In November The Gambia announced it would ban female genital mutilation (FGM) and the president, Yahya Jammeh, said that the controversial surgical intervention would be outlawed. He said the ban would come into effect immediately, though it was not clear when the government would actually draft legislation to enforce the ban.
The next month, Jammeh declares The Gambia an Islamic republic and an internal government memo revealed that female workers are no longer allowed to expose their hair. Is Jammeh trying to appeal to the coffers of the Islamic bank and the Gulf states? Is he flexing his dictatorial muscles in an election year?
“Starved of development funds because of his deplorable human rights record and economic mismanagement, Jammeh is looking toward the Arab world as substitute for and source of development aid,” said blogger Sidi Sanneh, a former foreign minister who has become a U.S.-based dissident. Sanneh also points out that Yaya Jammeh has amended The Gambia’s Constitution more times in 21 years than the United States managed to amend its own in its nearly 240-year history.
The Economist argues that Jammeh is not turning The Gambia into an Islamic republic but seeking to cement his absolute monarchy. Jammeh has a remarkable ability to provide hope and pessimism in equal measure. This mask of unpredictability shields him from internal dissent by creating fear of what his next proclamation may be.
Last year in the Gambia, a bit of hope appeared when members of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council were allowed into the country to investigate (see their report here). Alas, they were forbidden to enter its detention centers. As Francois Patuel, a campaigner for Amnesty International, puts it, “With Jammeh, it’s always one step forward, three steps back.”
G. Pascal Zachary, a Professor at Arizona University who blogs on African affairs at http://africaworksgpz.com/, has stated that in “the next wave of creative thinking about development, the nation-state must return as a subject of conversation.” African states need to take a stronger role in promoting general welfare even as they cannot return to the practices of the past that stifled individual initiative, robbed “surplus capital” from the enterprising, and reinforced social inequality, consigning women and children to the worst forms of abuse. Only strong nation-states, committed to fairness, can manage the new tensions brought on by wealth and insure that the old risk-averse agenda of African development — obsessing over preventing further slippage into poverty rather than nakedly pursuing legitimate achievable gains — becomes an artifact of history.