Gambian leader may become king

2010-11-09 13:30

Dakar - Gambia's president once claimed to have developed a cure for Aids that involved a herbal body rub and bananas. His administration rounded up nearly 1 000 people last year in a witch hunt. And now he may soon have a new title in this tiny West African nation: His majesty.

Tribal chieftains are touring the country to rally support for President Yahya Jammeh's coronation.

"The president has brought development to the country, and for that he deserves to be crowned King of The Gambia," said Junkung Camara, chief of the western region of Foni Brefet. "This is the only way the Gambian people can express our gratitude to a leader who has done a lot for his country."

Like many rulers in this part of Africa, Jammeh, 45, came to power in the wake of a coup. He was elected president two years later, and is currently serving his third elected term in the tiny country surrounded on three sides by Senegal.

If he were crowned king, he could dispense with the formality of elections altogether.

For a ruler who likes to be called His Excellency the President Sheik Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya Jammeh - identifying himself as a doctor, scholar, and elder, among other honorifics - "king" would suit him well.

A series of controversial events

"It's image construction," said Abdoulaye Saine, professor of political science at Miami University in Ohio who specialises in Gambian politics. "He's not a scholar, he's not a doctor, he's not a professor. But he covets these titles."

Saine says Jammeh's coronation would give him a new title but would not change anything politically.

"Jammeh is already king," Saine said. "He practically owns the country of Gambia. He controls the press, the opposition, the clergy, and the coffers of the state."

While sub-Saharan Africa has just one remaining absolute monarchy - in the southern African nation of Swaziland - other leaders have tried to similarly solidify their role. Idi Amin, the brutal dictator who ruled Uganda during the 1970s, titled himself His Excellency President for Life. And Central African Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa crowned himself emperor in 1977.

The call for Jammeh's coronation is the latest in a series of controversial events that have marked his presidency. In 2007, the ruler claimed to have developed a cure for Aids and insisted that patients stop taking their antiretroviral medications so his cure could have an effect.

Absolute power

More recently, Jammeh's administration rounded up nearly 1 000 people last year in a witch hunt that spanned the nation of two million. Authorities forced the supposed witches to drink a hallucinogen that caused diarrhea and vomiting. The unidentified liquid led to serious kidney problems, and two people died after the forced treatment, according to the international human rights group Amnesty International.

Sam Sarr, editor of the main opposition newspaper Foroyaa, says Jammeh's move to be crowned king will never work.

"It's unconstitutional," Sarr said. "According to the constitution, his position is an elected position. Sovereignty resides in the people."

Not that making Jammeh king would change much.

"The presidency is already like a monarchy," Sarr said. "As far as power is concerned, he has absolute power."