Yahya Jammeh doesn’t seem like a cruel despot when you first see pictures of him or hear him talk on video. The ebullient African usually had a smile on his face, was often dressed in traditional African garb, and generally didn’t seem menacing at all.

So, how much of a threat could he be?

Jammeh was the dictator of the small West African country known as The Gambia from 1994 to 2017. You should use the definite article “the” before the name of the actual country, or at least, that’s what Jammeh dictated when he was in power.

There are only just over two million people who live in The Gambia and it really doesn’t have much power in the world or even within the region of Africa, for that matter. Because of those reasons, most people just ignored Yahya Jammeh as another kooky African dictator, and for years so too did the other leaders of Africa.

But Yahya Jammeh eventually got too crazy even for Africa.

In January 2009, Jammeh’s beloved aunt died, which left him reeling and looking for answers. Instead of going through the normal stages of grief as most of us do when we lose a loved one, Jammeh decided that he’d stall at the “blame” stage and focus on witchcraft as the target of his ire.

Yes, you read that correctly—Jammeh blamed his aunt’s death on witchcraft and, as a result, he embarked on a violent campaign from mid-January to March 2009 to rid The Gambia of witches.

It was a literal witch hunt that left hundreds dead and nearly 2,000 people imprisoned. Others were tortured and raped while they also administered the hallucinogenic drug known as kubee jaroo to get the suspected witches and wizards to confess.

When the smoke of the witch hunts cleared, some Gambian villages were all but depopulated, hurting the already fragile economy of the developing nation.

The witch hunts also led other African leaders to reassess their relationship with Jammeh. Being a dictator was one thing, but they reasoned that the witch hunt incidents just made them all look superstitious and primitive. It proved to be one of the reasons why they removed him from power.

Jammeh’s witch hunts were truly crazy and in addition to hurting the Gambian economy, they led to his downfall from power, for which many Gambians are grateful.

Learning the Tools of the Trade

Yahya Jammeh was born to a Muslim family in a small village in The Gambia in 1965, showing academic promise in school as a child. But like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, The Gambia is a place where things can change fast and the only constant is the military. In countries such as The Gambia, the military represents stability and offers village boys the chance to move ahead in society.

So Jammeh joined the Gambian National Guard and then the Gambian National Army.

Jammeh learned first-hand that life in the Gambian military could be tough and was often violent, as punishments for indiscretions resulted in beatings or worse. It was also a perpetually corrupt institution, but that part of it never seemed to bother Jammeh.

In fact, he seemed to excel in the environment of violence and corruption, so much so that he helped lead the 1994 coup d’état against The Gambia’s democratically elected president.

From that point forward, Jammeh was the leader of The Gambia in one form or another. And it was truly one crazy ride until he was removed from power in 2017.

Although Jammeh allowed “free elections,” they were free in word only. Jammeh relied on government intimidation, ballot stuffing, and intimidation of his political opponents to win every election.

To keep the country in line with his crazier policies, Jammeh controlled the press and if that didn’t work, he sent his paramilitary goon squad known as the “Green Boys” to intimidate the people.

And if there were especially tricky people who needed to be assassinated, Jammeh called in his professional hitmen known as the “Jungulers.”

Jammeh’s methods of repression were actually quite successful, but eventually, his level of craziness became too much.

The Greatest Witch Hunt of All Time

It remains unknown if Jammeh actually believed his aunt died of witchcraft or if he merely took advantage of a situation.

Many Westerns educated with a healthy dose of cynicism would believe Jammeh played on the religious beliefs and superstitions of his people, but even if that’s so, it doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t a believer himself.

As strange as the witch hunts may appear, it’s important to know that they were actually well organized. Jammeh would focus on a village or town he believed was infested with witches—or his political enemies if you’re a skeptic—and send in a contingent of his Green Boys to kidnap the suspects and force them to ingest a hallucinogenic drink.

Professional witch doctors were also always present to identify witches and to cleanse the surroundings of their evil.

Although many people were abducted and accused of witchcraft apparently at random, many police departments appear to have been targeted, leading cynics to point out that Jammeh simply used claims of witchcraft to eliminate more of his enemies.

It was all over by the spring of 2009 and the witch hunts were just another one of the many crazy things Yahya Jammeh had done during his rule of The Gambia.

The crazy witch hunts further destabilized The Gambia, which led to a coalition of African nations intervening and forcing Jammeh into exile on January 17, 2017.

But don’t feel bad for Jammeh; he left The Gambia with a cool $11 million from the country’s treasury and now lives in luxury in Equatorial Guinea.

Did You Know?

  • Another crazy policy that Jammeh pursued related to HIV/AIDs prevention and awareness. In 2007, he introduced a treatment program that claimed HIV/AIDs could be cured with natural herbs and recommend patients to stop taking antiviral drugs.
  • Jammeh has been married three times, with the second and third marriages being polygamous. Apparently, the second and third wives didn’t like the arrangement, though, because they both divorced him and now live in the United States.
  • Despite public hearings into the abuses of the Jammeh regime, the identity of the Green Boys and witch doctors are mainly unknown. The ingredients of the concoction given to suspected witches also remains a mystery.
  • Jammeh acquired the rank of colonel in the military before he became the dictator. Like Gaddafi, Jammeh never promoted himself to general.
  • Jammeh was militantly opposed to any gay rights in his country while in power, which is generally in alignment with most sub-Saharan countries.