The smallest country in Africa is this morning playing host to one of the longest queues on the continent, as hundreds of people line up for miracle cures for asthma and Aids, promised by the Gambian President.
Scientists have reacted with horror to a claim by President Yahya Jammeh that he can cure asthma on Fridays and Saturdays and HIV/Aids on Mondays and Thursdays. All patients need is a referral from a doctor and the willingness to queue up at State House in the capital, Banjul.
"I'm astonished. The danger of a president saying this is shocking," said South African HIV specialist Jerry Coovadia, who heads the HIV research team at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.
Professor Coovadia is one of the most vociferous critics of the South African government's resistance to rolling out antiretroviral drugs. After pressure from him and other scientists the government last year withdrew its advice that a diet of garlic, beetroot and olive oil could help people infected with HIV.
The rush for Mr Jammeh's alleged cure began on 18 January after the west African country's state television service devoted most of its evening news to it. The President, who believes he has mystic powers, was seen laying his hands on the heads of patients at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Banjul. Since then, Mr Jammeh has addressed diplomats and the broadcaster has shown interviews with alleged patients who say they are feeling better and putting on weight.
Mr Jammeh, who has been in power since 1994, told the diplomats he has long had mystic powers but that he only recently received a "mandate" to treat large numbers of people. In his speech, he said: "The cure is a day's treatment. Within three days the person will be negative."
Mr Jammeh said he hoped the Taiwanese ambassador would spread news of the "cure" because his country has a large pharmaceuticals industry. According to rumours in Banjul, Mr Jammeh's treatment is based on seven herbs that are mentioned in the Koran.
The President has not revealed the names of the herbs, nor divulged who has bestowed the "mandate" on him, which includes specific days of the week for each treatment. "I am not doing it for money or popularity," he said. "For asthma I have to choose between Saturday and Friday. I am also not authorised to treat more than 100 people. The one on HIV/Aids cannot be mass-produced because I am restricted to 10 patients only on every Thursday and Monday." He said he may have to cancel surgeries on Thursdays if they clash with cabinet meetings.
Superstition and mysticism has gone hand in hand with governance since President Jammeh came to power. Four years ago, in an official press statement, he alleged that members of the opposition had placed the carcass of a lion and gourds of palm wine at a major road junction to "spoil the country's economy". A former National Intelligence Agency boss lost his job after being accused of hiring a Senegalese witchdoctor.
From soldier to statesman
* The Gambia's notoriously authoritarian and somewhat eccentric President started his career as a young lieutenant before sweeping to power in 1994 in a military coup. He has since been re-elected three times in elections of varying standards of fairness.
* Since coming to power, Mr Jammeh, a self-declared mystic, has spoken of turning his country into an oil-producing nation to supplement its main export, peanuts, a product that currently leaves Gambians susceptible to world market changes. To date, however, his country has been unable to find any crude.
* Mr Jammeh's regime isconsidered stable for The Gambia, but this has come at a price, largely through his suppression of critical newspapers.
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