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