Linking aid to gay rights fails to deter a homophobic leader


LETTER FROM THE GAMBIA:THE SHEEPISH response elicited from the waitress was the first indication that something was amiss. I had casually mentioned that it had been a while since I had seen Sulyman at work and inquired as to his whereabouts, asking whether he still worked at the restaurant.

We had come to know Sulyman over the last 12 months from our frequent trips to the local restaurant. As we arrived he would greet us enthusiastically, attentively see to our needs and tell us excitedly about his plans to work as a music promoter and concert impresario.

I thought no more about the waitress’s caginess or Sulyman’s prolonged absence until several days later, when another of the restaurant’s regulars asked me if I’d heard about “what had happened to Sulyman”.

He informed me that Sulyman, along with 17 others, had been arrested and charged with engaging in “indecent practices”. Subsequent newspaper reports that named and showed pictures of the men outlined how the police had swooped on a bar after receiving information that a group of homosexuals were holding a party there. They were now being held in custody, awaiting trial.

Fervent homophobia prevails in the Gambia, with the country’s president, the multi-titled Sheik, Professor, Doctor AJJ Jammeh at the vanguard. In 2008 he told a political rally that gay people had 24 hours to leave the country. He promised “stricter laws than Iran” on homosexuality and said he would “cut off the head” of any gay person found in the country.

Most Gambians regard homosexuality as an abomination. Those suspected of being gay are treated with scorn and are shunned even by their families. This can most likely be attributed to the prevalence of Islam. In the Quran, homosexuals, called Lut, (the people of Lot) are condemned in the last address of the Prophet Muhammad.

Mercifully, Sulyman and his co-accused were later released on bail. I was informed that, following his release, most of his family members avoided him and that whenever he ventured out of his house, local children chased and threw stones at him at their parents’ behest.

Such is the feeling of venom among some here that a newspaper editor I know whose paper published an article defending homosexuality told me somebody turned up at the office making threats to kill the author of the article and demanded to know where he lived.

During the adjournment of the trial, President Jammeh has reiterated his contempt for homosexuals. Speaking recently, he asserted that “there is no room for gays and lesbians” in the Gambia, and threatened that “if a man doesn’t want trouble, marry a woman and not a man, but if you want trouble . . . have a man and see what is going to happen”.

Such pronouncements, it seems, will make it near impossible for Sulyman and the others to receive a fair trial.

At last October’s Commonwealth (of which the Gambia is a member) conference, British prime minister David Cameron suggested future aid to developing countries would have more strings attached and that aid could be dependent on respect for human rights, including greater tolerance of homosexuality.

Such a development could have huge implications for the Gambia, which gets more than $120 million (€97.2 million) of foreign assistance per annum. However, the potential for such a catastrophic loss of income does not seem to perturb the redoubtable President Jammeh, who among other things claims he can cure HIV, asthma and infertility.

Addressing Cameron’s stance, he made clear there would be no change in policy.

“If you want us to be ungodly for you to give us aid, take your aid away, we will survive. We will rather eat grass than accept this ungodly evil attitude that is anti-god, anti-human and anti-creation.”

Some 41 nations within the 54-member Commonwealth have laws banning homosexuality, many of them a legacy of British imperial laws.

Not all African states have such a draconian attitude to homosexuality.

Encouragingly, new Malawian president Joyce Banda has said she wants to overturn that country’s ban. It is worth remembering that acceptance of homosexuality in Ireland is relatively recent – it was still illegal as late at 1993.

In the meantime, the future of Sulyman and other accused in the Gambia remains uncertain.

One thing is sure: the public opprobrium generated by his arrest and trial will end his dreams of a career in the entertainment industry.

But the Gambia, a nation that languishes 168th out of 187th on the UN Human Development Index, can ill afford to discard young, energetic and vigorous citizens such as Sulyman.

Daniel English returned to Ireland recently from the Gambia, where he was on a 12-month placement as an accompanying volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas. He worked with the Gambian Press Union, a body promoting press freedom and media development in the Gambia, and with Concern Universal.

This letter was due to appear in yesterday’s edition but was replaced late because of news developments.

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