The Gambia: The power, the wealth and the excesses of Yahya Jammeh
By Mathew K Jallow
The adjective, absolute, does not even begin to qualify the depth and breadth of the power wielded by Gambia's Yahya Jammeh. Yahya Jammeh's power is enough to make the powerful de' Medici family of medieval Italy, whom Niccolò Machiavelli dedicated his controversial political thesis, The Prince, green with envy. The ideas and theories behind Machiavelli's Prince, have over the past five centuries been studied, dissected and applied in their literally context by tyrants and dictators alike, but the supremacy of brutal power advocated in the Prince, has, in most parts of the world, been rejected by political doctrines attuned to a more enlightened world. In the intervening years since Machiavelli published his exceedingly self-serving work in 1572, the Gambia has experienced the destructive forces of tribal wars and the devastation of slavery, but even those chapters of our history have not taught Yahya Jammeh's regime the lessons of civilized human behavior. Instead, The Gambia remains one of the few countries in Africa still burdened with the crushing weight of political tyranny, and the erstwhile Nicolo Machiavelli must be smiling in his cold grave.
But, while Yahya Jammeh probably never heard of Niccolo Machiavelli or his infamous hard-line advocacy of brutal force in The Prince, he has, nonetheless, inadvertently become one of Africa's last remaining disciples of Machiavelli's Orwellian dystopia. The Gambia under Yahya Jammeh truly exemplifies the old adage that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” a truism Gambians know all too well. Yahya Jammeh's exercise of the excesses of power, designed primarily to entrench his reign of terror and amass wealth for himself, has succeeded only because of his unchallenged flaunting of the sacred laws and Constitution of The Gambia. More particularly, Yahya Jammeh's brutal exercise of power, an aberration in the new and emerging Africa, has made the world sit up and take notice of Gambia's slow drift into political anarchy and administrative chaos. The self-serving motivations that define Yahya Jammeh and his anachronistic regime are saddled with the painful interface of materialistic greed and stubborn lust for power, and exacerbated by the divisiveness of the tribal bigotry that has turned Gambians' frustration into an intense desire for revolutionary political change; by any means necessary.
Today, more than a decade and half into his reign of terror, Yahya Jammeh's futile fantasy of a Jola hegemony in our sub-region may have died long before it even began, but his ruination of Gambian society continues unabated. Gambia's story under Yahya Jammeh's rule is like a story-book prefaced by an impossible dream of a reality that can only be imagined and illustrated by a quixotic phantasmagoria deriving from Yahya Jammeh's narcissistic delusions of grandiosity. To understand how Gambians surrendered their freedoms to the perversity of the Jammeh regime, one has to reflect back to the gruesome assassination of Gambia's former civilian Finance Minister Koro Ceesay in the early days of the coup in 1994, which was soon followed by the senseless massacre of sixteen protesting high school students. The fear and terror these two senseless episodes generated in the hearts of Gambians, provides the backdrop to the capitulation from which Gambians are still to recover from. It is against this background, that Gambians still continue to battle the demons of Yahya Jammeh and his cabal of mean-spirited lackeys and political prostitutes.
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 today, seventeen long years after power was handed to Yahya Jammeh by a feckless group of young, predacious soldiers, the Gambia's unlikely story is so incredibly unbelievable; it seems like something right out of a Leo Tolstoy novel; something that can only be created by the fertile imagination of a sadistic mind. But, Gambia's story, with all its cruel manifestations of the absolute disregard for human life, is real, and marked by the disintegration of social cohesiveness and dysfunction of the mechanisms of governance. It is the enduring legacy of a regime handicapped from the beginning by the catastrophic exposition of the mortifying ignorance and provincial demeanor of the eclectic group of apprehensive coupists. But, the disquieting gullibility and puerile reticence exhibited by the coupists was short-lived, as Yahya Jammeh gradually solidified his control through a process of elimination that continues to devastate Gambian families today.
Yahya Jammeh's accumulation and consolidation of power represents the most wretched chapter in our country's history. Gambia now represents the most fitting case history in misanthropy; for our country has become a glaring manifestation of the desensitization embodied in Yahya Jammeh's reptilian exercise of brute power. The last decade and half of our history has accentuated Yahya Jammeh's criminal mind and illustrated his capacity for graphic display of demonic insanity. But while the summary executions, murders, maiming, tortures, incarceration and intimidations of his perceived political opponents and innocent citizens alike encapsulates the worst of Yahya Jammeh, his excesses reach far beyond the increasingly frivolous effort to entrench his reign. To understand the depth and breadth of Yahya Jammeh's power, it is necessary to examine the totality of his activities both inside and outside the realm of governance. A representative sampling of his most conspicuous abuse of power below does not even begin to tell the full story of The Gambia under Yahya Jammeh. Below is a list of what we now know; a list this is far from exhaustive.
1. Yahya Jammeh is the wealthiest man in The Gambia and its biggest land and property owner. Yahya Jammeh owns more than a hundred farmlands dotted around the country, in addition to close to one hundred developed properties around the Greater Banjul area and other parts of the eastern end of the country.
2. Today, every vehicle or equipment for use in public service in every department and agency of the regime, including uniforms and vehicles supplied to the military and security services, is elaborately represented before national television cameras as a gift from Yahya Jammeh.
