For those of us lucky enough to live in democracies, it is comforting to imagine foreign dictators as wholly foreign. The world seems less complicated when an autocrat fits the stereotype: say, wearing a leopard-skin hat and rarely stepping out of some jungle palace. Anyone fine with ruling undemocratically, one might like to think, should have no interest in a culture completely opposed to the practice. Or, at the very least, if such a leader did make meaningful connections with the West, surely his retrograde beliefs would melt away on contact.
Reality, alas, is not so tidy. Bashar al-Assad butchers Syrians despite having lived in London. Whatever Western values Kim Jong Un picked up at boarding school in Switzerland haven’t kept him from perpetuating North Korea’s totalitarian state. And, as I discovered while reporting on the Gambia, the authoritarian leader of this tiny West African country has a soft spot for the United States.
That leader, Yahya Jammeh, launched a bloodless coup in 1994, ousting the Gambia’s democratically elected president and instituting military rule. In the two decades since, as the rest of West Africa has grown more democratic and developed, Jammeh has taken his country in the opposite direction, routinely harassing and detaining political activists. A paramilitary group called the “Junglers,” according to Human Rights Watch, has assassinated Jammeh’s opponents, sometimes dumping their bodies in an abandoned well near the president’s hometown. One alleged target was Deyda Hydara, the editor of an independent newspaper, who was shot dead on his way home from work in 2004.