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The comeback of Gambia's dictator

September 9, 2021

Rights groups in the Gambia are up in arms about the potential return of former dictator Yahya Jammeh to the West African country ahead of crucial December elections.

Yahya Jammeh and Adama Barrow
Gambia's former dictator Yahya Jammeh (left) and current President Adama Barrow (right)

Human rights groups in the Gambia have decried the possible return of former President Yahya Jammeh, who ruled the Gambia from 1994 until he was forced into exile after refusing to accept defeat in the 2016 elections.

Jammeh is accused of human rights violations and killings of political opponents during his 22-year reign.

Ahead of upcoming presidential elections in December, President Adama Barrow's National People's Party (NPP) announced a merger with Jammeh's Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).

"Our objective is for former president Jammeh to return to this country peacefully and in dignity," APRC secretary-general Fabakary Tombong Jatta told a press conference in the capital, Banjul.

Jatta did not offer further details about the conditions of the agreement with Barrow's party.

However, some have interpreted his comments as meaning that the merger agreement may allow for Jammeh to return from exile without facing prosecution if Barrow wins the election.

The rule of Yahya Jammeh, seen here after voting in 2016 elections, was marked by widespread abusesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay

Strong feelings over alliance

Human rights groups and victims' associations in the Gambia have characterized the alliance as a betrayal.

"Adama Barrow, by all indications, he is a traitor. He is a huge disappointment to the people of the Gambia. I can say that — this is the greatest betrayal of the century," the chairman of the Gambia Center for Victims and Human Rights Violations, Sheriff Kejira, told DW.

"It is quite shocking and despicable for the victims and very depressing. So many victims of Yahya's brutality couldn't sleep when his party announced the merger with Barrow," Kejira said.

Many ordinary Gambians are also disappointed in the political alliance.

"For me, the merger is a betrayal to the Gambian people. So, I am disappointed like many Gambians," Banjul resident Essa Barry told DW.

Banjul resident Abubacar Saidykhan warned that Barrow shouldn't be surprised if he lost the upcoming election because of the alliance with Jammeh's party.

However, in a tweet, Jeffrey Smith, the founder of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, emphasized that the informal alliance is between political parties and not between Barrow and his former arch-rival Jammeh.

Political tactics

Political scientist Ensa Njie sees the NPP-APRC union as a strong team but adds it is still too early to evaluate if the political tactics of forming an alliance will pay off in the December 4 election.

"APRC-NPP alliance will be a formidable team but it also depends on how the Gambians will perceive the alliance," Njie told DW. "It might be premature for us to say that the APRC-NPP alliance will emerge victoriously."

Instead, the 2021 presidential elections could see a similar situation to 2016, when seven parties formed a coalition to run against Jammeh, said Njie, a political science lecturer at the University of the Gambia.

"So the dynamics may change in the coming days or weeks."

Jammeh's defeat by Adama Barrow in 2016 elections came as surpriseImage: Reuters/T. Gouegnon

Jammeh's reign of terror

Jammeh seized power in 1994 as part of a bloodless military coup. He then ruled with an iron fist until January 2017, when he fled to Equatorial Guinea after losing presidential elections to Barrow, who was relatively unknown at the time.

The Gambia's government subsequently established a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to investigate the litany of abuses allegedly committed under his 22-year rule.

The panel has heard chilling testimony about state-sanctioned torture, death squads, rape, and witch hunts.

It is due to hand a report on its findings to President Barrow later in September.

While the truth commission has no power to convict, rights groups are highly anticipating its report to see whether it will recommend pursuing criminal charges against Jammeh.

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Sankulleh Janko in Banjul contributed to this report.

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