The Role Of Jammeh’s 22 Years Of Authoritarian Durability In The Gambia

By Lamin Keita



It is important to consider how Yahya Jammeh’s authoritarian system was able to exist in The Gambian politics for 22 years—from 1994-to-2016. The entrenchment of authoritarian durability has usually been associated with strong authoritarian rule, resource course, and electoral authoritarianism in other countries—such as, the Philippines, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Egypt. Unlike these countries, The Gambia has a history of democratic tolerance dating to the 19th century and lacks natural resources. Indeed, no existing literature seems to explain the connection between religious institutions and authoritarian stability as in the case of The Gambia. Now whether the relationship between authoritarian durability and the role of religious institutions is causal, previous studies have failed to account for a plausible alternative explanation of the observed correlation. I drew upon interviews from The Gambian institutions—notably security services—religious leaders, members from the opposition, and from civil society; subsequently, I argue that for dictators like Jammeh to consolidate their hold on power, they need to pursue two strategies.
First, they must keep the people, and especially any opposition there might be in check through repression and the judicious use of violence. Second, if they want to achieve goals (e.g., development, modernization, and so on) beyond simply staying in power, they must win the “hearts and minds” of the general population, so that not all of their energy is spent suppressing opposition. Subsequently, the majority of the literature has focused on the use of violence and repression, and The Gambia is no exception to this. However, Jammeh expended even more efforts into winning the “hearts and minds” of the population through the manipulation of religious practices and symbols. Thus, this research is important because it will provide insight into the conditions under which Jammeh’s political violence took root and the manner in which his authoritarian regime was institutionalized. His regime has caused many hundreds of deaths, disappearances, an increase in economic hardships and the number of The Gambian asylees abroad. This research would allow for further understanding of the mechanisms that led to these outcomes, as well as, the conditions that made them more to be expected. By utilizing The Gambia as a new case study of authoritarian durability, it will help lead us to an understanding of just how this dictatorship clung to power for so long.

Research Findings

Participants in this semi-structured interview research were anonymous, but they were randomly drawn from a pool comprised of all Political party members, Security Services, the Civil Society, and the religious leaders in the country around June and July, 2017. About 15 – 25 participants were drawn from each institution. The preliminary findings of this research were able to conclude that there was no single institution responsible for the entrenchment of the authoritarian durability of former President Jammeh’s regime. A majority of the interviewees across board acknowledged that a combination of all the institutions played a collaborative effort to consolidate Jammeh’s 22 years of rule in The Gambia. All institutions had played a major role—one way or the other. However, some institutions like the security services and the religious establishments contributed significantly in coercing the majority of the people. More specifically, religious establishments empowered Jammeh through legitimacy, and providence in the eyes of the Gambian—making ordinary people believe that Jammeh was God given and his authority was not to be challenged. Subduing the citizens through religious contents (messages) resulted in a lack of protest because of the acceptance of the culture of tolerance and submission to religious messages. These messages in the form of plea, especially from relatives and families also have impact on the culture of submission and tolerance that tend to prolong Jammeh’s stay in power. Evidently, many interviewees expressed that Jammeh manipulated the religious establishment through the use of material and cult ideologies. As a result, he explored and took advantage of the charismatic-brokers to convince ordinary Gambians that he was God-sent, and no human being could remove him from power. One interviewee observed that Jammeh’s cult personality had begun, since he came to power in 1994; he wore a white “African traditional gown”, was careful to always hold a Rosary-Bead and the Quran. Jammeh built a number of mosques across the country, and one in the State House. A mention was made that, the reason why many Gambians did not retaliate to Jammeh’s brutality was the fact that “If anyone has killed one person it is as if he had killed the whole mankind” (Quran 5:32). Therefore, these attributes muted the spirits and enthusiasm of many powerful individuals, who could have confronted Jammeh and gotten rid of him.

