one of Africa’s rising democratic stars, so much so that the African Union built the headquarters of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in its capital, Banjul, and named the continent’s sweeping human rights declaration in honor of the same city.
Jammeh has abused human rights with impunity both at home and abroad, including in the United States. In August of this year, for example, his security team viciously assaulted peaceful protesters who were demonstrating outside his hotel in Washington, DC during the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit. The very next day, President Jammeh stood side-by-side with a smiling President Obama at the White House – pictures that would later be used for domestic propaganda purposes – sending a clear signal to Gambians that he is immune to any and all potential consequences.
In another instance, this author was in fact detained by the paramilitary unit of the Gambia Police Force in 2011 and ultimately sentenced to life in prison, after a sham trial, for distributing t-shirts with the slogan “End Dictatorship Now.” There is also an international warrant for my arrest, issued by the Gambian government, simply for conducting peaceful demonstrations that demand an end to human rights abuses.
Jammeh is a threat to regional stability in West Africa, a fact often overlooked by outside observers. Indeed, there is credible evidence that he has been directly aiding and providing refuge to Casamance rebels, causing insecurity in the south of Senegal as well as in Guinea-Bissau.
Notwithstanding Jammeh’s excesses and the dire state in which The Gambia currently resides, it can surely get back on a positive track. However, Gambians and the international community must act decisively. President Jammeh is far too comfortable. He and his purveyors of terror have never faced accountability for their innumerable and heinous crimes, nor have they felt the full brunt of global condemnation. It is time to break the collective silence and to take concrete actions.
In view of Yahya Jammeh’s total disregard for basic human rights, The Gambia’s neighbors and development partners should impose visa or travel bans on Jammeh and his family members and business associates as well as all those individuals implicated in human rights violations in the country. In addition, these individuals should have their assets frozen by the United States and members of the European Union. Finally, serious efforts must be undertaken by civil society organizations with assistance from relevant international organizations for the investigation and possible prosecution of Yahya Jammeh by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Twenty years of tyranny is enough. The time to act is now. Waato seeta!