Feature

Yahya Jammeh’s Charnel House

Human rights theater, like the global outcry over Gambia's death penalty, only obscures the real nature of lawless, despotic rule.

By From the February 2013 issue

Send to Kindle

It was in the summer of 1845 that Thomas Eyre Poole parted from his family, picked his way through the jagged lanes of Wapping, and descended to the Thames docks at Shadwell Basin, boarding the fast-sailing brig Soundraporvy, bound for Senegambia. Prior to accepting the post of colonial and garrison chaplain of Sierra Leone, Poole had been warned that he was en route to a “lovely charnel-house,” a region “no less remarkable for a peculiar kind of beautiful scenery than its hostility to human life.” In his diaries, published five years later as Life, Scenery, and Customs in Sierra Leone and the Gambia, Poole worried that his chaplaincy on the west coast of Africa could prove “little better than a stepping-stone into an unnatural grave.” His concerns were hardly misplaced.

Fifty years earlier, Poole’s destination had earned the sobriquet “White Man’s Grave” after three-quarters of the founding European settlers perished in the first year of the Sierra Leone Company’s existence. And yet, for this altruistic Oxford-educated doctor of divinity, the cause of morality and religion required his presence in the budding colony, no matter what the risk. So he took leave of his native England, cabined as the sole passenger on the “dirty, heavy timbered” Soundraporvy, and made for tropical climes.

If ever Poole imagined his posting to be a comfortable equatorial sinecure, he would have been quickly disabused of this notion by his arrival at the dreary Freetown Gaol. There was nothing lovely about this particular charnel house. The poorly constructed yellow daub jailhouse offered too few cells to properly separate murderers from debtors and men from women. Many prisoners had no clothes. Ague and elephantiasis ran rampant. “The sight of them was revolting to every feeling and sentiment of decency,” Poole wrote. “Their wild and vacant stare, their grinning and chattering, I cannot soon forget.”

In the high-walled prison yard, past the well, the cook house, and the woodshed, Poole stumbled upon a “melancholy spot” of well-churned earth, the resting place of “the most guilty of the guilty,” whose graves were routinely disturbed to accommodate “the kindred and disfigured remains of a brother felon.” Here, at the most macabre place in this colonial “Land of Death”—rendered all the more noxious by the wafting stench of the nearby slave yard—the Reverend Doctor Poole mused upon his surroundings and his mission:

Of all clerical ministrations, those at the prison are, perhaps, the most unsatisfactory and discouraging….What can be more distressing than the uncertainty and difficulty of arriving at any conclusive convictions, particularly in extreme cases, of the genuineness of criminal repentance, when the law is left to take its last awful course!

One such extreme case was soon encountered: Williams, a murderer whose guilt was not in question. Prayerful and contrite, his fettered hands clasped in quivering supplication, Williams begged to receive last rites, which Poole duly provided on the Sunday night before the prisoner’s Monday appointment with the gallows. On that fateful morning, the chaplain witnessed a scene bearing little resemblance to those spectacular public executions then taking place at English sites like Tyburn, Newgate, or Horsemonger Lane. In this dilapidated prison yard, Williams addressed the modest crowd gathered silently before him, exhorting those who would survive him to avoid his wretched path. “God bless you all! I am going home,” the condemned man concluded, moments before the long drop silenced him forever.

Poole wrote that the spectacle was increased by the “gross mockery of office which was displayed by the wretch of a hangman,” who painted his face red and white and plied his grisly trade while sporting a smile and a Tom-fool’s cap. It was too much for the sensitive bystanding man of the cloth.

A question presented itself: Was capital punishment effective? Terror of the scaffold was proving no deterrent. In less than five years under Poole’s watch, five men were executed for murder, and he doubted in any case that the fear and shame associated with such a punishment would translate from European society to African. The punishment of death, he suggested, had “little to say in its favour.”

