International human rights groups are condemning harsh anti-gay legislation passed by MPs in the Gambia. The African nation already has strong laws against homosexuality and President Yahya Jammeh, a noted homophobe, is unlikely to do anything but to sign the new bill into law.
Unlike in Uganda, which has also seen attempts this year to enact tough anti-homosexuality laws, there is little obvious indigenous campaign against the Gambian political leadership on this issue. Whilst this may not be surprising given the laws already in place, it is characteristic of the Gambia’s short history: civil society is virtually non-existent and popular protest is fractured at best, if not downright ineffectual.
From its independence in 1962 until 1994, the Gambia was dominated by Dawda Jawara. Having almost unilaterally converted his nation from a constitutional monarchy to a republic in the early 1960s, Jawara set about creating a strong People’s Progressive Party (PPP) which used ‘modern’ techniques (such as radio broadcasts and vehicle campaigning) to establish a strong hold over the population.
In the following years, Jawara was able to maintain power over the people in a way uncommon in many other African states. Whilst some dissent grew within the ranks of teachers and students over the government’s corruption and ineffectiveness at alleviating poverty, agitators were stifled either by incorporation into the political sphere or via carefully-managed ‘exiles’ abroad. The futility of the popular cause (such that it was) led many to turn to ‘heavy drinking and endless arguments amongst themselves”. (Hughes & Perfect, 2006, p.203)
Rather than popular protest movements developing, any discontent amongst the populace was an almost inevitable reaction to the endemic corruption of the regime, encouraged by opposition politicians. Indeed, a 1981 coup against Jawara was his greatest challenge before his ultimate demise. Able to portray the coup as ‘ethnic rebellion’ by the Jola people, Jawara enlisted the help of the Senegalese military to halt it and maintain strict order in the succeeding years.
By the time he was deposed in 1994 by Jammeh, Jawara was already in semi-retirement. He had marshalled the Gambia with relative ease throughout his reign and managed to discourage significant dissent amongst the population by creating a strong political base and using divide-and-rule tactics.
Jammeh has followed a similar path. Despite some crackpot views (such as his belief that natural herbs can cure AIDS or that the Gambia is one of the world’s foremost aviation pioneers) he has maintained power through a mixture of military coercion and a reliance on the mechanisms employed by Jawara, who nipped in the bud any nascent civil society movements.
As such, expect few local dissenters when Jammeh comes to sign the new anti-homosexuality bill into law. Whilst Amnesty International and other groups can highlight the potential unfairness of such legislation, without local action their cries will go unheeded.
Hughes, A. & Perfect, D., A Political History of The Gambia, 1816-1994 (2006)