Gambia has unexpectedly announced it is withdrawing from the Commonwealth, saying it will “never be a member of any neo-colonial institution”.
The Foreign Office said it would “very much regret” the move taken by the tiny African state of 1.8 million people, led by its controversial president, Yahya Jammeh.
The West African nation said it will exit the association of 54 countries, largely made up of former British colonies, though it was not made clear why it took the decision yesterday.
Though a popular destination for British tourists – about 50,000 visit every year – Gambia, which joined the Commonwealth 48 years ago, has been criticised in recent years by the UK for human rights abuses. These include the execution of nine death-row inmates by firing squad in August of last year.
Mr Jammeh said he wanted the remaining 47 death-row prisoners killed within weeks, but suspended executions in response to international pressure.
Experts say Mr Jammeh – who seized power in a coup in 1994 – may have taken the decision to leave the Commonwealth following intense scrutiny over human rights abuses or used it as an opportunity to grandstand before his people and be seen to criticise western influences.
The withdrawal was announced on state TV, but no reasons were given. In its statement, the Gambian government said it had “withdrawn its membership of the British Commonwealth”.
It said it had “decided that Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism”.
Richard Uku, spokesman for the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, said the decision was greeted with “dismay and disappointment”. The Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, will be notified once formal confirmation has been received, he added.
Mr Jammeh has exhibited increasingly bizarre and discriminatory rhetoric in recent years, and last week at the United Nations General Assembly said homosexuals were “more deadly than all natural disasters put together”. He also claims to have personally discovered a cure for Aids and ordered a national campaign against “witches”.
Leaving the Commonwealth would mean Gambia will lose a substantial number of international scholarships to universities, including in Scotland, and its athletes will not appear at next summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
It will also lose access to Commonwealth-funded legal experts, including those currently strengthening its justiciary, a debt-management programme and help with cyber crime.
Amnesty International has criticised Mr Jammeh for targeting political opponents and sexual minorities. Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, Amnesty’s West Africa researcher, told The Scotsman: “Gambia’s dirty laundry has been aired by the international media and the government’s reaction to this has been to crack down even more.
“Just this year they passed two new laws restricting freedom of speech and we’ve seen the illegal detention of journalists and political opponents. The Commonwealth intervenes on individual human rights cases, it builds the capacity of the judiciary – it was the one institution that could document human rights violations and people no longer have that.”
Alieu Ceesay, a former journalist with the Gambian Observer, who fled the country and now lives in Glasgow, is co-founder of The Campaign For Human Rights in Gambia. He said the average citizen would feel the impact.
“We are all appalled at these developments. The Gambian people see the Commonwealth as a combination of civilised nations which come together as a powerful economic and political group, and no-one in their right mind would seek to leave such an organisation.”
Dr Sara Dorman, a lecturer in African politics at Edinburgh University, added: “The rhetoric we have seen from the president here has a strong record in parts of Africa – the suggestion that western powers shouldn’t be interfering in their affairs.”
The Association of British Travel Agents said it was unlikely that the tourist trade would be impacted upon significantly. A spokesperson said: “Tens of thousands of UK holidaymakers travel to the Gambia each year and it is popular as a winter sun destination. Gambians are extremely hospitable and we would not expect UK holidaymakers’ plans to be affected by the decision to leave the Commonwealth.”
Background: Eccentric who ‘found cure for Aids’
He is famously on record as saying that in 300 years of colonialism from Britain, all that Gambians ever learnt was how to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep and God Save The Queen.
But president Yahya Jammeh may have omitted a number of benefits to being linked to the UK, not least the millions in aid handed over until 2011. An estimated £8 million is still given via contributions to the European Union and World Bank.
Indeed, the current borders of Gambia were set in 1889 following an agreement between Britain and France and much of its modernisation occurred during the colonial era.
Gambia also benefits economically from the British tourists who flock to the country every year, taking advantage of its clean beaches, cheap package deals and the winter sun. Travel agents consistently cite friendly locals and low crime as a reason.
Mr Jammeh, the nation’s eccentric president who has jailed opponents since 1994, has also claimed he could cure HIV/Aids with natural herbs.
Though little is known about the “treatment programme”, it includes instructing patients to cease taking their anti-retroviral drugs, which has been heavily criticised by health organisations.
Hundreds of Gambians are reported to have undergone his “cure” programme since 2007, despite the clinic being a short drive from the West African HQ of the Medical Research Council, a UK-funded body that conducts world-leading research into HIV.
One aspect which Gambia could benefit from is adopting the British electoral system. Gambia’s version involves voters depositing marbles into steel drums marked with the pictures of their candidate of their choice.
Pa Nderry M’Bai: ‘It is a crazy decision by one man which will hurt his country’
Gambia is a nation where the media and the political opposition have been reduced to an irrelevance. The economy is suffering, inflation is high and unemployment is rampant.
And so to my mind this senseless announcement by president Yahya Jammeh that our country will leave the Commonwealth is nothing less than a distraction from the issues that his government has failed to address.
Gambia was given a window of opportunity by the European Union and the Commonwealth to improve its governance, but Jammeh has rejected that.
The president has denied the population the right to be part of this Commonwealth and of the wider international society.
He is going against the wishes of the Gambian people and will lose the support, the opportunities, and the expertise that the organisation offers its members to govern their countries.
The Commonwealth has been very supportive in education and thousands of our young people benefit from scholarships to study in places like the UK and Scotland.
In terms of sports, it is a big part of life in Gambia. Athletes will have been deeply disappointed to learn yesterday that they will not be able to take part in the Commonwealth Games next year.
Frankly, it is a crazy decision by one man which will hurt his country politically, economically, and socially.
Human rights have been eroded since the president took power and the Commonwealth, which was working to set up a commission in our country this year, was one way of ensuring abuse did not go unreported.
Deyda Hydara, the editor at the Point newspaper where I previously worked as a senior reporter, was gunned down in 2004. His killers, who we believe to agents of the regime, have never been found and there will be many other cases like this which have gone unpunished. We also worry about the impact on tourism, one of our strongest industries.
Jammeh has spoken about how homosexuals are worse than natural disasters and made other bizarre comments, and I’m concerned that this, and leaving the Commonwealth, will have negative ramifications on our communities.
• Pa Nderry M’Bai is a managing editor of the Freedom Newspaper, and is now based in North Carolina.