The African continent has a long history of omnipotent leaders who have taken on bizarre characteristics in their path to creating great cults of personality.
Jean Bédel Bokassa, former leader of the Central African Republic, believing himself to be the 13th apostle, crowned himself emperor and ate human flesh on at least one occasion. In Congo, the kleptocratic ruler Mobutu Sese Seko built an airstrip for his chartered Concord jets to land in from routine trips to Paris and other parts of Europe. Uganda’s Idi Amin, determined to make Uganda “a black man’s country,” expelled the nation’s 40,000-80,000 Indians and Pakistanis, reportedly after receiving a message from God during a dream. It caused mayhem.
Joining the ranks of those despots is current Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who claimed on Jan. 17 that he could cure various types of cancer while ruling in one of the poorest countries on the planet, and that’s not just some cliche.
Shocked? Don’t be. Jammeh, an authoritarian ruler who has long been an international pariah for his penchant for crushing dissent and freedom of speech in Gambia, has fancied himself a medicine man for years. In 2007, he made international headlines when he proclaimed he could cure HIV and AIDS, but apparently only on Thursdays.
Coincidentally, he made his most recent grand announcement on the seventh anniversary of his so-called breakthrough in finding the cure to HIV and AIDS, which involved rubbing a green herbal paste onto the skin of patients and then making them drink a bitter yellow drink.
He took power over the tiny West African nation in a 1994 military coup and was “democratically” elected in 1996.
Jammeh said recently he found cures for liver, pancreatic and breast cancers.
You would think this would be innocent enough, brushed off as quack behavior by a maniacal man. But that’s just the problem. People in his country believe him — and they’re lining up to be cured.
A population of less than two million, citizens cower under his rule. Gambians, broadly speaking, live in a state of fear and intimidation. It’s rumored that Jammeh’s government spies travel abroad, lurking in various capital cities eavesdropping on dissidents. So when he makes these grandiose proclamations, everyone tends to listen. Political prisoners have been killed and group-prisoner executions carried out, some to be called off at the 11th hour by Jammeh after international condemnation. Many of Gambia’s death-row inmates are former officials and top military officers who were detained for treason in the 1994 coup he orchestrated while an officer in the Gambian army.
Jammeh said his healing powers were ordained to him in a dream by his ancestors. While undergoing treatments, patients are forced by the president to renounce alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, theft and sex.
According to a news agency reporting from Gambia and Senegal, which surrounds Gambia’s territorial borders, the ruler said, “I have said it before that at any anniversary of the ‘breakthrough,’ there would be new addition to the treatment, and today, I would like to announce that I have discovered cure for diseases like, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer and pile, amongst others. I can say this today with confidence and I stand to be challenged. We can effectively treat some of these diseases within a short period of time.”
International aid groups have decried the president’s claims and say his “cures” bring false hope to the citizens of the country suffering from incurable diseases. And it preys upon a populace that doesn’t have the best educational advantages. However, literacy is fairly good for a country ranking in the lowest tier of the U.N.’s human development index, but the country has had a chronic shortage of qualified teachers for the school system, which is structured like that of the British.
However, Jammeh remains defiant, insisting his treatment — which is offered to patients free of charge — is effective. To date, no journalist or external medical group has been allowed to track a patient the president claims to have cured.