Rising behind President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia are three corporals from his elite presidential guard – The Gambia’s most trained, most equipped and best-treated branch of its military – holding a classic American military M16 rifle, an M4A1 type behind his bulletproof stretch Hummer 2 limousine.
They stood at ease, scanning the crowd of any potential danger, ever ready to venomously neutralize any threat like the sting of a scorpion (the presidential guard emblem) and closely protecting the man that has ruled Africa’s smallest nation for 22-years. Jammeh is not just any ordinary African dictator. Human rights campaigners say he is one of the most brutal, yet the least known until an early morning raid on his official residence and the seat of the government hatched in the United States went wrong and made worldwide headlines bringing attention to Jammeh’s tyranny.
Jammeh is an African strongman whose head bubbles and buffers burst of the belief that he is mystic. He has survived nearly a dozen military coup attempts, including one in which his intelligence, military and police chiefs all conspired to overthrow him a decade ago. He has vowed to behead gays and lesbians and echoes very strong anti-Western sentiments, although he loves everything American and owns a multi-million dollar mansion outside Washington, D.C.
Jammeh has more American cars in his fleet than any other. In the early 2000s, his guards would ride and mount automatic 50 calibers Barrett M82’s in the cabin of diesel powered Ford F450s; his condiments come from the Sam’s Club and behind the tall walls of the State House (his official residence), he would wear baggy pants, a t-shirt, and a baseball hat like a broke 90s struggling wannabe rapper “straight outta Campton.” His critics will say, he is “straight outta bush.”
The president of The Gambia took power in a military coup himself in 1994 ousting the country’s three-decade leader Sir Dawda Jawara. Jammeh was a poor presidential guard soldier himself. At the time he took power, then Chairman Jammeh was malnourished and had vitamin C deficiency. His red beret stood out on his head like a painted skeleton in a biology lab. He was Mr. Jawara’s personal bodyguard and for long, he stood by and watched Jawara did everything British – tea, biscuits, and golf with those that walk through the corridors of power.
Jammeh mesmerizes of his own days of glory. He loved talking politics and has always eyed something greater than those around him would expect of him. He started taking English lessons from an old Seargent Ousman Jallow at the depot. Jallow will always tell Jammeh: “Yahya na politiks you dey talk rek,” meaning “Yahya, you’re always talking politics.” But for young Yahya Jammeh: “this no dey democracy; this na armycracy.”
Essa Bokarr Sey was Gambia’s Ambassador to the U.S. and he lived with Jammeh at the barracks. He calls the Gambian absolute ruler “a fountain of complaints.”
“He was never happy or ever satisfied. Not even after becoming president. He was always complaining and never stopped. He is comical and his is a tragic one,” said Sey.
Just returning from military training in Fort McClellan, Alabama, Yahya Jammeh became Gambian leader and the very opposite of his teacher, President Jawara. Jammeh loved everything American instead of everything British. He was a good ole American country boy that loved farming, not some British aristocrat that plays the gentleman game not to be dirty. That was not the only opposite path Jammeh took. Jawara was a democrat and human rights champion; Jammeh, an autocrat with one of the worst human rights record.
Of all the things American that President Yahya Jammeh loves, he was unable to get American military weapons. It could be because his government could not afford them or because of his notoriety for abuses and flexing of his little diplomatic powers. Jammeh expelled from The Gambia envoys from the U.S., EU, and other Western nations straining his relations with them. In the early days of his reign, he turned to blacklisted leaders including Libya’s Moammar Ghadaffi, Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez – all sworn enemies of the U.S. and U.S. interest.
In recent times, he has turned to Russia.
So, how comes, the three corporals whose camouflaged helmets serve a shadowy purpose for Jammeh as the sun’s flames meander like the country’s namesake river with the dust from his moving convoy producing a sort of a dark steam towards the Election House, were carrying M16 rifles when Mr. Jammeh was going to file his nomination papers to formalize his candidacy, and inscribe his name on one of the three ballot boxes filled with sawdust at the bottom for Gambians to drop a marble into to decide his faith.
Jammeh is seeking a fifth mandate to extend his 22-year rule, amid a strong challenge from a united opposition and a breakaway group of disgruntled members of his party led by a former parliamentarian.
The U.S. military support to The Gambia is based solely on logistics support. That in itself has suffered major setbacks. In the early 1990s, The Gambia was in talks to get weapons from Israel (a key U.S. ally). Jammeh, on the other hand, turned to Iran, although there were sanctions in place against Tehran.
