The Smiling Coast tells the story of the rise and fall of Yahya Jammeh, an autocrat who ruled the small country of The Gambia in West Africa with an iron first for 22 years. Using familiar tactics such as harassing journalists, scapegoating perceived enemies, gerrymandering elections, and the brutal use of force Jammeh fashioned himself the mansa, (king in Mandinka, one of most commonly spoken languages in the Gambia) who, as he told a BBC reporter in 2011, would rule for one billion years. Though Jammeh was a disciple of Muammar Gaddafi and Jerry Rawlings, though Gambia was an important conduit for South American drugs on their way to Europe, though Jammeh’s government was involved in money laundering with Hezhollah, world powers paid little attention. It was up to Gambians, both inside the country and in the diaspora, to free themselves of Jammeh’s rule.
The preceding chapter ends with the sudden execution of nine death row inmates in August of 2012 after Jammeh reinstituted the death penalty.
Chapter 9: The unraveling of Yahya Jammeh
Banka Manneh was woken up in his bed in Atlanta, Georgia by a call from Bamako, Mali. It was not unusual for Banka Manneh to get calls in the middle of the night from an activist on the other side of the Atlantic, reporting some horrific abuse and asking for help. Banka rolled out of bed and picked up the call. On the other end of the line Ndey Tapha Sosseh explained that she had just received a text message from an inmate at Mile 2 prison that eight people had been taken away in the middle of the night.[i]
After the collapse of the opposition coalition in the 2006 election, Banka continued to stay engaged in diaspora activism. He travelled to Europe to lobby governments and human rights organizations in Brussels to pay attention to the situation in Gambia. Whenever Jammeh made a particularly ridiculous comment that was headline bait for western newspapers, Banka was happy to give a quote on Jammeh’s depravity. He also served as the chairperson of Civil Society Association Gambia, a collection of diaspora civil society organizations that ranged from moribund to mildly effective at sending out press releases. At home in Atlanta he helped Gambians navigate the American immigration system and get on their feet in a new country, while also working a full-time job as a flooring estimator, getting his MBA, and supporting his wife and young family. Despite Banka, and many others, dedication and persistence, the majority of Gambians living in the hubs of Washington DC, Atlanta, Minnesota and Seattle were still unengaged with politics back home.
After a brief conversation, Ndey Tapha Sosseh and Banka immediately began reaching out to their contacts in human rights organizations and the press to spread the word that Jammeh had followed through on his threat to kill the inmates. When foreign journalists called the Ministry of Information in Banjul, Gambia’s capital, to confirm the story, the regime obfuscated. However, after a few days of confusion a press officer for the government, talk show host Fatou Camara, went on national television and read from a statement announcing that nine people had been executed by a firing squad after being sentenced by “Gambian courts of competent jurisdiction.”[ii]
News of the executions touched a nerve in the Gambian diaspora in the United States. People took to social media to denounce the killings, and Banka Manneh and other long-time activists such as Coach Pasamba Jawo, who lived outside Washington, DC, were getting inundated with calls from people expressing their outrage and asking what they could do. Coach and Banka organized a conference call and publicized the dial-in number on Facebook. Over 200 Gambians around the world came on the call, and while it quickly got unwieldy and unproductive, the call none the less became ingrained in memory as a formative moment in the Gambian diaspora’s struggle to liberate its homeland.
On September 4, protesters gathered in a dozen countries at Gambian diplomatic posts and in public places with handmade signs, Gambian flags, and T-shirts with slogans for an “international day of outrage.” In Washington, DC people braved the muggy heat in black shirts that read “GAMBIA STOP MASS EXECUTION,” to listen and cheer on Coach as he spoke through a megaphone about Jammeh’s crimes. In Atlanta around thirty people gathered at Olympic Park dressed in white to hold a vigil before listening to speeches by Banka Manneh and walking around the park chanting, “Stop this now, stop this killing.”[iii]
Before the executions, whenever Banka and Coach would tell fellow Gambians about Jammeh’s crimes, people doubted them. Jammeh had been out of the country during the 2001 student protests, people would point out, so maybe he did not give the order for the police to fire on the students. After the drive-by assassination of journalist Deyda Hydara three years later, the government had denied participation and set up a mock investigation, allowing people on the fence to continue claiming that Gambians could not do this to other Gambians. But after the executions, the regime came out and acknowledged it was responsible. Banka, Coach and other activists felt vindicated. Gambians in the diaspora were finally paying attention.
