Our Deputy Editor reGina Jane Jere exclusively interviewed the Gambian President at State House in the capital Banjul, a day after he severed ties with the Commonwealth, to get to the bottom of his decision and address many other issues including dictatorship, gay and human rights, the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is headed by one of his own, and how Africa can move forward on its own terms. In this in-depth and revealing lead interview for our special cover story, the inscrutable President Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, does not hold back – even admitting to that term, “dictator”.
It could be dubbed a David vs. Goliath scenario when tiny Gambia stood up to a giant, withdrawing its membership from the still largely revered colonial British outfit that is the mighty Commonwealth. But the jury is still out on whether David wins in this case. However, what is clear is that The Gambia’s move last month – as preparations for the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka were in high gear – has been received with both indignation and delight in equal measure. Depending on which side of the boxing corner one is rooting from.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma described the withdrawal as a “disappointment”, a British Foreign Office spokesman said it “regretted the decision”. But it was left to the British Daily Telegraph newspaper to pour the most scorn: “Is this a bodyblow from which the organisation will never recover? Well, no. The fact is that President Jammeh is, as one informed source puts it, ‘an ocean-going, grade A nutter’. Or, in the words of a senior diplomatic official, ‘quite possibly the only head of state – even in West Africa – who is clinically insane’… Quitting the Commonwealth, therefore, is essentially an adolescent gesture – an escalation of his longstanding Mugabe-style anti-British rhetoric,” scoffed its columnist, Robert Colvile.
On the other side of the ring many ordinary Africans welcomed the news:
“I salute The Gambia for the decision they have made. The method may have been rushed, but the end result is effective all the same. If we consider that the Commonwealth itself may well be an undemocratic institution in which British political opinion is upheld as infallible, one wonders if The Gambia has done anything wrong. By and large, it looks like African leaders (or those who are thought to represent the interests of us ordinary Africans) have short memories. I really wonder how my own interests (and definitely those of many other Africans from the ‘former’ colonies who share the same concerns as me) are represented at the Commonwealth. Good luck Gambia,” says Kelly Inambao.
Ayanda Sigwela is pithier: “I salute The Gambia for this sober decision. I wish other African states could follow.”
As we approached the gates at State House, I asked the driver if we were there yet. “Yes madam, this is it, we are here”.
“This is it?” I asked, rather puzzled. For someone the world is meant to view as one of Africa’s most-feared and ruthless leaders, his official abode negates that persona. It may come as a surprise to many, but unlike many State Houses in Africa and beyond (and this writer has been to a few) President Yahya Jammeh’s official residence in the capital Banjul is rather nondescript.
Also interestingly, for someone many believe to be no respector of human rights, let alone those of women, what greets you on the characterless entrance into State House is a rather drab arch on which is inscribed in big green letters, the clichéd adage
“Behind every successful man, there is a successful woman.” As a woman, the wording rather helped to mollify my jitters. Of course, I was nervous – what with all the stories of journalists being murdered, by a trigger-happy president who is said to be increasingly paranoid and is critically averse to any form of criticism, but more so, that from journalists.