Few things stir the passions of most Americans more than the struggle of oppressed people fighting for their freedom against a tyrant, a dictator, an authoritarian government, or a totalitarian regime. And to be sure, those feelings are greatly amplified when the uprising represents a potential blow to a rival whose rulers constitute a clear danger not just to their own people, but to the United States. Every Prague Spring, Tiananmen Square and Green Movement, an Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East, a Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, or an Orange Revolution in Ukraine will touch the mystic chords of American memory. That’s why iconic images like one man stopping a column of Chinese tanks in Beijing, fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in Tunis, thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square, and the fallen Neda Agha-Soltan bleeding to death on a Tehran street seized Americans’ imaginations—and heartstrings.
But right now in a tiny country on the west coast of Africa, a nascent movement—#GambiaRising—is underway against “the worst dictatorship you’ve never heard of.” And what happens next should matter very much to every American.
The protests against the brutal, despotic rule of President Yahya Jammeh aren’t just about ending rigged elections, unmuzzling the press, stopping the round-up and murder of opposition leaders, and restoring the rule of law to the once-placid and democratic nation of two million. Increasingly, The Gambia finds itself near the nexus of almost every disturbing trend—wholesale migration to Europe, economic disruption due to climate change, the expansion of terrorist organizations, and even drug trafficking—plaguing West Africa. The dangers won’t be limited to the Gambian people and won’t end at the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Both American self-interest and American values require the United States to pressure Jammeh to avoid a bloodbath and instead move toward a democratic breakthrough.
Oh, and one other thing. There is the often unspoken connection that binds us: The legacy of 250 years of slavery. For millions of Americans today, family roots ultimately begin on either bank of the River Gambia.
In the capital of Banjul, these are dangerous times. On April 14, opposition activists took to the streets demanding electoral reforms in advance of elections scheduled for December. With good reason: During the last vote in 2011, Jammeh’s intimidation of opposition parties and manipulation of the vote was so extreme that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) refused to send election monitors to The Gambia. But after dispersing the crowds on that day, Gambian security forces cracked down two days later, rounding up United Democratic Party secretary general Ousainou Darboe and more than two dozen UDP leaders. Three people were killed including Solo Sandeng, the leader of the party’s youth wing who was allegedly tortured to death while in custody. Earlier this month, Jammeh jailed six women for protesting the detentions and trials of opposition figures. Among them was Faddy Samateh and her months-old baby, named Aisha.
Given Jammeh’s track record, most observers are bracing for more violence. As Jeffrey Smith documented in Foreign Policy:
Since taking power in a bloodless coup in 1994, Yahya Jammeh has presided over the worst dictatorship you’ve never heard of. The eccentric Gambian president, who performs ritual exorcisms and claims to heal everything from AIDS to infertility with herbal remedies, rules his tiny West African nation through a mix of superstition and fear. State-sanctioned torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary executions — these are just a few of the favored tactics employed by his notorious security and intelligence services.
Now, Jammeh boasts that he and his Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) will rule for “one billion years.” He has survived eight coup attempts, the most recent mounted in December 2014 by Gambians living in the U.S., including two who had served in the American armed forces. (Earlier this month, four Gambian-Americans were given light prison sentences for their roles in organizing the failed coup attempt.) The self-proclaimed “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor” didn’t just imprison, torture, and murder reporters and political rivals. Even before his declaration of an Islamic Republic, Jammeh threatened to kill gay peoplefleeing his country (“If I catch them, I will kill them”) and kidnapped hundreds of supposed “witches” from villages around the country. And when he isn’t using his annual platform at the United Nations to denounce homosexuals as “ungodly vermin,” he is demanding reparations from the West for slavery.
It wasn’t always this way. Before Yahya Jammeh turned it into the “North Korea of Africa,” The Gambia was “the smiling coast.” With the Atlantic Ocean to its west and otherwise surrounded on all sides by Senegal, The Gambia was a British colony in a region controlled by the French. After gaining its independence in 1965, the country was led by Prime Minister and later President Dawda Kairaba Jawara until the coup of 1994. While Jawara’s PPP (People’s Progressive Party) maintained majorities throughout, elections were largely free and fair. There was little conflict between the Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Serehule, Jola, and the other tribes which make up its population. Religious strife was rare, too. Relations between the overwhelming Muslim majority (over 90 percent of all Gambians) and the small Christian minority were generally cordial. Traditional practices which predated the arrival of Islam, including the wearing of the juju, visiting the marabout, and the vital sharing of oral history of the griots persist today. With 80 kilometers of beaches, ideal dry season weather, and proximity to Europe, The Gambia by the late 1980s developed a thriving a tourism sector. For many years, it was also an emergency landing location for NASA space shuttle missions.