Observations from the interviewees did note that certain sectors of the security apparatus enforced Jammeh’s omnipotential powers through exponentially increased state violence. Jammeh also used ethnic cleavages, patronage, and use of the “carrot-and-stick” ploy to buy loyalty, while further divide and crack down on both the oppositions and the civil society at large. Patronage—coupled with state violence and the implementation of draconian laws—used The Gambian laws as a sword; instead of protecting citizens, formation of vigilante groups and coercive forces (Junglers), took root over time. The Gambia became a police state and land of terror. Relatively, Jammeh’s autocratic coup-proved security services became more socially exclusive. Autocrats like Jammeh commonly manipulated the social composition of their security forces in ways that they believed would make those forces more loyal, and less likely to rebel or defect. For these reasons, Jammeh’s authoritarian durability security forces consisted of: first, the same social group he considered was more reliable because they shared the same regime interests defined by a common identity and stake in a particular societal distribution of power. Second, Jammeh reflects the fissures of a multiethnic society, exclusive forces, which were expected to operate more cohesively. Finally, since exclusive forces lacked a broad social base of power, they had a lower likelihood of defection or coup. Their ability to replace Jammeh, or even to mount a successful challenge, was limited by the lack of broader support. This research additionally noted that Jammeh remained in power for 22 years because he limited the funding of the coercive apparatus only to the most loyal and trusted individuals (who could kill for him). Jammeh also kept these loyalist forces too small in order to prevent them from becoming an effective threat, and to keep them more responsive to his patronage. While he extensively employed autocrats’ methods of rotational policies with the civil servants and the military, it was designed to ensure that no individual became too close to a unit, or region, or accumulated excessive power in a single base. The dictators Kim Jong II, Saddam Hussein, and Haile Selassie operated with these identical methods.


This research empirically concluded that Jammeh’s regime’s fragmentation, exclusivity precise operationalization tends to vary with the country’s dominant traditional and social cleavages. Then, the key questions, were the country’s major institutions (the security services, religious institutions, civil society, and political parties), all included or part of Jammeh’s coercion in order to prolong his authoritarian durability? If participation in the coercive apparatus was restricted to a narrow group that shared regime interest, ethnic, tribal, religious, regional, or familial ties with Jammeh, while those who lacked such a tie were barred from participation, then the apparatus can be said to be exclusive. However, if individuals who empowered and entrenched Jammeh from across the dominant institutional cleavages were regularly and proportionally included, then the apparatus was inclusive. Overall, the implication of Jammeh’s authoritarian stability should tell us something about the role of our societal formation and our institutions in enhancing authoritarian endurance. It also reveals the type of a particular leader like Jammeh, and how such an arrogant leader could survive for 22 years, while subjecting the citizens to a plethora of abuses. Rhetorically, was the religious content, security services, the civil society, or political parties to be blame? Paradoxically, why would Jammeh’s coercive apparatus suddenly begin to breakdown? Ultimately, the razor thin line of Jammeh’s authoritarian durability underpins-not religion per se, but the content, and not the entire security services, civil society nor the political parties, but the social structure and religious leadership, whose individual interests trumped that of the national interests. This study does recognize the previous political science theories that attempted to explain the patterns of authoritarian durability of dictators, which also correlate Jammeh’s rule in The Gambia. However, what was interesting about Jammeh’s case was the use of religion, rituals and the exploitation of the same cohesive society—brother against brother or sister against sister or people of the same people killing each other or become rivals. Lessons of Jammeh’s twenty-two years of authoritarian stability reveals tools of human rights abuses coupled with manipulation for personal. As a result, the current government and The Gambian society as a whole can only learn from these past errors and miscalculations in order to avoid the repeat of Jammeh’s past authoritarian durability.
NOTE: This work must not be produced for future research work in any form without the author’s or Northwestern University’s permission.


Panofsky Award at Northwestern University: for sponsoring this research in The Gambia.
University of The Gambia for providing conducive environment to conduct this research: Notably, the department of Political Science and Public Health. However, specially thanks goes to the following people: Essa Njie and Ensa Kujabi (my research assistance) whose immense support and contribution made this work possible. The same thank you note goes to Professor Gomez and Dr. Ismail Ceesay at the University of The Gambia (UTG), the institutions (the security service, civil society, religious establishment, and the political parties) who participated in this research for their support.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *