President Yahya Jammeh has been rarely seen in public since a late December coup in 2014 to end his rule of The Gambia. The Gambia is at the Western most part of Africa, a former major slave trading post, where remains of the brutal history of the transatlantic trade remain, and now a small tourist paradise. But Jammeh, now 51 years, took power when he was just 29. He has since ruled The Gambia with an iron-fist, entrenching himself in power and tailoring the constitution to meet his ambitious goals.
Jammeh’s is facing a make or break attempt to extend his 22-year rule of the country. In an unprecedented move, the country’s deeply divided opposition parties have formed a coalition to challenge him in a presidential race scheduled for December 1. With Jammeh losing a good number of his supporters to a new opposition GDC party, the odds against him have put the pressure on the military-backed strongman to jumpstart his campaign ahead of schedule to retain the job.
Jammeh was so confident of a win in 2011, his mother had to beg him to go on a campaign. But Jammeh, who called gays and lesbians “vermins” that are “a threat to human existence,” said he would only go around the tiny country, divided equally between the north and south by its namesake river, to say thank you to those that support him.
It did not have to take anyone to plead with Jammeh to go on a campaign this year, although he said that no election, military or foreign power can bring his regime to an end. Experts say he has a high chance of winning unless the opposition pulls a trump on him.
Gambians have lived in fear for most of Jammeh’s rule. The fears subsided after rare protests erupted in the capital Banjul. Gambians are known to be peace loving and always smiling. It earned the country of fewer than two million people “the smiling coast of Africa.” Amid the poverty and the news of the many Mediterranean deaths, Gambians will always find a reason to smile and be welcoming to guests.
Last week, the teenage goalkeeper of the country’s national team died after a rubber boat smuggling her into Europe from Tripoli sank. Fatou Jawara was 19 and dreams of playing for the European team in hopes to free her family from the bondage of poverty. Her story is just one out of thousands in rural Gambia, where the mass exodus has put Gambian migrants among the top three nationals risking their lives across the Sahara and the Mediterranean.
But Jammeh said he has developed The Gambia. Human rights campaigners say the “small” development came at a cost: bad governance, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, impunity and a fast declining economy. The Gambian leader instead accuses European nations of “deliberately causing the Mediterranean deaths” and demanding an investigation into the involvement of EU leaders by the International Criminal Court. Jammeh’s former Attorney General and Justice Minister Fatou Bensouda is the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC. Jammeh is now accusing her and her court of bias and racism and has withdrawn The Gambia from the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the tribunal.
President Jammeh has an overly ambitious plan and many Gambians are likely to hear him repeat them again. Most people I talk to about this plan laugh hard, sending their head as far back, you are afraid their neck will separate from the rest of their body. Jammeh wants to stop the importation of rice by the year’s end and make The Gambia self-sufficient in food, transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 and get it to surpass Dubai, Singapore and Malaysia into an economic superpower by 2025.
For Jammeh, it is no laughing matter. It may seem a dream too far-fetched but he strongly believes that what he could not achieve in 22 years, he would if given another five-year term.