Special focus « Time for the truth in Gambia »

Gambia: Jammeh's magic anti-AIDS potion did not exist

Yahya Jammeh claimed he would rule Gambia for a billion years. The head of State also claimed he would treat a range of diseases including asthma, infertility and HIV/AIDS. The later “treatment”, which started in 2007, is now being brought back to the fore by testimonies before the country’s Truth Commission. 

Gambia: Jammeh's magic anti-AIDS potion did not exist
Victims' demonstration in 2018 after the departure of the former President of the Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, to demand justice for the abuses committed during his 22-year regime. ©Claire BARGELES / AFP
3 min 46Approximate reading time

“The treatment was just to empower the president, just to show that he was a herbalist… there was never a cure,” said Landing Momodou Faal, a lab technician who was working with Gambian ex-ruler on his alternative treatment, on July 23 before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission’s (TRRC). Nearly a dozen victims of Jammeh’s treatment, including undisclosed hearings and anonymous witnesses, have testified this month.  

In the last 8 years of his 22-year rule, part of the collections of pictures that accompanied praised songs on television were those showing Yahya Jammeh treating patients. He claimed treatment by rubbing patients’ bodies with herb pastes and giving them herbal potions. Naming himself the “leader of the people of faith”, Jammeh was brandishing around with a Quran, prayers beads and occasionally, a miracle water he would throw at his supporters.

“I have the full mandate to treat people”

One of the early videos of Jammeh’s fake treatment was his address to doctors who were to help him accomplish his mission, whatever it was. Jammeh claimed his knowledge to cure has always been there since he took over power in a coup in 1994. He was providing his treatment in different locations with heavy security presence, testified witnesses.

“Now I have the full mandate to treat people publicly under strict conditions,” said Jammeh to doctors in a video broadcasted before the TRRC. “As far as I am concerned it takes five minutes to cure asthma and this has been proven on several occasions… I can tell you with confidence by the grace of Almighty Allah that the treatment is days' treatment and within three days, you will be tested again and I can assure you that the person will be negative.”

Jammeh was proud of his HIV cures, though his patients have terrible memories of it. “We were held under despicable conditions at the treatment centre. It got to a point that we were many there to an extent that some people happened to get some fresh ailments different from HIV. Some contracted tuberculosis and our living conditions were in bad shape,” said Fatou Jatta, a victim of the fraudulent treatment who testified before the Commission on July 15.

“Claims that there was a HIV cure was utterly false”

By mid-2007, Jammeh’s so-called HIV treatment was getting international attention, to such an extend that the United Nations was worried. The UN resident coordinator in the country, Fadzai Gwaradzimba, a Zimbabwean national, was given 48 hours to leave Gambia after making a statement about it. Gwaradzimba advised Aids patients to continue taking their conventional medication until his herbal medicine is tested and proven to be effective. 

But part of the conditionalities of Jammeh’s treatment was that patients will be filmed and they would be taken off their conventional medicines, said Jatta. She came out worse than she was before the treatment, she told the Commission. “My CD4 count [a lymphocyt used by HIV has a receptor, editor’s note] was good before I would join the treatment and I was also feeling healthy. But after the start of the treatment, my health deteriorated,” said Jatta. 

After drinking the concoction, some people started vomiting and becoming dizzy, she testified. At least 9 people died during the first batch of tests in 2007, have declared to the commission 4 unidentified witnesses during the course of last week. HIV patients still live with stigma in the Gambian society. Because of that, a number of witnesses before the Commission were allowed to testify anonymously. A few witnesses went also in close-session. 

Dr Mariatou Jallow
Dr Mariatou Jallow © Mustapha K. Darboe

Dr Mariatou Jallow was an executive director of Gambia’s Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital. She first took part in Jammeh’s alternative treatment, before being sacked from her position at the hospital, and turning to private practice. She then would come to attend to patients Jammeh claimed to have cured of HIV. “The claims that there was a cure was utterly false," she told the Commission on July 23. 

Meanwhile, in May 2018, three victims of Jammeh’s fake treatment sued the ex-ruler for damages at the High Court in Banjul, the capital city of Gambia. The lawsuit was filed by Ousman Sowe, Lamin Ceesay and Fatou Jatta, the first three Gambians who joined his HIV/AIDS treatment program in 2007, who said they were forced to give up anti-retroviral drugs and drink potions that made them vomit. The case was supported by the U.S.-based charity AIDS-Free World, which helped them gather evidence and build their case. 

Reading wrong results to the patients 

Lab technician Faal was one of those familiar with testing of the status of HIV patients in Gambia. A normal procedure, he said, is to put the name of the patient who are HIV positive in codes for privacy purposes before, and during testing. But the presidential treatment did not follow those procedures. Faal had tested blood for 3 batches of patients under Jammeh’s program, with a total of about 100 patients.  

Moreover, Faal said Dr Mbowe, one of Jammeh’s leading assistants during the treatment was reading wrong results to the patients. One day, “Dr Mbowe was having a paper containing a CD4 count test with my signature… but he was not reading my results”. “Dr Mbowe said because the patients’ viral loads are undetectable, then they are cured. That is wrong. Being undetectable and being cured are two parallel issues”, Faal said to the Commission. 

This week, the Commission goes on a week holiday to mark the Muslim fest call Eid al-Adha. It is expected to resume with continuation of its investigations into the fake HIV treatment where some adversely mentioned individuals like Dr Mbowe will likely appear.