The “international day of outrage” protests brought together a new group of Gambians many of whom were meeting for the first time. In Washington, DC, activists matched faces with names and exchanged phone numbers, and by the next week Coach, Sohna Sallah, Ousaniou “Ous” Mbenga, and Jenabo Faal founded Democratic Union of Gambian Activists (DUGA – DC). Over the next few months a core group of around ten people with their banner and pressed white DUGA T-shirts staged a series of protests outside the White House, Jammeh’s house in Maryland, and the two Washington lobbying firms that Jammeh had hired to improve his image.
In mid-September of 2014, the emerging team of diaspora activists were still debating whether to travel to New York later that month to protest at the UN General Assembly. According to their contacts, Gambia’s Vice President Isatou Njie-Saidy, who had served in the post for sixteen years, would be attending for Jammeh.
Then one day Coach got a call from Fatou Camara, the famous Gambian talk show host and government press officer, who told him that Jammeh himself would be in New York.
The second Coach got off the call with Fatou, he sent a message to his fellow activists: “It’s on.”
The DUGA-DC team piled into a van in the early hours of the morning and headed north from Washington. As they pulled into Manhattan four hours later, they got another tip that Jammeh might be staying at the Ritz Carlton hotel on the southern edge of Central Park. They parked the car and as they walked towards the Ritz, they noticed diplomatic tags for Gambia on a nearby car. Sohna Sallah, the daughter of a Gambian diplomatic family from the pre-Jammeh era, would remember feeling like they were on a hunt. “We’re going to find where this guy is,” she thought, “and we’re going to make sure he knows we’re here.”
Jammeh, or least his security guards, must have been aware of the protesters because soon after they arrived outside the hotel one of his security agents started trying to intimidate them by taking their pictures and writing down their names. They soon found that Gambians were harder to intimidate without the infrastructure of dictatorship behind them, and Jammeh’s goons retreated into the hotel. Soon after the New York and Atlanta teams arrived. The protesters’ numbers swelled to around two dozen. One of Jammeh’s ministers, Momodu Sabally, came out to confront the protesters, but again was drowned out by shouts of “Kat sun day” (“fuck your mother” in Wolof, one of the most common languages in The Gambia) and, “Come out if you have the balls.”
The president and his entourage had never faced protests like this before, and seemed to be at a loss as to how to respond. Instead of enjoying a leisurely extended shopping trip in New York City, Jammeh’s wife Zainab had to be snuck out the back of the hotel by the U.S. Secret Service. Even then, when she emerged from the back of the building and was bundled into a waiting black Mercedes, a group of protestors stood a few feet away shouting “gold-digger,” “murderer,” and “dictator” at the top of their lungs.
Grainy video shot with a smartphone from later in the day shows a group of Jammeh’s security guards shouting insults and threats at the protesters over a line of parked cars. The threats are unintelligible but, out of the corner of the screen, U.S. Secret Service agents’ approach Jammeh’s security guards and start trying to wind them down. The protesters, encouraged, shout at Jammeh’s men, “You can’t do that here, this is America!“ According to Gambian-American activists, this would not be the last time that Secret Service agents – who protect foreign heads of state when they visit the United States – would step in or offer private words of sympathy to the protesters.
That evening, the protesters finally got to face their mark. As the protest had grown through the day, the police had moved the protestors back another ten feet from the hotel’s entrance and across the street. When Jammeh, instantly recognizable in his characteristic white robes, stepped through the doors of the hotel that evening after the sun had gone down, the protesters erupted. People began shouting “Yahya Jammeh, bad man” and called him a coward and murderer. One person even started shouting Jammeh his Miranda rights: “You have the right to remain silent, everything you say will be used against you in a court of law!” The president walked straight across the sidewalk and into a waiting car which quickly pulled out with its police escort.
That evening Sohna Sallah drove back to Washington with half the DUGA team collapsed in the back of her van, exhausted but flush with victory. After a year of standing outside Jammeh’s properties and shaming his allies, they had finally faced the man himself. Meanwhile videos and photos of Jammeh cooped up in his hotel and protesters confronting his goons were being posted on Facebook and spread on YouTube. While most rural Gambians still lacked access to the Internet, the videos reached more privileged circles, slowly making a dent in the aura of invincibility that Jammeh had built for himself. Even the Gambian newspaper Foroyaa ran an article about the events at the Ritz Carlton under the headline, “Gambians in USA Protest at President Jammeh’s Hotel.”
The protests continued over the next few months. In October 2013 Sohna Sallah, Coach and Ous went into the Gambian embassy in Washington and began protesting until the embassy staff had to call the police, who arrested the three activists when they refused to leave the building. For diaspora activists, using elections as a means to get rid of Jammeh had faded as a tactic following the rigged elections in 2011 and 2012. Now, at the dawn of the age of social media, the goal was to build a movement that would show Jammeh their anger, inspire people back in Gambia to protest, attract international media attention, and ideally force more powerful governments to do something about it.
In August 2013, a month before the protests at the Ritz Carlton in New York, Banka Manneh had travelled to Dakar, Senegal, the country that almost entirely surrounds The Gambia, to accompany the daughter of a friend who had been living with his family in Atlanta. Banka took the opportunity to meet with leaders of the burgeoning Gambian exile community in Dakar. The longer Jammeh stayed in power, the more the émigré community expanded. It seemed as though every other week another journalist or politician or business leader arrived with a spectacular story of escape. With the backing of a wealthy Gambian-American financier, Banka Manneh went to the city of Kaolack, about 50 miles from the border of Gambia to establish a radio station that would broadcast into Gambia.[iv]
In the airport in Dakar on the way back to the United States, Banka ran into an old friend, who introduced her husband, Lamin Sanneh. Lamin seemed excited to meet Banka, saying he had “heard so much about him.” Apparently when Lamin had gone to the U.S. embassy in Dakar to ask what the United States was doing about The Gambia, an officer there had told him to speak with Banka and Amadou Scattred Janneh. Banka and Lamin exchanged numbers and promised to stay in touch.
Banka returned to his family in Atlanta and continued with his activism. He drove a small group of people from Georgia and South Carolina up to New York for the Ritz Carlton protest in September. He was excited about the new-found momentum among Gambian activists in the diaspora. Meanwhile Lamin kept calling, but Banka kept missing his calls. One day he finally picked up, and he and Lamin exchanged pleasantries and complained about Jammeh for a while. Then Lamin revealed that he had some insider information, he wanted to do something about it, and he wanted Banka’s help.
Lamin, Banka realized, was proposing they launch a coup.
Unlike Banka, Lamin had recently worked in the inner sanctum of Jammeh’s regime. After secondary school, Lamin had risen through the ranks of the Gambian military and had been sent to Sandhurt College in Britain and the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He had finished his master’s degree in 2012 – writing his thesis about drug trafficking in West Africa – before returning to Gambia, where he was quickly promoted to the State Guards, an elite unit responsible for Jammeh’s personal security. However, when he was ordered to fire subordinates without reason, he refused, and was expelled from the State Guards, then demoted, then dismissed from the army. He fled with his wife and children to Dakar, where he was able to apply for asylum in the US. In mid-2013 he moved with his family to a suburb of Baltimore.
Lamin was not the first person that had spoken to Banka about launching a coup. Initially, Banka was not convinced. Unlike Lamin, Banka did not have a military background and had never fired a weapon. But Lamin was persistent, and there was a part of Banka that, looking back at nearly two decades, felt that Jammeh would never willingly concede power. “Elections cannot remove this guy, protests cannot remove him, we’ve seen what happened in Gambia, they killed the protesters. This is the only means we have left,” he would remember thinking.
Not long after, government press officer Fatou Camara called Coach Pasamba Jow to tell him that Jammeh himself would be attending the U.N. General Assembly, she was awoken in the middle of the night by a knock on the door.Outside were two plainclothes officers, who detained her and took her to the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). She was interrogated for around an hour about her links to Freedom Radio before being locked in a small dark cell. Meanwhile agents at the NIA attempted to hack her Facebook and email. As she sat in the darkness swatting away the mosquitos buzzing in her ear, she thought about everything that had led her to this moment.
Fatou remembered first wanting to be a journalist around the time that Jammeh took over. She was in her final year of secondary school, radio was the medium of the day, and she liked how everyone stopped what they were doing to tune in. She studied journalism in Britain before returning to Gambia and taking a job at the U.S. Embassy. But after three years she quit her job at the embassy and embarked on her dream to start the country’s first TV talk show, based on the Oprah Winfree show. Friends cautioned her that Jammeh would not allow a talk show on which people could just go and speak their mind. She agreed she could not talk about politics, but there were a host of other topics relevant to Gambian society. Her first show in August of 2008 was about the importance of patriotism and loving one’s country. Over time she branched into more taboo subjects such as female genital mutilation and child marriage, while also interviewing up-and-coming Gambian musicians and artists. Soon, she had the most popular show on Gambian television.
However, being popular could be dangerous. In 2011 Jammeh invited Fatou to work at the State House in Press Department. She accepted, under the condition that she could keep doing her show twice a week. She was fired after three months and went back to working full-time on her show, which started to make serious profits and was making Fatou a star. In 2013 she was offered the position of director of press and public relations at the Office of the President, which she also accepted. Jammeh was applying his time-tested formula for neutralizing potential competition and ensuring a pliable bureaucracy: hire, fire, re-hire. But Fatou would not play ball. Her talk-show had made her a celebrity in The Gambia and she was not depending on her government job to put food on the table. Though Fatou had read out the statement acknowledging the killing of the death row inmates, Jammeh was suspicious that secretly she was working against him, and so on his whim, two plainclothes officers picked her up and brought her back to the NIA’s headquarters.
