Gambia: The 'Healing Hands' of a President

opinion

Nairobi — When citizens queue outside State houses in most of Africa, it is usually to pledge their loyalty to the Head of State, and hopefully receive a little something for the fare home - hoping they had walked there in the first place.

But in one of the smallest countries on the continent, such beelines are such a regular feature, they have somewhat redefined the presidency.

Since January this year, President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia, who grabbed power through force of arms 12 years ago, is extending a healing hand to his countrymen debilitated by HIV and Aids.

The president claims his herbal remedy can kill HIV in his patients' blood, dozens of whom claim to have had their health restored and their sero-status reverted after a few sessions of treatment.

A Sky News correspondent witnessed Jammeh's healing session recently.

"Dressed from head to toe in sparkling white robes, President Yahya Jammeh, leans over his latest patient and massages a herbal ointment into his chest.

Another potion

"A rub down with the cream, a splash on the face with another potion and a drink of a murky looking liquid, the president claims he'll be cured."

President Jammeh is so busy treating his countrymen and women, he has drawn up a timetable: he treats Aids patients on Thursdays and asthma on Saturdays. The rest of the time he runs the country.

But the number of Aids patients has to be limited to 10 per week.

Gambian Health minister Tamsir Mbowe believes "one hundred per cent the president can cure everyone. It is absolutely medically proven," he told Sky News. Perhaps not, but then, it would not be wise contradicting the president, not after what befell the World Health Organisation (WHO) official who dared express such doubts.

Last month, the official was thrown out of the country without much ceremony, although Mr Jammeh insists: "I do not have to convince anybody. I can cure Aids and I will not explain it to those who don't want to understand."

There is no point to try convincing Jammeh to reveal his magic formula, which he says he will not reveal "in a million years".

But it's even harder to understand the responses of African leadership to Aids.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has been in denial that HIV causes Aids, guided by the unwise supposition that Aids is a virus and cannot cause a syndrome. A virus can cause a disease, and Aids is not a disease, it is a syndrome."

Very confusing terms indeed. Mr Mbeki's skepticism, however, has not stopped the spread of HIV among 5.5 million South Africans, and pushing the national HIV prevalence to 18.8 per cent - the sixth highest in the world.

Had died of Aids

If Mr Mbeki has failed to provide a human face to his presidency, more in regard to HIV and Aids, Dr Kenneth Kaunda has succeeded by providing more than just tears of solidarity with the suffering of the world.

Twenty years ago, the former Zambian president told the world that his fifth-born son, Masuzgo Gwebe, 30, had died of Aids. "It does not need my son's death to appeal to the international community to treat the question of Aids as a world problem," he told a news conference.

"It is something that is so serious, that once again I plead with the World Health Organisation and those in a position to help fund the campaign against Aids."

Money has not been in short supply to fund Aids initiatives on the continent of late, and provision of condoms has formed the basis of most interventions.

Halls of residence

Not so for First Lady Lucy Kibaki. "Those who are still in school have no business having access to condoms," she said recently. "Those who are in university and are not married have no business having condoms in their halls of residence." Mrs Kibaki chairs a club of 40 African First Ladies Against HIV and Aids.

Earlier, in May 2003, only months after his installation, President Kibaki declared "total war" against HIV and Aids, and even appeared in television adverts joining hands with fellow countrymen to lock Aids out of Kenya.

In Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni had been hailed for the openness that had helped his country roll back HIV, he appeared to change his mind in 2004 and condemn what he called "condomisation" of Uganda, which he feared would be " a recipe for disaster." Earlier, in May 2003, only months after his installation, President Kibaki declared "total war" against HIV and Aids, and even appeared in television adverts joining hands with fellow countrymen to lock Aids out of Kenya.

The First Lady's position appeared to contradict the official Aids policy that recognises condoms as crucial tools in containing the spread of HIV. But Mrs Kibaki is not the only high-placed individual to deride the condom.

In Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni had been hailed for the openness that had helped his country roll back HIV, he appeared to change his mind in 2004 and condemn what he called "condomisation" of Uganda, which he feared would be " a recipe for disaster."

The president said condoms were "inappropriate for Ugandans" and said their distribution encouraged promiscuity among young people.

He saw condoms

These comments were delivered in July 2004 at the International Aids Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, where Mr Museveni told delegates he saw condoms as "an improvisation, not a solution" to HIV and Aids, favouring instead, "optimal relationships based on love and trust instead of intentional mistrust which is what the condom is all about." Uganda's First Lady Janet Museveni, has held similar views in the past, and like her Kenyan counterpart, sees abstinence as the only way the youth can escape HIV infection.

President Jammeh makes no judgment of his patients, nor prescribes how they are to live to avoid re-infection once their status is changed. All he seems interested in is serving his people, by his own hands, even though the potency of his concoction is not as guaranteed as the strength of his hand, and authority.

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