The Flight of Gambia’s Former Leader Could Be a Relief for the LGBT Community

News of the Gambian president Yahya Jammeh’s defeat in presidential elections last December—and his flight last month into exile—is a relief to the LGBT community of the tiny West African country and beyond, according to a report made by AP in the nearby Ivory Coast. ADO Jr, president of the Ivory Coast activist group Lesbian Life, tells AP, “Really, he was a kind of icon of homophobia.”

Jammeh’s departure “is a great relief for the population, and especially the LGBT population who were often martyred under his rule,” says Lambert Lamba, a leading gay rights activist living 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.

According to this report, during over 22 years in power, he turned Gambia into one of the region’s most hostile environments for sexual minorities, and would-be activists had to flee the country. The homophobic rhetoric was very frequently present in speeches by the former president. He 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.

A vast majority of African countries criminalize homosexuality, for some an inheritance of past colonial laws.

The new president, Adams Barrow, has not yet said anything on the issue of LGBT rights. For activists, this ignorance can create a space for improvements on the current situation.

But Janu Camara, a lesbian soccer player who has now found asylum in Canada, says to AP, “No matter who rules the Gambia, they will never accept homosexuality. Even if the government wants to legalize it or something, the society will never accept it.”