At least two American citizens were involved in a conspiracy to oust long-ruling Gambian President Yahya Jammeh last week, according to U.S. federal prosecutors. As my colleague Adam Goldman reports, the two men belonged to a ring of a dozen or so Gambian expatriates and dissidents who plotted the botched coup. One of them was allegedly financing the operation from the U.S.
Their assault on the Gambian president's house Dec. 30 proved ill-fated, and didn't receive the support from military defectors that had been hoped. Jammeh, who was out of the country at the time, deemed the incident a "terrorist attack" meant to "destabilize and wreak havoc in the country." The plotters, more plausibly, likely carried out the move as a desperate, last-ditch maneuver to oust the entrenched strongman.
Jammeh has ruled in Gambia since coming to power in a coup in 1994 and is considered to be one of Africa's most eccentric dictators, a modern-day "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Aspects of his reign over this tiny, riparian state -- which is surrounded entirely by the West African nation of Senegal save for a thin coastal strip popular with British tourists -- would be funny, were it not for the harsh reality of his tyranny. Critics have long accused Jammeh of intimidating and sometimes killing dissidents, particularly students and journalists. Elections, such as they are, are considered shams. Much of Gambian economic and political life is dictated from the president's office. There is little space for free speech in a country that's watched constantly by Jammeh's notorious intelligence agency and where even prominent newspaper editors can end up murdered in mysterious circumstances.
In 2012, for reasons still not fully known, Jammeh ordered the mass execution of prisoners on death row, which only ended after worldwide anger and condemnation. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Here is what else Jammeh is known for:
Sure, he's hardly the only African leader to be anti-gay. But his rhetoric about LGBT rights is among the most strident. In 2008, he said he would "cut off the head" of any gay person found in Gambia, prompting an international outcry. Undeterred, he made these remarks in 2013:
Homosexuality is anti-god, anti-human, and anti-civilization. Homosexuals are not welcome in the Gambia. If we catch you, you will regret why you are born. I have buffaloes from South Africa and Brazil and they never date each other. We are ready to eat grass but we will not compromise on this. Allowing homosexuality means allowing satanic rights. We will not allow gays here.
In 2007, Jammeh proclaimed at a gathering of diplomats that his own special mix of herbs could cure HIV/AIDS and other diseases. "I can treat asthma and HIV/Aids ... Within three days the person should be tested again and I can tell you that he/she will be negative," the BBC quoted him as saying. He went on: "I am not a witch doctor and in fact you cannot have a witch doctor. You are either a witch or a doctor."
Indeed, witch doctors and supposed acts of sorcery apparently trouble Jammeh, greatly. In 2009, gangs of Jammeh hardcore loyalists, known as "Green Boys," reportedly rounded up hundreds of suspected sorcerers. According to testimony, many were made to drink a foul-smelling potion to determine whether they were capable of mystical powers. At least six people apparently died as a result of drinking the liquid, while others were disappeared.
His official Web site, as well as pro-government newspapers, hail him as His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh. He is a devout Muslim, and says he would rule a "1 billion years" if Allah mandated him to, but it's unclear what formal background or clerical education allows the former army man to proclaim himself a "sheikh professor."
Those false titles perhaps shouldn't be too surprising. A bizarre 2010 article in a pro-government newspaper claimed he had won four awards, including receiving two prizes from President Obama, including a "Platinum Award," which doesn't even exist. Another prize in the trophy haul: The Admiralship of the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska. This actually does exist, despite land-locked Nebraska's geographic unsuitability for a navy. It's an honor usually conferred upon Nebraskans "who have shown outstanding citizenship." Jammeh, of course, is no Nebraskan admiral.