Yahya Jammeh: The Gambian Dictator Who Betrayed Kunta Kinteh

In an Okayafrica op-ed, Aisha Dabo and Jeffrey Smith discuss Yahya Jammeh's brutal betrayal of Kunta Kinteh's legacy in The Gambia.

By Aisha Dabo & Jeffrey Smith

The Gambia, the smallest country on mainland Africa, has a reputation for being the "Smiling Coast of Africa," thanks in part to its stunning coastline and abundance of natural beauty. What many outsiders forget, however, is that the country was at the heart of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Gambian lore is thus inherently linked to Kunta Kinteh, arguably Africa’s most famous slave whose epic refusal to bow to a slave-owners’ whip and chain is the stuff of legend. Kinteh’s saga has come to symbolize the larger struggle for marginalized peoples everywhere to persevere against oppression and put a name to the thousands of faceless Africans who stood tall and forthright against the colossal aggression of the African slave trade.

For years the Gambian government, under the dictatorship of Yahya Jammeh, has been cashing in on the Kunta Kinteh appeal to boost tourism and guard its image from condemnation over massive human rights abuses. The contrast between the generations of Kinteh and Jammeh is stark, particularly when viewed through the prism of slavery and bondage on the one hand, and post-independence political excesses on the other.

Since 2003, The Gambia’s tourism ministry has been organizing the International Roots Homecoming Festival. The purpose of the event is to act as a staging post for the emotive “homecoming” of people from the Diaspora. Through the years, the festival has become a major international event, attracting a number of renowned black artists.

While the legacy of Kunta Kinteh has been helping The Gambia draw positive attention over the years, the country’s citizens, since 1994, have been suffering under one of the most heinous and unaccountable dictatorships on the African continent. Yahya Jammeh (known officially as Sheikh Professor Doctor Alhaji Yahya Abdoul Aziz Jamus Junkung Jammeh Nasirul Deen Babibli Mansa) has been referred to as a megalomaniacal dictator and is renowned for his bizarre public outbursts. Jammeh also claims to have the power to cure HIV/AIDS, and most recently, Ebola.

During Jammeh’s two-decade reign, the arrest and detention of journalists and regime critics has become the norm. Arbitrary executions, torture, and enforced disappearances are so commonplace that the international community barely bats an eye when information about such crimes trickles out. Gambian torture victims narrate ordeals they have suffered at the hands of a “secret section” of the security forces known ominously as the Junglers, who run covert torture chambers throughout the country. These victims tell spine-chilling stories of electric shock, whipping, and bone-breaking sessions.

Jammeh also stands out in a class of his own for his frequent and menacing anti-gay vitriol. During The Gambia’s independence anniversary in February of this year, for example, Jammeh castigated LGBT people as “dangerous vermin” that must be fought with the same vigor and urgency that the government battles malaria. Most recently, he was filmed during a “Meet the People” tour, exclaiming enthusiastically: “Whoever wants to advocate for gay or lesbian rights, we will kill you like a dog…if the West wants gays and lesbians to have rights, let them get visas and resettle them.”

In the days of Kunta Kinteh, people were bought and sold as slaves. In modern-day Gambia, it’s a different kind of enslavement in which basic human rights are denied or severely restricted, where Gambians are herded as “free labour” and forced to till Jammeh’s land across the country. These scenes are painfully and eerily reminiscent of the forced slave-labor system witnessed on plantations in the American South.

To be clear, some Gambians are propelled by a genuine desire to work for His Excellency, but a great deal are forced to participate out of fear of losing their jobs or running the risk of being branded opposition sympathizers, a transgression that often leads to prison time. In a country where arbitrary detentions are rampant and widespread, and fair trials are the exception to the general rule, Gambians understandably go to great lengths not to cross the Jammeh regime.

Unlike the era of slavery during Kunta Kinteh’s lifetime, no one in The Gambia, save for the country’s ever-rising prison population, is shackled in physical chains. In today’s Gambia, those shackles are more psychological, thanks to widespread fear and anxiety that force people to whisper opinions even in the relative safety of bedrooms. For Gambians today, the choice is between living a lifetime in shackles or choosing a life of exile. To take but one example, over 100 journalists have fled the country due to persecution since 1994, the year President Jammeh came to power through his “bloodless coup.”

The political opposition has no access to the state media, which has become a transparent propaganda outlet for the Jammeh regime. It’s up to the police, an unabashed apparatus of the ruling party, to determine if a permit should be issued for an opposition rally. Several years ago, an opposition leader was jailed for one year for holding a megaphone in public without a permit.

Dissenters are refused travel documents. Even religion is not spared. A prominent imam is currently on trial for holding Eid prayers on a day different from that of the government. A former minister was jailed for life for printing t-shirts with the slogan “End dictatorship now.”

The overseer and enabler of this misery is Jammeh’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the omnipresent institution of oppression, which leave their indelible marks on the public mind about what awaits dissenters who refuse to toe the regime’s line.

Taken together, the Gambian government, which is single-handedly controlled by President Jammeh, plays the part of a 21st century slave master. Somehow, there are still apologists who dismiss the mounting human rights abuses as hogwash, as lies fabricated by the “imperialist West.” The Gambia is, by the apologists' reckoning, a land in which people enjoy a culture of free speech and peaceful assembly, a country worthy of the "Smiling Coast of Africa" moniker.

What a tragic misnomer. And what a disservice to the land that gave Kunta Kinteh, and the struggle that he embodied, to the world. Kinteh's story and his legacy collectively appeal to the universal yearning for basic human dignity to which all citizens of the world are entitled to, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

President Jammeh, and his henchmen in The Gambia, would be well served to recall this enduring legacy and to act accordingly.


Aisha Dabo is a Gambian journalist. You can follow her on Twitter at @MashaNubian.

Jeffrey Smith is senior advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter at @Smith_RFKennedy.


This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!


Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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