The Gambia’s former president Yahya Jammeh wielded a potent mix of brute force and mysticism to keep citizens in a permanent state of fear, a legacy that lingers.
Whether a poor farmer or government minister, nobody could feel safe during Jammeh’s 22-year rule.
Now, weeks after the paranoid autocrat was chased from power in the tiny nation almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, voices are being raised to demand justice, but the hurdles are many.
They include pervasive superstition — including beliefs that Jammeh had supernatural powers — which for many citizens has blurred the lines between truth and fiction.
Jammeh’s aura “made people scared of him, so people did exactly what he told them to do,” said Fabakary Ceesay, a journalist who went into exile after reporting on forced disappearances and rights abuses.
Wild stories abounded during Jammeh’s tenure.
Back in 2009, AFP spoke to victims of the poisoning of a thousand villagers with a herbal concoction so powerful that several died, after Jammeh alleged they had used witchcraft against his aunt. Some of them reported being raped.
“People die in custody or during interrogations, it’s really common,” Jammeh told the magazine Jeune Afrique in May 2016 after the death of an opposition activist, Solo Sandeng, whom some allege was fed to his crocodiles.
Jammeh faced down several coup attempts after he seized power in 1994. They fuelled his paranoia and by extension that of his people.
As a result, in the later years of his rule he came to rely ever more on a close circle of fanatically violent supporters.
His death squad, known as the Junglers, and the secret police of the National Intelligence Agency who reported directly to him, helped sow fear.
The Junglers carried out “arbitrary arrests, detention, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings,” the UN special rapporteur on torture wrote in a 2015 report.
Buba Sanyang, a prominent supporter of Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction party, was among those arrested.
“The last time I set my eyes on him was in April 2006 before I left the village,” his son Musa Sanyang said.
Relatives at Serrekunda in Greater Banjul told Sanyang his father had been picked up by army officers and no reason was given for his detention.
“We have searched for him everywhere, but the government continued insisting that he is not in their custody,” he said, calling on the new administration to deliver the answers his family has wanted for so long.
But Jammeh also harnessed centuries-old beliefs, surrounding himself with “marabouts” — respected religious figures who combine Islam with spiritualist practices.
After whipping up rallies into a frenzy, Jammeh would sometimes “heal” a young woman who had fainted nearby.
In 2007, he declared he could cure HIV with herbal mixtures, later adding infertility and asthma to his list.
Critics also blamed his alleged powers when terrible things happened.
In January, the young son of newly elected president Adama Barrow died of dog bites, shortly after Barrow fled the country for his own safety while Jammeh reversed his acceptance of defeat at the polls.
The dog was finally put down, but by then the suspicion of involvement by Jammeh or powerful Guinean witchdoctors he frequented had sent Banjul’s rumour mill into a frenzy.
Before leaving for exile in Equatorial Guinea, Jammeh had a witchdoctor visit the presidential palace, Senegalese media reported.
Rumours brewed that poisonous gas cylinders were left in vents. Though these have been quashed, Barrow is still running the country from a luxury hotel, his spokesman has confirmed.
Bill Roberts, a US-based professor of anthropology, said that whatever people truly believed, fear led to a credulous public reaction.
“I think there was a lot of scepticism among educated Gambians about Jammeh’s claims to heal people, but that scepticism could not be voiced publicly,” Roberts told AFP by email.
“Other people believed him I think in part out of desperation for a ’cure’ if they were afflicted, or fear of death from a disease they did not understand,” he added.
Real or imagined, Jammeh’s abuses have fuelled desire for him to be held accountable.
Barrow has promised to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but also said The Gambia will rejoin the International Criminal Court after Jammeh pulled the country out last year.
Some were angry when the UN and African political bodies stated that Jammeh would be treated with respect, allowed to return to The Gambia at any time and to keep “lawfully acquired” possessions.
Since then, General Bora Colley, the head of a Gambian military commando unit, has been arrested in Senegal, and experts believe the government still has plenty of leeway to prosecute crimes such as torture, for which there is no amnesty in international law.
“Jammeh could be prosecuted in Gambia, in another country or before an international court,” Reed Brody, a lawyer instrumental in the prosecution of Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, told AFP.
- The Gambia’s former president Yahya Jammeh.