It may be the world’s newest Islamic state, but on the Gambia’s beaches it was business as usual. Dreadlocked, muscular young men offered their company to middle-aged female tourists, the sweet scent of marijuana hung on the ocean breeze, bars advertised happy hour cocktails, and bared breasts turned pink in near-equatorial sunshine.
Few of those escaping the cold and damp of a northern European winter
appeared to be aware of President Yahya Jammeh’s surprise proclamation
last month that the tiny African country he has ruled with an iron grip
for more than 20 years would henceforth be known as the Islamic Republic of the Gambia.
“Really?” said Linda, 49, with a hoot of disbelieving laughter.
Turning to her holiday companion outside Solomon’s beach cafe, she
added: “It doesn’t seem at all Islamic, does it, Chrissie? Quick, we’d
better get another beer in before they close all the bars.”
Such a step seems unlikely in a country that depends heavily on
tourism. Since Jammeh’s announcement of the new name – in line with the
Gambia’s “religious identity and values”, he said, and to symbolise a
break with its “colonial legacy” – there have been few discernible
changes in mainland Africa’s smallest country.
An order that all female government employees must cover their heads was rescinded 10 days later because
it had made women “unhappy”, according to a government statement.
Jammeh has assured the Gambia’s small Christian population, about 4% of
the 1.8 million total, that there will be no restrictions on religions
other than Islam. And although the president reportedly wanted to
implement sharia law more than a decade ago, as yet there have been no
concrete moves to do so.
But foreign diplomats have been instructed to refer to the Islamic
Republic of the Gambia in all official communications, and the country’s
only television channel – run by the state – routinely uses the new
name in its broadcasts. The scholarly Supreme Islamic Council has been
dispatched to tour the Gambia’s towns and villages to shore up support
for the Islamic state.
Analysts, diplomats and exiled dissidents believe the name change
signifies a realignment of the former British colony with the Arab
world, in particular the wealthy Gulf states. Some say the move could
jeopardise the resumption of European funding, halted in December 2014
amid criticism of human rights abuses. It could also damage the tourist
industry and possibly encourage the radicalisation of youth in a country
characterised by one observer as “soft Islam”.
Jammeh seized power in a 1994 coup, almost 30 years after the country
secured independence from Britain. Since then, he has won five-yearly
presidential elections with increasing majorities that have been matched
by sliding credibility. Any serious opposition is quickly stamped on;
diplomats speak of polling irregularities and bought votes. With no
limit on the number of terms he may serve, he is expected to win another
resounding victory in the election scheduled for December. Some say the
50-year-old intends to stay on as president for another two decades.
Jammeh is described as intelligent and charming, even charismatic,
but unpredictable. Many pronouncements appear to be made on a whim. In
2007, he announced he had found a herbal cure for Aids; this month he
pledged to “conquer cancer” by the end of the year. He also said he would ban FGM
after the Guardian launched a global campaign. Analysts say that even
those who follow him closely have real challenges in interpreting his
His regime is essentially a one-man operation. “The people around him
are either scared or just yes men – and yes women, there are a lot
of women. But no one is giving him frank advice,” said a diplomat based
in the region. “He burns bridges faster than he builds them,” said
another long-time observer.
Jammeh’s closest ally and role model was Muammar Gaddafi, the former
despotic leader of Libya who was overthrown and died in 2011, and with
whom – it is rumoured – he shared a taste for young women. Over the past
two decades, Jammeh has tightened his hold on power with the help of
the feared National Intelligence Agency and an unofficial paramilitary
force, known as the Jungulers, which routinely detains, tortures and disappears those perceived as a threat to the regime.
A Human Rights Watch report, State of Fear,
published in September, detailed “rampant human rights abuses” and a
“pervasive climate of fear” in the Gambia. Jammeh, it said, had created
“one of the most repressive and authoritarian administrations on the
continent”. It said the Jungulers “typically wear all-black clothing,
cover their faces and are armed with machetes and firearms, including
Kalashnikov assault rifles. They have been implicated in numerous
incidents of torture and extrajudicial executions.”
Alongside the weakening of opposition political parties, there is
little freedom of expression. In a population with a high proportion of
illiteracy, many depend for information on the state-run television
channel. Independent journalists are regularly detained, disappeared or
forced to flee, and no international media organisations are based in
Civil society organisations and NGOs are tolerated only in areas such
as education and health; human rights organisations are barred. “If you
are affiliated with any human rights group, rest assured that your
security and personal safety would not be guaranteed by my government.
