By DeWayne Wickham
It would be easy to dismiss the recent presidential election in Gambia, a sliver of a nation on Africa's west coast, as a matter of little concern to the United States.
But if we've learned any lesson from ignoring megalomaniac leaders of corrupt states, it is that their mischief has a good chance of eventually affecting America's national interest.
And Yahya Jammeh, who just won a fourth term as Gambia's president, could well be Africa's biggest psychopath.
Like the late Idi Amin, the former Ugandan president who generously proclaimed himself "Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea," Jammeh has an otherworldly sense of self. Two years ago, he sent "witch doctors" and his security forces to round up about 1,000 people whom he believed to be witches responsible for the death of his aunt. They were taken to the president's farm and forced to drink a hallucinogenic liquid that left two people dead and many others with serious liver damage, according to a report in the British newspaper The Telegraph.
Claiming special powers of his own, Jammeh announced in 2007 that he had discovered an AIDS cure, which he said his ancestors gave him in a dream. Jammeh personally administered this cure to hopeful AIDS patients — but only on Thursdays. The Gambian president also says he has fixes for obesity and erectile dysfunction. Africa needs a fix for him.
More than the slapstick leader of the smallest country on the African mainland, Jammeh is a serious mischief maker. He is accused of condoning the shipment of Iranian weapons through Gambia to rebels in the Casamance region of neighboring Senegal. Crates of these weapons, marked as construction materials, were seized at a port in Nigeria last year.
Pressured to explain this discovery, the Iranian government has said that the weapons were products of a military assistance agreement it struck with Gambia — a deal that violated United Nations sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Jammeh denied any knowledge of the weapons shipment, but such talk rings hollow with a leading American advocate for Africa.
"The U.S. can't ignore what's going on in Gambia. It is a growing transshipment point for drugs to Europe and is on its way to becoming a destabilizing force for the western region of Africa," says Melvin Foote, president of the Washington-based Constituency for Africa. "A lot of people over there see him (Jammeh) as an instigator."
Foote, who was in Gambia last year on a State Department-sponsored trip to West Africa to help nurture democratic values among the area's emerging young leaders, told me that there's a lot of grumbling about Jammeh in the region — but so far, no action. That's too bad.
While the U.S. has an interest in seeing to it that Jammeh doesn't undermine Senegal or other neighboring states in West Africa and create a base of operation there for Iran's adventurism, the Gambian president is a problem Africans must be encouraged to solve themselves.
With drone bases in the African nations of Ethiopia and Djibouti — and military advisers on the ground in other parts of the continent — the U.S. doesn't need to enlarge its footprint in Africa. What it needs is for Africa's growing number of democratic governments to find a way to ensure that the leader of the area's smallest country isn't allowed to become one of its biggest headaches.
They have to police their continent or run the risk of it becoming, as Africa did during the Cold War, a bloody surrogate for the fights of others.