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Remember that time when St. Mary’s College of Maryland gave an honorary degree to a ruthless and homophobic dictator?

Growing up in Mexico, my grandfather told me all about the often brutal “perfect dictatorship” that ran Mexico from the 1930s to the end of the 1990s. He was an active member of the opposition party, and he often saw his work being taken apart piece by piece by the authorities. In the southern parts of Mexico, the government was blamed for mass abductions and disappearances. In the northern parts, it was all about favoritism, nepotism, and control of supply routes (for everything) into the United States. Eventually, enough people came together and ended that one-party rule.

I was a kid during all that, and I was sheltered enough by my parents to not suffer the consequences of my grandfather’s political activities. Not that there were that many. Nevertheless, I have a special kind of dislike for dictators and tyrants, people who torture and kill and “rule” over their fellow citizens instead of serving them and working to improve everyone’s lives and not just their own.

This is where Yahya Jammeh comes in. You probably haven’t heard of him because he rules a country that doesn’t have a lot of oil or a lot of wealth. He is the “president” of The Gambia, a very small (smaller than Jamaica) in Western Africa, and he is quite the tyrant.

The Gambia is surrounded by Senegal on three sides, with only a small strip of about 50 miles bordering the Atlantic Ocean. It’s location used to be strategic to the interests of the imperialist powers because The Gambia River leads deep into Africa. As a result, it was a big route of transportation for natural resources (and, at one time, slaves) coming out of Africa and for the imperialist powers to go into their colonies. If you’ve seen the TV series “Roots,” then you’ve seen a little bit of the history of the slave trade in The Gambia.

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The country has been independent since 1965, but only two men have ruled as chief executives. The first was Sir Dadwa Jawara, who led the country from British colony and into independence. In 1994, led by Yahya Jammeh, the military took over in a coup d’etat. Since then, Jammeh has held control of the country while claiming that The Gambia is some sort of democracy.

Here’s what Jammeh offers his people:

“The report, by Human Rights Watch, details widespread allegations of abuse by the “Jungulers”, a militia loyal to Mr Jammeh, who seized power in a coup 20 years ago.
The abuses including arbitrary arrest and detention of political opponents, and gruesomely inventive methods of torture. They include melting plastic bags on victims’ skins and inserting hot chili peppers up their rectums.
Some of the worst abuses, it says, take place at the National Intelligence Agency detention centres near the tourist beaches of Banjul, which typically attract more than 60,000 British tourists a year.”

What’s a little torture if they have great beaches, right?

Here’s an opinion piece from a Gambian expatriate. Here’s Yahya on homosexuality:

“The 49-year-old president, who has ruled the country since 1994, was speaking during a tour stop last week in the country’s North Bank Region when he delivered his latest inflammatory comments.

“If you do it [in the Gambia] I will slit your throat — if you are a man and want to marry another man in this country and we catch you, no one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it,” he said in the Wolof language to a crowd in the town of Farafeni as he spoke about fostering a healthy atmosphere for the country’s youth.

Fatu Camara, a Gambian journalist and former press secretary to Jammeh who fled the Gambia in 2013 to escape sedition charges against her, told VICE News that the reference to white people was likely a nod to Western leaders who have been critical of the country’s harsh policies and poor track record when it comes to gay rights.”

Again, The Gambia is not that strategic, so we collectively probably don’t care much about it. Or, rather, we don’t know much about it. So blind are we to the brutality of this man that a college once gave him an honorary doctorate back in 2004. That college was St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Here is his speech when he received that degree. Here’s part of what he said:

“Coming from a peaceful country where communal life is prominent in all communities, the core of education for me and, therefore, of any socialisation process must recognise the primacy of life. Hence, the identity and dignity of individuals, on the one hand, and societies or nations, on the other, should be conceived of as a duality – each mutually dependent on and complementary of the other. In upholding this notion, we cannot fail to discern the necessity to promote and cherish certain universal values and precepts, for it is these that foster the mutually rewarding and healthy relations that are built not only between institutions or individuals but also among and across nations. Quite often, we fail to realise that the circumstances that compel us to talk of globalisation are more appealing to our nature as social beings. Unfortunately, globalisation discourses often feature narrow economic inclinations and neglect humanitarian considerations. Unfortunately, the present trend bears little hope for advancing the security of humanity. Therefore the content of education need to be placed within the context of addressing such realities.”

I wasn’t there when he said this, but, if he said it with a straight face, I would have no doubt that he is some sort of psychopath. I mean, look at what he says about “the primacy of life,” yet he’s ordered massacres. And then he said this:

“As Head of State of a country renowned for her warmth, peace, democracy and respect for human rights, I think I can talk about peace and development from a vantage point. A fundamental belief held in The Gambia is that life takes precedence in this world. Consequently, it is acknowledged that everything else that supports or sustains life is valuable. Therefore, the underlying concept is that every aspect of this universe, ranging from inanimate elements in the immediate environment to those beyond our reach is part of the framework that provides the necessary balance for existence.”

He said that in 2004, then promised to kill everyone on death row by the end of 2014. Peaceful democracy with respect for human rights? Right.

Things got so complicated in The Gambia, that the president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland had to scale back the school’s collaboration with Yahya’s government:

“As you are aware, our PEACE program has a memorandum of understanding with The University of the Gambia. St. Mary’s College also presented Gambia PresidentYahya Jammeh an honorary degree in 2004. We now know that President Jammeh’s attitude towards the LGBTQ community and his threat to kill anyone engaged in a public display of same-sex affection have created new concerns about the safety of PEACE program participants while in the Gambia.

In recent years, students participating in the PEACE program and the number of faculty willing to participate have steadily declined. The decrease in student numbers is quite significant. Only one SMCM student registered for Fall 2015, a significant decrease in a program that generally has about 15 or more participants.

Therefore, due to safety concerns, declining student enrollment, and a possible volatile situation in the Gambia, a decision has been made to pause participation in the PEACE program while it undergoes assessment. As we look at the program and as we monitor the situation in the Gambia, we will keep you informed of our findings and of the future of the PEACE program.”

I can’t be too critical of St. Mary’s College of Maryland for giving Yahya Jammeh a degree in 2004. He was probably a good guy then. He named a professor at St. Mary’s an honorary commander of the National Order of the Republic. He did promise to “rule for 40 years” in 2006, so I guess he was cool before that. Oh, wait… No, he’s always been a bastard. But, again, it’s a small country with little to no value to us Americans, so we don’t get to hear about his brutality toward everyone — and especially toward LGBT people.

Now that you’ve heard… What should we do?

Categories: Blog

René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
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1 reply

  1. Well, in the grounds of “what would you do”, I’d quietly, offline, groom a successor that wasn’t such a piece of work. Such grooming removing sociopaths and psychopaths from the program.
    Then, personally administer a high velocity toxic lead infusion.
    Twice, one head, one thorax.

    For, when lacking a replacement, when a leader is removed, things get horrifically ugly, as witnessed in his rise to power.


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