The Washington Post just published a definitive account of the events surrounding the December 2014 coup in Gambia.
And it casts an unflattering light on the US’s role in the failed attempt at overthrowing the country’s long-serving dictator.
Gambia is a country of 1.5 million people and is less than half the size of Connecticut. It has no critical natural resources, and is considered peripheral to vital US interests. The coup changed that, if only temporarily.
The plot against president Yahya Jammeh, who took power in a 1994 coup, was hatched on US soil, by American-Gambian dual citizens, including 3 US military veterans, one of them a former platoon leader during the Iraq War who was killed during the assault on State House in Bangui on December 30, 2014.
This made the plotters subject to US criminal prosecution under the Neutrality Act, an 18th century law which prohibits prohibits individuals in the US from conspiring to overthrow governments with which the US is not at war.
The US’s jurisdictional reach turned a coup in a small and obscure nation into a potential policy dilemma. The plotters were attempting to overthrow one of the most oppressive leaders on earth: In addition to running an absolute dictatorship, Jammeh has threatened to slit the throats of homosexuals and cultivated ties with US geopolitical rivals like Iran and Venezuela. America isn’t in a state of war with Jammeh, but few would seriously argue that he’s any kind of friend to the United States.
The Washington Post report gives the fullest picture yet of how the US handled the situation. Faced with a group of US citizens plotting against an unjust regime in a country far removed from US geopolitical objectives, the US government sided against the conspirators even before the failed plot was executed — but without apprehending any of them or directly warning the Gambian government of what was in store.
Instead, the US, whose law enforcement agencies had been tracking some the plotters, may have tried to hamper their travel by looping in a neighbouring state through which some of the conspirators were planning on transiting.
According ot the Post, “the State Department alerted authorities in a West African country near Gambia that” a US-based exiled Gambian general who served as head of the coup’s military planning was “returning to the region — in hopes that local officials could intercept him and prevent any possible bloodshed.” The FBI had already been monitoring this plotter, who was actually visited by federal agents before he left for West Africa in December of 2014.
There were other signs that the US government was on to the coup plot: One plotter who had travelled to West Africa in early December received a phone call from a federal agent “asking where he was.”
The Post reports that the US avoided drawing the Gambian government into its handling of the impending coup, out of fear that Jammeh would use the information of a coming putsch as a pretext for an internal crackdown.
But the Post reports that Jammeh may have had some kind of advanced warning of the plot, since the Gambian government effectively concealed the fact that State House was far more heavily protected than the putschists believed it to be.
As the Post puts it, “hints surfaced that Gambian officials had received a tip that a plot was afoot.”
The article implies that the US had some partial knowledge of the coup, but didn’t want to directly bail out such a problematic government. Whether by design or not, Jammeh found out about the coup anyway. The US enforced rule of law stateside and helped preserve an ever-precarious and coup-prone West African state system, all without the moral hazard of direct collaboration with the region’ most severe tyrant.
And the result — a failed coup attempt, and the charging of 5 plotters under US law, 4 of whom have already pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges — is a queasy reminder of where the US government believes its interests really lie.
Without any compelling US objectives at stake, the US decided it would act in a way that reduced the chances that an American-originated plot against one of the worst tyrants on earth would end successfully.
“People need to know: Is this the kind of person who needs to be protected by the country that claims to be a beacon of hope?” one of the plotters who pleaded guilty, Former US Airman Papa Faal, told The Washington Post.
The ingrained bias towards a recognised government — regardless of that government’s repugnance — determined the US’s course of action, even in a situation where the US had few tangible diplomatic, economic, or political equities at risk.
A similar and equally cynical principle was at play when President Barack Obama posed for a photograph with Jammeh during the African Leaders Summit in August of 2014. To rebuff Jammeh at a historic summit of African heads of state would have been tantamount to treating him as something less than a legitimate leader of a fellow sovereign government. This possible breach of basic diplomatic protocol was considered less savoury than the spectacle of the US president posing a violently homophobic authoritarian despot.
US actions before the failed coup may have been indirectly protected the regime, even when the stakes are the lowest. Indeed, Gambia’s obscurity may provide US policymakers the cover they have needed to avoid making any serious decisions about the place.
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