We are ready to kill saboteurs,” Jammeh said in 2009.
LGBT people have long been particular targets of Jammeh’s regime.
Last May, the president said he would “slit the throats” of any gay men
in the Gambia, adding: “No one will ever set eyes on you again, and no
white person can do anything about it.” Previously he had described gays
and lesbians as “vermin”, an “evil and strange social cancer”, and
“anti-God, anti-human and anti-civilisation”. In October 2014, the
government introduced a new crime of “aggravated homosexuality” with a penalty of life imprisonment.
Last May, Jammeh rejected a series of recommendations from the UN
Human Rights Council, including decriminalising homosexuality, removing
restrictions on freedom of expression and abolishing the death penalty.
Not surprisingly, many Gambians have fled the country. According to Eurostat, the number seeking asylum in EU member states tripled
between 2013 and 2014, to 11,500. Others leave to improve their
economic opportunities and send money home to impoverished families.
Thirteen months ago, Jammeh cut ties with the EU after it had raised
concerns over human rights abuses. In turn, the EU blocked $16m of
development funding – a critical sum for the impoverished country, whose
fragile economy relies on tourism, remittances and peanut exports.
Income from tourism, which accounts for at least 20% of GDP, plummeted
as a result of the recent Ebola crisis in west Africa, even though there was not a single case in the Gambia, and it has yet to recover.
The row with the EU, along with an earlier sudden decision to pull out of the Commonwealth
on the grounds it was a “neocolonial institution”, is seen as a
significant factor in the president’s declaration of an Islamic state.
“He’s done this now because he’s starved of funds,” said Sidi Sanneh,
a former Gambian diplomat now living in exile in the US. As well as EU
grants, generous funding from Libya has dried up since the revolution
and Jammeh also cut ties with Taiwan in 2013 after it refused to provide
additional cash bailouts. “Jammeh is looking to the Gulf states –
Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait – for the funds he’s being denied by traditional
donors, especially the EU,” said Sanneh.
According to Marloes Janson, of the School of Oriental and African
Studies in London, “Jammeh has lost western support, so he’s now turning
to the Muslim world”.
But, she adds, the prevalence of sex tourism in the Gambia may also
have fuelled the president’s Islamism. In a bid to counter “national
decay”, government clean-up campaigns have targeted “bumsters” – the
young men who sell sexual services to female tourists – rounding them
up, shaving their heads and sending them for periods of forced labour.
“[Jammeh] has not only used religion to shore up his legitimacy as a
Muslim leader, but also to redefine the Gambian nation through his
policing of morality,” said Janson.
Some say the Gambian president is playing with fire. The country is
peaceful in a region where Islamic extremism has taken hold in some
places. There are mosques in every neighbourhood, but Gambians are
observant rather than devout Muslims, and fundamentalism is rare.
Although Jammeh banned gambling last year, alcohol is freely available.
But grinding poverty and lack of opportunity could combine with
increasing repression and religiosity into a potent cocktail. “Jammeh is
making a mistake. He’s making things worse by stirring up religious
sentiment,” said Sanneh. “It’s an inopportune moment to insert the word
‘Islamic’ into the name of the country when you have Isis [Islamic
State] running all over the region.”
Another Gambian dissident, Imam Baba Leigh,
who fled to the US in 2013 after being imprisoned for five months,
warned of radicalisation. “Isis, al-Qaida, Boko Haram – they are like
wildfire. If they can penetrate the UK, the US, Nigeria, Libya, I see no
reason why they can’t penetrate the Gambia too, especially when its
leader calls a secular country an Islamic state.”
who has survived four coup attempts – the last a little more than a
year ago – appears determined to entrench his power. “He’s very
unpopular, but he rules by fear,” said Sanneh. A diplomat in the region
said Jammeh “has his jackboot at the public’s throat”. Another observer
described him as a “beast”, adding: “He wants to be king of Africa, but
he’s just a normal dictator.”
On the beach, those working the sands were focused on scraping a
meagre income from selling fruit juice, horse rides, hair braiding and
themselves. “Hey nice lady, what’s your name, where are you from, you
like to go dancing?” is the endless soundtrack to a stroll along the
Atlantic shore. The tourist season, diminished though it is, has a few
more months to run before the rains come and what are known as the
“hungry months” begin. It doesn’t seem likely that Jammeh’s declaration
of an Islamic state is going to solve many of the Gambia’s problems.