A prominent dissident was just charged in the US with plotting to overthrow one of Africa's most oppressive governments

GambiaAP/Rebecca BlackwellIn this Friday, Sept. 22, 2006, file photo, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, center, leaves a central Banjul polling station after casting his vote for president in Banjul, Gambia.

In late December, a group of Gambian immigrants to the US were involved in a failed attempt to overthrow Yahya Jammeh, the brutal dictator who’s ruled over their native country since 1996.

The conspirators were from different parts of the US and several may never have even met in person. A few had lived in the US for decades; a coup participant who was later killed in an attempted raid on the seat of government in the capital of Banjul on Dec. 30, 2014 had served in Iraq as a platoon leader with the Kentucky National Guard.

Two of the conspirators who had actually traveled to Gambia for the coup attempt were charged in US court in the wake of the coup attempt’s failure: Cherno Njie, and Papa Faal, who are accused with funding the expedition and funelling guns to West Africa and forming a government-in-waiting. A third individual, Alagie Barrow, was charged in on Jan. 30.

And yesterday, Banka Manneh, the chairman of the Civil Society Associations, Gambia and someone who did not travel to Gambia during the coup plot, was indicted in US federal court in Minnesota, a week after the FBI raided his house in Georgia (the Gambia coup falls under the Minnesota federal prosecutor’s jurisdiction since that’s where two of the accused conspirators lived at the time the plot was being hatched).

The FBI confiscated Manneh’s computers, phone equipment, and mobile phones, along with various documents found at his house. His mother, wife, and mother-in-law were in the house during the raid, as were his two young children.

According to a superseding federal indictment, Manneh “participated in conference calls and exchanged planning documents with the other members of the conspiracy,” and “purchased two pistols and one rifle to equip co-conspirators participating in the coup.”

GambiaAPA giant billboard of Gambia President Yahya Jammeh sits on an empty street in Banjul Gambia, Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014.

Manneh and the other co-defendants are accused of violating the Neutrality Act, which prohibits individuals in the US from conspiring to overthrow governments with which the US is not at war. The law isn’t used very often, and there hasn’t been a successful Neutrality Act prosecution since 1981.

But the Justice Department has energetically pursued its cases against the accused Gambia plotters, whose supporters contend that they were driven to act by Jammeh’s absolute grip on power and the lack political space in Gambia needed to peaceably contest his rule.

They also find it curious that the US would be so willing to punish people for trying (and failing) to overthrow a government whose actions are so apparently at odds with US interests and values. Jammeh’s regime has persecuted the country’s LGBT community and in late 2014 Jammeh’s abhorrent human rights record cost Gambia its eligibility to receive benefits under the US’s African Growth and Opportunity Act.

In August of 2014, during the African Leaders Summit in Washington, Jammeh’s Gambian security detail attacked protesters outside of his Washington, DC hotel and sent several to the hospital. At that same summit, Barack and Michele Obama posed for a photo with Jammeh and his wife. No one from Jammeh’s security detail was charged or otherwise punished for the attacks on protesters.

Gambia obamaOfficial White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon‘President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet His Excellency Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia, and Mrs. Zineb Jammeh, in the Blue Room during a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House, Aug. 5, 2014.’

Some Gambians in the US see the prosecution of Manneh — one of the most prominent pro-democracy activists based in the US — as part of a pattern of the Obama administration siding with Jammeh’s government and against his US-based opponents.

“Gambian communities across the US and Europe are outraged that the FBI and the United States authorities would continue to spend resources and waste time in cracking down on innocent Gambians who are out to defend their rights as citizens to participate in their nation’s political discourse,” Demba Baldeh wrote on March 18, after Manneh surrendered to the FBI.

Sidi Sanneh, a former Gambian diplomat turned anti-Jammeh dissident who currently lives in the US, told Business Insider that many Gambians are both puzzled and disappointed by US policy towards their country, with Manneh’s indictment only heightening their sense of frustration.

“The Gambian community feels they are being let down by the Obama administration,” says Sanneh. “Some of them feel that they are being targeted.”

It might be a stretch to say that Gambians are being specifically targeted. The Gambia coup is a dilemma for the US, after all: failing to prosecute the plotters would convey a sense that the US considers Jammeh’s regime to be something less than a full sovereign government and communicate a weak US’s commitment to the regional state system. But prosecuting them gives the appearance of the US shielding one of the most oppressive governments in Africa.

GambiaAP/Jason FlorioResidents walk on an empty street in Banjul Gambia, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014.

In another sense, the coup didn’t present any dilemma at all. Gambia is too small to warrant any special attention from American diplomacy: As Sanneh notes, the country is territorially insignificant and has few natural resources. It’s easy to ignore, which means its easy for US policy to lapse into an inertia in which any drive towards a moral, prudent, and creative policy are gradually dulled.

For Sanneh, the public and the US government’s collective shrug after the beating of protesters during the African Leaders Summit was the signal example of US indifference to the place. “Could you imagine this thing happening to British activists with David Cameron at the White House?,” Sanneh wondered. “It would have been something else.”

Ironically, Gambia’s size and a relative lack of US interest also may have something to do with why the government has taken such a keen interest in the December coup plot. Gambia has a population of only 1.8 million and occupies about as peripheral a place as possible in both US foreign policy and in the general political psyche. There’s no fateful or complicated entanglement of US equities and interests in Gambia, as there is in Syria or Iraq, for instance.

Jammeh gambiaREUTERS/Lucas JacksonAl Hadji Yahya Jammeh, President of the Republic of the Gambia, addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York September 25, 2014.

So it’s less politically hazardous for the government to use the Gambia plotters to send a blunt message to dissidents in other US-based diaspora communities: Don’t try anything like this. The Gambia coup indictments prove that the US is willing to invoke the Neutrality Act even against people who are only accused of participating in conference calls and online discussions, or of obtaining firearms in a state with incredibly lax gun laws. And conveniently, the test-case is a country too distant from the foreign policy conversation to provoke much of a public or diplomatic backlash.

According to Sanneh, Manneh’s indictment hasn’t had a chilling effect on Gambia activists in the US.

“If anything, it has energized them,” he says. But if he’s convicted, Manneh’s case could go down as particularly bitter evidence of the US’s diffident attitude towards the Jammeh regime’s abuses.

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