The flag of The Gambia joins the Commonwealth's other 52 flagsThe Gambia's new High Commissioner to the UK: "The Gambia will also draw on all that the Commonwealth collectively has to offer". [photo: ComSec]

On 8 February, 2018, The Gambia returned to the Commonwealth. The diplomatic negotiations of the previous year culminated in a flag-raising ceremony at the Commonwealth’s administrative headquarters, Marlborough House.

To mark the occasion, we have dipped into the archives of the Round Table Journal to chart The Gambia’s up-and-down relationship with the Commonwealth.

Derek Ingram, Commonwealth Update (1994): Soldiers rampaged through Banjul on 22 July 1994 because they had not been paid for three months. They took over the airport, radio station and a power station, and staged a coup. President Sir Dawda Jawara and his family took refuge in a US warship anchored offshore. Lieutenant Yaya Jameh, aged 28, declared himself president and set up a provisional ruling council. Later he formed a 15-member government composed almost equally of soldiers and civilians. He said his government would ‘apply transparency and accountability’……The new coup was a setback for the Commonwealth’s march towards greater democracy, especially since Sierra Leone seemed to be moving from military to civilian rule and Nigeria seemed likely to be the last military government left. Commonwealth Secretary-General General Emeka Anyaoku called the coup ‘a tragedy for The Gambia, which has a credible record in the field of human rights’. An offer by Anyaoku to help resolve the situation was rebuffed by Jameh.

Report of the Ninth Meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) on the Harare Declaration, Marlborough House, 1998: The Group recognised the progress made so far towards the consolidation of civilian democratic and constitutional rule in The Gambia and the role being played by the Commonwealth Secretariat’s various programmes designed to contribute to strengthening democratic processes and institutions in that country. It requested the Secretary General to continue to assist The Gambia with such technical assistance and, in view of its continuing concerns, that he should monitor developments in The Gambia, keeping CMAG informed as appropriate.

Political historian specialising in The Gambia, David Perfect, assessed The Gambia under Yahya Jammeh (March 2010): Gambian relations with the Commonwealth were excellent under Jawara, but have deteriorated under Jammeh. At its first meeting in 1995, the CMAG decided to focus its attention on The Gambia as one of the three countries guilty of serious or persistent violation of the Harare Declaration principles, and it was not until its 16th meeting in 2001 that The Gambia was removed from its remit. By contrast, Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs), which are held every two years, have rarely discussed The Gambia. Despite calls at the Commonwealth human rights forum held just before the 2007 CHOGM meeting in Kampala for The Gambia to be suspended from the Commonwealth over its human rights record, the official CHOGM communique´ made no specific reference to the country. The next CHOGM took place in Trinidad and Tobago in November 2009, as this article was going to press, and it remains to be seen whether more attention will be paid to Gambian affairs.

Oren Gruenbaum, Commonwealth Update 2010: Eleven security officials suspected of being involved in an abortive coup attempt in 2009, including Ajatta Gibba, the man heading a probe into the plot, were arrested, the South African Press Association reported. The arrests come four months after eight people, including the former army and intelligence chiefs, were sentenced to death in Banjul over the alleged coup. Those arrested in November also include Lewis Gomez, head of internal security in the National Intelligence Agency, and two men said to have been star witnesses in the case against the suspected plotters. Gambia was the biggest faller for personal safety and corruption of the 53 African countries listed in the Ibrahim Index, while also scoring zero for the strength of the judicial process, human rights and press freedom. Its ranking for officials’ accountability also plummeted. Economically, however, it improved.

David Perfect, writing for the Round Table Journal (June 2014): On 2 October 2013, President Yahya Jammeh announced over the state-owned Gambia Radio and Television Service (GRTS) that The Gambia would leave the Commonwealth with immediate effect. The Gambia thus became the first country to resign from the Commonwealth since Zimbabwe in December 2003 although, unlike the latter, it had not previously been suspended…..The Gambia joined the Commonwealth at independence in February 1965 and relations between the two were excellent under Sir Dawda Jawara, the country’s first post-independence ruler. However, they deteriorated under Jammeh, who seized power in a military coup in July 1994, mainly because of the country’s very poor human rights record. In 1995, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) focused its attention on The Gambia for violating the Harare Declaration principles and it was not until 2001 that the country was removed from its remit. In 2007, there were calls for The Gambia to be suspended from the Commonwealth over its human rights record, but the communiqués issued by the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) in 2007 and 2009 did not refer to the country. The Gambian government’s initial press release of 2 October stated that: ‘The Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of Colonialism’. In a subsequent press release issued on 7 October, the government reiterated that the decision was ‘final and not subject to negotiation’, and bizarrely described the Commonwealth as ‘at best a neo-colonial institution and at worst an animal farm’. It seems likely that the decision (which apparently was made without the knowledge of senior government members) was made by Jammeh alone. Jammeh’s motives remain unclear despite the publication in February 2014 of a pamphlet, A Million Reasons to Leave the Commonwealth, which was ostensibly written by Jammeh himself……One theory is that Jammeh was responding to a Commonwealth proposal to create a commission in Banjul to protect human rights and media rights as well as to fight corruption……Commonwealth officials, who had had no prior notification of The Gambia’s withdrawal, were clearly shocked.

