The president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, called homosexuals “vermin” on Tuesday, and compared them to malaria-carrying mosquitoes. He went on to say that the government should treat homosexuals the same way it treats the problem-causing insect. His latest comments are only the most recent example of rhetoric and actions, targeting gays and dissident groups.
His comments coincide with those of many in power across the African continent, where homosexuality is often thoroughly taboo. Thirty-seven African countries consider homosexuality a crime, and Tanzanian law allows for life imprisonment for homosexual activity. In a speech before the United Nations on September 27, 2013, Jammeh said that homosexuality in all its forms is evil, anti-human as well as anti-God. He went on to say that homosexuality is a risk to the continuation of the human existence via lack of procreation. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) support groups around the world have been vocal in their criticism of the treatment of gays in Africa.
Britain, Gambia’s former colonial ruler and current contributor of aid to the country, has threatened to cancel its assistance if Gambia enacts anti-gay legislation. Other countries hinted at similar action. Nonetheless, Jammeh remained defiant. He asserted Gambia’s sovereignty, and its commitment to Islamic values. Islam considers homosexuality immoral. In a display of some sociopolitical wit, Jammeh stated that LGBT stands for leprosy, gonorrhea, bacteria and tuberculosis – again comparing the diseases to homosexuality’s supposed effect on society. In 2012, Jammeh claimed to have found a magic banana-based lotion that would “cure” homosexuality when applied to a person.
Jammeh became president of Gambia in a 1994 coup, and has since had a less-than-stellar human rights record. Gays are not his only targets. He earned international criticism in 2012 for executing prisoners, apparently without sound reason. The regime has caught the notice of both both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Furthermore, the U.S. State Department declares on its website that the Jammeh government has shown complicity in abduction of citizens and abuse of political dissidents.
Gambian dissidents living abroad fear being deported back to their home country. Twenty-nine-year-old Gambian Muhammad Sillah has been held in detention in Toronto by Canadian authorities for immigration violations. He lost his visiting-student status when he ran out of tuition funds, and had to begin working “under the table” to make ends meet. Sillah is terrified of deportation and believes he may even be killed for writing critical essays about Jammeh. Dissident newspaper, Freedom Newspaper, regularly publishes criticisms of the current government.
Critics accuse the president of hiring and promoting people to key military and government positions based on tribal and personal affiliation. Meanwhile, people at the center of arts and culture have also rebuked Jammeh, saying they are being treated as pawns to “polish his image.” Critics included Grammy-winning artist Youssou Ndour. Ndour’s fellow artist and protestor Pa Samba Jow claims that cultural events praising the president is like telling the Gambian people to “go to hell.”
In spite of the president’s record, the European Union (EU) may double its aid to the country over the next seven years.
Gambia’s president has claimed that he will not be coerced by threats of lost foreign aid, and that he will continue to defend his country against undesirable elements like gay rights and dissident voices. However, as his critics abroad continue to target his regime for international sanctions, Jammeh may find it difficult to stay in power if he’s seen as the root of those sanctions.
By Ian Erickson