TIMBUKTU—Here is the opening message you see when you visit the homepage of the Gambia Tourism Board (the state agency responsible for marketing the country as a hot tourist destination):
“The Gambia has unique quality features over many other destinations. It is only six hours flight from major European destinations with no jet lag. The Gambia is a popular and affordable all year round destination attracting tourists in search of sun, sand, sea, nature and varied cultural experience and of which this unique country has plenty.”
Gambia Tourism Board (GTB) and the government market the Gambia with the brand name, ‘The Smiling Coast of Africa,’ to account for the overly friendly and smiling people, the white sandy beaches and abundance of sunlight. This year, the Gambia expects to receive up to 200,000 tourists according to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. The World Travel and Tourism Council reports that tourism accounts for 20 percent of the Gambia’s GDP and directly employs up to 49,000 people or about 7 percent of the total national employment rate. On a wider scale the impact of tourism is even greater as it accounts for 17.3 percent of overall employment in the country, and contributing 11 percent to investments, according to the Council. Tourists to the Gambia come mainly from the UK, Germany, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, and usually with packaged tour operators. The Netherlands alone has almost 10 such tour operators including Atuu, Jiba.nl, Kauri Travel & Develop, Kras, Palmboom, Q-International, Straus, Sudtours, SkyTours, Sunweb, and Travelpoort.
But Gambians are not smiling anymore. The once bustling little country which was making steady gains in the re-export trade in the late 80s and early 90s as the hub of the sub-region is fast turning into an isolated pariah nation. Characterized by close-knit social relations in which everyone considered the other as family, Gambian society has now turned on its head as a brutal and divisive regime turns a brother against brother, sister against sister and neighbor against neighbor. Touted as a land of peace and tranquility, in the past 22 years, the country has witnessed more than 10 alleged attempted coups, summary executions of security and political opponents, shooting to death of 14 school children in 2000 and three armed insurrections. The increasing militarization of the society marked by uncountable armed checkpoints across the country has completely eroded the innocence and peace that has for long prevailed.
While indeed tourism is a major lifeline for a large number of Gambians, yet behind the smiles of the men and women who serve tourists in the Gambia there lies pain, fear and misery. Among these waiters and waitresses, entertainers, porters, security officers and managers are direct victims of intimidation, torture and confiscation of properties. Many of these ordinary workers have family members such as wives, husbands, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and neighbors who have been killed, tortured, kidnapped, detained in unknown locations, raped, while many more have to flee their country for fear of their lives. Since 1994, Gambians have been living under Africa’s most brutal dictatorship. The high rate of human rights violations are so grave that it continues to shock the world, with serious concerns already raised by the UN, EU and the Commonwealth, and many governments such as the US and UK and several international human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19 and Media Foundation for West Africa among others.
An innocent tourist will not see or hear these pains and fears. The local media will not report it because it is completely muzzled. The workers in the industry live with suspicion of each other hence the fear of openly talking about their experiences and concerns. The fear of being overheard and reported to the notorious National Intelligence Agency where one would certainly be tortured, or forced to disappear and killed, forces everyone to pretend that everything is fine. But an observant tourist would notice the obvious absence of political talk or criticism of the president among the workers. Any attempt to ask such political questions, the hosts will respond with nonchalance or approval of the president even if they complain of the hardships of life in the country. Everyone looks over his or her shoulder before making a political comment.
In an attempt to shield himself from being held to account for his atrocities, Pres. Jammeh removed the Gambia out of the Commonwealth all by himself in 2013, and in October 2016 again pulled the Gambia out of the International Criminal Court (ICC). He still threatens to pull the Gambia out of ECOWAS, AU and the UN if they continue to express concern about his government. In December 2015 he declared the Gambia an Islamic State, and in June 2016, Pres. Jammeh vowed to shoot to death protestors and kill the majority Mandinka people ‘like ants’ if they continue to oppose him, prompting the UN Anti-Genocide Advisor to issue a statement of concern. Few months before in April, he unleashed paramilitary forces on peaceful demonstrators for electoral reforms resulting in deaths, rapes, tortures and long-term detentions, which also generated an EU Parliament resolution calling for targeted sanctions.
At the moment, the entire leadership of the largest opposition UDP party are imprisoned for merely walking down to a police station to demand the release of their members. The leader of the protesters, Solo Sandeng, was tortured to death. Five months later, one of the incarcerated politicians Solo Koroma died in prison due to severe pain meted out to him during the tortures in which several women were also sexually assaulted. In 2015, UN special rapporteurs on torture and extrajudicial executions reported that, “the country is characterized by disregard for the rule of law, infringements of civil liberties and the existence of a repressive State apparatus.” In 2014, the president called gays, ‘vermins’ and vowed to ‘slit the throat of any LGBT’ found in the country.
The current state of affairs have therefore forced Gambians to smile, just to entertain and make comfortable a tourist even though their bodies and minds are filled with fear and pain. Today the Gambia ranks among the 10 poorest countries of the world according to UNDP human development index. Thousands of its youths continue to flee the country to escape poverty and repression through the Sahara Desert via Libya and across the Mediterranean to Europe where hundreds have perished in this dangerous journey. The World Bank reports that Gambia is among the top African countries with the highest brain drain as the country’s professionals leave in droves for secure and better lives outside. The UN agency for refugees places the Gambia second only to Eritrea in Africa in terms of migration.
Yet the Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa with a population of 1.9 million which gained independence from British colonialism in 1965. Since then it had been a beacon of democracy in Africa, characterized by periodic five year-elections at a time when many of the emerging new nations where ruled by one-party regimes or corrupt military rulers or engulfed in civil war.
In fact in 1981 the Gambia became the birthplace of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights otherwise called the Banjul Charter and consequently hosts the headquarters of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights until today. But since 1994, when a group of five young military officers led by then Lt. Yahya Jammeh overthrew the PPP government, the country has plunged into an intolerably merciless tyranny. Political observers have likened the country to the dictatorships of the 1970s such as Uganda under Idi Amin and Central African Republic under Jean Bedel Bokassa because of the level of buffoonery, brutality and rampant corruption of His Excellency The President Sheikh, Professor, Dr. Alhagie Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa, who is now running for a fifth term in office on December 1.