Story

Sixteen Years Ago, a Tragedy that Would Ignite a Coup Attempt in The Gambia

In a way, the 2014 coup attempt in the small West African country of The Gambia began 14 years earlier. Back in 2000, many Gambians hadn’t yet made up their minds about Yahya Jammeh—the former military officer who had taken power in a 1994 coup, replacing the country’s democratically elected, if out-of-touch, leader. Jammeh’s dark side was no secret: Within months of taking power, he had two other members of his junta arrested for plotting counter-coups and caused a third to flee the country. But Jammeh had delivered on some of his promises to bring development to The Gambia, and so most citizens adopted a wait-and-see mentality.

They shed it on April 10, 2000. That day, a group of students in their school uniforms gathered in Serekunda, The Gambia’s most populous city, to protest the alleged murder of a teenage boy by firemen and the alleged rape of a teenage girl by a security officer. “No justice, no peace,” the students chanted. They reached a standoff with the police amid the haze of tear gas near the Gambia Technical Training Institute. The minister of the interior was seen negotiating with the students before giving up and gesturing for the police to open fire. They did. Officially, 14 people were killed.

Among the injured were three 17-year-old boys, who were taken to the hospital in the capital, Banjul, which offered only rudimentary treatment. The bullet that pierced the back of Yusupha Mbaye’s neck left him paralyzed. He developed bedsores the size of his fist. Sainey Senghore, whose leg was hit by three bullets, got gangrene in his toes. Assan Suwareh was shot from behind in the arm and the stomach. Doctors using only local anesthetics removed a kidney, part of his intestines, and half of his liver. His wounds filled with pus, and his weight dropped below 100 pounds. With the three teenagers’ conditions worsening, the Gambian Ministry of Health arranged to fly them to Cairo for treatment. But the nurse who traveled with them left after a week, and the ministry stopped paying their medical bills after a month.

After three months in Egypt, the Gambian government sent return plane tickets to the teenagers. Not yet healed, they struggled through an 18-hour layover in Brussels. When they landed in Banjul, authorities at the airport confiscated their medical records. Abandoned by their government, the teenagers found sympathy among the Gambian diaspora, who raised money for their treatment.

The April 2000 shootings didn’t just fuel opposition to President Jammeh in the Gambian diaspora in general; they also ignited it in two members in particular who would end up attempting to overthrow him by force. Banka Manneh was inspired to revive an organization that had become inactive, the Atlanta Gambia Emergency Relief Association, which provided legal aid to Gambian immigrants and helped families repatriate the bodies of their loved ones. But the shootings also convinced Manneh that the real problem in The Gambia was not humanitarian; it was political. “From then on, I just decided to get in full swing,” he told me. Eventually, that would come to include joining the Gambia Freedom League, the group of expatriates behind the 2014 coup attempt. He ended up dropping out of the group before it staged the coup attempt, but he has pleaded guilty to federal charges for his involvement.

Njaga Jagne, a member of the Kentucky National Guard, had a more personal connection to the shootings. His half-brother was Assan Suwareh, one of the injured. “Stand up against those cowardly thugs who shot you,” Jagne had written Suwareh at the time. In 2002, Suwareh came to Kentucky for further medical treatment, and lived with Jagne. Suwareh remembers him as a reserved and hard-working roommate. Jagne led by example, doing the dishes, for instance, so Suwareh would take the hint.

Apart from family, Jagne didn’t interact with many Gambians. He busied himself building an American life—getting married and raising two boys. He joined the Kentucky National Guard in 2005, and ended up serving two tours in Iraq, the second as a captain. When he returned to Kentucky, he discovered a passion for anti-Jammeh activism and met like-minded Gambians on Facebook. As with Manneh, Jagne’s entry into activism seems to have made him all too aware of its limits: Jagne had concluded that no number of meetings, petitions, or rallies could oust the dictator. That’s when he decided to link up with Manneh and other activists to try something more radical. The choice would ultimately cost Jagne his life: he was shot dead by guards as he stormed Jammeh’s residence.

I met with Suwareh in May 2015 at a Starbucks in Lexington, Kentucky. He pulled up his shirt to reveal crude stitch marks across his abdomen. Since he was shot, his digestive system has never quite been the same. By the summer, Sainey Senghor, the teenager shot in the leg, had moved to Dakar. He walks with a limp and suffers from frequent pain. Yusupha Mbaye, who had been shot in the neck, also made it to Dakar. He remains partially paralyzed. When I met him, he extended a feeble handshake from his wheelchair, and the faint smell of urine hung in the air. Thanks to physical therapy, Mbaye has regained some feeling. He had recently sat up by himself for the first time in 14 years. (The Democratic Union of Gambian Activists is raising funds for his further treatment.)

In the year after the shootings, a commission charged with investigating the violence placed blame on the minister of interior and several police officers, but the government rejected its findings and declined to prosecute anyone. Mbaye told me that he has never received an apology from the Gambian government. “We need justice, but we still can’t get it,” he said. It was a sentiment that the plotters of the failed coup attempt, for all their faults, shared. With a little extrajudicial force, they thought, their country could be righted. But 16 years after the tragedy that inspired many of them, in The Gambia, the arc of the moral universe still isn’t bending toward justice.