Fake News from Africa

How did boorish upstart, President Jammeh of the Gambia, long outmaneuver the wily West?


Workers prepare to remove an electoral poster of Gambia's outgoing president Yahya Jammeh.

Workers prepare to remove an electoral poster of Gambia’s outgoing president Yahya Jammeh. SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images

Kafountine, Senegal—The embattled leader of The Gambia in West Africa, possesses supernatural powers. His Excellency President Professor Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh uses herbs to cure incurable diseases like AIDS, as well as out evil witches— especially those plotting against him. Yet with magic comes hubris. President Jammeh was so sure of his powers he neglected to rig elections held December 1 and he lost. The next day he graciously conceded defeat, but soon changed his mind.

Seven weeks on, Jammeh still clings to power. But his attempt to thwart democracy is unlikely to be on the State Department’s front burner any time soon. The Gambia is the size of Connecticut but with a GDP 250 times smaller. Still, with an incoming US president eager to make “good deals” with all foreign leaders, let’s think for a moment how that might work with arguably Africa’s wackiest.

At first look, Jammeh fits the profile of your average African coup leader. He was only a lieutenant in Gambia’s rinky-dink army when he siezed power in 1994 aged 29, having just returned home from a four-month US Army training course at Fort McClellan, Alabama. But that was not what rallied his compatriots around him. Rather, his credentials came from his family, renown healers and sorcerers. They hail from the sacred Foni forests, which happens to be home to the finest cannabis in the sub-region.

Gambians live multiple realities. Most are Muslim but many also commune with casts of colorful deities that change according to people’s ethnicities. At the same time, the British, who only granted Gambians independence in 1964, imprinted the Age of Reason upon them. Gambia’s first president, who Jammeh overthrew, was a British poodle knighted by the Queen. Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara did all the right things—multiparty democracy, free press, human rights—but his government was utterly corrupt and his three decades in office made the country stagnate. Enter Jammeh, who offered Gambians a less rational path to development but one that acknowledges some the contradictory realities in which they live.

That did not impress the Clinton administration or the EU. Their reaction to his coup d’état was to suspend millions of dollars of aid, which had made up the lion’s share of Gambia’s budget. They hoped they’d convince him to step down because he would realize the he couldn’t run his little government without them. Instead, he took it as a challenge. Jammeh switched his country’s allegiance from China to Taiwan, which rewarded him with money to pave roads, build an international airport and clean up the country’s beaches, which tripled tourism and significantly bolstered the GDP. With that influx of revenue he built schools and hospitals and life for many Gambians was somewhat better.

Yes, Jammeh also erected hideous monuments to himself. Yes, good Gambians were tortured and murdered for speaking out against him. But even those who loath him are disarmed by his chutzpah. “We know Jammeh’s crazy,” a Gambian told me at a beach party on the Senegal-Gambia border this New Year’s Eve. “Still, he did more for us with the whole world against him than Sir Jawara did having its full support.”

How did this boorish upstart outmaneuver the wily West? The only explanation is magic. Every Gambian can tell you stories of how bullets ricochet off Jammeh’s body. Like the one in which he ordered a group of soldiers to form a firing squad and shoot him. As the dust settled he emerged unscathed. It doesn’t matter much whether people believe the comic book stories or not. The fact is that he has survived a dozen coups against him and defied unrelenting international pressure to step aside. Twenty-two years later he’s still here. “If I have to rule this country for a billion years I will,” he once said.

I asked Jammeh about his magic powers when I interviewed him in 1998 for Newsweek. “In Africa there are so many beliefs and they are all based on truth,” he told me. “What I know is that if you really believe something it will happen.” He then chastised his people: “We Africans lack faith in the power of our cultures and in ourselves,” adding “with faith in your own ways you have a sense of purpose and sense of direction.” I do not count Jammeh among the sharpest minds I have ever met, but I take his point when he said, “African leaders must do things their own way.” When I asked if that includes using magic he said yes.

The truth is that industrialized nations, led by the US, exert enormous pressures on poor nations to do things in the Western way. Our aid is conditional on recipient governments sticking to a good governance playbook. The job of US embassies and CIA mission centers is to look out for any deviations and stop them. But sometimes nations need to upset the status quo, try something new, even if it fails. It was worth a try. Yes, allowing that to happen makes the world a more dangerous and unpredictable place. Nonconformists with power tend to monopolize it, leaving those who don’t support them vulnerable. No, we cannot simply stand by when there’s a genocide. But circumstances are often ambiguous. it’s not always easy to know when to draw the line.

President Jammeh is but the latest in a long line of African misfits, from Haile Selassie to Idi Amin Dada to Mobutu Sese Seko. Some the US supported even after it was clear they had turned (or always were) rotten. Others had good intentions, like Patrice Lumumba, we helped assassinate. Jammeh’s mentor was former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who, despite his excesses, is still widely regarded as a hero across the continent. And he was likely better for Libya than the mess we created by getting rid of him.

Now the United States is about to try being ruled by its own antiestablishment leader, after failing miserably to bring the norms of democracy to countries likes Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe its time we become a little more open-minded about how other leaders should behave. Some who sound crazy are really dangerous. Others are just looking for a way to galvanize their people to make things better. Hey, if America can believe in its exceptionalism, why shouldn’t Africa believe in its magic powers? Fake News from Africa