How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On April 14, on the outskirts of Banjul, the capital of the West African country of Gambia, a small group of young men and women gathered on a street corner, carrying banners calling for the resignation of President Yahya Jammeh, the autocrat who has ruled the country for more than 20 years. The protesters were members of the United Democratic Party (UDP), and their frustration at Jammeh’s brutal and corrupt regime had reached a tipping point.
Months earlier, the government had introduced new electoral laws that redrew district boundaries to favor the ruling party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, and increased the registration fee for new parties. And in March, the party nominated Jammeh as its candidate for the presidential elections scheduled for December, for what would be his fifth five-year term.
The protesters were led by Ebrima Solo Sandeng, a young and prominent member of the UDP. As he and the others marched along the main thoroughfare that leads to the center of Banjul, soldiers clad in full military gear blocked their way. According to eyewitness reports, the soldiers hit Sandeng and the other protesters with the butts of their rifles, threw them in the back of army trucks, and drove them away to the notorious Mile II prison. According to a statement by one prisoner, the soldiers then took them in groups of five to the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency in Banjul, where drunken, masked men tortured them. Sandeng himself was beaten repeatedly and then led into a courtyard, where, the prisoner recounted, he lay “on the ground, badly beaten and bleeding profusely.” When the prisoner called out his name, there was no response.
The following day, after reports surfaced that Sandeng had died, the government denied the story and accused its opponents of slander. On April 16, Ousainou Darboe, the head of the UDP, demanded that the government produce Sandeng “dead or alive.” He and at least six other senior members of the party were arrested and taken away. Since then, the opposition has continued to hold regular peaceful protests across the country, with many demonstrators carrying brooms to express their desire to rid the government of corruption. Government troops have responded by beating and arresting protesters, many of whom remain unaccounted for. The protests are the largest Gambia has seen for more than a decade, but the regime seems likely to withstand the pressure.
Since seizing power in a military coup in 1994, Jammeh has presided over one of Africa’s most repressive dictatorships. He has stifled independent media, used paramilitary groups to intimidate critics, and targeted political opponents and LGBT activists. Jammeh rules by fiat, and takes advice from no one except for a close circle of business associates on matters that affect his sprawling commercial empire. His cabinet takes orders from him alone.
The protests are the largest Gambia has seen for more than a decade, but the regime seems likely to withstand the pressure.
For personal protection, Jammeh depends heavily on foreign mercenaries from Morocco, Senegal, and elsewhere. He is suspicious by nature, and relies on his own instincts rather than expert advice. Gambian national television will often show him instructing professional engineers to change the design of a road project. If senior ministers disobey his instructions, he often fires them immediately, exiles them, or even imprisons them.
Jammeh has survived rebellions before. On December 30, 2014, a group of former Gambian military officers, including dissidents based in the United States and Europe, attacked the presidential palace in the most serious attempted coup since 1994. Jammeh survived, but the episode succeeded in creating divisions within the ranks of the army. Allegations swirled that elements of the regime’s armed forces had collaborated with the dissidents to topple the government. Jammeh was forced to form a new personal security detail.
The attempted coup weakened the regime, and Jammeh’s crackdown on allegedly disloyal elements within the armed forces increased resentment. Meanwhile, international pressure has grown. In May, the European Parliament passed a strongly worded resolution urging EU countries to consider instituting travel bans on senior members of the Jammeh regime, freezing non-humanitarian aid, and introducing other targeted sanctions. Activists hope that the United States will follow the EU’s advice and finally impose a travel ban on key regime officials and freeze Jammeh’s assets, which include a $3.5 million mansion in Potomac, Maryland.
Yet despite the pressure, Jammeh is unlikely to pass real reforms. He sees negotiating with opposition parties as a sign of weakness, and in a recent meeting with supporters, he confirmed that he will “never work with the opposition,” whom he considers enemies of the state.
Although the demonstrations have died down, tensions remain high. For now, the battle seems to have shifted from the nation’s streets to its courtrooms. Last week, the lawyers representing Darboe, the head of the opposition, walked out of court in protest, complaining that armed soldiers had insisted on being present during their consultations with the defendant, a clear breach of lawyer-client confidentiality.
If the protests should spill back onto the streets, Jammeh will take care to use less force to avoid excessive international criticism, despite his recent warning that he will bury his political opponents “nine feet deep” if they should stoke violence.
The opposition will be able to topple the regime only if the three main opposition parties unite. Until then, a revolution remains a distant prospect. A military coup is also unlikely, as Jammeh’s military is divided and among the most unprofessional and undisciplined in the region.
The most promising option for change is legal pressure. Civil society organizations are challenging Gambia’s electoral laws in the court of the Economic Community of West African States, arguing that they impede the promotion of democracy, a key mission of the regional body. Although the court lacks the power to fully enforce its rulings, it can order punitive measures that include suspending or expelling Gambia from ECOWAS. Such moves would increase the pressure on Jammeh to consider reform.
The international community should also apply sanctions against a regime that uses torture, endorses extrajudicial killings, and threatens the LGBT community with beheadings. The European Parliament has recommended travel bans and the freezing of non-humanitarian aid. The United States should follow suit. Without such measures, Jammeh will continue to maintain the status quo.