The attempt by dissidents to overthrow Gambian President Yahya Jammeh on 30 December recalled another abortive putsch 10 years ago; the so-called Wonga Coup against Equatorial Guinea’s equally nasty President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
Both were rather bizarre schemes plotted mainly from afar: the Wonga Coup from South Africa; the Gambia coup from the United States (US). The Equatorial Guinea plotters were the former British Special Forces soldier and later mercenary, Simon Mann, assisted by a South African counterpart, Nick du Toit.
In the Gambian gambit, their parts were played by 57-year-old Texas businessman Cherno Njie, and former US Air Force Sergeant Papa Faal, 46; both US citizens, though of Gambian origin.
Jammeh will no doubt also see this as further proof of his magical powers
In both there was also a hint or more than a hint of British involvement. In the Wonga Coup, apart from Mann, born in the United Kingdom (UK) though living in South Africa, it was the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark. He was charged with supplying the coup plotters with an aircraft. The alleged complicity of Britons and Germans in the Gambian affair has yet to be illuminated.
And both appear to have been amateurish, clumsy and naïve efforts, resting on poor judgements about their targets and about African attitudes and therefore doomed to fail.
Mann and Du Toit seemed to make no real effort to hide their plans. They apparently believed that former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s government would turn a blind eye because it shared their opinion that Obiang was a reprehensible and brutal dictator whom Africa would be well rid of.
They seemed blind to the obvious truth – which should have been obvious from his Zimbabwe policy – that Mbeki and the continent as a whole, would tolerate any amount of oppressive African government rather than allow a bunch of mercenaries to change a regime. And so they were led into a trap.
Njie and Faal not dissimilarly believed that Jammeh’s presidential guards shared their views that the brutal dictator’s time had come and so would flee or join their democratic revolution after the first shot – into the air! – had been fired.
Instead the guards, apparently well looked after by their boss, returned volleys of lethal fire, killing several of the putschists and routing the rest. Incidentally, Faal returned to The Gambia by South African Airways, according an affidavit by the investigating FBI agent Nicholas Marshall, flying to Dakar, Senegal, and then travelling overland to Banjul.
In both cases, the governments of the countries from which the coups were plotted took legal action under similar laws. South Africa charged Thatcher for his alleged complicity under the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, which makes it an offence for a South African or foreign citizen to render foreign military assistance from within South Africa. Because of the looseness of the law, the state eventually entered a plea bargain with Thatcher to pay a fine and leave the country.
The US has charged Njie and Faal under the comparable Neutrality Act – dating back to 1794 – which forbids US citizens from launching ‘any military expedition or enterprise’ from US territory against ‘any foreign prince or state of whom the United States was at peace.’ Gambian dissidents living in the US have strongly protested this action by the US government, hailing Njie and Faal as liberation fighters and deploring what they see as Washington’s unwarranted support for Jammeh.
Like Obiang, he is ranked among Africa’s nastiest dictators: suppressing, torturing, ‘disappearing’ or extra-judicially executing political opponents, locking up journalists, and recently enacting legislation which carries a penalty of life imprisonment for ‘aggravated homosexuality.’
The Gambian attempt also appeared to rest on poor judgement, and therefore doomed to fail
The involvement of the US citizens – and possibly others from the UK and Germany – has certainly lent convenient credence to Jammeh’s claim that this was not a coup attempt at all, but just an act of terrorism by foreign neo-colonial forces.
In fact, several former Gambian soldiers were also involved in the plot, according to news reports.
Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, Office Head of the Institute of Security Studies in neighbouring Senegal, notes that the abortive coup served to demonstrate a point that analysts had been wondering about, that Jammeh’s presidential guard remained loyal to him when the chips were down.
And Jammeh has been crowing about the failure of the coup and boasting that no man or beast will ever remove him from power unless Allah gives the go-ahead. The man who claims to be able to cure Aids and exorcise devils will no doubt also see this as further proof of his magical powers.
More prosaically, Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Washington fears that the US legal action against the coup plotters will only strengthen Jammeh’s hold on what he calls ‘one of the most repressive countries on the continent,’ a ‘horrible, horrible, regime…’
‘It will intensify the crackdown on human rights in The Gambia. President Jammeh, as he did after [attending] the US-Africa Leaders Summit, will no doubt use the arrests as a propaganda tool to demonstrate to his people that the United States stands behind him, and therefore there is nothing they can do to stand in his way,’ he told the Daily Maverick.
‘Jammeh has acted with absolute impunity for 20 years, with no one from the outside world standing up to his brutality, and this will surely embolden him further.’
What the US was supposed to do about this coup plot, though, is not clear. It could not ignore an attempt by American citizens to topple a foreign government from US soil, even though a dossier drafted by Njie, which the FBI discovered, had indicated that he intended to install himself only temporarily as president, before restoring Gambia to democracy. Such promises by coup leaders have been made before.
Certainly, though, the US could at least act swiftly now to make it absolutely clear to Jammeh – and to all Gambians – that it is not after all standing behind him and is just carrying out its legal obligations. US President Barack Obama could start by not shaking Jammeh’s hand again as he did at the summit and instead impose sanctions on Jammeh and his cronies, such as freezing their assets in the US and barring their travel there, as Smith has proposed.
But Africa surely has the critical role to play here. If the Wonga Coup plotters were being taught the lesson that foreigners should not meddle in the continent’s affairs, that ought to have implied that Africa itself would deal with problems such as Obiang.
Instead, Obiang’s stature has gone from strength to strength in Africa since the aborted Wonga Coup. While he has done nothing – or very little – to expand democracy or boost the welfare of his people, he has nonetheless been honoured by his election to serve a year as chairperson of the African Union (AU).
He has further boosted his prestige by shrewdly stepping into the shoes of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as the AU’s benefactor-in-chief, buying continental favour by using his country’s fabulous oil wealth to host several of its big conferences.
Jammeh will also undoubtedly stride the continent with even more of a swagger in his step now. And Africa will do nothing to wipe the smirk off his face. Would it be too cynical to suggest that the common moral of these two stories, after all, might be that if you’re going to get rid of a nasty dictator, do it right?
Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa