Hardly anybody in the Western world these days knows or cares much about the teeny West African dictatorship of Gambia, and hardly anybody in the Western world these days gives much thought to Jermaine Jackson, the older and far less talented and charismatic brother of the late Michael Jackson and member of the family musical group The Jackson Five. Yet the obscurity of the country doesn’t make the brutality of its government any less terrible to the approximately two million people who live in it, and the has-been status of Jermaine Jackson doesn’t make his grotesque kowtowing to the clownish autocrat who runs Gambia any less reprehensible.
First, a few facts about that autocrat, Yahya Jammeh (officially referred to as “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa”). He took power in a 1994 coup and has survived eight attempts to overthrow his rotten regime. He’s been described as “holding sway through a potent mixture of state brutality and mysticism.” Under his rule, Gambia has developed the “worst press rights” in west Africa, which is quite an accomplishment, and innumerable journalists have been imprisoned or assassinated or “disappeared.”
And that’s just for starters. Jammeh’s also a crackpot of the first water who claims to be able to cure “a long list of maladies including obesity and erectile dysfunction.” In 2009, he accused a thousand of his subjects of being witch doctors and ordered them beaten and forced to “drink hallucinogens.” In 2000, thugs acting on his direct orders “gunned down 14 school children…who were protesting against his regime.” Last December, the European Union halted €13 million in aid to Gambia in response to its ghastly human-rights record; in the same month, the U.S. government revoked Gambia’s preferential status under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a step hailed by a Gambian freedom activist as “a clear indication that the international community has had enough of Yahya Jammeh’s tyrannical rule.”
As with the Kims in North Korea and the Castros in Cuba, Jammeh’s countenance is ubiquitous throughout his realm, with his face being “used to advertise everything from food to phone credit.” One human-rights activist, indeed, has even called Gambia “the North Korea of Africa.” Jammeh is especially preoccupied with homosexuality, having called gays “vermin” and destroyers of culture and threatened to decapitate them. “Some people go to the West,” he announced in a 2014 speech, “and claim they are gays and that their lives are at risk in the Gambia, in order for them to be granted a stay in Europe. If I catch them I will kill them.” Last year, he approved a law punishing homosexuality with life imprisonment. Among many other offenses, he’s been accused by Senegal, the country that surrounds his own (except for a small sliver of Atlantic seacoast), of trying to ship Iranian weapons to separatist rebels in Senegal’s Casamance region.
This is the man whom Jermaine Jackson calls a friend and a “very, very real person,” whatever that means. During a visit to Gambia in 2010, Jackson hung out with Jammeh and announced that he wanted to play a role in what he described as Gambia’s development. (As one German newspaper noted, nobody, especially human-rights activists, thinks that there is anything deserving of the label “development” going on in Gambia.)
In addition to identifying Jammeh as a key figure in building bridges between Africa and African Americans, Jackson praised him effusively for his belief in Allah, his “respect” for his people, and above all for his “truthful” nature. Jackson said that he’d met many world leaders over the years, but placed Jammeh “above all of them because of his devotion to Allah.” At a concert Jackson held in Gambia during his visit, he addressed Jammeh personally from the stage, saying: “Thank you for being you for the world. Thank you for being you for Africa. Thank you for being you for Gambia. Thank you for loving him, Gambia.”
Think of it this way: if Jammeh is the Kim Jung-un of the D-list, Jermaine Jackson is the D-list Dennis Rodman. No, it’s certainly not as high profile a friendship, but it’s every bit as odious. And, of course, every bit as dumb.