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. There has been an increasing amount of anti-UK rhetoric from the Gambian president shown on TV and reported in the newspapers. This may increase anti-UK sentiment among parts of the wider population.’
The move may indeed have been a response to increasing criticism of the erratic president (the Daily Telegraphcalled 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’. Speaking to the BBCfrom the US, he said: ‘I do not see, and most Gambians that I know do not see, the Commonwealth as an extension of colonialism. Rather we see it as a club of civilised nations coming together to forge ahead for progress.’
But Jammeh has his sights set on greater things. In an interview with New African magazine, he said: ‘You will see more advancement. In the next five years we want The Gambia to be one of the leading economies in the entire world, not only in Africa.’