On Oct. 9, longtime Gambian President Yahya Jammeh quietly signed into law a new bill that carries a penalty of life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality.” The renewed crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Gambia has justifiably earned the West African nation an outsize reputation as one of the most repressive countries on the continent. Far from being an isolated campaign, his assault on LGBT rights is part of a wave of human rights abuses prevailing in the country. Jammeh, who came to power in 1994 after toppling a democratically elected president, is responsible for countless atrocities, including torture, arbitrary executions and disappearances of critics, while crippling civil society through a raft of repressive laws and routine intimidation.
To be sure, Jammeh is not the only African despot targeting vulnerable groups to deflect attention from his excesses and failures. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe have also used convenient scapegoats to stir up populist sentiment and extend their rule. Jammeh’s recent rhetorical venom is an expedient gambit to divert attention from his regime’s abuses as well as the imminent threat of food shortages and famine and a rapid decline in the value of the country’s currency.
He has always been hostile to LGBT rights and is prone to bizarre public outbursts. However, his recent statements and collusion with the state media, which is busy trumpeting dangerous stereotypes about gay people and peddling hate speech, have coincided with crackdowns. At least 15 LGBT people are being detained incommunicado — a grim predicament in a country whose prisons are among the world’s worst. Many more people have fled to neighboring Senegal. The regime is also said to be working off a list of 200 alleged homosexuals, who are targeted for arrest. Even minors have not been spared during this nationwide roundup. For example, a 16-year-old boy was recently detained for nearly two weeks on “suspicion of being gay.” The National Intelligence Agency, a unit infamous for carrying out disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions, is leading this effort.
For too long, Jammeh and his purveyors of terror in Gambia received a free pass from the international community for their heinous crimes. It is time for the United States and its allies to break their silence and take action. The European Union has already withdrawn significant financial support because of Gambia’s poor human rights record. On Dec. 4, the White House issued a statement expressing dismay over rampant human rights violations and the persecution of LGBT people. But press statements and finger wagging will not suffice.
There are a number of steps that the U.S. should immediately consider. First, all U.S. aid to Gambia should be reviewed to ensure its intended effectiveness and nondiscrimination in its disbursement. Humanitarian programs that are currently funneled through the Gambian government should be redirected to third parties, preferably civil society groups that guarantee consistent service to all beneficiaries, regardless of sexual orientation or political beliefs. The U.S. should halt military assistance to Jammeh’s government, which has routinely violated the rights of its citizens.
Second, the U.S. can hit Jammeh where it hurts by restricting his travel and barring individuals implicated in corruption and human rights abuses from traveling to the U.S. and its territories. Relevant U.S. agencies should freeze assets in the United States held by Jammeh, his immediate family and members of his inner circle — for example, Jammeh’s $3.5 million mansion in Potomac, Maryland.
Third, the U.S. can pull Gambia from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which grants trade incentives to African countries for opening their economies. Jammeh’s administration has clearly failed to make “continual progress toward establishing … the rule of law, political pluralism and the right to due process, a fair trial and equal protection under the law,” as required by the act. The U.S. has done this before with Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, often because of undemocratic rule, and most recently in Swaziland over serious concerns over the lack of workers’ rights.
Finally, the U.S. and its regional allies should organize an all-inclusive national conference, consisting of a broad spectrum of Gambian society — including opposition parties, civil society groups, press unions, the bar association and the diaspora — to draw up a road map for the country’s transition to democracy, good governance and respect for human rights.
Our elected leaders should not shake hands with dictators and merely issue occasional press statements. Jammeh’s onslaught against LGBT people is part of a much broader spectrum of human rights abuses that have been perpetrated with impunity for two decades. U.S. taxpayer money should not contribute to this escalating repression. Enough blood has been spilled in Gambia and too many voices already silenced by Jammeh’s brutal regime.