After two days in detention, Fatou was released for a few hours, then rearrested in front of her children. She spent another two months in detention at the NIA headquarters. As had become the norm when a journalist went missing, international press freedom organizations released statements demanding her release, and the Gambian Press Union filed a suit at the Gambian High Court. Gambian newspapers asked where she was and what she had done, to no avail. Finally, on October 10, 2012 she was hauled before a court in Banjul and charged with “giving false news through the Internet to Pa Nderry Mbai, editor-in-chief of the Freedom Newspaper.” Her bail was set at 5 million dalasi (around $150,000) – a fantastic sum even for a successful businesswoman. Instead, she was able to find a friend of her husband to act as a guarantor, and was released and ordered to return to court on October 28. However, within a few days of getting out of detention, Fatou crossed the border into Senegal and made her way to Dakar, with no plans to return to Gambia anytime soon. [v]
Banka Manneh was skeptical of Lamin Sanneh’s talk of an armed ouster of Jammeh, but he was willing to listen. After a few more calls, Banka figured it would not hurt to put Lamin in touch with Njaga Jagne, a fellow diaspora Gambian who had also hinted at his interest in a coup. The three men started having weekly conference calls, partly to complain about Jammeh, but also to seriously begin to entertain the idea of overthrowing the leader of their homeland through force of arms.
Sometime in October the coup plotters met in person in a hotel in Atlanta. Banka and Njaga were joined by Amadou Scattred Janneh and Alagie Barrow, while Lamin was patched in via Skype. Apart from Banka and Amadou, none of the other men had participated in demonstrations or were known to be particularly political. Alagie and Njaga had moved to the United States in the early 1990s and had never lived in Gambia under Jammeh. But after building successful lives for themselves in America, they were increasingly concerned about the horrific reports they were hearing about their homeland, and wanted to do something about it.
While Lamin, Alagie and Njaga appreciated the activists’ fervor and commitment, they were somewhat amused by their tactics. Standing outside an embassy with a sign was not going to change anything, they believed. Instead they were military men who felt that sometimes force might be necessary to save lives. While Lamin served in the Gambian military, Alagie and Njaga had served in the Tennessee and Kentucky National Guards – including two tours in Iraq for Njaga. These men were in many ways the embodiment of their adopted home, but they could not forget where they came from.
As they started to discuss how they would “neutralize” Jammeh, they realized that they would need significant financial support. Amadou said he would contact a wealthy Gambian-American he knew living in South Africa who was sympathetic to their cause and might contribute. Meanwhile, Banka Manneh reached out to Cherno Njie, another prosperous Gambian-American who had built a real-estate empire in Texas and had supported various efforts of Banka’s such as the radio station in Kaolack.
Soon after the meeting Banka called Cherno, and after exchanging the regular greetings, mentioned that he knew of a group of Gambians who were plotting a coup but who needed financing. Cherno responded that he would need to see a detailed budget as a well as a plan for a viable transition to democracy. When Banka reported this to the group, they were initially hesitant to bring Cherno in without some kind of promise from him. However, realizing they had little leverage they relented, and in November Njaga – who’s sister knew Cherno from high school – flew to Austin to meet with their potential financier Cherno would remember being impressed with Njaga and the plan. Like Banka, he had been approached by and entertained various proposals to overthrow Jammeh – including hiring foreign mercenaries. He liked the fact that this was being done by Gambians. He also appreciated the $220,000 price tag. He affirmed his support for the plot, but said he need to see a more complete transition plan. The coup had found its fi
[i] “Testimony of Ndey Tapha Sosseh” (2019).
[ii] “Nine Death Row Prisoners Executed – Gov’t – The Point Newspaper, Banjul, The Gambia,” accessed April 30, 2020, http://thepoint.gm/africa/gambia/article/nine-death-row-prisoners-executed-govt. Testimony of Baba Leigh
[iii] Gambian Diaspora Day of Outrage – Washington DC 9/04/2012, accessed April 30, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWGUqg-TWSo&fbclid=IwAR1_PsaOkKPfh29q6vMajg6QriC94sx9lU8yP1i0jP94RGlqbpNwKK9Jz5E.
[iv] Cherno M. Njie, Sweat Is Invisible in the Rain, 1st edition (Pan-African University Press, 2019), 120.
[v] Mamadou Dem, “Gambia: Fatou Camara in Court Over False News Charges,” allAfrica.com, October 14, 2013, https://allafrica.com/stories/201310141698.html.