Posted on Monday, 23 November 2015 10:00

Gambia Country Profile 2015: A game of cat and mouse

By The Africa Report

altAfter pulling out of the Commonwealth in 2013 to dodge criticism of his government's appalling human rights record, President Yahya Jammeh is now playing a similar cat-and-mouse game with the UN.

After he rescinded invitations for a visit by UN human rights rapporteurs in August 2014, he allowed them to visit in early November. They said that they were prohibited from investigating in certain areas but still heard evidence of torture and abuse.

The visit of the rapporteurs preceded the publication of the UN Human Rights Council's latest review, an assessment that will no doubt be harsh – but Jammeh's political positioning seems secure nonetheless.

International outrage at repeated human rights violations – especially the high-profile execution by firing squad of nine death-row prisoners at Mile 2 Prison in September 2012 – was eventually followed by determined action in 2014 when the EU suspended €150m ($191m) in development aid.

Dissidents in Senegal

Relations with neighbours have become almost equally strained, as when Jammeh ordered a sudden and unexplained week-long closure of all land borders with Senegal in April 2014.

As a member of the Jola tribe to which many Casamance rebels in southern Senegal also belong, Jammeh has promised to use his influence to find a peaceful solution in Casamance if Senegal also stops Gambian dissidents establishing a political base on its soil.

Until the latest Casamance ceasefire in April, some observers suspected him of providing the rebels with arms and shelter to prolong the fighting.

At home, Jammeh maintained a stranglehold grip through 2014 with homophobic rants and seemingly impromptu policy shifts – unexpectedly announcing in March that English would be dropped as the country's official language.

altIn July, he celebrated 20 years as president. There are no serious challengers to him or his Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction ahead of the 2016 presidential elections.

Jammeh's associates are often rapidly promoted before being sacked, but two close colleagues, vice-president Isatou Njie Saidy and interior minister Ousman Sonko, have lasted longer than most.

Opposition groups remain weak and divided, and there is a strong community of diaspora journalists and bloggers that try to check on the government's activities.

Political rivals are at a loss to even identify potential leadership candidates, especially in the largest opposition group, the United Democratic Party (UDP) – whose 66-year-old leader Ousainou Darboe will not be eligible to run in the 2016 election due to a rule banning candidates aged over 65.

Calls from the UDP for inter-party dialogue were rejected out of hand by the National Reconciliation Party's Hamat Bah.

Silencing critics

Independent media remain muzzled following the controversial 2013 amendments to the Information and Communications Act, which introduced penalties for those convicted of "spreading false news" to 15 years in prison or a fine of up to $75,000.

The intimidation campaign against journalists continued with the January 2014 arrest of freelance reporter Sainey MK Marenah and the editor-in-chief of The Voice newspaper Musa Sheriff following the publication of a story claiming 19 youth supporters had defected from the ruling party to the UDP. As The Africa Report went to press, their trial was ongoing.

Despite promising gross domestic product (GDP) growth estimates, the country's economic security remains fragile, tied as it is to financial aid from international donors, diaspora remittances and volatile revenue from tourism and groundnut exports.

Efforts to diversify Gambia's economy have failed to gain much traction. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government has reined in some of its soaring public spending. It revealed a host of fiscal and monetary reforms in early 2014.

Inflation, which peaked at 6.1% in October 2013, fell back to 5.6% in February 2014 and the African Development Bank predicted this would drop to 5.3% by 2015. The IMF warns however that the government's debt is still rising too rapidly and was set to hit 90% of GDP by the end of 2014.

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