Gam­bia’s out­go­ing ruler gen­er­ous... when in right mood

African Independent - - NEWS - ED­WARD MCAL­LIS­TER

GAM­BIAN 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 in cash – dou­ble the tiny West African na­tion’s av­er­age an­nual wage – said Fa­tou Ca­mara, his former press sec­re­tary who saw it hap­pen.

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.”

Af­ter tak­ing power in a coup, Jam­meh, a former army of­fi­cer, mixed charm and gen­eros­ity with the threat of vi­o­lence to main­tain a firm grip on power for 22 years.

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

Jam­meh ac­cepted his shock elec­tion de­feat last 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”.

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 had rounded up more peo­ple than the au­thor­i­ties had an­nounced.

Saidykhan was taken to the Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Agency. 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 22-day or­deal and is now a so­cial worker in the US. The govern­ment has dis­missed al­le­ga­tions of tor­ture. Reuters’ calls to of­fi­cials for com­ment on this story went unan­swered.

Jam­meh’s quirkier traits, such as his strong be­lief in su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers, of­ten made in­ter­na­tional head­lines. He claimed to have a herbal cure for HIV/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.”

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.

“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 (then about $21 000) 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 Jan­neh, who saw it hap­pen.

But af­ter the coup at­tempt, he be­came more para­noid.

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

Armed men ar­rested Demba Dem, a mem­ber of par­lia­ment, at his of­fice shortly af­ter the coup. He was beaten with sticks and guns and burnt with hot metal.

Four oth­ers in­ter­viewed by Reuters re­ceived sim­i­lar treat­ment that week. Guards dripped molten plas­tic onto the leg of Yaya Dar­boe, an of­fi­cer in­volved in the coup.

Dem and Dar­boe were taken to Mile 2, a prison com­plex 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.

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

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

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