Gambians pursuit of justice for Jammeh’s bogus AIDS cure
International bodies did little when the president forced patients to take his fake remedy. They can start to make amends by supporting Gambians now.
In January 2007, The Gambia’s then-president Yahya Jammeh declared to the world that he could cure HIV/AIDS with a herbal concoction. Soon after, he established a nightmarish “treatment programme” to administer this destructive hoax.
The gruesome details of this scheme are laid out in full detail in the final report released by the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) on Christmas Eve 2021. It explains how a few hundred men and women – the precise number is not clear – were subjected to this obviously fraudulent “AIDS cure”. These patients “suffered false imprisonment with restricted mobility”, were kept under “full guard” at all times, and were – with grave consequences – forced to stop taking their antiretroviral medication.
According to the TRRC’s findings, at least 41 people died “during and after the treatment”. The number of people living with HIV in The Gambia more than doubled during this decade in which the nation’s president claimed proven medical therapies were worthless.
Despite not having any medical training, Jammeh bragged about his sham cure and wanted the world to know what he was doing. He invited film crews from CNN, Al Jazeera, and Gambian state television to document as he administered his potion in two ways. Jammeh would personally slather the concoction on patients’ partially nude bodies while chanting prayers, an invasive procedure the TRRC says sometimes amounted to sexual abuse. And he would compel his victims to drink the noxious concoction of herbs and spices, which often made them sick and sometimes drunk.
Taking on a dictator
In January 2017, Jammeh was finally forced from office, and into a luxurious exile in Equatorial Guinea, after 22 years in power. Before long, survivors of his bogus cure began to speak out about the violations they endured. One of the most compelling stories was that of Fatou Jatta, who spoke of her nine months of suffering. “It was a disaster,” she told Al Jazeera. “During that time, you could not just leave. Because if you leave, it’s another problem for you.”
Later that year, my colleague Sarah Bosha and I contacted Jatta as part of our work for the international advocacy organisation AIDS-Free World. We met her outside her home in the capital Banjul, where she was caring for her four children along with several others who had been abandoned or orphaned. She was an inspiration – both warm and tough. She had been the first woman in The Gambia to declare her HIV status in 2000 and had become a key member of the country’s first support group for people living with the disease. She was well experienced in withstanding stigma and discrimination and was eager to fight for justice.
With the help of Jatta and other survivors, we determined that Jammeh and his accomplices had inflicted cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment on the programme’s victims. We found that the number of patients who visited hospitals for HIV treatment declined during the period of the “cure” and that government resources were directed away from science-based interventions and instead earmarked for the dictator’s bogus operation. Many health care workers told us they felt uncomfortable telling patients what they really thought about Jammeh’s supposedly miraculous abilities because they feared reprisals from the regime.
We joined with the Jammeh to Justice Coalition in an effort to ensure the former president’s actions were recognised as an international crime. With the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, we supported Jatta and two other survivors in filing a civil action against Jammeh in the High Court of The Gambia. The three complainants are seeking financial damages for harm suffered and a declaration that their human rights were violated. We also assisted Jatta and another survivor in asking authorities to revoke the medical licenses of two doctors who assisted Jammeh, including Tamsir Mbowe, who told the TRRC in his public testimony that he believed in Jammeh’s power to cure HIV.
Silence and complicity
The heroism of those taking on the former regime cannot not be diminished. Although Jammeh remains in exile, he and his political party enjoy significant support within The Gambia. His supporters are everywhere, and few of those who committed crimes in his name have been meaningfully punished.
Their courageous actions stand in stark contrast to the inaction of the international community during Jammeh’s reign. In the weeks after the former dictator announced his bogus treatment in 2007, a UN resident coordinator based in The Gambia, Fadzai Gwaradzimba, warned that “claims of cures” would encourage risky behaviour and worsen the AIDS epidemic. She didn’t mention Jammeh’s name but was nonetheless promptly deported. “This sent a loud message that no one should question his HIV/AIDS cure,” reads the TRRC report.
There is no evidence the UN uttered a further word of protest, including through the UNAIDS office in the country. Rather, the very institutions created to prevent such atrocities studiously ignored Jammeh’s murderous scheme over the next decade. In fact, months after the cure announcement, the World Health Assembly (WHA) – the governing body of the World Health Organisation – welcomed representatives from The Gambia. And in 2011, the government was accorded the honour of sitting on the WHA General Committee.
The West African bloc ECOWAS raised no protest, nor did other leaders on the continent. No diplomats were withdrawn from Banjul, nor were any UN resolutions passed. No international sanctions were levied, and Jammeh spoke at the UN General Assembly in 2009, 2013 and 2014. He was treated like just any other head of state.
A concerted campaign to raise an alarm could have saved lives. The TRRC found that Jammeh “used his power to force” the first group of victims to enter the programme, but following fabricated claims of success – and in the absence of global condemnation and warnings – many people living with HIV (including from several foreign countries) began entering the programme voluntarily.
A step towards justice
In its report, the TRRC concludes that Jammeh and Mbowe should be “charged with murder and prosecuted for intentionally and knowingly causing the death of People Living With HIV/AIDS”. It recommends that a specially created tribunal should be established in West Africa under the aegis of ECOWAS and/or the Africa Union (AU) to try Jammeh and his accomplices. The government of The Gambia is now preparing a white paper that will outline how it will implement the report’s recommendations.
The international institutions that so significantly failed – including ECOWAS, the UN, and the AU – should lend their vigorous support to the creation of a tribunal. At the same time, their moral failure must be acknowledged and memorialised so that similar monstrosities are not allowed to happen again.
A tribunal would be an important step towards justice and many survivors will be prepared to take the witness stand and do what the international community wouldn’t: tell the full and unvarnished truth about a murderous campaign against people living with HIV.