Profile: The Gambia's Yahya Jammeh

Who is the man behind Gambia's Commonwealth exit? Daniela Ritorto explains

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Known for walking around with his trademark prayer beads and a stick, Yahya Jammeh is reputed to be one of the world's most eccentric and ruthless leaders.

Born in May 1965, he came to power in 1994 as a 29-year-old army lieutenant. Now, he is a portly president who portrays himself as a devout Muslim with miraculous powers, such as the power to cure people of Aids and infertility. He also believes that homosexuality threatens human existence.

Mr Jammeh divorced his first wife Tuti Faal and subsequently married two other women, though his official website refers only to Zineb Yahya Jammeh, who holds the title of First Lady.

According to The Gambia's privately owned Point newspaper, he married his second wife, Alima Sallah, in 2010, but Mr Jammeh's office issued an instruction that she should not be referred to as First Lady - in contrast to South Africa where all four wives of President Jacob Zuma hold the title.

"She is not to be addressed as the First Lady because, according to protocol, there can only be one First Lady and, in this case, that is Madam Zineb Yahya Jammeh," the newspaper quoted the presidency as saying.

Mr Jammeh, claiming that he has the support of most Gambians, nearly all of whom are Muslims, has won four multi-party elections - his latest victory was in 2011 when he obtained 72% of the vote.

But in a sign that his credibility among African leaders had plummeted, the regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), refused to endorse his victory, saying voters and the opposition had been "cowed by repression and intimidation".

Start Quote

I will deliver to the Gambian people and if I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will, if Allah says so”

End Quote Yahya Jammeh The Gambia's president

His decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth, which had been pushing for reforms in the tiny West African state, is a further sign of Mr Jammeh's growing isolation, analysts say.

The Gambia, portrayed in tourist brochures as an idyllic holiday destination, is the second African country to pull out of the Commonwealth in the past decade - Zimbabwe took a similar decision in 2003 after the body extended sanctions against President Robert Mugabe's government because of its human rights record.

Many African leaders, including South Africa's then-President Thabo Mbeki, rallied around Mr Mugabe, believing he was the victim of a Western plot to oust him.

'Aids cure'

Although Mr Jammeh will probably seek to whip up anti-Western feelings, he is unlikely to gain much support in Africa as he lacks the political stature of Mr Mugabe, who led his country's struggle for independence from colonial rule in the 1970s.

Soldiers celebrate Yahya Jammeh victory in elections (November 2011) Soldiers celebrated Mr Jammeh's victory in the 2011 elections

In an interview in 2011 with the BBC's Focus on Africa radio programme, Mr Jammeh said he did not fear a fate similar to Libya's killed leader Muammar Gaddafi or Egypt's ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

"My fate is in the hands of almighty Allah," he told the BBC.

"I will deliver to the Gambian people and if I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will, if Allah says so."

Mr Jammeh said he was not bothered by the criticism of human rights groups.

Start Quote

Homosexuality in all its forms and manifestations which, though very evil, antihuman as well as anti-Allah, is being promoted as a human right by some powers”

End Quote Yahya Jammeh The Gambia's president

"I will not bow down before anybody, except the almighty Allah and if they don't like that they can go to hell," he said.

'Executions'

Mr Jammeh is known for expressing bizarre views. In 2007, he claimed that he could cure Aids with a herbal concoction - a view condemned by health experts.

Later, he also claimed that he could cure infertility among women.

Mr Jammeh is also known for his virulent opposition to gay rights, having once threatened to behead gay people.

During an address to the UN General Assembly last month, Mr Jammeh lamented that Western governments were pushing for homosexuality to be legalised.

"Homosexuality in all its forms and manifestations which, though very evil, anti-human as well as anti-Allah, is being promoted as a human right by some powers," he said.

The Gambian government's treatment of journalists and opposition parties has also caused huge concern among human rights groups.

Mr Jammeh's government has been under intense pressure to solve the murder of the editor of The Point newspaper, Deyda Hydara.

Gunned down in 2004, he has become a symbol of the campaign for press freedom in The Gambia.

The international media group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says there is "absolute intolerance of any form of criticism" in The Gambia, with death threats, surveillance and arbitrary night-time arrests the daily lot of journalists "who do not sing the government's praises".

In the BBC interview, Mr Jammeh denied his security agents had killed Mr Hydara.

Yahya Jammeh: At a glance

  • Born in May 1965
  • Seized power in a coup in 1994
  • Last year he vowed to stay in power for "a billion years", if God wills
  • He also ordered the execution of criminals and political opponents on death row
  • Claimed in 2007 he can cure Aids and infertility with herbal concoctions
  • Warned in 2008 that gay people would be beheaded
  • Denies his security agents killed journalist Deyda Hydara in 2004

"Other people have also died in this country. So why is Deyda Hydara so special?" he said.

In August last year, Mr Jammeh used a speech to celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid to announce that all prisoners on death row would be executed, effectively ending a moratorium that had been in place for 27 years.

"By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would have been carried out to the letter; there is no way my government will allow 99% of the population to be held to ransom by criminals," Mr Jammeh said at the time.

Nine people were executed, including Alieu Bah, a former lieutenant in the army who was arrested and jailed in 1997 for plotting to oust Mr Jammeh.

He agreed to halt further executions, following unprecedented pressure from the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU).

Despite Mr Jammeh's isolation on the world stage, there is little sign that his hold on power within The Gambia is under threat at this point.

He runs one of the most feared intelligence agencies in Africa, with its tentacles spread across the country - so much so that people in cities and villages fear speaking ill of the man who is officially referred to as his "His Excellency Sheikh, Professor, Alhaji, Doctor Yahya AJJ Jammeh".

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