US press: pick of the papers

The ten must-read opinion pieces from today's US papers.

1. Hospitals aren't hotels (New York Times)

We hurt people because it's the only way we know to make them better. This is the nature of our work, which is why the growing focus on measuring "patient satisfaction" as a way to judge the quality of a hospital's care is worrisomely off the mark, says Theresa Brown.

2. Mitt Romney meets 'peasants with pitchforks' (Washington Post)

When Pat Buchanan ran for president in the 1990s, the conservative commentator lovingly referred to his partisans as "peasants with pitchforks." The pitchfork brigade now enjoys more power in Republican politics than even Buchanan thought possible, writes E.J. Dionne Jr.

3. Viral video, vicious warlord (New York Times)

I'd like to thank the makers of the "Kony 2012" video for goading me to write about Joseph Kony. Yes, the video glosses over details, but it has left the American public more informed. Last year, Rush Limbaugh defended the Lord's Resistance Army because it sounded godly, writes Nicholas D. Kristof.

4. The secret of Santorum's success (Politico)

Though Santorum's received the most intense scrutiny of all, he endures because he has taken his message, and himself, directly to voters. And the more voters see of the real Rick Santorum, the more they like him, writes Gary Bauer.

5. Bombing Syria risks making things worse (USA Today)

Despite the blood-soaked images from Syria, the proper course is to methodically align the forces that will remove Assad while limiting the risks, preferably as an alternative to an attack but at least to prepare the way for one, says this editorial.

6. Obama dribbles from mandate to man date (San Francisco Chronicle)

One month the White House sniggers about an overly male GOP not backing its birth-control mandate. But Obamadom doesn't want to seem too metrosexual, so the president jumped from mandate to "man date", says Debra J Saunders.

7. Romney and the un-Romney (LA Times)

With no disrespect to Gingrich or Ron Paul, the Republican race is down to two serious contenders: a doctrinaire conservative and an erstwhile moderate whose repositionings have created confusion about his core convictions, writes this editorial.

8. Gingrich's ego is a win for Romney (Boston Globe) (£)

Since Iowa, Gingrich and Rick Santorum have been fighting for the right to take on Romney as the one and only true conservative in the 2012 contest. The trouble is, they are still fighting each other, writes Joan Vennochi.

9. Romney turns his pandering skills to gas prices and whiffs again (St Louis Today)

The ploy of presidential candidates blaming sitting presidents for rising gas prices is nearly as old as the internal combustion engine, says this editorial.

10. GOP hitting reset every election night (Politico)

It could take an entire college semester to make sense of the formula devised by the Republican National Committee, writes Trey Hardin.

LORRAINE MALLINDER
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A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times