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Opinion: The Gambia's debacle

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
January 23, 2017

Yahya Jammeh's departure leaves The Gambia in a conundrum. If he is punished for his crimes, it could deter other dictators from leaving. But not doing so means giving credence to impunity, says DW's Abu-Bakarr Jalloh.

Ex-Präsident Jammeh verlässt Gambia
Image: Picture-Alliance/dpa/J. Delay

'A stitch in time saves nine': that's how the intervention by West African body ECOWAS in the political impasse in The Gambia should be described. The body's tactical maneuver did get Yahya Jammeh to relinquish power and leave the country without any loss of life.

Other regional bodies, especially the East African Community (EAC), should use this as a blueprint to exact changes within their spheres of influence. Leaders like Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi have refused to leave office at the end of their constitutionally mandated terms.

Instead, they've sought to manipulate their constitutions to stay longer in office. Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni have successfully changed their laws to serve their political ambitions.

Gambians have only known two leaders since independence in 1965. Dawda Jarawah ruled the country for more than 30 years before being overthrown by Yahya Jammeh in 1994. Jammeh established himself as despotic ruler with special powers from Allah: he had even boasted of being able to cure asthma and HIV/AIDS with herbal leaves. 

In his 22-year reign, Jammeh drove The Gambia into an autocratic self-styled Islamic Republic. He completely muzzled the news media and left no room for political dissent. Opposition politicians were frequently arrested on trumped-up charges. According to rights organizations, Jammeh personally ordered some of those arrests.

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
Abu-Bakarr Jalloh is an editor at DW's English for Africa department

His critics were seemingly abducted by men in plain clothes in broad daylight. Shortly after Jammeh had taken over power, journalist Deyda Hydara, who had openly criticized the coup, was killed by unknown gunmen. A few years later, 12 students and a journalist were killed in a peaceful demonstration. Jammeh rejected all accusations of his involvement. 

His most controversial rhetoric was in May 2015 when he ordered all gays and lesbians to leave The Gambia. "If you do it [in the Gambia] I will slit your throat - if you are a man and want to marry another man in this country and we catch you, no one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it," Jammeh remarked. 

Throughout Jammeh's time in power, there was no specific report of any beheading of homosexuals. But the threats did send a shockwave across the LGBT community in the country and forced many to flee to neighboring Senegal.

The Gambia's incoming president, Adama Barrow, and his backers, ECOWAS, are left with the question of whether to push for the prosecution of Jammeh. Should he be prosecuted, it would deter other African dictators in similar a predicament to Jammeh from handing over power to elected candidates. But not prosecuting him also mean giving credence to impunity. 

Even though he lost the election to Barrow, Jammeh still has hundreds of thousands of supporters who could destabilize the country if the incoming government chooses to carry out punitive justice against members of the previous regime.   

There is a common saying in Africa: 'Let's bury the hatchet and turn a new page.' Gambians must put the past behind them and look forward to a new country.

Jammeh should be given credit for his courage to leave office - something that's very uncommon among African dictators.

But on Monday morning, a top aide to President Barrow accused the defeated leader of plundering the state's coffers in the final week of his departure. If it turns out to be true, President Barrow should ensure Jammeh gives back the money to the state's treasury in full. If he refuses to do so, he should face charges.  

While ECOWAS might be pondering what to do next, Jammeh should be meted with some kind of justice without deterring others like Kabila and Nkurunziza from handing over power to their elected opponents.    

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