Africa

Activists cheer exit of Gambia leader, an anti-gay 'icon'

FILE - In this file photo dated Saturday Jan. 21, 2017, Gambia's defeated leader Yahya Jammeh, top wearing white, waves to supporters as he goes into exile from Gambia's capital Banjul airport. Jammeh fiercely denounced homosexuality and warned gay people to leave the country with threats to "cut of the head" of any who remained, so Jammeh's departure "is a great relief for the population, and especially the LGBT population who were often martyred under his rule," said Lambert Lamba, a leading gay rights activist in Cameroon. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, FILE)

FILE - In this file photo dated Saturday Jan. 21, 2017, Gambia's defeated leader Yahya Jammeh, top wearing white, waves to supporters as he goes into exile from Gambia's capital Banjul airport. Jammeh fiercely denounced homosexuality and warned gay people to leave the country with threats to "cut of the head" of any who remained, so Jammeh's departure "is a great relief for the population, and especially the LGBT population who were often martyred under his rule," said Lambert Lamba, a leading gay rights activist in Cameroon. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, FILE)  (The Associated Press)

In August 2014, Jamu Camara was at home with her girlfriend in the Gambian resort town of Kololi when police arrived for a surprise raid, taking both women in for questioning.

"They just said they heard we are lesbians, blah blah blah," the 21-year-old soccer player recalled. "I told them, 'You have no right to detain me here. I'm not going to say anything because you don't have your evidence.'"

The women eventually were released, though two months later a friend with contacts in the government told Camara her name had shown up on a new state list of suspected gays and lesbians. Anticipating another run-in with authorities, Camara fled over the border into Senegal, joining an untold number of LGBT Gambians driven into exile by the rhetoric and policies of then-President Yahya Jammeh.

On a continent where politicians regularly mine anti-gay sentiment for votes and support, Jammeh had long been in a class by himself, gay rights activists said. Over 22 years in power, he turned the tiny West African country into one of the region's most hostile environments for sexual minorities.

The news of Jammeh's surprise defeat in presidential elections in December, and his flight last month into exile, was welcomed by activists in Gambia and beyond.

"Really, he was a kind of icon of homophobia," said ADO Jr., president of the Ivory Coast activist group Lesbian Life Association.

Around two-thirds of African countries criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct, according to Amnesty International. In the handful of countries that enforce their anti-gay laws, local groups have emerged to push for access to health care and to combat extortion, assaults and other forms of discrimination.

In Jammeh's Gambia, however, such work was all but impossible, and many would-be activists made the painful decision to leave.

No African leader deployed anti-gay rhetoric with as much relish as Jammeh, who has denounced homosexuality as "anti-god, anti-human and anti-civilization" as well as "an evil and strange social cancer." In 2008, he said gay people had 24 hours to leave the country, vowing to "cut off the head" of any who remained, and in 2015 he warned gay men he would slit their throats.

Gambian law criminalizes same-sex sexual acts, and arrests under Jammeh are believed to have been common, though no meaningful data exists. Members of the feared National Intelligence Agency would sometimes infiltrate parties organized by the LGBT community, photographing attendees who were later taken into custody.

In October 2014, Jammeh signed a bill imposing life imprisonment for "aggravated homosexuality," a term applying to groups including "serial offenders" and people living with HIV/AIDS. The law sparked a fresh round of house-to-house searches and arrests.

Jammeh's departure "is a great relief for the population, and especially the LGBT population who were often martyred under his rule," said Lambert Lamba, a leading gay rights activist in Cameroon, where the government has pursued dozens of prosecutions in recent years under a law imposing up to five years in prison for same-sex sexual acts.

"It's true that the new head of state hasn't yet shown his face, but according to what is said about him, he can be a leader," Lamba said of Barrow and LGBT rights.

Barrow, a political newcomer, has not spoken publicly about the issue. But even having a government that ignores the issue could create space for improvements on the current situation, activists said.

"Gambian culture is rooted in a tradition of openness and tolerance that belies the outgoing president's hateful rhetoric," said Felicity Thompson, LGBT researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of a 2015 report documenting abuses committed by Jammeh's government. "With a new president in power, we hope the Gambian administration will pledge to protect all of its citizens, regardless of who they love."

But Camara, the soccer player who fled the country, said she did not expect any dramatic changes.

"No matter who rules the Gambia, they will never accept homosexuality," said Camara, who was eventually granted asylum in Canada. "Even if the government wants to legalize it or something, the society will never accept it."