3. Yahya Jammeh is the only authority who can hire and fire public servants and he fires and rehires from the same small number of qualified and unqualified group of people with a senseless frequency that bothers the imagination. Since 1994, nearly eighty cabinet ministers have been hired and fired, some multiple times and others were fired even before they ever set foot in their new offices. As for other areas in the civil service, including the diplomatic Corps, the hiring and firings are in the hundreds, if not in the thousands; but again who is counting anymore.
4. To-date, dozens of poems, music songs and community projects have been dedicated to Yahya Jammeh as a way to secure financial assistance and other favors from Yahya Jammeh.
5. Around the country, scores of new born babies and edifices such as hospitals, health centers, police stations to name just a few, have been named after Yahya Jammeh, his wife, children and mother.
6. Yahya Jammeh frequently gives out hundreds of thousands of dollars to praise-singers and select Gambians whom he perceives as useful to his political aspirations of entrenching his hold on power.
7. In every elections cycle in the past, Yahya Jammeh has fired his military party's National Assembly representatives and replaced them with even more subservient candidates, no questions asked.
8. Yahya Jammeh controls Gambia's Central Bank; its staff and the money saved in it, and he uses the money as his piggy-bank to bribe foreign dignitaries particularly those from The World Bank, the IMF and other ancillary agencies of the United Nations.
9. During elections, his military party as well as the frequent parties Yahya Jammeh holds at his adopted village Kanilai, are funded by income generating agencies of the regime; which includes the Ports Authority, the National Telecommunications, the Customs and Excise Dept. to name just a few.
10. Yahya Jammeh's incorporated company; Kanilai International was until recently an importer and re-exporter of military weapons and a partner of the notorious Russian arms dealer, Victor Bout. The consignment of arms apprehended in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2010 represents a fraction of the military weaponry imported and re-exported in the name of Kanilai International.
11. The Gambia's main newspaper and Radio and Television Services have become around the clock propaganda instruments of Yahya Jammeh and his military regime.
12. Yahya Jammeh's Jola-tribesmen, who represent a mere seven percent of the population, hold nearly seventy percent of the senior civil service jobs at the expense of the other six major tribes in the country.
13. Yahya Jammeh owns an eight storey hotel tower in Guinea-Conakry where his wife's family come from, a mansion in one of the most affluent parts in the Washington, DC, and a super-market and more properties in Morocco, where his wife's family live.
14. Yahya Jammeh dictates what the Justice Department and the Gambian judiciary do, and just last week, the so-called Chief Justice of The Gambia, disgracefully described Yahya Jammeh as “my boss” in an answer to a journalist.
15. Posters of Yahya Jammeh are posted all around the country, but any mention of his name in public that is not flattery, will result in arrest, detention and probably torture and incarceration and perhaps even death.
16. Gambia's main Islamic body, the Students' Union, the Trade Unions, Non-governmental Organizations, the National Womens' Council and other civil society organizations are all controlled by Yahya Jammeh.
17. At any one point in time, Yahya Jammeh is known to oversee between two and four ministerial portfolios for which he is compensated financially.
18. As we speak, nearly twelve senior civil servants, half of them holding doctoral degrees, are being tried on trumped up charges of corruption and replaced in their positions by what can only be described as virtual analphabets.
19. Until President Macky Sall was elected, Yahya Jammeh had destabilized the Southern region of Senegal, supplying the so-called rebels with arms, providing them training, and offering them a base in Kanilai, Gambia from which to launch attacks into Senegalese territory.
20. Yahya Jammeh has suddenly seen religion and has become a peace-maker in a country he spend more than a decade destabilizing; even master-minding the assassinations of the late President Nino Vierra and Guinea Bissau's Gambian born military leader Ansumana Manneh, but with ECOWAS and Senegal watching, he has no choice but the recoil into his shell.
21. To-date, the number of Gambians murdered on the orders of Yahya Jammeh, are in the hundreds, with nearly twenty forced disappearances, not to mention the massacre of sixteen high school students, yet no death has been investigated, no family has been compensated, and no one has yet been held accountable for any of these murders and disappearances.
22. As we speak, more than two dozen students and their teachers have been arrested for staging a peaceful demonstration against an alleged corrupt administrator recently appointed to head their establishment.
23. Gambia's prisons full to capacity have become death traps where innocent political prisoners languish, emaciated and helpless, yet no Gambian dares raise a voice in protest.
24. The massacre of forty-four Ghanaian would-be immigrants on Gambian soil remains uninvestigated and unresolved, and both John Atta Mills and his predecessor John Kafour have done lousy jobs demanding answers from Yahya Jammeh despite the fact there are living witnesses ready to testify against the Gambian regime.
Clearly, Yahya Jammeh power and wealth are beyond imagination, but no one dares challenge his authority for fear of arrest, detention, incarceration or worst; death at the hands of the notorious National Security Agency, but since the election of Macky Sall as Senegal's new president, Yahya Jammeh's power has been slipping away, and it is only a matter of time before the Gambia explodes into an orgy of civil disobedience. With no friends in sight, perhaps soon Yahya Jammeh grip on power too, like many who came before him, will come to a close. And his fate will be in the hands of the Gambian people; a people on whom he has visited untold misery and suffering. For every long night has a day.
Mathew K Jallow is a Gambian journalist, writer, human rights advocate and political activist exiled in the US.