That’s not to say life was easy before Jammeh deposed Jawara during the 1994 coup. Far from it. The Gambia was and remains one of the poorest nations in the world. The second most densely populated country on the continent, its per capita income has long been the lowest in West Africa. In 2015, the CIA World Factbookestimated Gambian GDP at $761 million US. With 1.97 million people, that makes Gambia’s per capita income only about $385 a year. The drought that devastated Ethiopia in 1984 and 1985 extended across the Sub-Saharan Sahel region as well, bringing extreme suffering to The Gambia. The country’s dependence on groundnut production for export left Gambian farmers vulnerable to changes in the global market, even as drought, deforestation, and the southward creeping Sahara posed risks to subsistence crops like rice, millet, and sorghum. And in Jawara’s time, too, corruption was a serious challenge to government revenue and spending. (As I explained to American friends in 1989, the $15 million lost to unpaid import fees represented the equivalent of $300 billion to the U.S. national budget, a figure which turned out to be the price tag for the Savings & Loan scandal under President George H.W. Bush.)
As Smith and Maggie Dwyer explained the background to the current unrest in theWashington Post last week, “Jammeh himself seized power during a similar groundswell in Gambia.”
Gambia saw unprecedented public discontent directly before the country’s first and only transition of power in 1994. A series of street protests occurred, opposition parties gained their largest victory ever in the 1992 elections and a string of high-profile corruption scandals rocked the country.
Junior military officers, with Jammeh at the helm, brought down President Dawda Jawara, who had led Gambia since its independence from Britain in 1965. Though regarded internationally as a responsible statesman and applauded for promoting human rights, Jawara faced growing internal criticism in the early 1990s for failing to drive the country’s overall development.
But under Jammeh, who as a young army officer promised “we will never introduce dictatorship in this country,” much has gotten worse. Corruption is beyond rampant as Jammeh has converted government assets into his own private business ventures. As a result of his human rights abuses, the EU has halted $186 million in aid, while the U.S. made The Gambia along with Swaziland and South Sudan ineligible for the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade preference program allowing duty-free treatment to U.S. imports from sub-Saharan Africa. In 2006, Jammeh’s Gambia was also suspended by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a development agency launched by the Bush administration to partner with developing nations that have “shown a strong commitment to good governance and sound economic and social policies.” While international humanitarian assistance reached a record $28 billion in 2015, “Gambia was the most under-funded, receiving just 5 percent of what was requested.” With almost half of its young, rapidly growing population living in poverty and its people moving from villages to dense urban centers like Serrekunda, The Gambia simply cannot afford its growing global isolation.
So why should Americans care?
For starters, Americans should care about #GambiaRising because, well, we’re Americans. Our national story, after all, is about living up to our own creed that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We (at least, most of us, most of the time) believe these are universal rights that will and must be realized by the inexorable march of human freedom. That’s why we can usually be counted on to back the people over their dictators (except, as in places like Egypt, when we don’t).
But the plight of The Gambian people isn’t just a question of principle. For Americans as well as our European allies, the success of a “Gambian Spring” is about being pragmatic, too.
The dangerous “Back Way” taking thousands of Gambians to Europe.
Right now, tens of thousands of people from across the Middle East, North Africa, and West Africa are trying to make their way to Europe. Fleeing war, terrorism, persecution, or poverty, these migrants will do whatever is necessary to find freedom and opportunity. And as the Washington Post documented in its report on the Africa exodus last June, “Tiny Gambia has a big export: Migrants desperate to reach Europe.”
For decades, Gambians have flocked to Europe is search of jobs and better pay. The importance of the money they send back home is staggering: agriculture, tourism and remittances each account for 20 percent of Gambian gross domestic product. But with a young population stifled by the Jammeh dictatorship’s call for a subsistence economy, for thousands the expensive, dangerous and sometimes deadly “Back Way” through Mali, Burkina Faso and Libya is the only way out. By 2010, the Post reported, “there were 65,000 Gambians abroad, around 4 percent of the population.”
Africa has never seen such a flood of young men heading for Europe. The number of migrants crossing by sea to Italy, a top entry point, nearly quadrupled from 2013 to 2014, reaching about 170,100. Sub-Saharan Africans made up a growing percentage of the total, with around 64,600 arriving last year. This year, the figure is expected to be even higher. Gambia, one of Africa’s smallest nations, is a big contributor to that flow.
And that flow continues unabated, despite the robberies, kidnappings and killings along the tortuous route from Banjul to Bamako in Mali onto Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso through the Agadez hub in Niger before boarding a boat in Tripoli, Libya, to make the clandestine crossing. For those surviving the journey, conditions on arrival in Italyare often horrendous, too. It’s no wonder the European Union is spending $2 billion to curb migration and human trafficking from Africa.
Part of what makes the trip so perilous is related to another major concern for Americans. Al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated terror groups are expanding into North and West Africa. The threat isn’t just from the likes of Boko Haram in Nigeria and Touareg fighters for Al Qaeda in Mali, Algeria, and Libya. The tolerant Sufi Islam of West Africa faces increasing competition from Saudi-financed Wahhabism and inroads by Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) sympathizers. While the Wall Street Journal recently reported the success of Iranian-backed Shiite conversion campaigns in Cameroon, Chad, Ghana, and Nigeria, the Washington Post warned “Al-Qaeda affiliates are threatening West Africa’s most peaceful cities.”
Senegal and its neighbors are facing a new threat from extremists moving far from their traditional strongholds in northwest Africa. Since November, militant groups have killed dozens of people in assaults on hotels, cafes and a beachside resort in West Africa, passing through porous borders with impunity…
Senegal, a former French colony that has never suffered a major terrorist incident, is now taking unprecedented security measures. It recently hosted a U.S.-led training exercise for the third time in recent years; this time it had a special focus on counterterrorism.
While French forces have played a key role in rolling back AQIM fighters in Mali, theU.S. African Command (AFRICOM) is quickly expanding the American reach around the continent. Now, the worry is countries like Senegal or The Gambia could follow Mali “where jihadists are either filling the void left by the absence of the state or gaining popularity as a result of government abuse or neglect.” As Senegal’s foreign minister Mankeur Ndiaye cautioned just two weeks ago:
“It makes our people feel safer to have this connection with the most powerful country in the world.
[But] Senegal will never be safe if there is no security in Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and throughout the [West African] region and beyond in the Sahel.”
Like in Yahya Jammeh’s Islamic Republic of The Gambia. Famed Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour could have been speaking about the potential terrorist threat to both countries when he lamented, “It’s menacing everyone.”
And over the last few years, West Africa has been facing yet another new menace: drugs. As Vice reported in 2013, drug cartels in Latin America have turned to countries like Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, and The Gambia to provide new routes to markets in Europe. The spillover of the multibillion dollar per year trade is producing addicts in places like Lagos and Accra. And warehouses with two tons of cocaine in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia. (For that, two Venezuelans, two Dutch, a Nigerian, and a Mexican were sentenced to prison by a Gambian judge.) As the BBC summed it up in 2010, “When you pay high-ranking officials who are in a position of responsibility low salaries” in weak states like The Gambia, “what you get is corruption.”
The torrent of migration, an epidemic of human trafficking, a growing drug trade and, a building threat from terror groups can be made worse by one additional factor: climate change. And the region, already under pressure by deforestation and the expansion of the Sahara Desert, faces the additional challenge of rising sea levels. As the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) warned in December, The Gambia is especially vulnerable:
In recent decades, climate change and overdevelopment have combined to endanger the viability of rice and thus the livelihoods of many rural Gambians. Sea level rise is eroding coastal embankments and introducing salt water into rice paddies, while overpopulation and an increase in industry are leading to harmful congestions of drainage systems that further damage ecosystems.
(Just how vulnerable was spelling out in a recent study titled, “Climate Change and Development in The Gambia.” Among other dire consequences of climate change, the report warned, “The Gambia is primarily low-lying and a 1 m rise in sea level could potentially inundate over 8% of the country’s land area.”)
For all of these reasons, the United States should be very much concerned with the fate of the #GambiaRising movement. But there’s one other factor to consider. For millions of Americans, Gambians are long-lost family.
I’m not speaking of the 3,000 Americans of Gambian descent as measured by the United States Census Bureau, but the millions of Americans whose distant ancestors were among the hundreds of thousands of slaves torn from their families and brought here in chains. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explained in 2012:
Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America.
As the U.S. AFRICOM blog entry about The Gambia notes, of that 12.5 million, “It is believed that as many as 3 million slaves were taken from the region while the transatlantic slave trade operated.” Only about 450,000 of the total were ultimately brought to North America. As Gates noted in amazement:
Incredibly, most of the 42 million members of the African-American community descend from this tiny group of less than half a million Africans.
That means that tens, even hundreds of thousands of the first Americans were Muslim. They were Gambians. They had names like Ceesay, Jallow, Njie, Jammeh, and Bah. And Kinteh.
If that name sounds familiar, it should. In 1977, Alex Haley’s Roots gripped American television viewers. Haley’s eight-episode story of Kunta Kinte was watched by 85 percent of U.S. households. As LeVar Burton, who played the Gambian stolen into bondage, recently told W. Kamau Bell, “an entire generation will forever associate him with the slave who was determined never to forget his roots.”
Now, Burton is an executive producer of a new presentation of Roots scheduled to air over four consecutive nights beginning on Memorial Day, May 30. Along with Mark Wolper, he didn’t merely feel the need to update Roots for a 2016 audience. Forty years of research and scholarship showed that, the New York Times pointed out in its preview, “the first ‘Roots’ got some things wrong.” Especially about the extended Kinte family, about the town of Juffure, about The Gambia. Now, LeVar Burton doesn’t just want to “fill in the gaps so that it is absolutely, unavoidably clear that America today is directly related to America of the antebellum South and the slave trade.” He had this to say when asked by Bell, “What do you hope Americans who aren't descended from slaves will take away from this new Roots?”
“That this is our common story. And whether you feel like it has any relevance or meaning to you, the real truth is that it does. If you are part of the fabric of America, this is your story, too.”
Americans and Gambians have a common story as well. But the shared chapters don’t have to only be about violence, depravity, separation, and tragedy. We can create a better future of freedom, prosperity, and perhaps even redemption for us all.
Yahya Jammeh must never set foot in the White House again.
But that can’t happen any time soon if #GambiaRising fails to liberate the Smiling Coast from the tyranny and brutality of Yahya Jammeh. That, of course, is for the Gambian people alone to resolve. But the United States can help. That means no more White House photo-ops for the Banjul Butcher, even at events like the 2014 U.S. Africa Leaders Summit hosted by President Obama in Washington. (Presidents Bush and Obama banned Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe from coming to the United States.) That means the U.S. should press China to withhold aid and investment now that Beijing has reestablished diplomatic ties with The Gambia. Congress could pass and the President could sign the Global Magnitsky Act, allowing the United States government “to freeze assets of and ban visas for (non-U.S.) individuals worldwide who grossly violate human rights.” As Smith (who happens to be the executive director of the Vanguard Africa Movement for good governance in Africa) put it, “You have to hit him where it hurts.” Given the Jammeh family’s lavish tastes and $3.5 million mansion in Maryland, an asset freeze and U.S. travel ban would hurt, indeed. In 2014, America’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice denounced Yahya Jammeh when he promised to “slit the throats” of gay Gambians. Now, the Obama administration cannot stay silent afterJammeh declared he will unleash his paramilitary “Junglers” to do his dirty work:
“Let me warn you, those evil vermin called opposition: If you want to destabilize this country, I will bury you nine feet deep and no Westerner can say anything.”
Americans will have something to say. Because #GambiaRising matters.
Note: I had the incredible good luck to live and work in The Gambia from 1987 to 1989. Working with a variety of American-funded projects, UN programs, government ministries, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), I had the chance to teach Gambian civil servants and employees to use personal computers and PC software. (In my study, I still have copies of the annual government budget submissions to Parliament we printed out from Lotus 1-2-3.) More than 25 years later, I’m still in awe of the warmth, kindness, and generosity I received from everyone I met everywhere I went. Abaraka baake!