By Dr Sue Onslow

Political commentators have been left scratching their heads today with the sudden news on Gambian state radio, informing the Gambian public that that the country was pulling out of the Commonwealth with immediate effect. Gambia came off the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s agenda in 2001, but has not been in the last decade although there have been ‘causes for concern’. President Jammeh is also on record saying his country can do business with the Commonwealth. So what has prompted this?

Is it a carefully calculated pre-emptive action to forestall any behind-the-scenes’ Commonwealth criticism at the upcoming Heads of Government Meeting – possible, although the spot light is going to be firmly on Sri Lanka. Is there a possible return to Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s (CMAG) agenda? Given President Jammeh’s deplorable human rights record, and CMAG’s strengthened remit following the 2011 Perth Heads of Government Meeting, there was of course a strong likelihood that the small country could find itself the subject of peer-group particular discussion and private pressure to amend its human rights transgressions. CMAG met on the margins of the UNGA meeting in New York, and there may well have been some private finger wagging although no public announcement that the country was back on CMAG’s watch list.

Although elections in 2012 nominally confirmed President Jammeh’s grip on power, these were controversial with an identified high level of voter intimidation and this remains a highly idiosyncratic state subject to the whim of the executive President. In 2010 the EU withdrew E33 million in budget support because of the regime’s repressive human rights record. In contrast, the Commonwealth Secretary General tried a discrete coaxing rather than a critical stance; following a visit to Banjul and meetings with the President and top Gambian officials in 2012, the Commonwealth proposed to create commissions to protect human rights and media rights. These proposals have been rejected by Banjul. The Jammeh regime has also been subject to Foreign & Comonwealth Office public criticism on its human rights record, and muzzling of the media. CMAG is a stern, and outspoken critic (particularly following the execution of 9 prisoners in 2012).

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights have become a prominent part of a Commonwealth discourse (which is very controversial among some Commonwealth member states, not just the Gambia) and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), based in Delhi, has just called for the country to be returned to the CMAG list, with a detailed report on serious and persistent human rights violations.

But the indications are that this surprise announcement is more to do with paranoid politics and idiosyncratic leadership which refuses to acknowledge any validity of criticism or pressure to reform – from external governments, professional organizations or activists in the diaspora. This decision is rational, from the point of view of protecting affronted presidential dignity – indelibly allied to a particular perception of the importance of this to legitimacy and authority of office. President Jammeh’s appearance at the UN General Assembly was accompanied by significant diaspora demonstrations in New York, and his unceremonious bundling out of a UN back door.

Hypersensitivity to criticism or pressure/encouragement for reform is a reflection of a particular understanding of sovereignty – taken as entitlement of independence of action, and immunity from criticism. Jammeh’s announcement smacks  more than a little of Zimbabwe’s abrupt departure at the Abuja Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting  in 2003, when Robert Mugabe’s hypersensitivity to Commonwealth criticism of ZANU-PF’s  governance and human rights record prompted withdrawal – pre-empting continuation of Zimbabwe’s suspension from the Commonwealth. (Don McKinnon the Secretary General  only received written confirmation of this two days later.)

The Gambian President’s style of leadership, and accompanying reports of government ministers accused of treasonable activity, strongly suggests insulation by a circle of sycophants. This seemingly bizarre announcement makes sense in President Jammeh’s world view, which conflates British and Commonwealth criticism. Although the labeling of the Commonwealth as a neo-colonial association is frankly ridiculous and fundamentally misplaced, Gambia’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth also denies his domestic critics formal access to the network of Commonwealth professional and civil society associations, and much needed public solidarity and support in the pursuit of reform.