Recently I was reporting from Gambia, one of the few remaining habitats of what might soon be an endangered species in Africa: the eccentric despot. With Gaddafi dead, and Mugabe increasingly infirm, the Cold War relics are approaching extinction, and there may come a time when the continent is bereft of rulers with their own crackpot personality cults.
In the meantime, though, Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh is gamely flying the flag for the old school. A former army officer who came to power in a coup in 1994, he hit the headlines in August after reversing a 27-year moratorium on the death penalty, executing nine prisoners by firing squad in the notorious Mile 2 Prison.
But even before that, he was something of a card in the “Top Trumps” pack of African Big Men. On the personal ego rating, he scores pretty highly, with giant portraits of him adorned by such modest slogans as “voting for Jammeh is a sacred national duty”. On the “vanity motorcade” front he excels too, favouring a massive stretch Hummer backed by a convoy of SUVs and a truck with anti-aircraft guns.
And then, in addition to the usual fat human rights dossier at Amnesty International, there’s the extraordinary witchcraft accusations.
In 2009, Mr Jammeh allegedly rounded up more than 1,000 suspected “witches” and force-fed them hallucinogenic potions after suspecting them of using sorcery to kill his aunt. Worse still, though, he believes in magic as a power for good as well as bad. In 2007, he outraged world scientific opinion by announcing he’d found his own spiritual and medical cure for HIV, a spot of homeopathic quackery that not even Prince Charles would probably endorse.
Hundreds of Gambians have since undergone the programme – which requires them to give up normal retrovirals – although Mr Jammeh has been somewhat cagey on the results. This despite various medical experts pointing out that if he only shared his secret “recipe”, he could make both Gambia and himself very rich indeed.
Anyway, to the point. One might have at least have thought that unlike his Cold War predecessors, such a man might be getting very stern lectures from the various aid donors on whom Gambia still partly relies. And sure enough, Britain and the EU, which give Gambia roughly 16 million euros a year – a lot for a country of just 1.8 million – have made their displeasure known. In 2010, they cut funding 20 per cent, and in the wake of the executions, they would ideally like to pile on the pressure more.
The difficulty, though, is that if they threaten more drastic cuts, Mr Jammeh knows he can always turn for support elsewhere. In his case, though, it’s not to China, the country normally criticised for offering “no-strings” loans to dodgy African regimes. Instead, it’s to China’s arch-rival, Taiwan.
Gambia is just one of four African countries that recognise Taiwan diplomatically, and in exchange, Mr Jammeh’s government receives funding running into tens of millions a year. It may possibly be more, as no one is quite sure if a few million goes direct into ministers’ private bank accounts.
The interesting thing, though, is that in the West, Taiwan is normally seen as the plucky democratic underdog compared to big, nasty, Communist China. Yet in Gambia, Taiwan is acting in what diplomats say is a somewhat unprincipled fashion, insulating a questionable regime in exchange for official recognition and the odd supporting vote at various UN forums. As one diplomat in Gambia put it to me: “If we did scale back aid to Gambia, the Taiwanese will just come in with even bigger blank cheques, and Jammeh probably knows that.”
I should point out here that both Gambia and Taiwan insist their partnership is simply a case of two sturdy little nations banding together. In fact, Gambia’s minister for Presidential Affairs, Dr Njogu Bah, made that very point back in October, in an interview with the pro-government Gambian Daily Observer, which quoted him as saying that the relationship was not about “cheque book diplomacy”.
“The two countries will continue to work together in strengthening the cooperation between them,” he declared.
Fair enough. Readers who plough on through this less-than-fascinating article will, though, find the following little gem further down.
“Dr Njogu Bah made this remark in his office at State House, while receiving a cheque of US $300,000 donated by the government of Taiwan.”
How nice of them. Clearly, with friends like these, Gambia has no need to worry about enemies…