Yahya Jammeh and Africa’s “Strongman Syndrome”

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By Sankara Kamara

Gambia has become the latest African country to be menaced by a well-known syndrome in African politics. I call it the “Strongman Syndrome” because of its tendency to transform some African leaders into titans, who will subsequently undermine the rule of law in a display of misguided masculinity. Although the wave of democratization continues to shake the tripods of tyranny in Africa, the Strongman syndrome remains active, prompting some African leaders to use political power as an instrument of oppression. Boundless greed and lawlessness in power are the most conspicuous features of Africa’s Strongman syndrome.

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A soldier who initially seized the presidency through a coup, Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh was a prototypical strongman in power. He robbed and terrorized Gambians, while disguising his criminality with a tinge of Pan-African and anti-imperialist rhetoric. Yahya Jammeh’s brutality and the enthusiasm, with which he enriched himself, proved the man is neither a Pan-Africanist, nor a populist. Like Mobutu Sese Seko and other African Strongmen before him, Yahya Jammeh was a looter in power, who imprisoned, tortured and killed Gambians to protect his criminal enterprise. The Strongman syndrome is so pervasive in Jammeh’s mentality that even as the West African intervention force urged him to resign or face military action, the dictator’s reaction was unrepentantly selfish. Before leaving Gambia at ECOWAS’ behest, Jammeh found time to collect and dispatch the ultra-luxury items he hoarded over the years, which included a planeload of Rolls Royces and other outrageously expensive possessions. That was an African Strongman in action, displaying criminally-acquired wealth in a country where poverty abounds. The fate of the country he almost set ablaze through a power struggle, mattered less. Protecting his loot became more important than perspicacity in the face of a national emergency.


Analytically, Gambia’s political history goes beyond Yahya Jammeh’s murderous gangsterism. Before Jammeh, there was Dawda Kairaba Jawara, a civilian administrator who became Gambia’s main political actor when the country was unyoked from British colonial oppression, in 1965. Serving as executive president from 1970 to 1994, Dawda Jawara represented both democracy and institutional decadence, a paradox which became more observable in the latter days of his presidency. Operating in an era that was mostly marked by autocrats like Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone and military oppressors like Eyadema of Togo, President Dawda Jawara impressively stood out as a democrat. He led a multiparty democracy, encouraged freedom of speech and promoted human rights, both in theory and in practice. Throughout his tenure, Dawda Jawara never missed an opportunity to promote human rights as the cornerstone of his presidency. One of the most gruelling tests of Gambian democracy took place in July 1981, when a hot-headed Gambian, Kamarainba Kukoi Samba Sanyang, mounted a bloody coup that almost overthrew the government in Banjul. Mostly staged by civilians with Marxist-Leninist persuasions, the 1981 plot was so fiercely executed by its authors that Senegalese troops had to be invited to reverse the putsch. After crushing the coup, Dawda Jawara flirted with the probability of a Senegambian Confederation, a concept wholly unpopular with a considerable number of Gambians, who feared domination by a bigger and militarily mightier, neighbour. With a nationalistic population behind him, Dawada Jawara entered the Senegambian Confederation with an apparent design to outwit the Senegalese. Jawara did succeed in outfoxing the Senegalese. Established in 1982, the Senegambian Confederation brought Dawda Jawara some personal benefits, including military protection and the establishment and training of the nucleus of a Gambian army, mostly by the Senegalese. Before the 1981 coup, Gambia did not have a standing army in the conventional sense of the word. Seven years after its establishment in 1982, the Senegambian Confederation suddenly went into a political coma in 1989, followed by the withdrawal of the Senegalese army from Banjul, an act which ultimately terminated the confederation.

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The 1981 coup fiercely tested Gambian democracy. Led by Dawda Jawara, Gambia passed the test. The Cold War politics of that era regrettably reduced human rights to a secondary issue in international relations, enabling dictators all over the world to conduct witch-hunts and eliminate their opponents, usually through summary justice. Shaken by the 1981 coup but wedded to the virtues of democracy, Dawda Jawara acted honourably. He instructed the nation’s judicial system to establish a hybrid court of Gambian and foreign legalists, so that the accused coup-plotters can enjoy impartiality and the presumption of innocence. While many African countries wilted under despotic regimes in the 1970s and 1980s, Dawda Jawara’s Gambia enjoyed a relatively free press, democratic constitution and multiple opposition parties which operated without state-inspired intimidation.


