LONDON – Nine prisoners were recently shot dead by a firing squad on the orders of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, prompting intense criticism from international bodies and rights groups including the European Union, the United Nations and Amnesty International.
Carried out during the last weekend of August, the criminal executions, Gambia's first in more than 25 years, have triggered a round condemnation led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is calling on President Jammeh to halt executions and threatening to cancel the EU’s large aid package, a move that would have big consequences for the country's political future.
Jammeh declared last weekend that he plans to execute all 47 of the country's death-row inmates by the end of September. Although it is not clear what crimes the prisoners are being executed for, many are former officials that were detained for treason in the wake of Jammeh's rise to power.
According to Robert Rotberg, a former professor of governance at Harvard University, further executions would put Jammeh in the same league as former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, whose rule was characterized by widespread human-rights abuses, political repression and poor economic management.
Despite reports of widespread human-rights abuses, Jammeh, says Rotberg, maintains an iron grip over the country’s politics, including harsh press laws to quiet the media, which will likely prevent dissidents from taking action.
"The dictator has been in power for so long that he’s calcified the political system," he says. "So the idea that the withdrawal of EU aid would in some way embolden the dissidents in The Gambia is, I think, hoping for too much."
Explaining that the sanctions "put Gambia in the international doghouse," he said, "the EU aid per say won’t make a huge difference.”
The effects of withholding EU funding, he warns, could be negligible unless designed to target the country's tourism sector.
"About a third of the country's GDP is touristic receipts of one kind or another, and tourism is its largest source of foreign exchange," he said. "If tourists or tourist agencies think The Gambia is no longer an appropriate place to go, then that will hurt the most."
Harming the poor and radicalizing the rhetoric
But according to Abdoulaye Saine, professor of political science at the University of Miami, in a country where nearly 60 percent of the population lives beneath the poverty line and corruption is widespread, it is the poor who suffer most under sanctions.
"Jammeh’s not going to be feeling it," said Saine. "His cohort will not feel it, but the ordinary Gambians, who already are fatigued by economic hardship and clearly frightened by these extra-judicial killings, [will].
"Jameh needs to be sanctioned from travel to the EU, to the US and other major capitals and countries of the world,” he said.
Known for strongly-worded statements and speeches, Jammeh once claimed that he will "rule for 1-billion years" and insisted that he has invented the cure for AIDS.
Saine says international condemnation of Gambia’s death penalties will only intensify such rhetoric.
“It is going to further radicalize Jammeh in his anti-western rhetoric," he said. "These sanctions might give him another opportunity to lambaste the West: I’m sure you’ve heard him say if people don’t like what he’s doing in The Gambia, ‘Let them go to hell,’ which, to me ,really is unsavory, undiplomatic and clearly very unstatesmanlike.”
Gambia's execution of two Senegalese nationals last weekend has also caused a diplomatic rift between the two countries, with Senegal’s Prime Minister calling for sanctions.