By all appearances, Poole was asymptotically approaching an abolitionist position, but at the last minute he pulled back:

And, yet, to abolish the punishment of death in Sierra Leone, viewing the question entirely apart from every argument but that of expediency, would be to let loose upon the community the most ungovernable and wildest elements of the worst portion of its society. Released from this check, inadequate as it often proves in its operation…there would be no security for life and property.

Poole’s conclusion: “Justice and necessity require its continuance, at all events in Africa.”

A GREAT MANY YEARS LATER, on the night of August 23, 2012, nine prisoners emerged from the crowded, poorly ventilated, mosquito-infested cells of the Mile 2 State Central Prison, located on the outskirts of Banjul, Gambia, a city the Reverend Doctor Poole knew as Bathurst. The detention facility, erected by the British colonial authorities, is today as ill-built as anything the chaplain witnessed in his Senegambian wanderings, though the wattle-and-daub architecture of Poole’s day has since been replaced by ordure-stained concrete. That night, eight men, Alieu Bah, Gibril Bah, Dawda Bojang, Lamin Darboe, Lamin Jammeh, Lamin Jarju, Malang Sonko, and Abubacarr Yarbo, and one woman, Tabara Samba, would be dispatched by a firing squad. There were no last-minute ministrations, no speeches, indeed no mummery on the part of the executioners. Just the cracks of rifles, the hail of bullets, the thud of their impacts, and nine terminal breaths.

Those nine prisoners were among 47 Gambian and foreign individuals on death row in the Mile 2 facility, all of whom were the subjects of a chilling August 19, 2012, television address by Gambia’s leader, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen, better and more conveniently known as Yahya Jammeh. Gambia had not carried out an execution—at least an officially recognized one—since 1985, but marking the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, President Jammeh announced that all existing death sentences were to be “carried out to the letter,” posthaste, by mid-September. “All those guilty of serious crimes and are condemned will face the full force of the law,” Jammeh declared. “There is no way my government will allow 99 percent of the population to be held to ransom by criminals.” In other words, the wildest and worst portions of Gambian society, from Jammeh’s distinct perspective, were to be held in check for the sake of life and property, through acts of annihilation if necessary.

A humanitarian hue and cry was promptly sent up from within and without the tiny, serpentine African republic, as the inmates in Mile 2 State Central Prison instantly became global causes célèbres. Gambian expatriates like journalist Mathew Jallow urged international action against the “demented megalomaniac” holding the reins of state in Banjul. Members of the Gambian diaspora demonstrated at sites as far-flung as Seattle and Oslo, with September 4, 2012, declared a “Day of Outrage.” At the regional level, Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, spearheaded an effort to “engage all African and international institutions,” with the goal of implementing economic sanctions. It was not long before the European Union and the United Nations were weighing just such a course of action.

Members of the capital punishment abolition movement quickly entered the fray. Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, expressed her revulsion at the executions, stating that “Gambia has, for almost three decades, been one of the increasing number of states that did not practice capital punishment—until this sudden, grave, unfortunate change of course.” The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a statement calling on Jammeh to ensure that Gambia “complies with its obligation under the African Charter by refraining from the use of death penalty and to continue to observe a moratorium pending the eventual abolition of death penalty.”

The myopia exhibited in these various statements was genuinely startling. By wholly ignoring the incalculable enormities committed by Jammeh and his minions over the decades, the UN, Amnesty International, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and others presented a picture of Gambian progress temporarily sullied. Those languishing under the sultanistic rule of Yahya Jammeh—who “could well be Africa’s biggest psychopath,” in the words of USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham—might be forgiven for viewing the situation rather differently. For one thing, it was under the government of erstwhile President Dawda Jawara that the 1993 moratorium was implemented; two years later, Jammeh reintroduced the practice, citing a “phenomenal rise in treasonable offenses.” Reports of clandestine hangings in Banjul filtered out in the subsequent years, and if the practice seemed limited in scope during the 1990s and 2000s, this can be explained not by latent abolitionist impulses on the part of the regime, but rather by the grim effectiveness of the sorts of mysterious disappearances, unexplained murders, lingering deaths in detention facilities, firebombings, and other extrajudicial steps that conveniently bypass the country’s courts and flimsy constitutional guarantees.

