Former dictator Jahya Jammeh.

Hunting For Gambia’s Jammeh: Things Aren’t So Cushy Nowadays As They Were For The African Dictators Of Old

REEF Brody’s secret for success sounds like a pretty good recipe for IRIN too: “turning victims stories into a narrative the world can’t ignore.” Brody, a 64-year-old attorney from New York, could become ex-Gambian dictator’s Yahya Jammeh’s worst nightmare.

The veteran Human Rights Watch lawyer specialises in hunting down exiled dictators and bringing them to justice. As Colin Freeman notes in this BBC podcast, things aren’t quite so cushy nowadays as they were for the African dictators of old: he recalls Idi Amin entertaining the crowds with his accordion-playing at his resident Novotel in Saudi Arabia and ex-president Mengistu of Ethiopia hanging out as a regular in a Harare bar.


But, a reminder, if needed, of the tenuous grasp of international justice, came last month with the overturning on appeal of the 18-year sentence of former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba for the atrocities committed in the Central African Republic by his militia.

So what chance does Brody have of putting Jammeh in the dock to answer for those allegedly jailed and tortured during his brutal 22 years in power in The Gambia? Well, it won’t be easy. As per the deal that saw him step aside in January 2017, he is now holed up in Equatorial Guinea, which never signed the statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But Brody takes the long view. People said Chadian dictator Hissène Habré would never face justice. It may have taken relentless pressure from Brody and victims over 17 years but prosecute him they did, and in 2016 he was jailed for life in Senegal.


The 76-year-old strongman president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, is now the continent’s longest-serving leader and no mug. But Brody believes there may come a time when Jammeh is the right card for him to play. “If we make enough noise, the international community will eventually pressure Obiang to hand Jammeh over,” he says.

And what of life now in The Gambia. Well, it’s not perfect. There’s a legacy, thanks to Jammeh, of authoritarianism and weak public institutions. But at least under Adama Barrow people are free to express their grievances, and do so without fear of beating, arrest, torture, or worse. This turnaround in the country’s democratic fortunes has also had an effect on an exodus that made Gambians Europe’s second-largest diaspora (per capita).

But as reporter Louise Hunt and photographer Jason Florio found for an upcoming IRIN story, a group of young migrant returnees is trying to counter the  “take the back way out” narrative that has fuelled emigration for a generation. Touring the country, explaining the horrific experiences in Libya, they are urging communities to support young people more and encourage them to stay home and build a new and better Gambia.



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