Gambian Dictator Cracks Down After Half-Baked Coup Attempt
U.S.-based plot failed in a bloodbath
When the State House of Gambia—a tiny country in West Africa—came under attack during a failed coup attempt on Dec. 30, the reaction from most observers who know the country was … no surprise.
Everybody assumed that some section of the armed forces had finally had it with the antics of president-for-life Yahya Jammeh—and decided to put an end to the “for-life” part. But the story didn’t get wider attention until it turned out the coup’s leaders were two Americans.
Both men—57-year-old real-estate developer Cherno Njie and 46-year-old Afghanistan war veteran Papa Faal—are now in jail in the United States and charged with violating the Neutrality Act. Both men are of Gambian descent, but Njie lived in Texas and Faal in Minnesota.
Jammeh, who was on a private visit to Dubai at the time, is one of Africa’s more extravagant and brutal heads of state.
A former military man himself, he ascended to power in a 1994 coup and has ruled Gambia with an iron fist ever since. He claimed to have cured both HIV and Ebola, is an avid practitioner of traditional wrestling and routinely imprisons, tortures and kills both human rights activists and potential rivals.
One of Jammeh’s particular pet-peeves is the “threat” of homosexuality, which Gambia punishes with life in prison.
“The government of Yahya Jammeh continues to spread fear and to exercise extreme intolerance to any form of dissent in Gambia,” Amnesty International notes.
“Human rights defenders, journalists, political opponents, critics of government policy, public officials and citizens face intimidation, harassment, death threats, arbitrary arrests, incarceration, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.”
An emblematic case is that of the killing of Deyda Hydara, a journalist who was shot in 2004 after vehemently criticizing a new and repressive media law.
But it’s not only the media or civil society that regularly feels the harsh grip of Jammeh’s hold on power.
Analyst and coup forecaster Jay Ulfelder observes that “the military is also kept on edge. An endless series of promotions, demotions, firings and re-hirings leave military personnel in a constant state of uncertainty. The sense of fear within the military is exacerbated by severe punishment for those deemed disloyal.”
Including execution. After an alleged coup plot in 2013, Jammeh ordered the execution of several members of the military.
The coup attempt had all the ingredients of a disaster, according to an FBI affidavit charging Njie and Faal.
The plot began in the United States. As the affidavit details, the pair hid the plot from their families. Almost everyone was former military, serving in either the U.S. or Gambian armed forces. They bought rifles in the U.S. and unlawfully shipped them over in a container vessel.
They even had a spreadsheet detailing the weapons and equipment—which included night-vision goggles—they acquired for the coup.
Most of the conspirators lived in the United States and Germany, according to the affidavit.
In a statement to War Is Boring, the German Foreign Ministry said it “has no knowledge about the participation of German citizens in the coup attempt in Gambia or that the coup was planned or prepared on German soil.”
After meeting in the woods outside the Gambian capital of Banjul, the plotters split into two teams—Alpha and Bravo. Alpha Team, which appeared to have current or former Gambian military members, was to assault the State House.
The attack failed. The main reason—the plotters underestimated both the size and resolve of the defending guards. A big mistake. As the rebels approached, Alpha Team fired into the air, expecting the guards to surrender. The affidavit states Alpha Team was wiped out when the defending guards opened fire from guard towers.
Bravo Team’s radios failed, and with Alpha Team dead, one plotter known as Sarr “attempted to drive a car into the State House door,” the affidavit states. Saar died in the last-ditch charge.
Faal—a member of Alpha Team—fled to Senegal. Both Faal and Njie returned from Senegal to the U.S. and entered federal custody.
If the coup had been successful, Njie would now be president of Gambia. He had some administrative experience in Texas managing federal tax credits from 1996 to 2001 for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. But he also has a history of scandal.
“Auditors found that top agency management routinely overrode staff recommendations for how to disburse the tax credits, often without properly documenting why,” the Austin-American Statesman reported.
Njie resigned under pressure from the state. Loathing of Jammeh’s dictatorship also appeared to be a factor in the plot. According to the affidavit, Faal apparently wanted to restore Gambian democracy.
But the Gambian Foreign Ministry later named ex-State Guard chief Lt. Col. Lamin Sanneh as the coup’s leader. Sanneh died during the attack. The affidavit also obliquely refers to a pseudonymous “Subject #1” who was “the military leader of the operation” and whose identity was unknown to Njie and Faal.
For some Gambians, the failed coup attempt could foreshadow a terrible 2015. On Jan. 1, the parents of two former soldiers were “whisked away” in a four-wheel drive with tinted windows from their home village.
Deutsche Welle reports that dozens of people, among the members of the security forces, have been arrested in connection with the coup attempt.
The Gambian government also shut down the independent radio station Taranga FM. When the regime allowed the station to come back on the air, it could only play music. The station didn’t report anything about the coup—the government simply didn’t want it to broadcast any news at all.
If recent experiences with Jammeh’s style of government are anything to go by, he will react to the failed attempt on his throne by increasing repression and control throughout the country.
A first tangible effect on national politics has been a cabinet reshuffle, which saw the heads of the ministries for foreign affairs, transport and information change.
Several analysts have also expressed fear that the charges by U.S. authorities against the alleged coup plotters will embolden Jammeh.
“It will intensify the crackdown on human rights in the Gambia,” Jeffrey Smith, senior advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, told the South African publication Daily Maverick.
The U.S. government has in the past repeatedly criticized Jammeh’s administration for its human rights record. Now it risks being portrayed by Jammeh as his extended arm of justice, possibly further stifling dissent at home and abroad.
But the U.S. Department of Justice was without a doubt in a difficult bind. The weapons that plotters used in a coup attempt against the government of a sovereign state were lawfully purchased on U.S. soil and shipped from Americans ports.
And with a madman like Jammeh, there is always the risk that the coup attempt could have serious repercussions for U.S. citizens living in Gambia.