Thursday, November 29, 2012
Witchcraft and Islam in the African nation of Gambia
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-practicing dictator of Haiti, Jammeh has a reputation for jailing anyone who says things that he doesn't like. Such as questioning, for example, his declaration in 2011 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 2012, 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. 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 witch hunt 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. 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 customized 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. 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.