Uses and Abuses of Anticorruption Tactics in the Gambia

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.

4 thoughts on “Uses and Abuses of Anticorruption Tactics in the Gambia

  1. This is so fascinating and sad! But it does happen often, where parties and politicians take on an anticorruption platform in order to get votes, and when I was researching anticorruption parties I came across a blog post by Transparency International talking about this problem. They suggest that the solution is to find ways for voters to hold politicians accountable, one example being voter scorecards. Perhaps these scorecards could list all the promises and make it easier for voters to see what is being fulfilled and what isn’t. I think that’s a great idea, but it doesn’t solve the problem of politicians getting elected on false promises to begin with. And this problem isn’t specific to anticorruption. Politicians often take on issues that they know the public cares about to get votes, and it happens here as well. Do you think this is just an issue that comes along with politics in general? Or is there something more particular about anticorruption? And if there is, how do we tell who is making false promises and find ways to prevent that without causing a chilling effect on politicians who might be genuinely interested in anticorruption issues? Or maybe we don’t need to do anything about it or can’t do anything about it but I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    • These are great questions, so I’m sorry for not getting to them earlier! Yes, I think you’re right that this is an issue that comes with politics in general (though perhaps it’s particularly acute with something that at least facially is so very much in the “good thing” category; you can debate, say, the right degree of social welfare support, but being against corruption is generally not something that’s going to get you criticized by the average person)–but it’s also something anticorruption advocates need to be extra-cautious to police against/call out, even if just for the sake of momentum. As for finding out false promises, sometimes it seems like something fairly easy to discover with a bit of research (you don’t have to dig too deep in the case of the Gambia), but the less free a state is, the more difficult the process is going to be. In those cases, short of typical investigative techniques (speaking to people who used to be part of the regime [while trying to remember not to simply accept everything they say at face value], people who used to live in the country or if you can manage it those who still do, looking for the telltale signs on balance sheets which I’m not experienced enough to spot but which I know skilled practitioners are often able to note), I’m not sure I know what the answer is.

  2. You make several really interesting points, Katie. First, it doesn’t sound like Western media treats Jammeh very seriously. But, to the extent you can tell, what about the press and commentators in the Gambia? I’m a little surprised that Jawara was deposed because of what sounds like comparatively low-grade misconduct (although, as you note, perhaps his appeal was overblown). Have there been efforts to mobilize against Jammeh? Do Gambian voters find his anticorruption efforts more or less satisfactory? Second, the your observation that Jammeh appropriates TI rhetoric raises some serious issues. Of course, many global anticorruption advocates seek behavior change at the leadership level. On the one hand, groups like TI would want leaders to espouse their mission. On the other hand, however, they risk losing credibility if they become too closely appropriated with corrupt leaders. How can these organizations protect their brands?

    • Also great questions! As much as I can tell, there’s sort of a “that’s just the way things are” acceptance in much of the Gambian public (though there’s a very vocal anti-Jammeh diaspora community). There have been enough attacks on press freedom that (and once again, I’d welcome someone more expert than I providing supplementary information) there are real limits to what the press is willing to publish; that’s definitely one of the bigger problems there. Parsing the degree to which Jammeh’s anticorruption rhetoric is targeted domestically vs. internationally is something I wish I was better positioned to do more confidently. My instinct is that issues traditionally classed as more “economic” (though of course corruption has real economic implications) tend to be of more concern for the general public, and I think the general public perception (which is not to say it’s accurate) is that he’s doing fairly well on that score. That’s not a real answer to your first question, which I think is a really important one to discover the answer to.

      Yes, “brand management” is a dilemma, especially when what’s being misused are concepts which you don’t have a specific right to prevent others from using but with which you are clearly associated. To go for the low-hanging fruit first, part of it is choosing which governments you associate yourself with (less true for TI here and moreso for the UNDP), though of course that gets us back to the long-running debate about whether it’s better to engage in development work knowing that some of the money will be misused but some of it will help people or whether it’s better to disengage entirely. For the trickier question of rhetoric, my first thought is to take an active role in calling out the people who use your words but don’t live up to them. There surely must be other, more advanced techniques I haven’t thought of, though.

      Incidentally, the latest Google-bombing/positive-publicity-winning tactic out of the Gambia is an offer to resettle Rohingya refugees:

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