Gambian President Yahya Jammeh—a dictator who came to power in a 1994 coup—is not a friend of the gays. In the past, Jammeh has called gays “vermin” that “we will fight,” described homosexuality as “evil, antihuman as well as anti-Allah,” and threatened to “cut off the head” of gays in Gambia. Last November, he signed a law that would impose a life sentence on anyone who has gay sex. His police force has been known to arrest Gambians suspected to be gay and threaten them with rape and torture.
It is no surprise, then, that Jammeh escalated his anti-gay rhetoric in a recent speech, making a vicious threat against every gay person who has dared to remain in Gambia. According to Vice News, Jammeh told a crowd:
If you do it [in the Gambia] I will slit your throat—if you are a man and want to marry another man in this country and we catch you, no one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it.
Jammeh’s admonishment about throat-slitting is really par for the course at this point. What’s more interesting about his remark is the coda—the declaration that “no white person” can save Gambia’s gays. In a narrow sense, Jammeh was probably referring to the European Union’s decision to revoke about $14 million in aid last year in response to Gambia’s anti-gay brutality. (The EU is also considering blocking another aid package worth roughly $180 million this year, though Qatar, Kuwait, and Turkey have pledged to continue their assistance.) But in a broader sense, Jammeh was likely alluding to the idea—frequently peddled by anti-gay African leaders—that gay equality is a Western fiction being foisted upon Africa by condescending neocolonialists.
As I’ve explained before, this canard is quite curious, because no matter whether gay equality is an imperialistic export, homophobia certainly is. Gambia, like nearly three dozen other countries, is a former British colony that inherited its anti-gay criminal law from its erstwhile imperialist overlord. Although the Gambian government has since amended the act to add new penalties, its origins lie squarely in the anti-sodomy laws that Britain inflicted upon its colonies. The barbaric measures that African leaders like Jammeh tout as symbols of Western defiance were actually invented by the West.
Unfortunately, using homophobia as a call to arms against alleged imperialism plays pretty well in countries like Gambia. Like homophobic Uganda, Gambia is (understandably) scarred by its colonialist past, and its citizens seem to take offense at perceived Western meddling. But where Uganda’s anti-gay fervor was largely stoked by American evangelicals then coopted by politicians, Gambia’s homophobia is a byproduct of Jammeh’s clever campaign to convert Western scorn into popularity. In an undereducated, underdeveloped, predominantly Muslim country like Gambia, it isn’t that hard to spread the belief that anti-gay animus is a fundamental value of authentic Africans. The white Westerners who exported homophobia to Gambia would be pleased to see Jammeh keeping their creation alive and well.