Increasing Risk of State-Led Mass Killing in The Gambia (Early Warning Project – June 23)

The West African nation of The Gambia has made a quite habit of generating headlines for all the wrong reasons. The country’s moniker as the “Smiling Coast of Africa” belies a tragic and brutal reality on the ground. Located in a region that has made tremendous advancements in terms of deepening democracy and expanding both political and economic rights, The Gambia has been mired under the patently dangerous leadership of Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in 1994 by means of a military coup and has since vowed to rule for “one billion years.”

Several factors indicate that the risk of state-led mass killing is increasing: a steady deterioration of the Gambian economy due to mismanagement and rampant corruption; the death and disappearances of several prominent opposition leaders; and a recent uptick of inflammatory rhetoric and political violence. Additionally, The Gambia will hold elections this December, which have always proved to be a persistent trigger for violent repression in the country.

According to the UN’s Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, all of these factors represent indicators that atrocity risk may be growing.

Adding fuel to the fire, popular protests have been a fixture in the country since mid-April, when citizens mobilized to demand electoral reforms and later intensified when leaders of the country’s main opposition party were arrested (and to this day remain jailed) for “unlawful assembly.” The government’s heavy-handed response – which has included police violence, mass arrests, and the deaths of at least three opposition members in state custody – might be due in part to residual anxiety from an attempted coup in December 2014. All told, Jammeh has allegedly repelled at least eight coup attempts and related plots since coming to power in 1994.  

Many entrenched regimes intimidate opposing political parties, going so far as to arrest and persecute political leaders, but recent rhetoric on the part of the Jammeh regime adds a sense of urgency. Top Gambian officials in recent weeks have espoused highly incendiary rhetoric that amounts to hate speech and incitement to violence. Most recently, President Jammeh himself has added his voice to the verbal assault on Gambian citizens, namely the country’s Mandinka ethnic group, which makes up about 42% of the population, and whom Jammeh has chosen as an expedient scapegoat for the country’s ills. At a public gathering several weeks ago, Jammeh labeled The Gambia’s nearly one million Mandinka residents as “vermin” and went on to exclaim:

“I will kill you like ants and nothing will come out of it … I swear to God, there will be no Mandinka government in The Gambia. Never! If that fails, let me go to hell if I die.” 

Furthermore, last month The Gambia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Samsudeen Sarr, was caught on tape endorsing a tactic of shooting civilians. Ambassador Sarr later expanded on his comments in a blog post that was published in one of the government’s propaganda outlets, writing in part: 

“…if I am in charge of any military or police operation in a country where a bunch of useless thugs are released in the streets to render the society ungovernable without their consideration of how many people could lose their lives in the process, using deadly force will not be ruled out in my masterplan (sic).”

Similarly, The Gambia’s Interior Minister, Ousman Sonko, a longtime steward and active participant in the country’s brutal repression, was quoted in the state-run Observer newspaper as saying: “We will not compromise 21 years of huge development to be destroyed by a few minorities.” Further commenting on the (entirely peaceful) protests that have been taking place in the country since April: “Demonstration of any kind will not be compromised here. If anyone does it, that person would regret it.” This threat surely resonates with Gambian citizens. Indeed, Jammeh’s security forces have long been encouraged to use violence on perceived critics, including the use of live ammunition as recently as last month. The country’s Indemnity Law, signed by Jammeh in 2001, provides the president with sweeping authority to prevent security forces from being prosecuted for quelling “unlawful assembly.” There are now credible fears that the upcoming elections will provide additional impetus for Jammeh’s security forces to brutalize Gambian citizens under the dubious guise of the rule of law and public order.

President Jammeh’s shocking remarks earned swift rebuke from the U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng. The timely statement from the U.N. referenced Jammeh’s “increasing vitriolic rhetoric” and pointed out that hate speech, as in this particular case, can be both a warning sign and a powerful trigger for atrocity crimes. The brash comments also received attention in one of Rwanda’s state-run newspapers, a country that to this day is the preeminent poster child of genocide and a prescient reminder of the need to be proactive to prevent wide-scale violence.

Prior to these recent events in The Gambia, the Early Warning Project, which identifies countries most at risk of state-led mass killing, cited the country as having the fourth biggest statistical increase in risk over the past year. While The Gambia is ranked 45th among countries at risk or most likely to experience an episode of state-led mass killing, recent events in the country should engender increased vigilance. Indeed, urgency on the part of the international community is required now more than ever.

With elections taking place on December 1 of this year, and having already contributed to elevated insecurity, the U.S. government in particular should consider tasking its intelligence services for an assessment of the real potential for mass violence in The Gambia. This would entail elevating the Gambian issue to the president’s Atrocity Prevention Board, which can address the early warning indicators of mass atrocities that currently prevail in the country. Just as important, President Yahya Jammeh and his coterie must be made aware that world is watching and that there will be real, substantive consequences (which I have outlined elsewhere). Preventative steps must be taken now by engaging West African regional leaders, the African Union, as well as the United Nations Security Council to dissuade the Jammeh regime from continuing down this tragic and distinctly disastrous path.

This is a dangerous moment for the citizens of The Gambia. Many warning signs are present indicating an evident and increasing risk of state-led mass killing. As such, we cannot in good conscience continue to remain silent.

Jeffrey Smith is executive director of the Vanguard Africa Movement and an international human rights consultant. Follow him on Twitter at @Smith_JeffreyT.