For the first three decades of Gambia’s independence, the former British colony was widely considered an exception to the sub-Saharan African rule, given its longstanding tradition of multiparty democracy. Proven wrong, seemingly, was the former colonial governor, Thomas Southorn, who had warned that “confined to the small area within its unnatural boundaries, restricted by the paucity of its population and by its dependence on a purely agricultural economy, the Gambia can never hope to develop from its own resources the high standard of civilisation to which, as a loyal member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, it has every right to aspire.” Such aspirations, post-independence, were by and large being met. But after a 1994 coup put paid to President Jawara’s government, Gambia changed course and became, as one analyst characterized it, a “deviant case.” As authoritarian governments across Africa gave way to at least some semblance of democratic rule, Gambians found themselves subjected to the whims of a despot so divorced from reality as to have infamously taken credit for discovering an herbs-and-banana cure for AIDS, albeit one that only worked on Thursdays. (His homemade asthma remedy, fortunately, proved efficacious on both Fridays and Saturdays.)

Jammeh’s predilection for extrajudicially killing military officers, administrators, and civilians has proved rather less whimsical. Looking back at his reign thus far, one is confronted with many atrocities, including, though hardly limited to, the massacre of student protesters and journalists in April of 2000, the butchery of 44 Ghanaian and other African migrants by members of the Gambian gendarmerie in 2005, and the abduction and often fatal poisoning of hundreds of individuals by government-sponsored “witch doctors” during a bizarre 2009 sorcery scare. Given these and untold other slayings, crackdowns, detentions, and various heinous offenses, Gambians at home and abroad might question whether this recent spate of executions truly constitutes a “hugely retrograde step.” It is, in fact, rather in keeping with prior practice. Yet all too often human rights campaigners—obsessed as they largely are with the global abolition of capital punishment—have concentrated on judicial executions and ignored the overall Gambian abandonment of the rule of law.

THE ISSUE OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT in post-colonial Africa has, admittedly, been a matter of much debate in recent years. As late as 1987, the chief justice of Zimbabwe, Enoch Dumbutshena, was lamenting the “depressing fact” that “all African countries retain the death penalty,” a situation which should have come as no surprise, given that both traditional and colonial African legal systems sanctioned and often mandated said punishment. Since then, however, more than a dozen common and civil law jurisdictions have abolished the practice, while others have restricted it. In South Africa, for example, the Constitutional Court found in its 1995 landmark judgment The State v. T. Makwanyane and M. Mchunu that capital punishment was incompatible with customs and conventions concerning “cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment,” antithetical to a “human rights culture,” and out of step with the “healthy communitarian tradition” of ubuntu. The trend is far from universal, however, and, as Roger Hood observed in his 2008 book, The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective, “countries which suffer from high rates of crime, weak policing, and fears of political instability often regard the threat of capital punishment as an essential instrument of security, the abandonment of which would be interpreted as a sign of weakness in the apparatus of state control.” A century and a half later, Thomas Eyre Poole’s last-ditch defense of the institution is still being invoked.

This roiling debate has served to overshadow other equally, if not more, pressing aspects of African legal, constitutional, and political reform. As the Nigerian National Study Group on the Death Penalty sensibly determined in August 2004, “a system that would take a life must first give justice,” and therefore criminal justice systems should redouble efforts to “ensure fundamental fairness and due process” across the board. By focusing so intently on the abolition of capital punishment, human rights crusaders tend to overlook this broader goal, thereby vitiating their own movement. How right George Keeting and Georg Schwarzenberger were when, in their 1946 tractate Making International Law Work, they predicted that the nascent human rights movement might provide “the battle-cry of well-meaning reformers,” but was far more likely to serve as a “harmless diversionary pastime” for bien-pensant jurists.

