Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has committed countless human rights abuses during his 20-year rule, but it took threatening lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights, according to three activists, to gain the world’s attention.
“All of sudden they arrest these 15 gays and lesbians, and we’re seeing really what seems to be a firestorm,” said Banka Manneh, chair of Civil Society Associations Gambia, one of three activists who participated in a roundtable organized last week by the RFK Center for Human Rights in Washington, D.C.
Now, Gambian activists are calling for a variety of efforts to help squash the dictator’s regime — including further, harsher action from bilateral donors and a stronger message from the U.S. government.
“It cannot be done by issuing press statements … that doesn't move [Jammeh],” Manneh said in reference to a statement issued by U.S. National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan, which urged the government of the Gambia to “respect all human rights, repeal discriminatory legislation and cease these harmful practices.”
Jammeh — a former military officer who seized power in a 1994 coup — signed into law in October a bill that introduced the crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” making it punishable in some cases with life in prison. The legislation is closely modeled on Uganda’s infamous anti-gay law enacted early this year.
Since early November, at least 15 people alleged to be LGBTI have been arrested by Gambian authorities, and at least eight more have fled the country, according to the activists, who added that the government now possesses a list with the names of 200 lesbians provided by a cooperative source arrested earlier.
Jammeh has decided to use the LGBTI community as “a pawn in his game ... and to buy breathing space for his dying regime,” according to Amadou Janneh, a former Gambian information minister sentenced to life in prison for treason after distributing T-shirts on the Nigerian border with the slogan “End Dictatorship Now.”
Calling for action
Support for the LGBTI community, however, will not come from within the country, according to the activists.
This is, in effect, because “Jammeh is couching the entire debate on the issue of … gay rights, that Western countries want to impose that,” Janneh said. “If we wait for groups in the Gambia to mobilize, it’s not going to happen,” he added.
In fact, there are no anti- or pro-LBGTI advocacy groups within the country, where any form of protest is illegal. The most effective campaigns have been launched by diaspora for obvious reasons, Manneh explained, because they can move around without threat of being arrested or killed.
The Gambian government will not allow acceptance of gay people to be a pre-condition for receiving development assistance "no matter how much aid is involved," Foreign Minister Bala Garba Jahumpa said in a nationally televised addressed on Saturday.
But the country’s diaspora are calling for further international action. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, has in the past threatened to withhold aid from governments that refuse to reform legislation banning homosexuality, and temporarily suspended aid to Malawi in 2011 over concerns about its attitude toward gay rights.
The European Union, which has given Gambia almost 75 million euros ($90 million) in development assistance over the past six years, suspended in Dec. 2013 a program worth 13 million euros ($16 million) due to the country’s poor rights record and its refusal to comply with the Cotonou Agreement and 17 key reforms, among them to abolish the death penalty, reopen closed newspapers and private radio stations, give foreign diplomats access to prisons and repeal draconian media laws.
This recent law targeting the LGBTI community is only one issue out of a range of human rights concerns, but despite pressure from the diaspora, the current political discussion cannot prevent the Gambian people from receiving aid, an EU representative told Devex.
An Article 8 political dialogue meeting was scheduled for November 2014, “but the Gambian side has cancelled it,” the representative said. “We seek to clarify the situation, as the dialogue is an integral part of our partnership. We are interested and open to pursuing the dialogue.”
The EU will continue working on a program under the 11th European Development Fund, the total financial resources allotted for 2014-2020. The first two years of the National Indicative Program, the plan of action to deliver on the strategic framework for EC-cooperation with Gambia, have been prepared but remains to be discussed with member states and Gambia.
“Human rights issues will obviously remain a concern for us,” the representative said.
Aside from the EU withholding program funds, “we haven’t seen much progress,” Manneh said of the international community’s response.
Mixed messaging is especially a source of concern, he explained, when Jammeh can “grab someone today and send him to the deplorable prisons he calls his ‘hotel’ … the next day he comes and meets [U.S. President Barack] Obama at the White House for dinner.”
On one hand, activists in the diaspora are making an effort to delegitimize him, but on the other hand, leaders of Western governments are meeting with him — and pictures of these meetings inevitably end up on T-shirts in Gambia, he explained.
Further action won’t come from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which does not have programs in the African country, while the U.K. Department for International Development’s bilateral aid program in the Gambia came to an end in financial year 2011-12.
Instead, activists in the diaspora are calling for threat of sanctions, including freezing assets and travel bans targeting Jammeh, his close family members and business associates. And activists do hope the U.S. will encourage multilateral organizations to help exert more pressure on the regime.
Even the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which the Gambia currently benefits from, was brought up as a way to get Jammeh’s attention.
“AGOA … if Gambia was delisted from that, it would affect the government’s position for making the case that they are bringing in American businesses,” Manneh said. But in response to a question from Devex regarding the long-lasting ramifications of such action, Janneh responded that “the threat of such action” might be enough.
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