Yesterday I mentioned the Gambia’s president, His Excellency Dr. Al-hadji Yahya Jammeh. He may have more titles than that by now. He seems to accumulate them the longer he remains in power – and he’s been in power for some time now.
It’s not an uncommon story: young, (possibly) idealistic soldier gets tired of serving under a stagnating regime, said soldier decides to do something about it. Dawda Jawara, the Gambia’s first president, had been president for more than twenty years when Jammeh decided to stage a coup. Jammeh was a colonel at the time, and after he and a few army buddies staged a bloodless coup on July 22, 1994, he took to holding press conferences in army fatigues and Aviator sunglasses. It’s like he took a page from Hollywood’s dictator playbook.
Things had changed by the time I visited in 2004. Jammeh was still in power, having won elections in 1996 and 2001. Since then he’s won elections in 2006 and 2011, but each election is more questionable than the last, and Jammeh’s said that no elections will remove him from power.
I think I met him when the Gambians still held out hope for their leader. He was the man who ended the Jawara regime, and those Gambians I met always said that even if he hadn’t kept all his promises, and even if he sometimes threw opposition journalists in jail, Jammeh was still better than Jawara. And he had learned the art of flattering the donor nations. He no longer wore army fatigues to functions. Instead he favored a flowing white robe, with a wooden staff at his side, and he spoke always of the wonderful connection between America and the Gambia.
He spoke also of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where I went to school. I suppose it was the least he could do. We’d asked him to speak at graduation, and given him the honorable doctorate he so proudly showed off with his other titles. I wonder how much “legitimacy” we granted him by bestowing that title?
We met him at his birthday party, which he had graciously delayed in order to hold a party for the outgoing American ambassador (a fact that every minister made sure to emphasize when they spoke). No birthday is complete without cake, and Jammeh rose to cut one decorated with the colors of the Gambian flag. His wife Zeinab Suma and their daughter Mariam stood next to him, be all appearances happy and content (in 2010, Jammeh married a second wife half his age).
But doesn’t his daughter look cute? She looks adorable.
So when people ask me about the president, I’m forced to say that he seemed nice enough when I shook his hand. He seemed nice enough before he suppressed a coup attempt in 2006; before he claimed that an ancestor visited him in a dream and gave him a cure for AIDS (which he naturally shared with his loyal followers, who had no further need of real medicine); before he said he ruled by God’s grace and no earthly power would remove him; before Amnesty International reported that as many as 1,000 Gambians had been abducted by government-sponsored “witch doctors” on charges of witchcraft, taken to detention centers, and forced to drink poisonous concoctions.
He seemed nice enough. But I’m starting to think we should take that doctorate back.