The tiny African country of the Gambia rarely receives international media attention. Perhaps once a year, shocking statements from its president, Yahya Jammeh, might win it a small news blurb, but even then, these stories tend to be treated in a perfunctory, “look at this wacko human rights abuser” manner: reporting something awful or absurd—like his declaration that LGBT people are “vermin”, or that he has developed a cure for AIDS—but doing so in a derisive or condescending tone. A headline like “Five Crazy Things About Gambia’s Jammeh” is fairly typical. (The latest zaniness-oriented reporting has been centered on an incredibly poorly planned attempted coup by two Gambian-Americans against whom the U.S. Department of Justice just filed charges.)
However, such gawking, hit-and-run style reportage overlooks the very real, very sinister way that Jammeh has solidified his hold on power by co-opting the language of anticorruption as a rhetorical tool to justify his tenure, and by using purported anticorruption crackdowns as a weapon to eliminate his opponents. By utilizing the language of anticorruption advocates, and selectively throwing certain members of the government to the wolves while perpetually tossing the (anticorruption) book at his political opponents, Jammeh has managed to create the myth that his administration is at least relatively committed to fighting corruption, and is the best hope for the Gambia to pursue economic development.
Although the Gambia is nominally a democracy, Jammeh has used control over the media, anti-opposition violence, and a variety of other tactics to ensure his reelection since the 1994 coup that brought him to power. Among these tactics is his presentation of himself as cleaning up Gambian graft, primarily through the following techniques:
- Framing himself in contrast to his predecessor: President Dawda Jawara, who preceded Jammeh, was largely praised by the international community (perhaps excessively) as overseeing a thriving multiparty democracy. However, increasing reports of official malfeasance led to a sense of dissatisfaction among the public that enabled Jammeh to lead a bloodless coup and take over the presidency. After the coup, Jammeh had high-ranking military leaders repeatedly hold press conferences emphasizing the previous government’s corruption. To this day, Jammeh continues to emphasize the corruption that existed under Jawara as a justification for the coup and highlight his own “zero tolerance” policy.
- Using the language of anticorruption campaigners in order to claim he is engaged in strong anticorruption efforts: In his frequent claims that his government has zero tolerance for corruption, Jammeh is adopting the language used by Transparency International and an increasing number of donors, thereby framing himself as a reformer doing his best to clean up the messy system around him. His appropriation of the rhetoric and methods of the international anticorruption movement has continued with his recent announcement of a “Citizen’s Budget,” a concept for increased accountability that the International Monetary Fund has endorsed and for which the UN Development Program is providing support. However, even in the unlikely scenario that Gambia fully follows through with its obligations under this program, the idea of “citizens [who are] able to exercise their responsibility to hold the government to account”—in the words of the UNDP representative praising the program—collapses in the face of the disappearances, torture, and journalist intimidation that face anyone who criticizes Jammeh. He has also recently moved towards instituting an Anticorruption Commission, another frequent TI recommendation. Opposition leaders are skeptical that the commission will be anything other than a way of removing inconvenient political opposition.
- Selective responses to allegations of corruption: Due to limited resources, governments can never pursue all potential prosecutions. However, under Jammeh, the selective and politically biased use of corruption charges has been particularly egregious. Corruption prosecutions are usually brought against political threats, with extreme torture used to induce confessions. Additionally, Jammeh will occasionally remove a government official whose misbehavior has been particularly outrageous, as he did in the case of government minister Yankuba Touray, as a sort of exception-that-proves-the-rule way of burnishing his reputation. However, provided these removed officials prove their loyalty, they may be granted a second chance at a political life—as happened to Touray several years after the corruption charges originally led to his removal.
Despite these ostensible anticorruption efforts, Jammeh’s government is replete with graft and malfeasance. Disappointingly predictable stories about embezzled development aid abound. A more unusual accusation is that foreign judges, who are brought in to assist with criminal cases, are largely controlled through executive inducements and consequently expansively interpret the definition of “sedition” to enable further politically motivated prosecutions and convictions. No one claims Gambia is clean, nor does that necessarily seem to be Jammeh’s rhetorical gambit. Instead, he has relied on making himself seem not quite awful enough to merit pressure to change; with so many boxes already ticked in the “negative” column, fighting corruption and (allegedly) facilitating development are some of the few positives he can cling to. His efforts have successfully persuaded at least the United States government that “senior government officials take anti-corruption efforts seriously.”
What is perhaps the most disturbing about Jammeh’s corruption-based manipulation of domestic and international sentiment is that it is not particularly creative. Nevertheless, his tried-and-true techniques have won him enough breathing space to avoid becoming a frequent punching bag in the anticorruption community, or in the world more broadly. Jammeh seems content to be our annual joke, so long as he gets to stay president. It’s up to us whether we want to move beyond shaking our heads with disgust while we laugh. At the very least, allowing him lay claim to the “anticorruption advocate” life preserver has to stop.