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Marco Werman: We don’t think about the Gambia a lot; it’s in West Africa, tucked inside Senegal with a tiny Atlantic coastline. But we’re talking about the Gambia today because of two men with dual Gambian and American citizenship. They’re in US federal custody now after going to the Gambia last month to try to overthrow the president. Jeffrey Smith is following the case as an Africa specialist with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center.
Jeffrey Smith: The two men, Cherno Njie from Texas, and Papa Faal from Minnesota, traveled to the Gambia earlier in December with a group, it is alleged, of around ten to twelve Gambians living in the diaspora in an attempt to overthrow Yahya Jammeh, who’s been ruling the Gambia with nothing short of an iron fist for the past two decades. From my understanding, these group of men who are calling themselves the “Gambian Freedom Fighters” did have the backing of senior military officials in the Gambia. When they got there, they realized very quickly that those leaders had backed out and that essentially these men were on their own.
Werman: I gather the Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, wasn’t even in the Gambia at the time. So, how good a coup were these guys actually plotting?
Smith: That’s a very good question and it really speaks to several things: (1) this was a very amateurish approach and (2) this attempt is not altogether surprising--this is the eighth coup attempt that has taken place in the Gambia over the past twenty years and it’s really born out of twenty years of frustration and disappointment with the Jammeh regime, which is one of the worst human rights abusers in Africa, if not the entire world.
Werman: As you said, Yahya Jammeh has been ruling the Gambia with an iron fist for twenty years, lots of human rights abuses. What is the US position on President Jammeh?
Smith: The United States has been quite vocal against the human rights violations that have taken place under Jammeh’s reign in the Gambia. Just recently last month, the Gambia lost its African Growth and Opportunity Act status, which is a trade incentive program established by the Clinton Administration in 2000 to provide duty-free access for African goods in the United States, and it’s really there to boost business development, middle class, and the economies of African states. For the United States to take a move and remove the Gambia from that list was very momentous. It was basically based on rampant human rights violations, including rampant torture in the country--there are no rights to freedom of expression, free speech, or freedom of assembly in the Gambia. Yahya Jammeh is the same president who gunned down fourteen school children in 2000 who were protesting against his regime.
Werman: Will this coup attempt, and with all the international attention it’s getting, affect Gambia’s resolve to stand behind its president? Are they standing behind him?
Smith: If you pay attention to Gambian state media, you would think that people love him because even today and yesterday they’ve had what they’ve called “solidarity marches” through the capital. But what people don’t realize on the outside looking in is that these are forced marches. The Jammeh security men go around to civil servants, they go to the madrasas, they demand that the schoolmasters have their children participate in these marches.
Werman: You make Gambia sound like North Korea but with regularly scheduled flights.
Smith: We joke about it, but I’ve actually often referred to it as the “North Korea of Africa.” Many people have not heard of the Gambia, as you’ve rightly noted, but it really is a horrible, horrible dictatorship. There are no free elections, there are no civil liberties, their right to peaceful protest and their right to freedom of assembly are not there; their right to freedom of expression, their right to free speech is not there. Just last week on friday, the only independent radio station operating in the country that talks about political issues was shut down for the third time. So, people have no access to information. That’s really Yahya Jammeh and many dictators across the world-- this is their MO, their modus operandi. If you talk to an average Gambian right now, many of them would not even know that (1) a coup took place and (2) they would think it was done by outside agitators, by terrorists from the United States and from Germany and from the UK. But what is not being reported is that Yahya Jammeh and his security forces have arrested several high ranking military officials that were involved in the planning of the coup as well. But the average Gambian does not know that.
Werman: Jeffrey Smith, Africa specialist with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Thank you very much.
Smith: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.