(Pictured: Gambia’s President Jammeh preparing to dine.)
We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the thirty-ninth in the series.
The US embassy cables WikiLeaked to the public by Julian Assange’s whistle blowing group have revealed the variety of approaches adopted by the American government in dealing with some of the world’s most unsavory leaders.
While current events have directed attention to those cables outlining the evolution of American relationships with Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, Yemen, and the perennially popular pariahs Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il, less notice has been showered on the world’s minor dictators. And they don’t come much worse than the thug running Gambia. Beyond his claim to having discovered a cure for AIDS (bananas), His Excellency President Professor Dr. Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh, as he is officially known, has an extensive resume of deranged tyranny including nationwide witch hunts as well as more run-of-the-mill government-sponsored “disappearances, torture and imprisonment of dozens of journalists and political opponents.”
But no example of state terror better characterizes the odiousness of the Jammeh regime than his Excellency’s promise to cut off the heads of all gays in the country, a threat that the US ambassador to Gambia, Barry Wells, addressed in a meeting with the country’s president in early 2010. According to a cable from February of last year, the ambassador “suggested to President Jammeh” in language that’s almost comical in its understatement “that perception of him by outside observers could be attributed in large part to some of his more incendiary comments such as those related to human rights workers and ‘cutting off homosexuals’ heads.’”
For Jammeh, it seems, threats don’t carry much weight unless they’re acted upon.
The president responded, “Yes I did make those comments but did I actually cut off anyone’s head? Have I ever arrested anyone for being gay [the answer is yes]? No [wrong again], but Senegal has arrested and imprisoned someone for being gay and they receive the MCC [true enough]. There are gays here in Gambia, I know that. But they live in secret and that is fine with me, as long as they go about their business in private we don’t mind.
Giving the United States way too much liberal credit, or perhaps in an ill advised effort to establish common ground, Jammeh made clear that “if you are talking about marrying in this country, that will never happen. We will never accept gays.”
Jammeh then lectured the ambassador
On policies in France and Great Britain limiting religious dress in public and religious symbols. “Yes, my comments were strong but what about those issues? Are those not outrageous comments and actions from the West? But it comes from me, I look like a monster for defending my country’s religious beliefs.” He ended this by saying that no one likes to be disliked and that he finds this baseless criticism to be painful.
Possibly concerned that his antics were souring Gambia’s chances of enjoying American favor, Jammeh was quick to reiterate “his commitment to remain a true friend of the United States,” and assert his loyalty to Barack Obama, referring to the American president as “he solution to the world’s problems.” Moreover, Jammeh attempts to dispel any misunderstanding concerning his relationship with US antagonists.
He wanted it to be very clear to the USG that his friendship with Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran does not in any way reflect that his government approves of all of their behaviors and principles. He gave the example of voting against Iran on the Security Council for Human Rights, despite their close relationship. He said he condones Iran’s human rights record and told them so. President Jammeh stressed that “his friendship with Iran does not mean we always agree with them or that we have an intention of fighting against important US interests. I don’t approve of your government always siding with your friend Israel,” he said, “but I continue to value our relationship without reservation. Therefore you do the same, you ignore my friends, and I’ll ignore yours.”
Jammeh quickly dashes any hint of political pragmatism almost immediately, however, by claiming credit for not claiming credit for helping to solve some of the African continent’s most intractable problems.
He reiterated an earlier claim that it was his influence with Qaddafi that resulted in Libya turning over the Lockerbie bomber for trial. He said others had taken credit for solutions to some difficult problems in Africa at the AU, but he let them have the credit. He said the Muslim way is not to take credit for your good deeds, but to do things quietly. He also referred to his efforts in Guinea-Bissau and the recent successful rebuilding of relations with Senegal.
Jammeh’s magnanimity has not been fully appreciated by Gambia’s neighbors, the United Nations, or his domestic allies. He publicly expelled the country’s head UNICEF representative shortly after his meeting with Wells, accused the Senegalese of conspiring to overthrow his regime, and purged his own government of some of its highest officials, claiming their intention to carry out a coup against him.
And yet despite the contempt with which most everyone regard him—both within Gambia and across the world—Jammeh will likely be around for some time. The cable concludes with the sober observation that “given the fragmented, ineffectual opposition in The Gambia, Jammeh is likely to be reelected to another five year term in the next presidential election scheduled for September 2011.” And as William Pfaff points out in a recent piece for the New York Review of Books, “dictators do not usually die in bed.”