Oren Gruenbaum, Commonwealth Update (November 2013): And Then There Were 53. To complete what secretary-general Kamalesh Sharma must be feeling is his own annus horribilis, the Commonwealth of Nations lost one of its number in October when President Yahya Jammeh said he was withdrawing The Gambia from the organisation after 48 years of membership, declaring: ‘The Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism.’

A Commonwealth Secretariat spokesman said Sharma had seen the reports with ‘dismay and disappointment’ and had asked for clarification from the country.

The UK’s Foreign Office announced on its travel advice website: ‘Following political disagreement between the government of The Gambia and the European Union about the deterioration of human rights in The Gambia, there has been an increase in political tension.’

The move may indeed have been a response to increasing criticism of the erratic president (the Daily Telegraph called His Excellency Sheikh Professor Al-Haji Dr Jammeh ‘deranged’ in its headline). If Jammeh is known abroad, it is for claiming to be able to cure Aids, his rants about gays and lesbians, and detaining hundreds of old women suspected of being witches and forcing them to drink emetic herbal potions. Allegations of widescale arbitrary detentions, murder of independent-minded journalists, and paranoid arrests of ministers suspected of coups are less well known, and certainly have never troubled the country’s lucrative package-holiday industry.

Ebrima Sankareh, editor of the Gambia Echo, described Jammeh as a ‘despot’ who was ‘trying to shy away from the committee of civilised nations because part of his regime is a blatant disregard of human rights.’

David Perfect, writing in May 2017 on The Gambian 2016 Presidential Election and its Aftermath (May 2017): On 1 December 2016, Adama Barrow won the fifth Gambian presidential election since the country’s first president, Sir Dawda Jawara, was ousted in a military coup in 1994. Barrow defeated Yahya Jammeh, who had won the four previous elections, and a third candidate, Mamma (or Mama) Kandeh. After initially accepting the result, Jammeh changed his mind a week later, thus triggering a major political crisis. He made desperate attempts to cling to power by challenging the result through the courts, rejecting mediation by other West African leaders and declaring a state of emergency. The crisis only ended on 21 January 2017 when, faced by the prospect of being removed by force, Jammeh finally left the country. Having earlier been inaugurated as president at the Gambian embassy in Senegal, Barrow returned to Banjul on 26 January to assume office.

Barrow is expected to seek closer relations with the EU and especially with Great Britain, with a priority being to rejoin the Commonwealth, which The Gambia left very abruptly in October 2013. Relations with Senegal, which have been poor in recent years, should also improve.

David Perfect on The Gambia’s return to the Commonwealth (May 2017): President Barrow has not stated publicly why he considers membership of the Commonwealth so important. It is probable, however, that Barrow is seeking to follow the approach of the country’s first president, Sir Dawda Jawara, who pragmatically sought to establish good relations with any country or international organisation that could assist The Gambia’s development. This included the Commonwealth which was able to offer the country a degree of economic and political support. Significantly, Barrow also announced in February that The Gambia intends to recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC. Like Jawara, Barrow appears to value the fact that members of the Commonwealth, regardless of size, all have an equal status; this means that its voice can be heard on an international stage.

The Commonwealth Secretariat on the 8 February flag-raising ceremony: The Gambia’s ambassador to the UK now becomes its High Commissioner, signifying Commonwealth membership. Both the new High Commissioner and Secretary-General Patricia Scotland attended the flag-raising ceremony.

Speaking about his country’s return, High Commissioner Francis Blain said:
“I am thrilled to represent my country as it formally rejoins the Commonwealth after an absence of several years – and to become High Commissioner rather than Ambassador. The Gambia looks forward to being able both to contribute to and benefit from the collective wisdom of the Commonwealth family of countries, and to playing an active role in supporting the work of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the many other organisations and initiatives that flourish as expressions of Commonwealth connection.”

“The Government and people of The Gambia will also draw on all that the Commonwealth collectively has to offer, assisting in practical ways to address a wide range of pressing issues – including protecting the environment and tackling climate change, and the empowerment of women and young people.”


Related articles:

The Gambia rejoins the Commonwealth – Commonwealth Secretariat.

The Gambia’s Chief Justice Hassan Jallow talks to the Round Table in October 2017 about his country’s return to the Commonwealth [Video].

Why the Commonwealth’s future is on the way up – Sir Peter Marshall.