The president of The Gambia on Thursday threatened the lives of citizens considering fleeing in the face of intolerance towards gays and lesbians, the latest in a string of hate speech towards the LGBT community that rivals any other on the African continent.
Gambian president Yahya Jammeh was speaking in the town of Basse in the west African country when he made his comments, related to the idea that gays and lesbians are seeking more tolerant pastures. “Some people go to the west and claim they are gays and that their lives are at risk in The Gambia, in order for them to be granted a stay in Europe,” Jammeh said, according to the APA. “If I catch them I will kill them.”
In that same speech, Jammeh also said that the British at least are skeptical of these claims and have begun conducting tests on travelers from the Gambia to confirm their sexual orientation. This likely refers to reports from last year that British authorities were asking for “proof” from those entering the country seeking asylum on the grounds of LGBT persecution. “In extreme cases claimants had handed over photographic and video evidence of ‘highly personal sexual activity’ in an effort to persuade officials, the Home Affairs Committee found,” according to the BBC at the time. The British government is still facing the backlash from that revelation, but the targeting is not specific towards Gambians.
Jammeh’s latest comments aren’t the first horrendous statements he’s made against Gambia’s homosexual community. He once claimed that LGBT actually stands for “leprosy, gonorrhoea, bacteria and tuberculosis” rather than lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual. In the same speech, Jammeh said, “We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.”
The list goes on. Last year, speaking before the United Nations, the African leader said that gays and those who “promote homosexuality want to put an end to human existence,” adding: “It is becoming an epidemic and we Muslims and Africans will fight to end this behavior.” The year before that, he opened the legislative year by calling all gays “evil and ungodly.” In 2008, Jammeh reportedly said that he would “cut off the head” of any homosexual found in The Gambia, with same report saying he had “ordered any hotel or motel housing homosexuals to close down, adding that owners of such facilities would also be in trouble.”
“It is very dangerous when political leaders turn to homophobic statements to try to drum up political support,” Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program, told IRIN at the time. “When statements like this are made, violence often follows – sometimes immediately and sometimes further down the line. It makes people think these are people that it is safe to attack.”
Jammeh is, of course, not alone among African leaders in holding contemptible views towards homosexuality, though his are among the most outwardly abhorrent. In neighboring Senegal, President Macky Sall dismissed overtures from President Obama that more needs to be done to protect gay rights on the continent. “We are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality,” Sall said with Obama standing next to him, claiming that his country is “very tolerant” and shouldn’t be pressured over the matter.
Meanwhile, anti-gay laws in Uganda and Nigeria have activists fearful for their lives. The sad fact, though, is that this thinking towards gays and lesbians is one of the most tragic legacies of European colonialism. “Prior to western colonisation, there are no records of any African laws against homosexuality,” human rights and gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said to the Guardian. “The real import into Africa was not homosexuality but homophobia.” In recent years, conservative evangelicals have helped fan those flames to the point that Yammeh’s continuing disparaging remarks towards gays barely even raises an eyebrow among those who have heard his rants before.