Along the Atlantic coast in the Kombo metropolitan, an affluent suburb of mansions stands out , some owned by Gambians abroad who are critical of Jammeh’s regime and may not get to pass a night in any of them unless he is ousted; and some owned by corrupt officials within Jammeh’s government. One of the mansions was a safe house for a handful of dissidents – former soldiers of Gambian descent – who stashed an arsenal of sophisticated military automatic rifles smuggled from the United States in barrels marked as used clothings. In there they waited to make the ultimate sacrifice: their blood and not the used clothing as charity to cleanse the nation, with their minds made up to make their homeland born again.
In their putsch to have “The Gambia Reborn,” the “freedom fighters” who ran into an ambush in the surprisingly heavily fortified palace and reinforced tall walls that blocked the beam of lights from the presidential compound lost some comrades in the crossfire. Those that managed to escape left behind all their weapons and operations plans. The ambush was unforeseen and leaving those weapons behind was indeed not part of their plan. To them, they were cruising to ultimate victory.
Gambians, though peace-loving were more sadden at the foiling of the coup and left with a stroke from the betrayal that will paralyze trust in the country for a while.
Jammeh calls it a “well planned and well-funded attack.”
“These are American weapons. They are expensive,” Jammeh exclaimed. “One of these weapons cost US$30,000. They are all sophisticated.”
He was in fear. Gambian people nearly went into a new year without the man who calls himself “Babili Mansa,” roughly translated to “king bridge builder,” – a leader that was never happy and always complaining, but you could see some rays of excitement on his face that his armory just got upgraded. Wallowing in his mind could be what he would be doing next with his late Christmas-early new year’s gift.
Jammeh’s guards used to be armed with some old rusted Kalisnokovs (AK47s). Befriending Ahmadeenajad, they later upgraded to some Iranian AK103s. For Jammeh, even with the decision of placing a travel ban on himself, US$300,000 worth of U.S. military gears was a dream come true to further protect and fortify himself not just against a similar attack from disgruntled former loyalists abroad, but from members of the Gambia Armed Forces outside his loyal State Guards and Republican National Guards battalions that garrison his home. Anyone planning to overthrow him is likely to think twice.
Captain Njaga Jagne, a two-time Iraq war veteran was among the fighters that died hoping to free The Gambia.
“Njaga Jagne’s believe in justice and respect for the fundamental dignity and rights of human beings was at the very core of who he was as a person,” said Sigga, Njaga’s younger sister. “He abhorred anything that assaulted these God-given rights of every human being, no matter who they may be including Jammeh and his henchmen for whom he pleaded for justice.”
In an open letter to President Jammeh, Njaga reminded his comrades: “…..when they threaten, kill, main, imprison, and terrorize our families, I suggest that we reassure their families to have nothing to fear from us…. We must, however, not only demand justice but be just ourselves.”
To Captain Jagne, righteous justice requires that some wrong doers may walk free rather than see the innocent unjustly harmed. So how would he feel knowing that his weapons of liberation are being used by a dictator he went to free his people from?
“I know that my brother would be much sickened by the fact that Jammeh is using the very weapons that he and the rest of the December 30 Heroes aimed to use to free the long-suffering people of The Gambia to further terrorize and instill fear in the general Gambian populace in an attempt to stem their massive support for the coalition of opposition parties contesting for the Gambian election on December 1,” said Sigga.
To some, it was, however, unlikely to even think that Jammeh will allow his guards to openly use the seized weapons. Jammeh had refused to hand the weapons over to the U.S. government who said they wanted to use them as evidence in court against four of its citizens that funded or participated in the plot. He instead accused the U.S. of being complicit in the attempt.
But Jammeh is not a follower of rules. He is eccentric, unconventional and bizarre. He is the president that arrested and killed citizens suspected of being witches. He claims to have a mysterious solution made up of herbs, bananas, and incantations of verses from the Holy Quran that can cure AIDS, sickles cell anemia, asthma, and infertility. The mystery medicine only works when administered on Thursdays and hundreds of people from not just across the country but from other African nations line up at his clinic in the presidential compound that survived 12 attacks; and many in his own country, as well as other Africans outside of his iron-fist rule, love his anti-homosexual and anti-Western rhetoric.
The U.S. needs to do more than just issuing statements, especially knowing that Jammeh loves everything America. Jammeh has tried to have some military agreements with the U.S. government and participated in at least one CIA rendition program. In 2006, he wrote to President George W. Bush to help him influence Senegal to extradite a former military chief who attempted to oust him. Not selling him U.S. weapons may not mean as much to him as denying him and his family, especially his wife access to the U.S. and using a justice department law to freeze his assets and take hold of his Potomac mansion.
Jeffrey Smith of Vanguard Africa puts it right: “you have to hit Yahya Jammeh where it hurts the most,” and deny him the “All-American life he wants to live.”