A ten-day long celebration marking 20 years since the coming to power of Gambian dictator President Yahya Jammeh is under way in The Gambia. The 49-year-old Jammeh took the position through a military coup he masterminded on 22 July, 1994 after 29 years of civil and “democratic” rule.
Whereas many argue that there is nothing much to celebrate, Jammeh and his supporters often claim that the 22 July coup brought development to The Gambia worthy of sober reflection. The coup celebrations are so important that the independence day celebrating freedom from British colonial rule has been reduced to a minor national holiday officiated by regional governors and mayors.
However, in its submission to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Gambia, human rights organisation Amnesty International said, “Since Gambia’s first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2010, the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated. The government continues to stifle freedom of expression and commit other human rights violations with impunity.”
The opening of the celebrations on Friday, 10 October was attended by several other African heads of states, Islamic scholar Dr. Zakir Naik, and foreign dignitaries. Later that evening a state banquet hosted by The Gambian leader at the State House grounds was also attended by the Bissau-Guinean head of state, the speaker of the National Assembly of Gabon, and foreign dignitaries, among others.
In his address to supporters at the Independence Stadium in Bakau also aired by state broadcaster, GRTS, Jammeh listed his development achievements, which he said is unprecedented. He also promised that by September 2015, he will remove all school fees to provide free education for all Gambians. Jammeh dismissed colonialism and reiterated zero tolerance for corruption and homosexuality.
Despite all the progress and so-called development since President Jammeh took power, The Gambia is still among the poorest countries in the world. Statistics from the World Bank show that more than 60 percent of the country’s population live below the global poverty line of $2 a day.
Sarjo Bayang, a regular commentator on issues in the country berated President Jammeh for what he described as death of the national economy and financial systems in an opinion piece widely published in Gambian online media. He wrote:
Deep biting economic hardship and financial meltdown that Gambians continue to suffer is at the extreme situation of thermal death for a nation in grief with no hope of redemption. Refusing to share the excruciating pain that ravages whole society the country’s President Jammeh instead chose celebrating 20 years of 22 July 1994 military coup in lavish spending weeklong party time from 10 October 2014.
In the strongly worded article, Bayang argued that Jammeh has misplaced priorities built on broken pillars of falling economic super structure and criticised Jammeh for lavish expenses:
Most amazingly, President Yaya Jammeh kept the flame of festivals burning from that fateful 22 July 1994. Those who know Kanilai [a village in Southern Gambia] where the president calls home will tell you that it is party time day and night dusk to dawn 247. Animals are slaughtered for sacrifice to demons and meat is distributed for meals. Drumming and dancing is all time social event. Contests are organised between various entertainers including witch craft displays, magicians, and women wrestlers.
Gambian exiled journalist Aisha Dabo complained on Twitter about Jammeh's extravagant donations:
#Gambia Presi Jammeh lavish 20yr in power: $1.5million to Muslim cleric Zakir Naik while 600k citizens food insecure 200k urgently need aid [UN estimates]
— Aisha Dabo™ (@mashanubian) October 11, 2014
Pa Nderry M'Bai, a US based Gambian journalist and publisher of a controversial online newspaper, Freedom Newspaper, posted five new photos of the celebrations at the stadium indicating low attendance for the event.
M'bai's photos were dismissed as misleading by a Facebook user, Chatti Yayam, who posted a comment and a photo showing a more crowded celebration. He said:
This is the real celebration mr Pa Nderry mbai.. I understand u want a better Gambia an I commen u for the struggle an all your efforts but if u want us to continue to believe in u an what u are doin u have be telling the truth no matter how hard. For The Gambia our home land!
Even though modest progress has been made by President Jammeh's government, many feel that there is no justification for lavish celebrations held annually. After the coup celebrations, more attention will certainly be focused on the promise of free education for all Gambian children come September 2015.