At one time, Yahya Jammeh, the Gambian dictator who ruled for 22 years, was known as His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa. Like the majority of male Muslims, he took his father’s name, Abdul-Aziz. And the title Alhaji is conferred upon any male Muslim who completes the Hajj, the holiest pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Most of Jammeh’s superfluous titles were attempts at self-aggrandizement.
In general, dictators use multiple titles to cow those they rule. However, Jammeh’s title was directed to a non-Gambian audience. Naasiru Deen has been erroneously translated by many outlets as an Arabic equivalent of the Latin fidei defensatrix, “Defender of the Faith,” conferred upon various European kings by Christian religious authorities. It is more aptly translated “Supporter of the Religion.”
According to the Gambia’s official government website, Jammeh first used the title in 2011 during Ramadan. A press release from August of that year details that Jammeh handed out over 12,000 50-kilogram bags of sugar to local Muslim leaders to distribute to their communities as zakat al-fitr, almsgiving done specifically during Ramadan. Jammeh was on a religious bent: he decried Islamic militants, pledged money to Somalia, and established Qur’anic memorization contests for the youth. All in preparation for his March 2012 trip to Qatar, where he requested monetary aid from the tiny monarchy to diminish the catastrophic effects of the Gambia’s poor farming season. Two months later, Naasiru Deen had faded from official state documents and media reports.
He revived Naasiru Deen in 2015. The title was conferred upon Jammeh by the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council (GSIC), which consists of Gambian imams and other spiritual leaders. In a country that is 95.7% Muslim, the Council promotes Islamic education, safeguards the nation’s moral values, and declares when certain holidays will be held.
Like most people in the Gambian diaspora, I was curious whenever Jammeh added a new title to his name. I wanted to discover how, exactly, he’d tried to raise his stature this time. He used Dr. and Professor to gloss over his limited high school education and to place himself on the same level as Dawda Jawara, who had a university education. Yet, try as I might, I could not understand how the title of Naasiru Deen was meant to impress a Gambian audience. Gambians feared Jammeh’s guns, legislation, and corruption—not his sermons.
When Jammeh intended to impress Gambians, he adopted titles that were specific to Gambian cultures. For instance, he adopted the Mandinka title Babili Mansa (King, Builder of Bridges) in August 2014, to highlight the infrastructure built under his rule. Around the same time, Jammeh also made numerous statements that advocated peace and connectivity, such as when he commented on conflicts between Israel and Hamas.
Instead of Naasiru Deen, Jammeh could have used Almami (a contraction of the Arabic Amir al-Mu’minin), meaning “Commander of the Faithful.” It had been used by West African anti-colonial religious leaders such as Maba Diakhou Bâ, and was widely understood in the region. Perhaps Jammeh opted not to use Almami as it was the name of the father of the beloved leader he had ousted, Dawda Jawara. And, indeed, Naasiru Deen is a name used in the Gambia and larger West Africa. But, as a given name, it is more commonly spelled as Nurudeen. Jammeh specifically wanted the title to be easily identifiable to Arab speakers and non-Gambian Muslims, as he kept the original s sound.
Naasiru Deen, etymologically, combines the Arabic words nasr, meaning support, and deen, meaning religion. One of the shortest chapters in the Qur’an is titled “Surat-an Nasr,” often translated as the “Victory.” It was revealed toward the end of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, and it marked the Muslim conquest of Mecca. The tafsir, or exegesis, of the chapter by Ibn Kathir connects it with a hadith, in which the Prophet is reported to have said, “Verily, the people will enter the religion of Allah in crowds and they will leave it in crowds.” Perhaps Jammeh, in calling himself Naasiru Deen, wished to remind wealthier Muslim leaders of their shared obligation to the multitudes within the religion, especially those from poorer countries.
Or perhaps Jammeh wanted to bring up images of the folkloric character of Nasreddin, the trickster wiseman referred to as Mullah or Hodja in some Muslim-majority nations. In many of Nasreddin’s stories, he faces off against court enemies under the gaze of the Sultan.
One day, Nasreddin picked up a dropped coin despite being rewarded thousands of dinars by the Sultan. His enemies told the Sultan that Nasreddin, being so avaricious, was not to be trusted. The Sultan peremptorily demanded that Nasreddin respond to this accusation. Without missing a beat, Nasreddin told the Sultan that he didn’t pick up the coin out of love for money. He picked up the coin because the Sultan’s face blessed one side of it and he couldn’t stand for it to be accidentally stepped on. The Sultan gifted Nasreddin with a diamond ring for his silver-tongue.
Jammeh was no less obsequious when the need arose. In the same year that he revived the title of Naasiru Deen, he defended Saudi Arabia when the Swedish Foreign Minister condemned the kingdom’s human rights record. In a press release from April 2015, Jammeh’s government described Saudi Arabia as a “friendly and venerable” nation. The statement painted the Swedish accusations as “an attack on Islamic Jurisprudence . . . designed to bring contempt on our Islamic Faith.”
Then, toward the end of 2015, Jammeh declared the Gambia an Islamic republic, saying on nationalized television that he was doing so to shake off our “colonial legacy.” The previous year the European Union had cut off funding for the Gambia on account of Jammeh’s many human rights abuses. In dire need of funds, Jammeh did his utmost to make the Gambia appealing to rich Islamic countries. He declared the country an Islamic republic, even though the constitution remained unchanged. In addition, he stated his plan to accept all of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in a government statement that lamented the plight of “those referred to as ‘Boat people’ currently drifting in the seas off the coast of Malaysia and Indonesia.”
Jammeh’s sympathy for the Rohingya was uncharacteristic. In May 2015, he condemned economic Gambian migrants who perished in the Mediterranean sea on their journeys to Europe. He implied that their parents weren’t “true Muslims” because they provided funds for their children to emigrate to countries where they might find work. He added that these groups of mostly young men had an equal chance to find work within the Gambia where, in 2010, 48.4% of the population lived below the poverty line. Phil Robertson, the deputy director for the Human Rights Watch’s Asia division at the time, said that the Gambia was an “unlikely candidate” for the Rohingya refugees.
The title served its purpose. Turkey, the birthplace of the folkloric Nasreddin, supplied funding to the Gambia shortly after the name change, as did Qatar and Kuwait. One imagines that these nations, all famous for their violations of human rights, sent funds Jammeh’s way to soften their own international appearance.
Jammeh was exiled to Equatorial Guinea in 2017. The Gambia’s Justice Minister, in a press conference, announced that Jammeh had withdrawn around 50 million dollars from numerous banks. It is likely that some of this money came from the funds sent by Turkey, Qatar, and Kuwait.
The last public images of Jammeh were of him farming with Equatoguinean despot Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. After losing an election to now-president Adama Barrow, it took the intervention of numerous West African leaders, a brief expansion of the Gambian diaspora when refugees sought shelter in neighboring Senegal, and military intervention by forces from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to finally oust Jammeh.
Now news outlets mention him only in relation to the potential extradition requests he faces, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created to deal with the national trauma he left the Gambia with, and the odd mention of his medicinal quackery. He is referred to solely as Yahya Jammeh, without a hint of finery. However, I doubt I will ever forget his full title. I wonder if the Gambia’s trickster-autocrat still laughs about how, thanks in part to a simple nominal addition, he was able to accrue millions of dollars.