Army Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh took power in a bloodless coup on July 22, 1994 in the tiny West African country of The Gambia, he was only 29 years old at the time. The country has a population of about two million, and it’s mostly agrarian, depending mostly on tourism as the backbone of its economy.
“When Jammeh came to power, the reason he claimed was corruption and overstay in power by the previous regime. Jammeh made the claim that he will never introduce dictatorship in the country, that nobody will ever rule the country for more than 10 years. As we speak, he’s been in power for 20 years. As we speak, Yahyah Jammeh, who came to power a poor man, is now one of the richest people in the country, if not the whole of Africa,” Pa Samba Jow, the spokesman for the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists in the Diaspora said.
Yahya Abdul Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh was born in Kanilai, a village of Foni Kansala district in southern Gambia, near the border with Senegal. After coming to power, he has developed the village.
Now 51 years, the leader of the military junta that metamorphosed into civilian leadership has dug his heels and doesn’t want to leave office.
Ironically Jammeh received some military training in the US.
His military career started when he joined the Gambian National Army in 1984. He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1989, and in August 1992 he became the commanding officer of the Military Police of Yundum Barracks. He later received extensive military training in neighboring Senegal, and military police training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, USA.
He led a group of young soldiers to overthrow the government of President Sir Dawda Jawara.
Jawara was one of the people who led and fought for the independence of The Gambia from British colonial rule. After independence, Jawara became the first prime minister and later president of the country. Jawara led the country from April 24, 1970 until the coup of July 22, 1994.
Jammeh’s grip on power was aided by one of the country’s legal experts, Attorney General and Minister of Justice – Fafa Edrissa Mbai. Fafa held a similar position in the overthrown civilian government of Sir Jawara. He crafted decree after decree that entrenched Jammeh into power and rendered most Gambians ‘enemies of the state’. The regime under Jammeh, tightened its grip around free speech, criminalizing every form of dissent or contrary view. Jammeh made all the laws and became the law.
He told the BBC in an interview in 2011 that he didn’t fear death, and wasn’t worried if he was killed in the same way as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Jammeh, who clings strongly to religion, and believes Allah sanctioned whatever happened to him or everything he did, told the BBC if he has to rule The Gambia for one billion years, he will, if Allah says so.
Since he put off the military uniform in 1996 and contested in an election in 1996 and won, he has won every election up until 2011 for five-year terms.
Jammeh promoted himself as a leader who loves his people and even has the power to heal some diseases. In 2007 at a gathering of international diplomats, he announced he could cure HIV/AIDS. With state TV and radio behind him, Jammeh convinced his citizens that he could cure the disease much to the consternation of the international health community. His cure came from a secret concoction of ointments, herbs, bananas, peanuts and prayer. He also said he has the cure for tuberculosis, but only heals on Thursdays. He indeed, claimed to heal some other diseases as well.
On the government website he is described as possessing extensive knowledge in traditional herbal therapy, especially in the treatment of asthma and epilepsy.
In 2015 he added the title Babili Mansa to his name.
Babili Mansa is a Mandinka-language phrase translated as “chief bridge builder” or “conqueror of rivers”.
A statement from the presidency said he should be known as “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa”.
In August 2013, he ordered the execution of all prisoners on death row in a speech during the celebration of the Muslim festival of the Eid. That speech ended a moratorium on executions in place for 27 years. Following that, nine people were executed, including Alieu Bah, a former lieutenant in the army who was in prison after he was arrested in 1997 for plotting to overthrow Jammeh.
Some Ghanaian victims
In 2005 some 40 Ghanaians and 20 other West Africans travelling through Gambian territory were mistaken for mercenaries by Jammeh and his operatives who arrested and killed them without trial. They were buried in unmarked graves.
Attack on journalists
No one was spared Jammeh’s high handedness. Professionals of all shades, and mostly journalists were hounded and hunted to death. Journalists are often arrested and detained without charge and in some cases, they simply go missing without a trace.
Of greater prominence was the editor of The Point newspaper, Deyda Hydara who was shot dead in 2004.
According to the Media Foundation for West Africa, a media rights organization, more than 30 of the country’s journalists have fled persecution and the closure of newspapers, radio and TV stations are a daily occurrence.
In 2013, he pulled The Gambia out of the Commonwealth and declared the country an Islamic State in 2015. The Gambia, has a Muslim population of about 95 per cent. But his decision to declare an Islamic State was a strategy to attract much needed aid from the Arab world, following his isolation by the West for his appalling human rights record.
Despite his dark persona, some Gambians credit him for holding the country together. They argue that he has provided them with education and a shot at opportunities for a better life.
But that is in contrast to the facts as Gambians make the third largest number of immigrants making attempts to enter Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, of the 282,000 migrants recorded passing through Séguedine—one of the last stops in Niger for migrants before reaching the Libyan border—15 per cent were Gambians, the third-highest behind Nigerians and Nigeriens.
In October 2016 the19-year-old goalkeeper of Gambia’s national women’s football team, Fatim Jawara drowned in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe. She was on board a boat that got into an accident while crossing from Libya to Europe
December 2016 elections
However, on December 1, 2016, Gambians mustered courage for the first time to get rid of Jammeh in presidential elections.
After the results were announced, he accepted the outcome and pledged to work with the winner, Adama Barrow for a smooth transition. The world applauded his action and Gambians abroad started planning to return home. But days later, Jammeh made a U-turn and rejected the results calling for fresh elections.
The country has since been on edge, as he has refused all negotiations to step down, including telling the West African bloc, the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), which was mediating a peaceful settlement, to back-off and not interfere in what he considers a domestic affair – insisting only Allah can remove him from power.
The international community has since been putting pressure on him to step down when his term comes to an end on January 19, 2017, the day on which Barrow would be inaugurated as president. Barrow, who joined African leaders at the French-Africa Summit in Mali last week, has been given shelter by the Senegalese government that has offered to take him into The Gambia for his inauguration.
Jammeh’s intransigence has compelled ECOWAS to consider a military option should he refuse to step down. Meanwhile, its neighbour, Senegal, has troops on standby to enter The Gambia.
By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi
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