Gambian President Yahya Jammeh once said he would lead the country for “1 billion years.” Yet on December 3, following an election analysts were sure Jammeh would attempt to rig in his favor, the now former president went on national television to concede defeat. Jammeh, who had held power for two decades, calmly told incoming President Adama Barrow, “The Gambian people have spoken, and I have no reason to contest the will of the mighty Allah.” Barrow, a former opposition party treasurer known as “No Drama Adama,” will be the recipient of the first peaceful transfer of power since The Gambia secured its independence from the United Kingdom in 1965.
The following day, 26-year-old Alagie Jammeh, President Jammeh’s nephew, was behind a podium in California, accepting the Santa Barbara Independent’s Local Hero of the Year award for his LGBTQ activism. The news from The Gambia came as a welcome surprise. “I thought that elections were just a formality, it wasn’t something that the opposition party could win,” he later told MTV News. “It was a very good day for me, and for the people of The Gambia.” As of Election Day, Alagie had been a student at UC Santa Barbara for two years, and his time in the United States had changed him. Now that he’s graduated, he’s setting his sights on studying for the GRE, playing basketball, going to the beach with friends — and continuing to advocate for LGBTQ rights, despite having been raised in one of the world’s most virulently anti-LGBTQ countries.
“No one should be denied their fundamental human rights because of their sexuality,” he posted on Facebook back in September 2014, just a few weeks after first moving abroad. He knew his family, including the president, would be angry. Under President Jammeh, homosexuality was punishable in The Gambia by prison time and even torture. Still, Alagie did not expect his moment of advocacy to put him in exile and become such a decisive part of his life. “I never thought it would go to that point where my scholarship was going to be revoked,” he said, “and where my family would stop talking to me.”
But that’s exactly what happened. Cut off from funds and afraid to go back to The Gambia, he spent seven months living in his car near his college campus. He eventually received political asylum in the U.S. this year. “If I am in The Gambia,” he told MTV News, “[my uncle] is going to prosecute me. He is going to put me in jail, or at worst, he might kill me.” And while Alagie has received honors and awards for his solidarity with LGBTQ people, his mother fled The Gambia for Senegal after he created his post. His brothers and sisters still refuse to speak to him.
A new president doesn’t open the door for Alagie to safely return to The Gambia, but he is still celebrating the win. In a year when anti-democratic forces have experienced increased visibility from the United States to the Philippines, this election is a bright spot for citizens everywhere who want to hold their leaders accountable — and a testimony to the importance of voting. “If a peaceful democratic transition can happen in The Gambia, it can happen anywhere,” Jeffrey Smith, the founder of Vanguard Africa, an advocacy group that worked with Barrow’s opposition coalition, told MTV News.
The Gambia has had just two leaders since 1965: Dawda Jawara and, of course, Jammeh, who seized power in a military coup in 1994 and had orchestrated a campaign of retribution against opponents ever since. “For the majority of his 22 years in power,” Alagie said, “[President Jammeh] has been a dictator, putting people in prison for opposing him or for writing negative things about him” — and, sometimes, even just for existing.
The National Intelligence Agency, a police unit that answers directly to President Jammeh, has arrested and tortured dozens of journalists. Thousands of young people have left the country. Hundreds of people, opponents and everyday Gambians alike, have been tortured, murdered, or “disappeared.” President Jammeh told people with HIV to stop taking their antiretroviral drugs and to take an herbal paste he had concocted instead.
LGBTQ Gambians have been the target of some of Jammeh’s harshest calls for violence. On the 49th anniversary of The Gambia’s independence, the president said in a speech on state television, “We will fight these vermin called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.” He hasn’t softened with time: In a 2015 speech, Jammeh said that he would slit the throats of gay men in The Gambia.
Alagie had never met a gay person — at least an openly gay person — before he came to college in the U.S. “If you were suspected of being gay [in The Gambia], you were arrested,” he said. “Everything I had heard about gay people in The Gambia was negative. ‘It’s unnatural, it’s against the law of nature, it’s against everything that we stand for.’” And Alagie listened to what he was taught, until he got to school. “I came here agreeing to all of that,” he says, “but I think what [the government] failed to understand about sending someone to a university is that it is a place where your views are challenged.”
His stance on LGBTQ people began to shift when he met his college roommate — a gay man — and when, for the first time in his life, he experienced racism and discrimination. One day on a bus to class, Alagie said, a white man grabbed his hand, pointed at his skin, and said, “I’ve never seen anything black like you.” The incident changed him. “I felt terrible for just that, people staring at me,” he says. “When I went through that experience, my mind went back to the people in The Gambia, and I look at the gay community and I’m like, ‘How are they feeling?’ They go out and people are not just looking at them, they are calling them names and even prosecuting them.”
Alagie told MTV News that he began rethinking his former opinions. “Gay people in The Gambia, they are not asking for special treatment, they are not asking for special attention or anything like that. They just want to be treated like citizens. And so I am not saying that the government should treat them any different from any Gambian. That’s all I was trying to do.”
After getting asylum this year, Alagie became the first person in his immediate family to graduate from college. Alagie says that even after losing his scholarship and most of his ties to home, he’s more determined than ever to continue speaking out for LGBTQ equality, and he wants to focus his career on advocating for minorities facing oppression. He’s currently organizing events on his college campus and around Santa Barbara where he can share his story and his message that speaking out matters, no matter who you are. “If you have the platform or the voice, and if you are a part of the president's family, to just stay quiet, it’s not something I am willing to do,” he said.
Alagie’s connections to the president give him unique insights into his uncle’s character. “If he wants to be a nice person,” he said, “[the president] can be a very, very nice person. You just don’t want to cross him, you don’t want to do something he said not to do. You just have to avoid certain things that he hates.” Alagie certainly found that out the hard way, and he is keenly aware of the violence that took place during Jammeh’s decades in power. “He ran that government like a gangster,” Alagie says. “He will talk about God one day, and he will be using his proxies to do illegal stuff the next.” He added that his uncle’s policies had casualties: “There are horrible things that happened. People died. A lot of people lost their family.”
Looking ahead, Alagie thinks that the new government will have to step up to address multiple challenges at once. “[Jammeh] has been in power for 22 years,” Alagie said. “For this government to come in and then correct every wrong that these people have done, it’s going to take time. It’s going to take a lot of looking around and a lot of work.” But that work seems to have already begun. A wave of political prisoners have been released on bail this week, including Fanta Jawara, who grew up in The Gambia and now lives in Maryland. Jawara was arrested and jailed on a visit home because of her family ties to The Gambia’s first president, whom Jammeh overthrew in 1994, and to Ousainou Darboe, a jailed opposition leader also released this week.
The Gambia is making bold moves in a more democratic direction, and thousands of miles away, the former president’s nephew is making moves of his own, sharing his hopes for a country he’s still not sure he will see again. “This election is a big win for human rights, for journalists, for a lot of people,” Alagie said. “I’m hoping that [Barrow’s] government is an inclusive government that includes all people, irrespective of their gender, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation.”