Gambian leader celebrates coup, not country

The West African state’s autocratic president has elevated his coup d’etat over his country’s independence.

Gambian incumbent Yahya Jammeh grimaces
Yahya Jammeh overthrew The Gambia's democratically elected president in a coup d'etat in 1994 [AFP]

Banjul, Gambia – Last week, on July 22, Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh celebrated the day he overthrew the country’s democratically elected president in a coup d’etat in 1994. Then a lieutenant, Jammeh led a group of young soldiers to overthrow the government of President Sir Dawda Jawara. Jawara was among the key people who fought for the independence of The Gambia from British colonial rule, and subsequently became the first prime minister and later president of the country after independence.

President Jammeh has now for 18 years commemorated the day he broke one of Africa’s longest traditions of electoral democracy. In the celebration, he justifies his unconstitutional action by claiming the former government had not been developing the country, and that his bloodless coup was a move to salvage the country and bring development to the people.

By now, the coup celebration has eclipsed the country’s Independence Day. Jammeh’s administration has relegated the Independence Day celebration on February 18 to be officiated by regional governors and mayors.

In contrast, every year on July 22, Jammeh lavishly spends millions of dollars on partying not only with party militants, but with government ministers, regional governors, and military officers – all of whom should be independent of party politics. These officials are now Jammeh’s political toys. Halifa Sallah, one of the main figures in the opposition coalition National Alliance for Democracy and Development (NADD), has said the funds going into these celebrations are public funds.

[Jammeh] vowed that he and his fellow plotters had not staged the coup to perpetuate themselves, and that they would return to the barracks as soon as they set things right.

In one of the celebrations, a record 80 million dalasis, about US$2.5m, was spent.

Thanks to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, this year’s celebration was low-key. Notwithstanding, there was a televised address on national TV that Jammeh monopolised. And as usual, he declared the day after, July 23, as a national public holiday.

The coup

Soon after toppling the previous Jawara regime, Jammeh promised his coup was different. He vowed that he and his fellow plotters had not staged the coup to perpetuate themselves, and that they would return to the barracks as soon as they set things right.

This is said to be what the coup plotters agreed upon. They were supposed to be in the statehouse for only three months to set up an interim government that would steer the country towards civilian democratic rule again. But after having tasted power, Jammeh reneged on the plan. This angered some of his fellow coup plotters who wanted to take him out of the statehouse by force. They planned a coup against him, but Jammeh put down the coup on September 11, 1994. It is believed that some of these coup plotters were brutally killed and some sent to Mile II, the State’s central prison. “It was in this coup that they killed my brother,” said Mamudou Sillah, the brother of Amadou Sillah, one of the soldiers in the coup.

Instead of setting up an interim government, Jammeh entrenched himself in power. He suspended the 1970 republican constitution and banned all political activities, ruling by decree. Thanks to international pressure, the military leadership retired from the army and formed the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction. The country held controversial elections in 1996, which were swept by Jammeh’s party.

Aside from the 1996 elections, Jammeh has won three widely criticised elections in 2001, 2006 and 2011.

Instead of celebrating September 30, 1996, the day he was declared winner of the elections with 55 per cent of the total vote, Jammeh continuously celebrates the coup d’etat – sending the wrong signal that there is a virtue in taking up arms to overthrow a constitutionally elected president.

‘Numerous achievements’?

The payment of the government’s domestic debt burden, which continues to rise by the day, consumes almost 25 per cent of the annual national budget.

Jammeh often brags that the July 22 coup brought “numerous achievements” to The Gambia worthy of celebrating. True, many schools, hospitals, and roads were constructed in the country. But some of the hospitals lacked qualified medical practitioners and adequate medicine.

Most of these projects were constructed with foreign aid and loans. Although that is not unique to The Gambia, the country has become classified as a Heavily Indebted Poor Country, having taken out so many loans it cannot repay them. Thanks to the generosity of the IMF, in 2007, most of these loans were cancelled under the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative. Five years later, though, the IMF cautions that the debts of the country are again becoming unsustainable.

The payment of the government’s domestic debt burden, which continues to rise by the day, consumes almost 25 per cent of the annual national budget. This is crowding out other public expenditures as there is no space to increase funding for job creation, purchase drugs for hospitals, and other pressing national needs.

Meanwhile, more than 50 per cent of the population still lives in poverty, and many people continue to die of curable diseases. Many struggle to have three basic meals a day.

Former national assembly member Sidia Jatta said as of 2011, Gambia’s debt is so high that if it were divided among Gambia’s 1.7 million people, each one would owe about 20,000 dalasi ($635) – in a country where GDP per capita is about $600.

From grass to grease

When Jammeh took over power in 1994, the watchwords of his government were probity, accountability and transparency. Immediately after taking over, his government started a trial involving all the ministers and other high-profile officials in the former government for corruption and other related charges. This was done with a view to demonstrate to the outside world that the junta was doing its best to recover The Gambia’s stolen funds.

As years went by, the watchwords of the junta began to fade away as Jammeh, who came to power with almost nothing in his bank account, is now arguably among the richest African leaders and a top businessman in The Gambia. He continues to amass more wealth, land, and fleets of very expensive cars. 

After some years in power, Jammeh – who originally came from one of the poorest parts of the country – started living the life of a messiah. His native village, Kanilai, one of the most remote settlements of The Gambia, is now one of the most beautiful places in the country with modern, state-of-the-art buildings.

Ousainou Darboe, leader of the opposition United Democratic Party, said Jammeh’s July 22 celebration is a misplaced priority. Jammeh’s government no longer thinks about positively changing the lives of the people, instead amassing wealth for himself and spending money lavishly on commemorating his coup.

Lamin Jahateh is a Gambian journalist and the editor and publisher of Gambia News Online.