Gambia coup plotters: model citizens at home in US, but ‘everybody has a breaking point’
Cherno Nije and Papa Faal are successful American citizens who by all accounts were living the American dream. No one knew of their secret plan to seize control of their home country of the Gambia.
To those who knew him in Texas, Cherno Njie was a pillar of the community: a well-educated senior government worker turned rich and socially conscious property developer, a former school board member and a supporter of human rights and political progress in Africa.
To his alleged fellow insurgents in the Gambia he was codename “Dave”, a mastermind and financier behind a bungled plot to overthrow the president of the tiny west African country and install himself as the interim leader.
To the FBI he is a suspect charged with breaking a law dating back to 1794 called the Neutrality Act by conspiring to attempt a coup against a nation with which the US is at peace.
Njie, an Austin-based American citizen of Gambian descent, and Papa Faal, a dual Gambian-US citizen living in Minnesota and dubbed “Fox”, were arrested earlier this month after returning to the US following an alleged attempt to bring down Yahya Jammeh by seizing his presidential residence on 30 December. They appeared in federal court on Monday, where they were charged with weapons violations and violating the Neutrality Act.
On 15 November last year, Njie was the guest speaker at a meeting of the Gambian Texas Association’s business forum near Dallas. The subject of his talk was “empowering Gambians with knowledge on how to own and run a successful business in the US”.
It seems that behind the scenes, unbeknownst even to his own family, Njie was designing a more audacious kind of venture: how to take and run a country.
A nation ruled by state brutality and mysticism
The Gambia – Africa’s smallest mainland nation – has been ruled by Jammeh since 1994, when he came to power in a bloodless coup as a 29-year-old soldier.
Over the past 21 years he has swapped army fatigues for white gowns and a sceptre, holding sway through a potent mixture of state brutality and mysticism. He claims to be able to cure a long list of maladies including HIV, obesity and erectile dysfunction, using herbs and bananas. A UN envoy who questioned the treatment’s efficacy was booted out.
Illiteracy rates of 75% when Jammeh came to power have fallen steadily since, and the president’s supporters include those who benefit from government scholarships abroad and free hospital treatment. But he has cemented his rule with draconian punishments for perceived dissent.
Political arrests escalated ahead of presidential polls in 2006. The government claimed to have thwarted a coup attempt and jailed at least 12 of the alleged plotters. Earlier that year, an opposition leader had been jailed for using a microphone without official permission.
The US government recently removed the Gambia from a trade agreement in response to a range of human rights abuses – including a law introduced last year that imposed life imprisonment for some homosexual acts.
A diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity said Jammeh was increasingly convinced western nations were plotting to overthrow him. “This kind of paranoid thinking has characterised his regime, but it appears to have reached new heights of late.”
A failed coup before first shots even fired
Some political observers believe Jammeh has exploited allegations of rebellion as a way to purge any rivals. Last month’s attempted coup appears to have been real enough – but court documents suggest that it started to fall apart even before the first shots were fired.
The rebels were armed with night-vision goggles, body armour and semi-automatic rifles bought at shops in the US, hidden beneath clothes and shipped in barrels to Africa, court documents say.
But Jammeh was out of the country – his precise whereabouts remain unclear – scuppering a plan to ambush his convoy. Hoped-for military support from 160 locals did not materialise. Around a dozen people, including several from the UK, tried to carry out the coup, believing guards would surrender peacefully.
An “Alpha Team” would mount an assault on the front of the state house in Banjul; “Bravo Team” would secure the rear. A warning shot was fired into the air. But a gun battle erupted, an attempt to ram the front door using a rented vehicle failed and members of Alpha Team were killed. Njie and Faal are said to have escaped to Senegal, where, according to prosecutors, Faal walked into the US embassy and gave the FBI permission to search his home in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.
Jammeh has vowed to hunt down any plotters still in the country, promising to “get rid of” them “one by one”.
“I have always been merciful despite reports to the contrary. But now I would be what I am supposed to be – a good, Muslim leader who has an eye for an eye philosophy,” he told supporters on Monday.
Jammeh has a habit of reshuffling key positions in a bid to prevent coups, but the practice instead created political instability. The latest coup has been no different: the ministers of foreign affairs, transport and information have all been reshuffled this week.
‘He must have been driven by enormous anger’
Ousainou Mbenga of the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists told the Guardian that Faal and Njie had acted “as a consequence of the tyranny and barbarism that we have endured for these last 20 years”, Mbenga said. “Everybody has a breaking point.”
Mbenga said the pair were “just typical frustrated Gambians like the rest of us, the vast majority. Cherno is the nicest person that you could ever meet. He’s generous, he really loves Gambia,” he said.
“Papa Faal, I know him very well, a very nice, gentle guy. He’s just been pushed against the wall. Either you fall with the wall or you retaliate.”
Faal, a 46-year-old computer studies teacher and US military veteran, had not lived in the Gambia for 23 years but still felt a powerful connection with the country, according to an affidavit. He wrote a book, A Week of Hell, about his family’s experience during a coup attempt in 1981.
Njie, 57, graduated from the University of Texas in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in government. He was the tax credit manager of the Texas department of housing and community affairs, an agency responsible for awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to affordable housing developers.
Then he switched from helping hand out grants to applying for them. In 2001 he founded Songhai Development, which, according to its website, “specialises in leveraging public and private investments to develop affordable housing through the use of federal tax credits and private activity bonds”.
Njie developed large new apartment complexes in Houston and Frisco, near Dallas. He donated land close to Houston’s George Bush airport for the construction of Ida Gaye Gardens, a park for senior citizens. Named after his mother, it opened in 2011 and local grandees attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
He is a former trustee of an episcopal school in Austin and sponsored a conference on women, gender and sexualities in Africa at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010.
Toyin Falola, a history professor at the university, said that it was not unprecedented for foreign-based Africans to return to their homelands and attempt to remove repressive regimes. He said that he had been unaware of the coup plans but called Njie a good friend.
“From what I read from the newspaper it looks like something that was really stupid in terms of what they were trying to do. But if the outcome had been different, the conversation today would have been different too. Because the president of Gambia is one of the most evil leaders in Africa,” he told the Guardian, adding that he feared for the safety of Njie’s relatives in the country.
“[Nije]’s not a radical. We discussed politics a lot. He’s a very core Republican all his life … There was a genuine compassion from him to create a Gambia based on free enterprise,” Falola said. “He’s actually one of the most wealthy entrepreneurs in this city. He’s very polished … If he did this, he must have been driven by enormous anger, thinking there was no other option left.”
Courtesy of www.theguardian.com