Michaelmas 2012 Edition 
Stability without Security

Treason and Torture in Africa's "Smiling Coast"

In The Gambia, confidentiality is a matter of life, death, and the brutalities in between. Therefore no names have been used in this article, and only general quotations without identifiers have been selected.


Security personnel are detained on suspicion of treason at Gambia’s Mile 2 State Central Prison, where accounts of torture, forced confessions, and mysterious disappearances form a grisly catalogue of crimes. Photo by the author.

Serrekunda’s tranquil beaches attract tourists from throughout the world to continental Africa’s smallest country: The Gambia. They walk along stretches of white sand and visit clubs bustling with expatriates. Police smile as they pass by, protecting visitors from unlicensed guides, offering them friendly advice, and ensuring they stay on the pristine path. But Gambia’s holiday sanctuaries belie the unsettling reality of a place far from peace, a state suspended in a silent struggle against itself for the past two decades. A series of treason and coup plots date back to even before the current regime seized power in July 1994.

For almost twenty years since, the President – head of the former Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, now the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) – has become increasingly isolated from the country’s security apparatus in a continual power struggle. His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh episodically clears the top ranks of Gambia’s police force, military branches, and intelligence agency: the state structures intended to keep the country safe and intact. The enemies he makes in the process are detained, forced to flee, or mysteriously disappear. Some escape with unsettling accounts of how he seeks vengeance against those who threaten his already troubled legitimacy. In the second quarter of 2012, Europe received more asylum applications per capita from Gambia than from any other West African country – including the “peaceful” nation’s war-torn or post-war neighbours.

Our Society is Bleeding

It’s not difficult to understand why. Gambia’s human rights record is abysmal; detainees who survive to speak of their experiences bear wounds that tell of systematic abuse behind bars. Their descriptions of harrowing torture routines and accounts of psychological and physical harm build, as Churchill might say, a macabre and seemingly endless catalogue of crimes committed by the State. Torture has become the preferred method of discovering the latest plots for rebellion, even if none exist; forced confessions are well documented. Victims accused of incitement, opposing the President, or other crimes against the state tell of electric shocks, sexual torture, forced labour, mock executions, near-drownings and endless beatings. Even when they are tortured, they must support the APRC no matter what: “You can’t say otherwise or they kill you. They want to kill you.”

Over 20 soldiers were arrested on suspicion of treason shortly after the first coup attempt against Jammeh’s government. According to eye witnesses, the President simply stated he didn’t want arrested soldiers, he wanted dead soldiers, and issued the command for a notoriously vicious and disgraceful series of extrajudicial executions against members of his own military. “There was lots of blood,” recalled one soldier, staring at the wall as though he could still see it, 15 years later. That pivotal event set the stage for the acrimonious relationship between the military and the President, a feud that has been spreading to other security agencies and tearing the country apart ever since. “Our society itself is bleeding,” one activist said. It’s a slow death.

Disturbing the Regional Waters

Bordering states welcome a regular stream of controversial exiles seeking refuge, which destabilises regional relations and means that nobody – from local police officers to top army chiefs – is insulated from accusation or suspicion. Even if they did not plot coups before, it has become common occupation for those in exile. Revolutionaries from decades ago now sit alongside those involved in more recent attempts to overthrow the government. Old adversaries put aside their differences to conspire against a common enemy, dreaming of liberating a conflicted country that barely knows it’s at war. Some former soldiers of the Gambia National Army now proclaim it’s their solemn duty to put Jammeh to rest for his crimes against their homeland. Others argue he must be seized alive and handed over to the International Criminal Court while human rights organisations investigate the abuses committed by his regime.

The most recent development, however, has been unabashedly public. Last Autumn, a group calling itself the National Transition Council of The Gambia held a press conference in Dakar, Senegal. It announced the formation of a government-in-exile ready to take over from the President at a moment’s notice. A full roster of Ministers was put forth, including a few of Jammeh’s disgraced former allies. An ultimatum has been issued for him to stand aside or face the consequences. It remains to be seen whether this will mobilise change from abroad, or if it’s just another turn in the cycle.

The Spies of Everyday Life

“Gambia is a powderkeg,” warns a local activist – it is a nation suffering from muted volatility. The toxicity of this pervasive suspicion means neighbours don’t talk to neighbours, colleagues avoid colleagues, and soldiers engage in the practice locally known as “eyeing” in order to trade any signs of disloyalty for fleeting favouritism in the ranks. Witnesses tell stories of friends pulling guns on their brothers-in-arms to avoid the torture chambers, and of fathers being hunted down by state-sanctioned paramilitaries to report the suspected treachery of their children.

In a country as small as The Gambia, the State holds leverage over almost everyone through civil service and public employment; allegiance is contorted in a manipulative brand of neopatrimonialism that aims to divide the security forces and entrench a competitive brutality. Everybody has something to lose and someone to protect; people divulge secrets or suspicions not out of loyalty but to survive. Anyone can be a spy. Meanwhile, at the top, wave after wave of police, military, and intelligence leaders are removed as the President seeks to maintain a system of betrayal that consolidates his power while destabilising the country’s nefarious security institutions.

Parallel, non-state “security” forces loyal only to the President emerge as a symptom of these ritualistic and paranoid upsets. They are populated with members of Jammeh’s own ethnic group, mandated to reinforce his rule in the face of declining legitimacy. The military say the President is sending the wrong message. A former soldier asked: “What should he have to fear if he is doing things right?” Gambia is, after all, a peaceful country; the army’s only threat appears to be their own Commander-in-Chief. It’s a common saying among soldiers, particularly those who have attempted to overthrow Jammeh and failed, that Gambia went from the frying pan to the flame the day he took power in a bloodless military coup. Ever since, the country has been simmering, in search of a spark.