Cash gifts and ‘croc­o­dile holes’

Gam­bia's out­go­ing er­ratic ruler Yahya Jam­meh

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

BAN­JUL — Gam­bia’s Pres­i­dent Yahya Jam­meh was cel­e­brat­ing his 48th birth­day in Ban­jul in May 2013 when he saw a poor street hawker sell­ing peanuts with a child strapped to her back.

With­out hesitating, he sent an aide over with a gift: $1 000 (about M13 860) in cash, dou­ble the tiny West African na­tion’s av­er­age an­nual wage, said Fa­tou Ca­mara, his for­mer press sec­re­tary who saw it.

It was clas­sic Jam­meh: im­pul­sive, capri­cious and gen­er­ous with his pocket, at least when he was in the right mood.

“He could change a life in min­utes,” said Ca­mara. “When you are close to him, it is im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve the killings.”

For 22 years since he took power in a coup, Jam­meh, a for­mer ju­nior army of­fi­cer, mixed charm and gen­eros­ity with the threat of vi­o­lence to main­tain a firm grip on power.

But over time, the lat­ter took cen­ter stage as Gam­bia mor­phed into a po­lice state that tor­tured op­po­nents, rights groups say. Jam­meh’s sup­port­ers deny such claims, and he fre­quently rails against the Western in­ter­fer­ence in Africa.

Jam­meh ac­cepted his shock elec­tion de­feat on Fri­day, a sharp turn­around for a man who had vowed to rule the tiny West African na­tion of 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple for “a bil­lion years”.

He has not been seen in pub­lic since. It is still un­cer­tain whether he will honor his prom­ise to hand over power.

‘Fear be­gan to erode’ Friends and vic­tims alike say if there was a defin­ing event which set Jam­meh on an in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian path, it was a coup at­tempt by a van­guard of the mil­i­tary in March 2006.

Musa Saidykhan, then the ed­i­tor-in-chief of The In­de­pen­dent news­pa­per, was in bed a few days af­ter the coup when po­lice­men came to ar­rest him. His pa­per had re­ported that Jam­meh rounded up more peo­ple than the au­thor­i­ties had an­nounced.

Saidykhan was taken to the Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Agency, a short drive away, next to one of Ban­jul’s white sand beaches that at­tract thou­sands of tourists to Gam­bia.

There, on April 8, in a room that Gam­bians nick­named the “Croc­o­dile Hole”, agents elec­tro­cuted his gen­i­tals, beat him with ba­tons, suf­fo­cated him with a plas­tic bag and broke his right hand.

“They said I write with my right hand and that is what is caus­ing the trou­ble,” he told Reuters. Saidykhan left Gam­bia af­ter his 22day or­deal and is now so­cial worker in the United States.

The govern­ment has re­peat­edly dis­missed al­le­ga­tions of tor­ture. Reuters’s calls to of­fi­cials for com­ment on this story went unan- swered.

Jam­meh’s quirkier traits, such as his strong be­lief in su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers, of­ten made in­ter­na­tional head­lines. He claimed to have a herbal cure for AIDS that only worked on Thurs­days. He in­vited hun­dreds of women to State House where he ad­min­is­tered another herbal rem­edy for in­fer­til­ity.

In 2009 he ar­rested hun­dreds of peo­ple for witch­craft.

Grad­u­ally, ter­ri­fied cit­i­zens be­came bolder in ex­press­ing dis­sent, even af­ter hun­dreds were ar­rested for protest­ing in April to May this year.

“The fear be­gan to erode,” said Jef­frey Smith from cam­paign group Van­guard Africa. “Peo­ple had had enough.”

‘Sol­diers with a dif­fer­ence’ On July 22, 1994, Jam­meh de­posed the cor­rupt regime of Dawda Jawara, who had ruled since in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in 1960. It was a sud­den rise for a quiet man with lit­tle ed­u­ca­tion who once grew toma­toes and let­tuce in ru­ral Gam- bia.

“Many of us wel­comed the in­ter­ven­tion. These were sol­diers with a dif­fer­ence, set­ting the stage for democ­racy,” said Amadou Jan­neh, Jam­meh’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter in 2004.

Even then, there were warn­ing signs: the junta ar­rested politi­cians from the old govern­ment and re­in­stated the death penalty. In 2000, its forces killed 14 stu­dents at an anti-govern­ment protest. For­mer aides say Jam­meh can ap­pear charm­ing and gen­er­ous. In 2002, he gave a leather bag con­tain­ing 250,000 dala­sis ($6,000) to a boy whose fa­ther had been struck dead by light­ning, said Ramzia Diab, an ad­vi­sor who saw it.

On a state visit to Thai­land in June 2005, he tipped restau­rant staff with mul­ti­ple $100 bills he drew from a suit­case, said Amadou Jan­neh, who wit­nessed the event.

But af­ter the coup at­tempt, he be­came more para­noid.

“He could be very jovial and kind and then lose his tem­per like a mad dog,” said Mo­modou Sowe, 36, an aide to Jam­meh be­tween 2003 to 2012 be­fore be­ing jailed for al­legedly leak­ing sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion, which he de­nies.

Armed men ar­rested Demba Dem, a mem­ber of par­lia­ment, at his of­fice shortly af­ter the coup. In dark­ness, agents he could not see beat him with sticks and guns and burned him with hot metal.

Four oth­ers in­ter­viewed by Reuters got sim­i­lar treat­ment that week. Guards dripped melted plas­tic onto the leg of Yaya Dar­boe, an of­fi­cer in­volved in the coup. Some­one filmed it, Dar­boe said.

Dem and Dar­boe were taken to Mile 2, a prison com­plex of white con­crete that abuts the main high­way into Ban­jul. Cells are over­crowded so that in­mates can­not lie down. They are served sandy rice and rot­ting fish. Dozens share one toi­let, of­ten a bucket in a cor­ner, sev­eral for­mer in­mates said.

For­mer news­pa­per ed­i­tor Saidykhan de­vel­oped se­vere back pain from his treat­ment, and in 2010, the re­gional ECOWAS Court of Jus­tice or­dered the Gam­bian govern­ment to com­pen­sate him with $200,000. He is still wait­ing to re­ceive it. — Reuters

GAM­BIAN Pres­i­dent yahya Jam­meh holds a copy of the Qu­ran while speak­ing to a poll worker at a polling sta­tion dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Ban­jul last Thurs­day.

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