A US official has reportedly denied that a letter sent to President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia is an endorsement of his rule in the tiny west African state. The letter, which noted that Gambians have “much to celebrate”, was sent by President Barack Obama on the occasion The Gambia’s 50th independence anniversary.
The pro-government Daily Observer newspaper reported that, “Barack Obama, the president of the United States of America, has felicitated the Gambian leader, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh.”
However, an administration official told new agency AFP, “We congratulated only the people of The Gambia, and not Jammeh.”
The official further said, “We continue to have serious differences with the government of the Gambia across a range of issues, including its human rights record.”
President Jammeh's is known for cracking down on the opposition and the media. 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.”
Nigerian newspaper The Vanguard quoted Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Washington DC who alleged that Jammeh has long tried to burnish his image through foreign endorsements.
He said, “(He) is very unpopular in his own country, and across the region, so he often seeks to validate his reign by somehow demonstrating that the world, including the United States, approves of the sheer brutality he has used to maintain power.”
Activists have since taken to social media to ridicule President Jammeh and the pro-government newspaper, with some accusing Jammeh of trying to buy “cheap popularity”.
Sulayman Makalo, an exiled Gambian journalist, wrote on his Facebook wall:
Sam Phatey, a Gambian in the US, posted on his Facebook wall his “invitation letter from Obama” saying:
Since Obama is writing a letter to everyone to felicitate them (clears throat), he wrote me one too and inboxed it to my facebook LOL! If you did not receive your letter, let me know and I will contact the White House and you will get yours shortly. Join the campaign on twitter to expose Jammeh's false publication of a letter that Obama never wrote. #RealLetterFromObama.
Fatu Camara, a Gambian broadcast journalist based in the US, also tweeted her “invitation letter” in which President Obama says he is looking forward to having cupcakes with her:
— Fatu Camara (@Fatushow) March 5, 2015
Sainey MK Marenah posted his “invitation letter” from Obama as well. He said:
Even a village boy from Kudang is invited by US president Obama to White House for A brief chat on state of media freedom in the Gambia. Here is my letter from Obama!
Making reference to Jammeh's claim that he cures HIV/AIDS, James Chikonamombe asked:
#RealLetterFromObama: Aw come on Yahya…how can someone who found a cure for AIDS stoop so low.
— James Chikonamombe (@Zichivhu) March 5, 2015
Fatu Camara pointed out that:
— Fatu Camara (@Fatushow) March 5, 2015
While Foday Justice Darboe directed his tweet to Gambia's First Lady:
— Foday Justice Darboe (@fodaydod) March 6, 2015
Jeffrey Smith noted that #RealLetterFromObama hashtag got traction:
— Jeffrey Smith (@Smith_RFKennedy) March 7, 2015
Some activists have gone to the extent of accusing the pro-government paper of publishing a fake letter from George W. Bush. According to sources, following the skewing of the real letter from Obama, activists doctored a letter, purportedly from President Bush and sent it to Jammeh.
The Daily Observer published the letter purportedly from the former US president thanking Jammeh for his “commitment to the citizens of Gambia and for your efforts to ensure a prosperous future for your country.”
While the social media debate rages on, there is no doubt Gambian authorities are considering their next move, including the option of not responding. As for the Daily Observer, the most likely option is simply to delete the “letter” by updating its website.