The Gambia: a diplomatic duperpower, take it or leave it affair

The Gambia: a diplomatic duperpower, take it or leave it affair

The superpower status of the United States and the Soviet Union derived from what the two countries had in common, the understanding of their diplomatic interaction requires constant attention to the differences that distinguished them from each other.

One was a pluralistic democracy with a government accountable to the people. The other was a one-party dictatorship ruled by a self-perpetuating oligarchy accountable only to itself. At the same time, both the United States and the Soviet Union defined themselves in different ways as outsiders to the traditional European system of power politics, which they regarded as alien to their respective values as well as detrimental to international order.

Of course the concept of superpower was a product of the cold war and nuclear age but one man, in one tiny country called The Gambia is bringing about a whole new meaning to superpower. It is neither nuclear superpower nor is it economic superpower. This is diplomatic superpower.

President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia is known to be an eccentric autocratic ruler – a dictator who rules a West African nation of 1.9 million people. Since he came to power in 1994, he has been expelling people from his country. Well, diplomats from some of the most powerful nations in the world are no exception.

Jammeh, 50, who say his critics “can go to hell,” expelled UN, US, British and even EU diplomats. Yes he did without any consequences. What else do you call this if not diplomatic superpowerfrom this African strongman, who claims he can cure HIV/AIDS and infertility?

The Gambia is an aid dependant country with most of its aid coming from the European Union. The EU has been a key partner to the development of The Gambia for nearly 4 decades. But President Yahya Jammeh calls their aid “chicken change.”

But just like Russian dictators, Yahya Jammeh makes decisions at his free will whether such is at the benefit of the state or not – mostly for his personal gains.

In comparison, under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union abandoned in practice its earlier revolutionary utopia in favor of a foreign policy that instead embraced many of the traditional goals of Russian imperialism; and under the dictatorship of Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia abandoned its practice of good governance and respect for human rights that favors its foreign policy to becoming an opportunistic nation that use Islam and so-called Gambian traditional beliefs to get money from anywhere that will not ask for democracy and human rights in return and gain popular support.

Just like a Russian dictator, Yahya Jammeh has defined himself in a way that regarded democracy and human rights as alien to Gambian values as well as detrimental to international order.

Funding partners like EU, World Bank, IMF, UNDP, AfDB particularly gave Jammeh’s transitional military regime partial funding to help attain good governance through reform of parliamentary structures and processes, institutional arrangement for civic education, reform of the legal and judicial processes, public management and administrative reforms, local government and decentralization of power and popular participation, but President Jammeh had his own agenda for the funds.

Then Chairman Jammeh, in the first exercise of his diplomatic superiority completely disregarded the reforms agenda, and carried out few major projects including the construction of a new airport terminal, a few roads, an arch, a few schools, a health center, a television station and made an increase in the country’s foreign reserve. Jammeh used these few projects to transform from a military ruler to a civilian politician.

Jammeh was only getting his feet wet.

Behind closed doors, Jammeh told diplomats his behavior was just politics but would not be carrying out his threats.

In February 2010, President Jammeh had a closed door meeting with US Ambassador Barry L. Wells. Ambassador Wells suggested to President Jammeh that perception of him by outside observers could be attributed in large part to some of his more incendiary comments such as those related to human rights workers and “cutting off homosexual’s heads”.

“Yes I did make those comments but did I actually cut off anyone’s head? Have I ever arrested anyone for being gay? No, but Senegal has arrested and imprisoned someone for being gay and they receive the MCC.  There are gays here in The Gambia, I know that. But they live in secret and that is fine with me, as long as long as they go about their business in private we don’t mind. But if you are talking about marrying in this country, that will never happen. We will never accept gays,” President Jammeh responded.

However, President Jammeh’s rhetoric towards the United States, Britain and EU never came with any obvious or evident consequences.

The donors lifted sanctions and more money was given to Jammeh’s administration even after he diverted the initial partial funds given to him.

Now that Jammeh has tested the waters, he went on a rampage.

President Jammeh expelled the Director of US National Democratic Institute, British Deputy High Commissioner, US Deputy Ambassador, UN Representative to The Gambia, UNICEF Chief Envoy, Iranian Government Representatives, and Libyan Government Representatives.

Jammeh has closed down embassies of foreign countries, frooze their assets and abruptly severed ties with Taiwan (for not giving him a $10 million fund he requested).

Jammeh has rejected Ambassadors nominated by the US to The Gambia leaving both countries to have Charge d’Affaires for years. It became a take it or leave it for US President, Barack Obama.

This month, President Jammeh did not only stop at closing the Libyan Embassy yet again, and putting it under armed security, he expelled the EU Chief Envoy to The Gambia whose mission is about to end. He also declined meeting the new EU Ambassador to The Gambia who ended up presenting his letter of credence to Foreign Minister MacDouall-Gaye before a political dialogue in a hotel.

The EU said such action is unjustifiable and contrary to acceptable diplomatic norms and practices, and would affect negatively the relations between Gambia and the Union.

The State House and the White House have been exchanging strong statements since winter of last year with activist asking for action from the Obama Administration. They have called for asset freeze and visa bans.

“It is also important to note, however, that strong denunciations from the White House, while certainly welcome, are not enough,” Jeffrey Smith of RFK Center said. “There must be consequences, and I hope this latest incident proves to the U.S. government that the time has come to issue visa bans and travel restrictions on The Gambia’s political leadership.”

Jammeh, who is getting more international attention than ever had his security detail cause mayhem at Hay Adams, just hundreds of feet from the White House, during the US-Africa Leaders Summit. Activits managed to keep the man who dresses in a White gown that looks like thick white bedsheets in a white hat in his luxurious hotel room for hours.

Jammeh and wife Zineb pose for a photo with the Obamas at US-Africa Leaders Summit Dinner

His security detail, for two consecutive days attacked peaceful protesters and journalists injuring some, who were later taken to the hospital. His security detail was immediately declared persona non grata and Jammeh spent his remaining days angry at his $3.5 million mansion in Potomac, Maryland.

Washington has probably never seen anything like that before.

The international community and even the EU are scared that holding funds from Jammeh will make it shift to terror funding nations such as Iran, Libya and other Middle Eastern nations.

In the early years of Jammeh’s rule, US Ambassador Winter, UK High Commissioner Richard Austen, Senegalese High Commissioner Moctar Kebbe and EU Delegate Robert Collingwood who met regularly at the time were afraid that Jammeh would turn to Ghadaffi for help.

Jammeh was sure World Bank funding would sustain his agenda even if the EU and the US withhold theirs. Such fears of Jammeh turning to leaders like Ghadaffi made the EU and the US continue funding his regime. Today, the same problem exists.

Funding Jammeh did not stop him from turning to Ghadaffi who has become his mentor. The Gambia continue to get funding from the EU because European nations likely Italy and Spain say holding anymore funds from The Gambia will cause more economic hardship leading to more youths illegally migrating to Europe through the Mediterranean or Atlantic.

Rights situation in The Gambia is getting worse. Aside from passing a law giving life in prison for being gay, The Gambia has held incommunicado family and friends of those supposedly involved in a late December raid on the presidential palace to oust President Jammeh. One of them is as young as 14 and the other as old as 85.

This with many more is part of Gambia’s human rights problem.

Now with all these issues and with Jammeh who is exercising his diplomatic superpower muscle, will countries like the EU, US and UK allow him to get away with this hullabaloo any longer?

Let’s wait and see.

(Further research and resources from American Foreign Relations and Wikileaks)

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