By Tee Ngugi
Yahya Jammeh, who ruled The Gambia for more than two decades, claimed he could cure Aids by smearing a paste on unlucky sufferers. Long queues formed outside his magnificent palace waiting patiently for the magical concoction from the witchdoctor-in-chief.
Images of impoverished citizens waiting to be cured of Aids by the man whose thievery and misrule created the conditions of poverty and poor healthcare that fuelled the pandemic speak of pure tragedy.
While the scenes above are extreme, they nevertheless represent a situation that is far too common in post-colonial Africa. Every day on television, we witness the spectacle of a helicopter disgorging a billionaire politician at an impoverished village.
Villagers leave whatever they are doing to eke out a miserable living to gawk at the politician and the aircraft, and drink in promises that their lack of water, inadequate schools and hospitals will soon be a thing of the past. Their faith is not unlike that of the Gambians waiting to be healed by Jammeh.
When Yahya Jammeh was defeated in an election in 2016, he refused to step down. Only the threat of regional military intervention persuaded him to leave. But before he did, he performed another sleight-of -hand.
He disappeared with millions of dollars of public money. His fleet of expensive cars and private jets that could not be shipped out was abandoned. Even after stealing from The Gambia since taking power in a coup in 1994, Yahya Jammeh could not resist one more heist!
In his Nelson Mandela lecture in South Africa, Barack Obama wondered at this insatiable appetite for more and more riches. But grand theft is only part of Jammeh’s tragic legacy.
The new administration of President Adama Barrow has started investigating the murders, disappearances and torture perpetrated by the Jammeh regime. The administration wants Yahya Jammeh, who is living in opulence in Equatorial Guinea (where else?), to be tried for these crimes.
How could the world tolerate such a despotic and thieving regime? World leaders knew about the large-scale theft and human-rights abuses. They knew that what was happening in that country would set it back a couple of decades in development terms. And yet Yahya Jammeh, in his ridiculous robes and walking staff, was accorded grand receptions on state visits and at AU summits.
At these receptions, speeches would be made about Africa’s struggle against colonialism and how the continent was making giant developmental strides.
Meanwhile, small children were dying for lack of basic medicine and 70 per cent of the populace lived in grinding poverty, and the only healthcare Aids sufferers could get was a conman’s magic paste. Did these leaders, foreign and African, think of the children of The Gambia? Did they really care about Africa?
Now, the world is struggling with a migration crisis. Thousands of Africans and Latin Americans are fed up with living in a Hobbesian state in which life is “nasty, brutish and short.” These godforsaken countries did not get this way overnight.
It took years of cozying up and materially or morally supporting regimes that were creating the conditions that are now causing thousands to risk their lives in order to escape from their countries.
Had the world taken a hard stance against misrule and theft by putting diplomatic and economic pressure on people like Yahya Jammeh, we would not have desperate multitudes preferring death to living in the hellholes that are their countries.
What if the AU had, as a requirement for membership, insisted that a certain percentage of the budget be spent on development as opposed to salaries, emoluments and foreign travel? Or through its decrepit Peer Review Mechanism-sanctioned graft and mismanagement? We and the world cannot now pretend to be surprised and vexed at the migrant crisis. It has been 50 years in the making.
What did the world think would happen when it looked the other way as governments ceded power to criminal gangs in Honduras or as buffoonery and con tricks replaced responsible governance as in Jammeh’s case?
Now, we see the West building camps and even calling out the military, and the UN appealing for a more humanitarian response. But no-one is talking about the root cause of this crisis – thieving governments.
These knee-jerk measures will not work. The world must take a hard and unapologetic look at governance in Latin America and Africa, and be ready to apply the necessary pressure on governments to conform to certain standards./TheEastAfrican
Tee Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi