Viewed from the comfort of the deckchairs on the vast, palm-lined beaches overlooking the Atlantic, life in Gambia can seem as unblinkingly bright as the guaranteed winter sunshine.
For the 65,000 Britons who flock here each year, the former colony has become a West African Costa Brava, offering super-cheap package deals, few lager louts, and nothing more hazardous than over-eager street hawkers touting voodoo masks and talismans.
Absent from the hawkers’ sales patter, however, is any mention of the very real witchcraft cult that has blighted this tiny nation of 1 million in recent years.
The story of Gambia’s darker side begins on the other side of the sleepy capital, Banjul, where a few miles from the luxury beach resorts, there is the rather more spartan accommodation of the “Mile 2 Hotel”. The nickname for the notorious Mile 2 prison, its mosquito-plagued cells are a likely destination for critics of Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s eccentric faith healer-turned-president.
A modern-day version of Papa Doc Duvalier, the late voodoo-practising dictator of Haiti, Mr Jammeh has a reputation for jailing anyone who says things he doesn’t like. Such as questioning, for example, his declaration last year that he would rule for “a billion years” if necessary, or his claim in 2007 to have invented a herbal HIV cure.
Yet while some inmates of Mile 2 have languished for years without trial, others recently had their cases resolved with abrupt finality. In August, with little warning or chance for legal appeal, the president suspended a 27-year moratorium on the death penalty and executed nine prisoners by firing squad, lashing out at foreign governments who begged him to show mercy.
Amid international outcry he suspended future executions, and another 37 inmates remain on death row. But he remains unrepentant.
“Allah entrusted this position to Yahya Jammeh, and anybody who is averse to the decree of Allah can bite their nose,” snarled a spokesman for the president, whose worldview—as much as anyone can make out—is a bizarre fusion of traditional African beliefs and mainstream Gambian Islam.
Equally baffling, though, is the question of why he actually did it.
While most of the prisoners were accused of murder or treason, few buy Mr Jammeh’s claim that Gambia, which draws in the package tour crowd partly because of its safe reputation, was facing a crime wave.
Instead, the Banjul diplomatic circuit is abuzz with rather more lurid theories. The first, bad enough in itself, is that it was simply to remind everyone who was boss. The second, though, is that rumours of a coup were circulating, and a fortune teller warned the President that a “human sacrifice” was necessary.
“There is a strong rumour that a psychic told him that someone would overthrow him and that was why he carried the executions,” said one human rights worker, who asked not to be named. “Even some of the diplomats don’t discount it entirely, as Jammeh is a very bizarre individual.”
Outlandish though they may seem, such rumours have credibility because of Mr Jammeh’s previous track record of blending statecraft with witchcraft, whereby he alternates his Papa Doc persona with that of Witchfinder General.
In 2009, more than 1,000 “sorcerers” were rounded up at gunpoint by the president’s “Green Beret” special guards and forced to drink hallucinogenic potions to “exorcise” them.
“They came with some mystics of their own, who sacrificed a goat and a chicken in our cemetery,” said an elder in Jambur, a bush hamlet outside Banjul, where goats peck the red dirt and vultures soar above the mango trees. “They rounded up people up at random, saying ‘you are ill’, you must come with us’. At one point I issued a call through the mosque tower, saying: ‘Allah, help repel us, because Satan is here,’ but it did no good.”
Mixing a handful of weeds in a bowl of water, he demonstrated what happened next.
“They took about 50 of us to a house and forced us drink a liquid with plants in it. It didn’t affect me, but many reacted terribly, hallucinating, talking in tongues and wetting themselves. They let us go a day later, but some have not been the same to this day.”
Like the executions, the reasons for the witchhunt remain shrouded in mystery, although Amnesty International, which documented it in detail, cites claims that it was retribution for the death of one of the President’s aunts, allegedly from witchcraft.
True, Mr Jammeh, 48, who prefers the title of “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor President”, has also cemented his grip on power by more conventional methods.
Since taking power in a bloodless coup in 1994, the US-trained former army lieutenant has won four straight elections via a strategy of brazen political patronage. As he puts it: “I will develop areas that vote for me, but if you don’t vote for me, don’t expect anything.”
True to his word, Gambia has seen development under his rule, with roads, schools and health services all improved, albeit it much of via foreign aid donors.
Tourism has also boomed, with a peculiar niche for elderly British women seeking Shirley Valentine-style romances with young male Gambians, known locally as “gigolos”.
