Jammeh, Yahya 1965–
Yahya Jammeh 1965–
In some ways, he was part of a new breed of African leadership in the 1990s, publicly rejecting the corruption of the past and beginning to bring the infrastructures of modern life to the country he ruled. In other respects, he brought to mind the strongmen who had ruled much of Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. With colorful language, he issued threats of violence against his political opponents, and his administration spent foreign aid dollars constructing a giant replica of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe in the Gambian capital of Banjul. Yahya Jammeh, not yet 30 years old when he took control over the tiny West African nation of Gambia in a military coup, incurred the displeasure of Western governments with his seizure of power, and with the methods he used to maintain it. However, even his critics conceded that he had wide popular support.
Gambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, a Connecticut-sized strip of land straddling the lower reaches of the Gambia River as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean on Africa’s west coast. Its borders were carved by departing European colonial powers in the 1960s. Ethnically similar to neighboring Senegal, which surrounds it on the north, east, and south, Gambia was ruled by England in the colonial era, while Senegal was a French possession. In 1965, Gambia became an independent nation. The British put in place the outlines of a democratic government before their departure, and Sir Dawda Jawara was named prime minister. He was elected president in 1970.
For many years Gambia was one of Africa’s few functioning democracies, with a generally independent press and a respect for basic civil liberties. Jawara remained president for nearly a quarter century, but allegations of corruption mounted. It was said that not even one high school had been built during his rule. Things came to a head in July of 1994, when a group of young Gambian military officers confronted Jawara to express grievances over unpaid army wages. The leader of the group was Jammeh, who was then commander of the nation’s military police.. Born on May 25, 1965 in the village of Kanilai, he had joined the Gambian national police force as a private in 1984, and risen through the ranks of the army. In 1989 and 1990, he had supervised Jawara’s presidential escort.
Jawara’s presidential guard disarmed the officers. The
Born May 25, 1965, Kanilai village, Foni Kansala district, Gambia; married to Tuti Faal-Jammeh, Religion: Islamic.
Career: President of the nation of Gambia; joined Gambian national police force as a private, 1984; became sergeant, Gambian National Army, 1986; became escort training instructor, National Police Training School, 1987; became an army cadet officer, 1987; became second lieutenant, 1989; in charge of presidential escort, Presidential Guards, 1989-90; high-ranking member of Gambia Military Police, 1990-94; led coup and assumed post of Chairman of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, becoming head of state, 1994; elected President, 1996-.
Addresses: Office —Off ice of the President, State House, Banjul, Gambia.
following day, the officers proclaimed that they had established a new government, with Jammeh as provisional ruler of a five-man military council. Jawara fled to a United States warship docked in Banjul, and the transfer of power occurred without bloodshed. Although the United States government called for Jawara’s restoration to power, Gambia’s new leader also had American ties. Just before the execution of the coup, Jammeh had returned to Gambia from a military police training program in the United States.
The coup marked a turning away from democracy in Gambia, and international condemnation was strong. However, Jammeh promised “a coup with a difference,” according to a Facts on File account of the regime’s early days. He pledged an early return to civilian rule and a commitment to follow through on projects to alleviate some of Gambia’s most pressing material needs. Although he himself had only a high school education, Jammeh spoke of plans to build the country’s first university.
The plans for democratic elections were eventually pushed back. Jammeh, quoted in the Economist, darkly warned that “[i]f we don’t want elections in the next 1,000 years, there will be no elections. We will make sure that those who want elections will go six feet deep, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.” For a time, Jammeh seemed inclined to defy world opinion. Gambia suffered a cutoff in American and European aid, and tourism fell sharply. Tourism had been a major component of Gambia’s economy, thanks to the role the region played in Alex Haley’s epic of his African American ancestry, Roots.
Jammeh began to deliver on some of his promises. Although the country seemingly had little wherewithal to generate income aside from its chief cash crop of peanuts, Jammeh broke ground on a new hospital, the first since independence, and a new international airport. A new national television station began broadcasting. He also set in motion other telecommunications improvements, and repaired many of Gambia’s roads. Sixteen new schools were built in 26 months. The government erected a splendid, 115-foot-high replica of the Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph) in Paris on one of Banjul’s main boulevards. According to the Economist, when Jammeh was asked how the arch was financed, he replied, “Allah gave me it.”
In fact, the arch was completed with financing from the government of Taiwan. Jammeh also cultivated relations with Libya, Cuba, and Iran, states that were viewed as outcasts of the world community. Libya was reportedly supplying Jammeh’s regime with military aid. There were unconfirmed reports that the Jammeh regime was involved in drug trafficking. Gambia’s ambassador to the United States, Crispin Grey-Johnson, denied reports that Libya was exerting undue influence over Gambia. “Our policy is to be friends with everybody,” he was quoted as saying in the Washington Times.
During the latter half of the 1990s, the Gambian leadership took steps to establish its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Elections were moved up to 1996, and Jammeh rapidly promoted himself through the ranks of the armed forces. He then retired so that he could claim that he was running for the presidency as a civilian candidate. A new constitution was drafted, and put in place in time for the election.
However, the new constitution was carefully crafted to minimize Jammeh’s potential opposition. An age ceiling eliminated Jawara as a candidate, and several political parties connected with the former ruler were banned. Jammeh likewise banned other parties from campaigning until a month before the election, making it impossible for them to gain a foothold with the Gambian electorate. He also threatened violators with execution. With such obstacles in the way, the National Democratic Institute, an organization of independent electoral observers, withdrew from the country. Jammeh faced opposition from only one serious candidate, lawyer Ousainou Darboe. Darboe’s supporters were often attacked at pre-election rallies. Although the turnout of registered voters was high on election day, the election was marred by widespread voting irregularities.
Jammeh was elected with about 56 percent of the vote, and his party took control of Gambia’s new legislature in elections held in 1997. Despite the questionable freedom of the elections, Jammeh seemed to have general popular support among the Gambian people. “He tramples on people, but Gambians indeed got their choice,” observed a Gambian newspaper editor quoted by the Christian Science Monitor. In 1999, unlike other West African leaders, Jammeh refused to institute a ban on the traditional African practice of female circumcision. He also served as a mediator in negotiations that brought an end to a civil war in neighboring Guinea-Bissau. Despite his heavy-handed political rule, Jammeh appeared poised to remain on the Western African political scene at the dawn of the 21st century.
The International Who’s Who 2000, Europa Publications, 1999.
Africa Report, November-December 1994, p. 11.
Christian Science Monitor, July 26, 1996, p. 6; October 1, 1996, p. 6.
Economist, January 20, 1996, p. 44; September 21, 1996, p. 45; January 18, 1997, p. 44.
Off Our Backs, March 1999, p. 4.
Oregonian (Portland, OR), January 4, 1997, p. A4.
News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), September 29, 1996, A15.
Seattle Times, November 2, 1998, p. A13.
Washington Times, September 26, 1996, p. A16; April 3, 1998, p. A13; November 2, 1998, p. A15.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Facts on File World News CD-ROM, “Country Profile: Gambia.”; and Facts on File World News CD-ROM, September 8, 1994; December 12, 1996; December 31, 1997.
—James M. Manheim
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