African viewpoint: Jammeh, Aids and infertility

President Yahya Jammeh (L) speaks with his wife, Zeineb Souma Jammeh, on 24 November 2011 as he leaves a polling station in the capital Banjul

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.

It came as no surprise that President Yahya Jammeh was declared winner with 72% of the vote, giving him a fourth five-year term.

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.

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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”

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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.

And last week, when BBC Focus on Africa's Umaru Fofana asked him if he would accept defeat if he lost, Mr Jammeh asked if he looked like a loser, to applause from the crowd around 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.

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

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

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.

The government's official website carries reports of barren women being kept in villages for the president's wonder cure.

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.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's latest column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    -9. Rizwan.

    Her name is on the 3rd line of the article -Elizabeth Ohene. She is a Ghanaian government minister.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Am sure if you were to interview him this time round, he would have a new set of role models to share with you. They all start out as patriots for their countries and then lose the plot somewhere along the corridors of power; become indifferent, greedy and insecure. If your people love you, why are you afraid to lose an election. Africa is growing tired of this breed of power hungry leaders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    aiwama - BBC will be happy only when Gambians give exclusive rights on their resources to British companies and Gambian leaders become poodles of British empire. You will see British praising Jammah as a hero when he submits the nation under British feet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Jammeh is undoubtedly a megalomaniac. But opposition leaders have been leading their parties longer than Jammeh has been in power. I guess Gambians vote for him because he gives them stability. The Gambia, AFAIK, is the only country in the world with no beggars on the streets! Its green policies are more developed than in most developed countries. Very peaceful, organised and welcoming country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Read the colonial mindset of BBC - Reference of comparision to British rule and demonization of native ruler and also typical hit and run nature of this article without mentioning the author's name. BBC still thinks British owns this world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Why should we be surprised by another "Excellency Sheikh, Professor, Alhaji, Doctor.....", remember Idi Amin?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    My friend in Gambia tells me the president actually has cures for a lot of ailments including a remedy for impotence ( Erectile dysfunction) that was tested in the Gambia and found to be very effective and also harmless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Add your comment..I am a Guinean residing in the U.S. Just to draw to your attention that on the picture you had on the web.Dauda Khairaba Jawara is not the one on the right, that is late Amadou Sekou Toure of Guinea-Conakry.Thank you.


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