Posted on March 12, 2007

African Despot ‘Cures’ AIDS

Marco Evers, Der Spiegel, March 8, 2007

The president of Gambia is causing a stir with his claim to be able to cure AIDS. Hardly anyone in the country dares challenge him and, unfortunately, many actually believe him.

It’s hard to make a name for yourself as a tyrant in Africa; the standards are pretty high. Jean Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, believing himself to be the thirteenth apostle, had himself crowned emperor and is said to have enjoyed the occasional meal of human flesh. In Congo, the kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko built an airstrip for his chartered Concorde jets in the middle of the rain forest. Now, the president of the West African state of Gambia is doing his best to add his name to the list.

Yahya Jammeh, 41 years old, has been the president of bitterly poor Gambia since seizing power in a putsch in 1994. In the three so-called elections since then, he has not relinquished his seat. Among his achievements to date have been giving Gambia’s 1.6 million citizens an impressive triumphal arch—just like Napoleon gave the French—as well as founding Gambia’s first and only university.

Now he has gone a step further. A few weeks ago, Jammeh summoned his followers and a few ambassadors, dignitaries and TV reporters to announce in a garbled address that, having made some fantastic discoveries, he is now capable of curing AIDS (as well as asthma). The president admitted to his astonished audience that the therapies still had a few limitations—he could only cure AIDS on Thursdays. Asthma, on the other hand, could be treated only on Fridays and Saturdays.

An estimated 20,000 Gambians—about 1.2 percent of the population—are infected with HIV. Jammeh claims to have successfully treated nine of them in January, and 27 more in February. He takes equal pride in the 500 asthma victims that he’s cured. And he promises to take action soon to eliminate other diseases, since he claims to have a “mandate”—apparently from none other than God himself.

International aid organizations are horrified to find that thousands of infected Gambians are hoping to be treated by the president. Jammeh says he’ll heal anyone, young or old. He won’t take payment, but he does make one stipulation: those who are taking anti-viral medication must stop doing so immediately. Two respected HIV/AIDS experts promptly handed in their resignation in protest.

Dressed in white from head to toe, the head of state stands before his patients, mumbling prayers and waving the Koran. Then Jammeh rubs green glop on their skin, sprinkles them with gray liquid from an old Evian bottle and gives them something yellow to drink. Bananas—administered orally—round off the treatment. After repeating the procedure for several weeks, he proclaims the patients healed. All of them. Without exception.

The trouble with despots

Jammeh explains that the method, based on the healing properties of seven herbs and Koranic prayers, is “foolproof.” While he prefers to perform the healing sessions in public in front of TV cameras, he’s willing to grant religious and social dignitaries private audiences.

Critical questions, on the other hand, are not welcome. A British correspondent from the Sky News network suggested Jammeh ought to have his method tested by independent experts. The president snapped back at her: “I don’t have to convince anyone. I can heal AIDS and don’t have to explain anything.” He was visibly flustered by her request to analyze a sample of his herbal mixture. “Not in a million years,” was his reply.

The trouble with despots is that no one dares disagree. The Daily Observer, a Gambian daily, commented without the slightest hint of irony that the president’s “invention” was “the greatest ever witnessed in our modern world.” Soon, the paper wrote, millions of people would be coming to the country to be healed. Gambians can look forward to an economic boom that could put them light years ahead of countries whose wealth is based on mere diamonds, gold or oil.

The country’s health minister is a gynaecology graduate, trained in Ukraine and Ireland. Forty-three-year-old Tamsir Mbowe is always present when the statesman tries out his healing skills—and even though he really ought to know better, he too praises what he calls the “president’s intervention in the health sector.” Mbowe even claims that Jammeh’s ability to heal any patient has been “medically proven.”

Far from it: The health ministry collected blood samples to prove Jammeh’s wondrous healing powers and sent them to a laboratory in neighboring Senegal. While the ministry insists that the results offer clear proof of the president’s healing powers, the Senegalese scientist who carried out the tests disagrees emphatically. He says no conclusions can be drawn because the Gambians didn’t test the blood prior to the president’s pseudo-medical intervention.

A United Nations representative in Gambia dared to assert that there was no proof of successful healings. She also cautioned the supposedly cured patients not to believe that they’re no longer capable of spreading HIV.

President Jammeh responded promptly to these remarks: having branded the UN representative persona non grata, he gave her 48 hours to leave his country—which she did. In the view of the Daily Observer, her comments had been “irresponsible”.

No continent is as badly ravaged by AIDS as Africa. Roughly 25 million people have been infected, and 12 million children are AIDS orphans. The epidemic has been spreading for decades. In many places, traditional healers are paid more heed than university-trained doctors. Millions of men believe sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS. South African president Thabo Mbeki has openly questioned whether the HIV virus in fact causes AIDS. His former vice president Jacob Zuma had unprotected sex with an infected woman in 2005 and later told a court that, having showered after the act, no risk was involved.

Some members of Gambia’s parliament are cautiously voicing concern that the president may be insane. Doing all he can to confirm this impression, the self-styled AIDS healer is now claiming to have discovered his fortune-telling skills. He claims to be able to predict a person’s moment of death, after a single look in their eyes.