On Monday (Jan. 5), US authorities formally charged two men in connection with a cack-handed plot to overthrow the president of Gambia. Cherno Njie, 57, a property developer from Austin, Texas, is alleged to have instigated and funded the plot. Papa Faal, 46, a US military veteran, was going to help Njie execute it, along with several other recruits.
The plot failed. Miserably. On December 30, with President Yahyeh Jammeh conveniently out of the country, around a dozen gunmen – including Faal and Njie – attacked State House, hoping to overwhelm the presidential guard with the M4 semi-automatic rifles that they had smuggled into the country. Njie also believed that members of the Gambian military, fed up with Jammeh’s two decades of autocratic rule, would support their cause. They didn’t, and the plotters were outgunned and outmanned, taking heavy casualties – including several deaths – before abandoning the attempt.
Faal and Njie managed to escape. Faal sought refuge at the US embassy in neighboring Senegal, and was returned to America. Njie’s route is less clear, but he also ended up back home in America – far away from Jammeh’s murderous vengeance, perhaps, but still in trouble. And no, murderous vengeance is not hyperbole: “…there is only one gone I will be happy about. That is, if they are gone to hell, yes, but anywhere else we are going to get them…it is going to be an eye for an eye,” Jammeh said of the coup leaders.
US prosecutors have opted to try the pair, both US citizens, under a little used piece of legislation called the Neutrality Act, which expressly forbids US citizens from participating in private military operations abroad. It was last used in 2007 to indict Vang Pao, a US citizen accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Laos (after intense public pressure, these charges were later dropped). The maximum sentence under this legislation is three years in jail, or a fine.
The decision to prosecute Faal and Njie has already raised eyebrows in some quarters. Jeffrey Smith, senior advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and keen follower of the Gambia, told the Daily Maverick: “It will intensify the crackdown on human rights in the Gambia. President Jammeh, as he did after the US-Africa Leaders Summit, will no doubt use the arrests as a propaganda tool to demonstrate to his people that the United States stands behind him, and therefore there is nothing they can do to stand in his way. Jammeh has acted with absolute impunity for twenty years, with no one from the outside world standing up to his brutality, and this will surely embolden him further.”
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