Such unions have even created a small British expatriate community, running hotels and businesses, although most steer clear of any dealings with the president.
“You’d end up like that poor guy in ‘The Last King of Scotland’, said one drinker in an expat bar, referring to Giles Foden’s best-selling novel about the British medic who becomes the personal doctor to Uganda’s Idi Amin.
But while Gambia may be better off than war-ravaged near-neighbours like Sierra Leone, critics say Mr Jammeh has acquired all the traits of an old-school African “Big Man”.
Vast posters of him stare out even on the tourist strip, and he lives in a heavily-guarded presidential palace, where he keeps a fleet of luxury cars including a customised Hummer stretch limousine. His official convoy, a 30-strong caravan of SUVs guarded by pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns, will run anyone off the road that gets in their way—foreign diplomats included.
Friendships with the likes of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and the late Colonel Gaddafi have also made him a paid-up member of the international club of rogue statesmen, and he is never short of a choice quote for imperialist foes. For example, the British, he says, did nothing for Gambia in 300 years of colonialism, except “to tell us how to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep and God Save the Queen.’
Yet for a man who claimes to have been appointed by “the Almighty Allah” himself, Mr Jammeh shows a surprising degree of insecurity.
Several newspapers have been shut down for covering the row over the executions, while megaphones have been made illegal to stop them being used in anti-government protests. Cabinet ministers are reshuffled almost constantly to stop them plotting, with five interior ministers this year alone. And Mr Jammeh’s secret agents are said to pose as everything from street cleaners to gigolos, instilling acute paranoia in fellow Gambians.
“Even when they see us in private, they will speak with a lower voice as if someone is listening,” said one diplomat.
In the absence of any real opposition, it has been up to the outside world to make its displeasure known. Yet foreign governments are squeamish about cutting aid for fear of hurting ordinary Gambians, even though such development shores up the president’s support.
The European Union, through which Britain contributes, granted Gambia 78 million euros for the period 2008-2013, much of it, ironically, for projects to support the media and “access to justice”. In a mid-term review in 2010, it cut that amount by 20 per cent, partly to send a message about human rights concerns, but the move was largely symbolic as money was simply re-directed to other spending areas.
“The West should attach conditions to aid about ensuring human rights, or they will allow this dictator to enslave us,” said Omar Jallow, an opposoition politician who is one the few willing to speak out, having been jailed 20 times already. “I prefer liberty and poverty to riches and bondage.”
However, such demands are dismissed as bravado by diplomats, who say that drastic cuts in aid would only hurt the poor, and should be used only as a last-ditch resort.
“It’s easy to make that kind of demand, but we are talking about programmes that benefit children,” said Agnes Guillard, the EU’s charge d’affaires. “We are working hard to get our message across, but it is a very difficult situation.”
Britain is in a similar bind. While major direct aid to Gambia was stopped in 2011 on the grounds of being poor value for money, an estimated £8 million still goes via contributions to international donors such as the EU and World Bank. And while the British High Commissioner, David Morley, led the official diplomatic protests over the executions, protocal dictates that business otherwise continues as usual.
At last week’s Queen’s Birthday Party at his seaside residence, he led a toast to “His Excellency President Jammeh”, with only brief reference to the “bumps” in the relationship.
Such courtesy is rarely reciprocated by “His Excellency”, who delights in using official functions to denounce the UK, knowing full well that Mr Morley will be in the audience. But arguably a much more serious slap in the face for Britain is in Mr Jammeh’s continued practice of his controversial HIV “cure” programme, which hundreds of Gambians have now undergone.
The scheme has appalled health groups, who point out that it is potentially lethal because it requires patients to give up normal retro-viral treatments for up to a year.
Yet adding insult to injury, the programme is administered from a clinic just a short drive from the west African HQ of the Medical Research Council, a UK-funded body that conducts world-leading research into HIV. While the UK spends tens of millions of pounds a year here on advancing HIV treatments, President Jammeh is busy turning the clock back the other way.
Whether any of the HIV patients allegedly “cured” by Mr Jammeh have since passed away is yet another mystery.
Details of the scheme’s outcomes are kept under close wraps by the presidential doctors, and nobody therefore knows whether some “gigolo” might be passing HIV onto his British patroness.
Either way, though, it seems that Gambia’s voodoo “curse” may claim more victims yet—and might one day drift beyond its sun-kissed shores.