Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Gambian Gamble

Gambia is a former British colony. In 2013 Gambia withdrew from the Commonwealth, describing it as a neocolonial institution. Few in the west have ever paid much attention to the west African state of only two million inhabitants with little strategic importance and no major resources. Few of the 160,000 tourists drawn to the Gambia’s beaches last year were interested in local politics either . President Yahya Jammeh has ruled the Gambia with an iron fist since taking power, aged 29, in a military coup in 1994. After languishing in geopolitical obscurity for decades, a wave of refugees from the Gambia has focused more attention on the country. The combination of repression and poverty has driven tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of young people out of the country in recent years, many heading across the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast in a desperate bid to start new lives in Europe. The route, known locally as “the back way”, is extremely dangerous, with many perishing in the Sahara or during the hazardous sea crossing.

Elections are held every five years in the Gambia. Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) has won every one since 1996. 2016’s election day is on 1 December and a newly formed coalition of opposition parties are seeking to unseat President Yahya Jammeh who has has unleashed a wave of repression. Jammeh relies on brutal security agencies to stifle growing dissent. Earlier this year a series of protests led to the detention of more than 90 opposition activists and supporters. One prominent opposition politician, a father of nine, was beaten to death in custody. His body has not been returned to his family. Thirty, including the head of the biggest opposition party, were given three-year jail sentences. Many remain in jails where abuse is systematic. The detentions continue. Last week the head of the Gambian state TV and radio services was arrested after images showing substantial crowds of opposition supporters were broadcast.

The president, who has described the opposition as “vermin” who will be “buried nine feet under the ground”, has brushed aside criticism from the European Union, the United Nations, the UK and other African states. “People die in custody or during interrogations, it’s really common … No one can tell me what to do in my country,” he told one interviewer earlier this year. Jammeh mixes pan-Africanist rhetoric and resurgent Islamic identity. Relations with neighbouring Senegal are poor, and the country is increasingly isolated. “There is no ideological or diplomatic basis, no rationale. Policy is driven by his own idiosyncrasies,” said Sidi Sanneh, a former foreign minister and dissident who lives in the United States.

Aid from the EU has been cut over concerns for human rights. A key trade agreement with the US has been abrogated, and Jammeh has also withdrawn the Gambia from the international criminal court, arguing that the institution is biased against Africans. Last December the president declared the country an Islamic republic – making it Africa’s second, after Mauritania. Analysts say the move had two aims: to bolster domestic support in a country which is 90% Muslim, and to attract new backers among wealthy states in the Middle East.

Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, the London-based geo-political think-tank, said, “There is no chance of an upset. Jammeh will be re-elected and be west Africa’s longest-serving leader.”

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