The reckless plot to overthrow Africa’s most absurd dictator

Njaga Jagne, one of the leaders of the attempted coup, was a former officer in the US army who had served in Iraq. Photograph: Demotix

Njaga Jagne, one of the leaders of the attempted coup, was a former officer in the US army who had served in Iraq.
Photograph: Demotix

In December, a handful of middle-aged American immigrants attempted to topple the autocratic ruler of the Gambia. They had few weapons and an amateurish plan. What possessed them to risk everything in a mission that was doomed to fail?

Tuesday 21 July 2015 06.00 BST

After the coup failed, the raids began. On New Year’s Day this year, FBI agents descended on a blue split-level house in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the dead of night, near Austin, Texas, they searched a million-dollar lakeside villa. Agents interrogated an activist at his house in the working-class town of Jonesboro, Georgia. At a rundown townhouse development in Lexington, Kentucky, they found the wife of a US soldier, with a refrigerator full of her husband’s favourite Gambian delicacies – dishes prepared for a triumphant homecoming and repurposed for mourning.

When the employees of Songhai Development, an Austin building firm, arrived at work on Monday 5 January, they discovered the FBI had visited their offices over the weekend and seized all the company’s computers. The company’s owner, Cherno Njie, was spending the holidays in west Africa. But Doug Hayes, who managed construction for Njie, expected his boss back at any moment – they had an apartment project that was about to face an important zoning commission hearing.

“I guess he really had a two-track mind,” Hayes said in May, with a rueful laugh, over lunch at his favourite Texas barbecue joint. “He had that going, and he also wanted to be president of the Gambia.”

By the end of that Monday, Njie’s name was all over the international news. He had been arrested as he got off a plane at Dulles international airport near Washington DC, and charged with organising a failed attempt to overthrow Yahya Jammeh, the military ruler of the Gambia, a slender riverine nation of fewer than 2 million people. One alleged co-conspirator, a Gambian who had served with the US army, had already confessed to US investigators, telling them he was one of a small group of men from the diaspora who had taken part in a botched nighttime attack in December on Jammeh’s residence.

The outcome was disastrous, both for the men involved and for the long-suffering citizens of the Gambia. But back in America, it played as a weird, farcical tale. “Meet The Man Who Wanted To Rule The Gambia”, read the headline on a Buzzfeed news story, above a photo from Njie’s LinkedIn profile. The alleged coup plotters were middle-aged immigrants, who had made good lives for themselves in America over the course of decades, with careers, wives, children, savings, suburban houses, citizenship – the whole archetypal dream. They only visited the Gambia occasionally, if at all, and they had little connection to politics in their homeland. What could have possessed them to risk everything in a foolhardy attempt to topple one of the world’s strangest dictators?

Jammeh is a tyrant out of caricature, a throwback to the African strongmen of the 1970s. He’s boasted that he will rule for “a billion years”. He’s adopted a ridiculous string of titles: “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa.” (The last phrase translates to “conqueror of rivers”.) He’s posed as a fetishistic healer, claiming magical powers to cure Aids, asthma and diabetes, and has launched witch-hunts to root out enemy sorcerers. He’s deployed demagoguery against human rights groups, fanning popular hatred of gays, whom he has threatened to behead. He’s massacred protesters and disappeared political opponents. Through his feared intelligence service, he exercises crushing power over every aspect of the Gambia’s politics and economy, which subsists mainly on income from discount tourism and peanuts.

The Gambia Freedom League, as the would-be liberators called themselves, sought to oust Jammeh with about a dozen fighters and small arms they had smuggled into the country. They didn’t get very far. When they charged at the presidential mansion, expecting support from covert allies inside, they were met instead with a volley of bullets. At least four were killed. Criminal complaints subsequently filed by US federal prosecutors underscored the ironic distance between the aims of the commando plan and its amateurish execution. Some conspirators knew each other only by code names like “X” and “Fox”. Documents were kept in a manila folder marked “Top Secret”. Njie, identified as the leader and financier, allegedly possessed a spreadsheet budgeting for equipment such as sniper rifles (“NOT really necessary but could be very useful”), along with a manifesto titled Gambia Reborn: A Charter for Transition from Dictatorship to Democracy and Development.


Categories: Africa, Gambia

1 reply

  1. Just to confirm again to the readers of The Muslim Times that this is an article from The Guardian posted here for your information. (We would not actually support such a headline for a Head of State).

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