Tuesday, December 13, 2011

African viewpoint: Jammeh, Aids and infertility

(BBC) In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, former BBC Focus on Africa deputy editor and Ghanaian government minister Elizabeth Ohene recalls meeting The Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh, who was re-elected last week, after he seized power in a coup in 1994.

As I followed the election news coming out of The Gambia last week, my mind invariably went down memory lane.

Seventeen years ago when Mr Jammeh - then aged 29 - staged a coup that overthrew The Gambia's first President Sir Dawda Jawara, I went to report from the country and I met the fresh-faced young man who sounded like all the other young military men in Africa at the time.
Mr Jammeh's inspiration and role-models were Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Valentine Strasser of Sierra Leone and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. 

I had a memorable interview with him then and again in 1996 when he was under intense diplomatic pressure to return the country to constitutional rule.
I remember he tried to sound confident and even authoritative but every once in a while his nerves failed him. 

Back in 1996, a few of the friends that he started out with had already fallen out with him and I took a deep breath when someone in the capital, Banjul, told me I should be careful and not think that I was protected by my BBC badge. 

A quote from my old notebook reads: "If he thinks you are threatening his position, you will disappear."
I don't remember what I made of that warning but I recall being more amused than frightened by Mr Jammeh's antics.
The post-independence leaders of The Gambia and Guinea, Sir Dawda Jawara (r) and Sekou Toure (R), in this file photo  
Post-independence leader Dawda Jawara (l) was toppled by Yahya Jammeh
Fast forward to the year 2005, when a group of 44 hapless Ghanaians and nine other West Africans were to experience what happens when the president of The Gambia is perceived to be under threat. 

The security forces arrested and killed them, suspecting they were mercenaries when they were, in fact, migrants trying to make their way to Europe. 

Mr Jammeh eventually paid $500,000 to Ghana in compensation for those murders.
Seventeen years ago he hadn't yet acquired all the titles that are now obligatory adjuncts to his name but he already certainly had illusions of grandeur. 

You had to be blind not to see that he would be better for The Gambia than Mr Jawara was, Mr Jammeh told me. 

President Yahya Jammeh

  • Overthrew The Gambia's first president as a 29-year-old army lieutenant in 1994
  • Has won four widely criticised elections
  • Accused of not tolerating opposition or independent journalists
  • Claims he can cure Aids and infertility with herbal concoctions
  • Warned in 2008 that gay people would be beheaded
  • Eight men sentenced to death last year after being accused of plotting to overthrow him

His belief that The Gambia has achieved more during his 17 years in office then during 400 years of British rule must have occurred to him later. 

When I heard Umaru's interview with him, he came across as unabashed, unapologetic and indeed quite proud to say that The Gambia was "hell for journalists" - even in those early days journalists were not his favourite people and some learnt the hard way not to upset the young leader. 

The bit I couldn't have predicted was Jammeh the healer. Not only did he announce in 2007 that he had discovered a herbal cure for HIV/Aids, he now has a cure for infertility as well.

Aged 46 and with no apparent likelihood of Gambians being tempted to lose their marbles at polling booths, the chances are His Excellency Sheikh, Professor, Alhaji, Doctor Yahya AJJ Jammeh will be around for a long time as President and Commander in Chief of the Republic of The Gambia. 

The Arab Spring might find it difficult to cross the Sahara desert. 

In West Africa, our weather pattern does not include spring - we have only dry and rainy seasons. 

I only wish I had the opportunity to interview him again. I suspect he won't talk to me now.

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