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.
Fearless journalist? I didn’t feel so at this moment, as I was ushered into the waiting area, inside State House – a dowdy room with a few chairs, a coffee table and a flatscreen TV with CNN news on. Either the TV set was faulty, or State House also suffers intermittent power cuts, as in the short time I waited, the TV went off 5 times on its own, and someone kept emerging from a room next door to switch it back on. The air conditioning must have been set rather high as well, as the room felt really cold on this hot October day, so that I eagerly accepted an offer of a hot coffee at noon. No, the Gambian State House is not decked in flamboyant expensive excesses – well not the little that I saw, at least. But jitters aside, I felt ready to face the man every journalists is meant to gravely fear. I was ready with pen and mind to ask him about all those ceaseless accusations thrown at him.
Is he homophobic? A trigger-happy murderous dictator? Does he really care about The Gambia and what has he got to show for it? Does he really believe anybody really cares that that “little” Gambia had left the body every former colony is meant to worship?
Yes therefore, as I was ushered into his office (with minimal security may I add) and as he greeted me with a broad smile asking how New African is doing “after all these years?”, I could instinctively tell this was going to be a long hour. I felt my host was ready for me.
I reach for my bag and hand him some copies of the New African and wish him happy reading. He tells me to make myself comfortable on one of the “British royal” green chairs that deck the office, which is walled in mahogany and book-shelved with all manner of tomes. He hand-gestures for me to sit and he takes the chair next to me, clutching his trademark walking stick and prayer beads. As I gently place my micro-recorder the table, he asks if am ready and straight away, I fire away my first question, but before he answers, he quietly recites a short prayer, then looks straight at me. He is ready.
And truly, President Jammeh has a lot to say and prove. Sit back, delve in and join us in the world of one of Africa’s most enigmatic young leaders – he is only 48 years old. Married to Zeinab Suma and they are parents to Mariam and Muhammed.