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Gambia: The “coup that never was”

Current Affairs

Gambia: The “coup that never was”

It is 50 years ago this year that The Gambia escaped from the stranglehold of British colonial rule and was declared an independent state, on 18 February 1965. But the jubilee celebrations would have been dealt a blow had the bloody 30 December attempt to end President Yahya Jammeh’s 20-year rule succeeded, writes Femi Akomolafe.

 A few hours from the 2014 New Year’s Eve, the world woke up to the news that there was a mutiny at the State House in Gambia’s capital, Banjul. About a dozen insurgents had crossed over from neighbouring Senegal and launched the attack while President Yahya Jammeh was abroad on a private visit. Within a short time, loyal government forces successfully put the rebellion down. Four of the insurgents, including the supposed ringleader Lamin Sanneh, a former head of the presidential guard, who lived in exile in the United States, were killed, and vast quantities of arms confiscated.

A subsequent crackdown ensued which led to the arrest and detention of several people as well as a cabinet reshuffle.

Despite worldwide media reports about a “coup in The Gambia”, President Jammeh was categorical in emphasising that the insurgence was not a coup but a terror attack on his country, masterminded by foreign powers.

He said on his return to the country a day after the event: “The Gambian armed forces are very loyal as far as we are concerned – there wasn’t a single participation of the armed forces except [for]nullifying the attack. So this cannot be called a military coup – this was an attack by a terrorist group backed by some powers…”

A few days later, when he addressed a horde of supporters, who took to the streets to protest the failed attempt at toppling his government – which is often accused by the West and human rights organisations of being dictatorial – he said: “We Gambians have our own values and those of this country, how we live and our democracy can never be decided or dictated by a foreign capital. If defending my country’s dignity and Africa as a people constitutes being a dictator, then I am a proud dictator.”

This was not the first time the fearlessly outspoken Gambian leader has accused the West of fomenting trouble in his country, and no one familiar with African politics will be surprised by the abortive uprising or by President Jammeh’s charges. He is no stranger to controversy and no less than eight attempts have been made at overthrowing his government since he overthrew the 30-year-old rule of post- independence president Sir Dawda Jawara.

Since his bloodless coup at the age of 29, twenty years ago, the former army lieutenant passionately rejects any form of subservience to former African colonisers. In November 2012, he famously withdrew from the highly touted Commonwealth grouping of former British colonies, which is led by the Queen of England, calling it a “vestige of colonialism”.

He explained to New African a day after the withdrawal: “We want to be very independent of anything that has a vestige of colonialism, especially where the same old story goes… you follow something that is keeping you backward, colonialism or neo-colonialism in any form should be kicked out of Africa that is my belief.”

President Jammeh is aware that his sharp tongue, and such strong sentiment, has won him few friends in the West and his critics, mainly based in the West, such as those who attempted to overthrow him last December, had organised and come all the way from America.

The American authorities have since arrested two of the mutineers, who escaped from Banjul alive after the attack, in which four of their co-conspirators, including ringleader Lamin Sanneh, were killed.   Cherno Njie and Papa Faal, who were believed to be the chief sponsors of the ill-fated government takeover bid, are currently in US custody and their fate is yet to be determined.

US Attorney General, Eric Holder, said in a statement: “These defendants stand accused of conspiring to carry out the violent overthrow of a foreign government, in violation of US law.”

That law – The Neutrality Act – makes it illegal for any American citizen to plot any form of illegal takeover of a country which is not at war with the United States.

According to US media reports, Njie and Faal made their way to the Gambian capital and part-led the insurgents who attacked State House on that morning of 30 December. But their plan fell into tatters as would-be State House presidential guard defectors turned on them on arrival at the seat of power in Banjul and they were instead repelled by soldiers royal to President Jammeh. The two men managed to flee into neighbouring Senegal, and later surrendered to the US authorities. Four of their co-plotters were killed at the State House shoot out, among them Njaga Jagne, a member of the Kentucky National Guard.

According to one online magazine in the United Kingdom  – the Business Insider – Jagne left a family and a stable life in the US to “foment regime change in a country he had been born in but hadn’t visited in over 20 years, joining a far-flung group of plotters that he may never have even met before…The decision Jagne made is almost incomprehensible.” The magazine further reports that Jagne moved to the US in 1993 and was deployed to Iraq twice and had served as a platoon leader during his second deployment, according to the Kentucky National Guard. He was also one of 75 service members to receive American citizenship during a ceremony in Baghdad on 11 November 2006, and his photo from the ceremony was published in the February 2007 issue of The Bluegrass Guard, the Kentucky National Guard’s newsletter, showing him as a beneficiary of President George W. Bush’s 2002 executive order expediting the citizenship process for service members. In the picture Jagne is shown holding his American citizenship certificate standing next to Gen. George W. Casey, commander of the multinational force in Iraq.

President Jammeh has been an outspoken critic of Africans who allow themselves to be used as stooges for what he calls Western neo-colonial imperial agendas, to the detriment of the advancing African continent: “We have seen that as soon as conflict is brewing in other parts of the world, the West takes all necessary measures to make sure they end it, but in Africa they just watch it escalate. In fact, they start conflicts in Africa and poke [them] with dynamite so that [they] explode out of control,” he is on record as saying.

As expected, President Jammeh’s detractors have also roundly dismissed his finger-pointing at the West. But in African political circles, what happened in The Gambia on that morning calls for more prudent reflection.

The American connection
Again, those that follow African politics must be asking exactly what it is that makes the United States such a fertile ground for buccaneers seeking to cause mayhem in West Africa. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, we were told, escaped from a prison in Massachusetts with enough money and expertise to start the Liberian war.

It is a widely accepted notion among pan-African political thinkers that some countries – 50 years after end of colonial rule – continue to covertly and even overtly pull the strings behind the scenes in many of the ostensibly independent African nations. While the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba are known to have been sponsored by Western nations, little is made of the accusations that France alone is behind conflict and a number of current coups in its former African colonies.

President Jammeh must undoubtedly be aware of the fate that befell leaders that crossed the West, and has sought a path that differs from Western dictates – but he remains unyielding to the hilt. But as Accra-based American political scientist Moffat Davies hastens to say, Africans and their supporters “will do well to get and read ex-CIA guy, John Stockwell’s book, In Search of Enemies. It will be educative also if they get and read the August 1987 edition of TIME magazine, which has this interesting quote on US official policy in Africa: ‘The objective of the war is not to make UNITA win a war, but to devastate Angola and make the people lead wretched lives.’

The jubilee independence celebrations should be a moment of reflection indeed for all Gambians both at home and in the Diaspora.

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