A ticket to paradise comes very cheap in Gambia — as long as you’re headed in the right direction. Thomas Cook charges just £230 for the six-hour flight from Gatwick to West Africa, and in the cheaper hotels along the cream-white palm beaches, a week’s stay costs even less. For the 100,000 Europeans who flock here each year — half of them Brits — it’s a much loved, if slightly tatty, African Benidorm, where donkeys can be found not in the souvenir shops but grazing rubbish on the streets outside.
For the equally large numbers of Gambians seeking desperately to go the other way, however, the ticket is far pricier. A thousand euros will buy passage on the people--smugglers’ route to Europe, although here, the experience of sun, sand and sea is very different. If they don’t die of thirst crossing the baking sand dunes of the Sahara, they may well drown on the boat across the Med — a fate that has befallen both Fatim Jawara, a goalkeeper for the Gambian National Women’s football team, and Ali ‘Thousand Franc’ Mbengu, a champion Gambian wrestler, in the past six weeks.
Judging by the rate at which other Gambians are trying to make it across the Mediterranean, they may soon struggle to field any national sporting teams at all. Nearly 10,000 Gambians have crossed the Med so far this year, according to the UNHCR, making the tiny nation of 1.9 million one of Africa’s biggest per capita people-exporters.
So what has gone so wrong in Paradise? The answer stares down at you from billboards near the main tourist strip, where beaming away in paternal fashion is Gambia’s cane-swinging ruler, Yahya Jammeh, or, to give his full title, ‘His Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor President’. In power since a 1994 coup, he is an old-school, sunglasses-wearing strongman and anti-colonial warrior. But while his old pals Colonel Gaddafi and Hugo Chavez are now dead, and Robert Mugabe is ailing, Jammeh, aged just 51, is getting into his stride.
At the end of this month, he will seek a fifth term in office, in elections that many fear will be neither free nor fair. He has declared that he will rule ‘for a billion years if Allah decrees it’, which isn’t the kind of thing that leaders who receive millions in EU aid are supposed to say these days. Meanwhile, as if to make up for the lack of other big men on the block, he has embraced almost every cliché of the genre. There’s his huge presidential convoy, complete with stretch Hummer and pick-up trucks of body-guards. And there’s his rap sheet. Human Rights Watch has accused him of jailing, torturing and murdering political opponents.
Then there is his witchcraft cult. In 2007, to universal horror, the ‘Doctor’ claimed to have invented his own ‘herbal’ cure for HIV, which involves patients giving up anti-retroviral drugs. Two years later, his Green Beret presidential guard allegedly force-fed a hallucinogenic potion to an entire village, apparently because he suspected that the villagers had cast a spell on his aunt. Under Jammeh’s rule, Gambia has become a modern-day version of Graham Greene’s The Comedians — with tattooed Daily Star readers lolling on the beaches while a Papa Doc Duvalier lurks in the background.
Yet even a leader who is said to have divine powers can’t stop people imagining that life might be better elsewhere. Indeed, it’s hard for them not to, thanks to that other quirk of the Gambian tourist experience. For years, female holidaymakers of a certain age have come here for Shirley Valentine-style romances with lithe young local men: one diplomat told me he once saw a ‘gigolo’ hand-in-hand with a pensioner on a mobility scooter. But these days, the hope that such a fling may secure an invitation to Europe is over, thanks to tighter visa rules. Instead, the only way out is via what is known locally as the ‘Back Way’ — a bus to the smuggling hub of Agadez in Niger, from where the trans-Saharan journey begins.
It isn’t just frustrated gigolos trying it. In the last two years, Gambia’s already fragile economy has tanked, thanks partly to the Ebola epidemic, which frightened off tourists even though the virus never reached here. As a result, nearly everyone I meet here knows someone who has taken — or tried — the Back Way.
Even the presidential candidate for the opposition Gambia Democratic Congress, Mamma Kandeh, tells me his young sister has just made it to Italy. The exodus is particularly notable in the rural interior, hit badly by drought. In farming communities like Saba, north of River Gambia, it’s estimated that up to a quarter of local young men have departed. Thanks to the cash they wire home, their old houses often have new concrete walls rather than mud-thatch. Village elders fear that if it continues, there will soon be hardly any menfolk left to do the harvest. Those who remain, meanwhile, complain that they are now seen as lousy marriage prospects, mere peasants with no get up and go. And the young increasingly see the Back Way as a rite of passage. ‘At school they tell us not to take the Back Way, but when I am older I might try it,’ says Omar Njai, 13, as he hoes groundnuts. ‘I want to be able to send money to my mother.’
So what is to be done? This time last year, an EU summit in Malta pledged a multi--billion pound aid programme to make Africa’s main ‘people-exporting’ nations more attractive places to stay. Jammeh’s contribution to the debate has been typically eccentric: urging his people to stay at home, while calling last month on the International Criminal Court to prosecute Europe for letting them drown. At the same time, he announced Gambia’s withdrawal from the ICC, describing it as the ‘International Caucasian Court’.
Yet the more he backslides on human rights, the more migration becomes his trump card. Europe is reluctant to impose sanctions on him because it wants his co-operation in the migrant aid program, under which African governments will tighten border controls and take back more deportees. In effect, it is seeking his help on the very problem he is causing.
Short of a bloodbath at the elections, or one so incompetently rigged that the West cannot pretend not to notice, Mr Jammeh may well continue his rule for a billion years. The only question is: will there be any young men left to romance the tourists?