Prominent figures like Sandra Babcock, of Northwestern University’s Center for International Human Rights, can thus claim with a straight face that, until Jammeh’s recent actions, “Gambia had last executed a prisoner in 1985, and had adhered to the practice increasingly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa of reducing the list of crimes for which the death penalty can be applied as well as the number of capital sentences.” This kind of shortsighted concentration on the abolition of de jure capital punishment has enabled a host of human rights crimes to pass relatively unnoticed under the humanitarian radar. It is a cause of intense frustration for abolitionists that the death penalty is not prohibited under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or other universal treaties and instruments, and facilitating the ripening of international legal custom on a country-by-country basis has become the only practicable substitute. Recent events in Gambia have, however, demonstrated how this line of thinking has produced surface-level solutions, if they can even be called that, to problems that go right down to the social, legal, and political bedrock.

Human rights crusaders rejoiced on September 15, when Gambia’s president placed a moratorium on the execution of those remaining 38 prisoners who, hours before, had still been marked for death. (Continued aid packages and peace with surrounding Senegal were evidently worth some backtracking on Jammeh’s part.) Reservations were expressed by outside observers, particularly as Jammeh had warned: “What happens next will be dictated by either declining violent crime rate, in which case the moratorium will be indefinite, or an increase in violent crime rate, in which case the moratorium will be lifted automatically.”

Amnesty International’s Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, for one, suggested that a permanent moratorium was needed “to ease the anxiety of the death row inmates and their families.” Still, the battle had been won. Gambia was well on the road to reclassification as formally “abolitionist.” And yet, ultimately, little on the ground had changed for the better.

Imam Baba Leigh, of Gambia’s Kanifing mosque, could certainly attest to that. An open critic of the August executions, the imam was visited on the night of December 3 by officers of the National Intelligence Agency and spirited away to an unknown detention facility, where he passed weeks without access to family or counsel. But while these actions were manifestly contrary to the habeas corpus guarantees provided by the Gambian Constitution, international outcry has been rather muted. Such toothlessness has only emboldened Jammeh. European Union demands to the Gambian government in the run-up to a January 2013 summit—including a permanent death penalty moratorium, a revision of laws on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and the provision of information on the burial locations of the recently executed—were all met with outright derision. “If they think that they can blackmail me for their chicken change, they must be fooling themselves because that will not happen in this country,” he said. Some six months after the world united against Jammeh’s bloodthirsty whims, the bantam dictator is in as good a position as ever to transform his country into a tropical hecatomb.

DURING HIS TIME in Senegambia, Thomas Eyre Poole wrestled with the issues of criminal justice, blood guilt, and capital punishment, bedeviled as he was by the “uncertainty and difficulty of arriving at any conclusive convictions” concerning the annihilation of human life in the public interest. In the end, Poole decided that the institution’s continuance was necessary, for without it society would become ungovernable, with “no security for life and property.”

Today, in a region Poole knew well, it is those who govern who have done away with security for life and property, and Gambia is once again a “lovely charnel-house,” a stepping-stone for all too many into an unnatural grave. It cannot be stressed enough that those nine lives snuffed out on that August night are but a grim part of an even grimmer whole. But with Jammeh’s moratorium—for all that it is worth—back in place, the attention of the international media, the UN, the EU, Amnesty International, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, et alia, lapsed almost instantaneously. Unfortunately, it will be left to Gambians like Mathew Jallow to document, as he has done in the past, the plight of the “rusty, shriveling skeletons in those listless silhouettes,” the “pitiful shadows without hope, praying for a miracle at Mile 2 Prison.”

Those who treat human rights as political playthings—to be picked up, manipulated, and set down when the fancy strikes—will not be the ones to bring about such a miracle. What they are engaged in, all too often, is mummery nearly on par with that of the merry-andrew who provoked such disgust on the part of the good Reverend Poole back in 1845. This recent empty performance in the theater of human rights should be known for what it is, and its participants should be known for what they are: unwitting enablers of the very kinds of crimes they ostensibly aim to prevent. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.