Dawda Jawara’s peccadillo, which ultimately grew into a public relations problem, was that he stayed so long in power that his People’s Progressive Party {PPP}, became vulnerable to accusations of clientelism. After more than 20 years in power, Dawda Jawara, according to some critics, appeared to be supervising institutional decadence. In a democratic system where a particular candidate wins elections all the time, conspiratorial theories could be spawned by critics to cast doubts on the integrity of the electoral process. Analytically, Yahya Jammeh emerged out of that national morass as a political accident, which overthrew Dawda Jawara in a military coup on July 22, 1994. Crude and mercurial, Yahya Jammeh became the ghastliest political accident in postcolonial, Gambian history.

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Those who defend Yahya Jammeh’s regime by pointing to his “development projects” in Gambia, are not being analytically thorough. Sworn to serve and protect his people, a president can successfully execute development projects without enslaving citizens. The obligation to “Serve and Protect” means, among many implications, that it is the responsibility of a president to use the instruments of national power and provide services like drinkable water, good roads, schools and hospitals. Along with the maintenance of law and order, the provision of these services constitutes a major function of government. The construction of schools and roads should NEVER be used to justify the commission of mass murder by the state.


The heinousness of Yahya Jammeh’s crimes has psychologically shaken Gambians, a people previously unused to state-unleashed terrorism. Almost all the crimes committed during Jammeh’s dictatorship were bestial in nature. In 1995, for example, the regime’s Minister of Finance, Ousman Koro Ceesay, was murdered and burnt. Sadibou Hydara, one of the architects of the July 22 takeover, was accused of disloyalty, arrested and tortured to death, on Yahya Jammeh’s orders. Gambian journalist, Deyda Hydara, was gunned down for merely writing pro-democracy messages in his newspaper. In 2005, Yahya Jammeh ordered the executions of 44 Ghanaian immigrants without trial, a massacre that was prompted by the dictator’s deep-seated paranoia. As horrendous as they are, these crimes are barely the tip of Yahya Jammeh’s blood-produced iceberg. Gambia under Jammeh was “The Republic of Fear,” anchored by a sadistic secret police known as the “National Intelligence Agency,” NIA.


Post-Jammeh Gambia

Post-Jammeh Gambia is a traumatized nation. After 22 years of state-inspired atrocities via abductions, torture and murder, Gambia desperately needs accountability and justice. Reconciliation is hardly possible without full disclosure by the perpetrators of atrocities during Jammeh’s 22-year rule. As a first step towards accountability, President Adama Barrow should order the National Intelligence Agency to make a list of all the Gambians who were kidnapped, tortured or killed, during Jammeh’s reign of terror. The presidential order should make it clear that noncompliance will amount to obstruction of justice, a prosecutable crime that can lead to imprisonment. President Adama Barrow’s next step should lead to the disbandment of the National Intelligence Agency, the dreaded secret police used by Jammeh to terrorize Gambians. Bringing NIA operatives into the Gambian police force would be a reckless move. Used to being above the law, NIA operatives will pervert the Gambian police force, turning it into another human rights violator, antithetical to democratic norms. Old habits die hard.


As president of a state that went rogue for 22 years, Adama Barrow needs to be bold, skilful and far-sighted in post-Jammeh Gambia. Whatever happens, Gambians need a measure of justice, as they begin to exhale without fear. Depending on how Gambians want it, justice can either be restorative or punitive, with the latter variant of justice requiring the infliction of punishment that is proportionate to the crimes that were committed. Yahya Jammeh’s Gambia was a “Republic of Fear.” That fear can be exorcised through a fair dispensation of justice to perpetrators, and the rebuilding of a democratic order anchored by the rule of law.


After 22 years as the only thug in town, Yahya Jammeh has become the latest Strongman who came close to starting a conflagration that could have physically destroyed a whole country. Gambia, or Africa in general, needs strong political institutions, not Strongmen. A real democracy can implement development projects without compensating itself with the blood of its citizens. Africans who defend Jammeh’s murderousness by pointing to his construction of roads and schools are, analytically speaking, too small-minded to be taken seriously.

Sankara Kamara is a Sierra Leonean academic, living in Sydney.

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