A state-sponsored witch hunt is the latest expression of the increasingly eccentric rule of President Yahya Jammeh in The Gambia. Jammeh is said to believe he is under attack from witches, and as many as 1,000 people suspected of practising black magic have been kidnapped, stripped, beaten and poisoned at secret detention centres, according to Amnesty International. At least two are dead.
Last year, the president, a one-time army lieutenant who stole power in a putsch in 1994, publicly threatened to behead the country’s gay men and women. He also insists he can cure people of AIDS (on Thursdays), and has expelled health officials who claim otherwise. For years, his critics in the media have been “arrested and beaten,” says British-based Gambian historian David Perfect. The influential Independent, whose entire staff was once arrested en masse, and whose printing presses were burnt to the ground, has been shuttered since 2006, he adds. And the 2004 assassination of Deyda Hydara, editor of the Point, and a critic of the country’s draconian media laws, is widely believed to have been carried out on government orders.
The number of Gambians classified as “poor,” or “extremely poor,” meanwhile, has risen from 34 per cent in 1992 to 61 per cent by 2003, according to a study by Sylvia Chant of the London School of Economics. Although civilian rule was technically restored in 1996, elections have been characterized as flawed by international observers. The opposition parties—one in decline, the other in disarray—pose no real threat to Jammeh’s rule. (Opposition leader Halifa Sallah was recently arrested—not for the first time—after visiting victims of the witch hunt.)
The tiny West African country’s path to dysfunction is paralleled by Jammeh’s deterioration: “an irrationality bordering, possibly, on a power-drunk psychosis,” says Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. If the West doesn’t pressure the “increasingly dangerous” leader to step down, he says, it risks another Zimbabwe.