The Washington Diplomat / March 2017
By Larry Luxner
It’s not every day that a country’s ambassador to the United States publicly criticizes his own president. Even more rare is the Washington-based diplomat who risks everything by urging the longtime dictator back home to relinquish power after losing his bid for re-election.
But that’s exactly what happened in early December, when Gambian President Yahya Jammeh refused to concede defeat following the surprising victory of real estate developer Adama Barrow, who won 43.3 percent of the 525,000 votes cast (Jammeh came in second, with 39.6 percent).
Initially, BBC News called the outcome in the former British colony “one of the biggest election upsets West Africa has ever seen.” Jammeh himself — a brutal and bizarre autocrat who ruled for 22 years — praised the election as “the most transparent in the world,” adding that “as a true Muslim who believes in the almighty Allah, I will never question Allah’s decision. You Gambians have decided.”
However, a week later Jammeh changed his mind and called for new elections — sparking worldwide condemnation and bringing his tiny country to the brink of collapse. (Rumors swirled that the prospect of prosecution at the International Criminal Court may have swayed his mind.)
“He said the results were null and void, and not acceptable,” Ambassador Sheikh Omar Faye told The Washington Diplomat. “That put The Gambia on a very dangerous path. We were in a constitutional crisis, a political impasse.”
Faye decided he had to do something. On Dec. 13, he published an open letter saying Jammeh made everyone proud when he conceded defeat and demanding that he actually keep his word and step down. In his letter, Faye declared that, “as a servant of The Gambia, I find it morally difficult to remain silent while Gambians are in fear and uncertainty.”
On Jan. 21, after seven weeks of negotiations, the 51-year-old dictator finally relinquished power — but only after being threatened with an invasion by 7,000 troops fighting under the banner of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the dispute led around 45,000 Gambians to flee to Senegal, and another 800 to Guinea-Bissau. In the meantime, Barrow was forced to hold his inauguration ceremony in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, for his own safety (days before his inauguration, Barrow’s 8-year-old son was mauled to death by a dog in Gambia).
Jammeh was whisked away to exile — reportedly to Equatorial Guinea, which isn’t a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC) — and no blood was spilled as Barrow entered the country.
On Feb. 2, Faye invited journalists to the Gambian Embassy on 16th Street for a small ceremony to replace Jammeh’s official portrait with that of Barrow.
“Our people were put through a test,” he declared at the ceremony. “But the will of the voters eventually prevailed. Respect for the rule of law, democratic governance and transparency will be our guides from now on.”
One of Barrow’s first official acts as president upon his arrival in Banjul was to remove the word “Islamic” from the country’s official name; in December 2015, Jammeh had declared Gambia, which is 90 percent Muslim, an Islamic republic.
Barrow is himself a devout Muslim with two wives and five children. He’s also a fan of the English soccer team Arsenal. A one-time London store security guard, he was born in 1965, the same year his country won independence from Britain. Like Donald Trump — his counterpart in Washington — Barrow is also a property developer who never expected to become president.
The dark-horse candidate knows he has an enormous job in front of him. Among other things, he’s vowed to undo Jammeh’s legacy of dictatorship, instituting term limits on the presidency, releasing political prisoners, reforming the military and rejoining the ICC and British Commonwealth, among other measures. On the economic front, he wants to build up the shoddy health and education system, while returning foreign investment and assistance to the country.
By far the smallest country in mainland Africa, Gambia — one-third the size of Maryland — occupies a tiny sliver of land along the Gambia River. Except for a 50-mile-long Atlantic coastline, the country is completely engulfed by much larger Senegal. Its 1.9 million inhabitants scrape by on an annual per-capita income of less than $500 a year, and its agriculture-based economy is supplemented with remittances from Gambians working in Europe.
Jammeh rose to power in a 1994 coup and ruled harshly. In 2011, after winning 72 percent of the vote in a rigged election, he said his critics could “go to hell” and warned that “if I have to rule this country for a billion years, I will.”
During his 22-year reign, human rights abuses were rampant. Among other things, Jammeh threatened to chop off the heads of homosexuals, claimed he had developed an herbal-remedy cure for AIDS, had nine prisoners on death row executed by firing squad and forced more than 1,000 villagers to drink herbal potions that made them hallucinate for days on end. In 2013, Jammeh pulled his country out of the Commonwealth, saying Britain had done nothing for Gambia during 300 years of colonialism except “to tell us how to sing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and ‘God Save the Queen.’”
Things weren’t always that way, though.
“During the first republic, until the first coup happened, we were called the champion of human rights. The African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies was established in The Gambia because it was one of the most peaceful countries in Africa,” said Faye, 57. “But when people stay in power for too long, there’s a tendency to concentrate power. Those are the disadvantages of overstaying your welcome. That’s why it’s always good to have term limits.”
Faye added: “We have shown a lot of political maturity as Gambians. And friends of The Gambia were really helpful. Lots of friendly governments helped get us to where we are today. The United States stood by us. Senegal stood by us. So did ECOWAS, the African Union, the U.K. and the United Nations. Everybody said, ‘No, we’re not going to accept this.’ And all that culminated into Jammeh realizing he had to give it up.”
In many respects, The Gambia is unique. For starters, it’s one of only two countries in the world whose name contains an article (it’s officially called Republic of The Gambia, not Gambia); the other is The Bahamas. It’s also one of the few countries that border only one other country, in this case Senegal — and the only one in the world where voters choose their leaders not with paper ballots but by dropping marbles into a barrel emblazoned with a picture of their favored candidate.
Just as The Gambia isn’t a typical country, Faye isn’t a typical ambassador.
A champion athlete, Faye — the grandson of an Islamic scholar by the same name — was for years his nation’s fastest sprinter, breaking records in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. He competed in the Commonwealth Games in 1982 and was Gambia’s flag bearer at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Rising up the ranks of his country’s armed forces, Faye also became the first Gambian military officer to come to the United States for training. A major, he studied at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. When the 1994 coup erupted, he decided to stay. Faye worked with several security companies and eventually became a supervisor at Atlanta-based Byers Engineering.
In 2005, he returned to Banjul, where Jammeh appointed him director of information, later becoming minister of youth, sports and religious affairs. He was later named second-in-command at the Gambian Embassy in Mauritania, where he remained until 2014, when he was transferred to Washington. On Aug. 3, 2015, Faye presented his credentials to President Obama as ambassador.
“Actually, I have always tried to work behind the scenes as an ambassador, telling our people to take it easy and do the right thing,” he said. “What broke the camel’s back was when Jammeh trashed the election. He disregarded the constitution and was disrespectful to the Gambian people, and there’s no way we can allow anyone to do this.” On Dec. 27, two weeks after calling on Jammeh to step down, Faye was recalled as ambassador. Eleven other Gambian ambassadors serving overseas were also terminated, including those in Beijing, Moscow, Havana, Dakar, Madrid and London.
“I think what we did was applauded by Gambians all over the world. They figured it was the right thing to do,” Faye told us. “I received emails from very senior people in this government saying it was a very principled decision to take that brave stand.”
But actually returning to to Gambia while Jammeh still held the reins of power would have been dangerous.
“Being recalled is one thing. Getting on a plane is quite another,” quipped Faye, who also told NPR’s Ari Shapiro in a Dec. 26 radio interview that his safety would have definitely been at risk had he returned to Banjul under such conditions.
We asked the ambassador why the former president changed his mind after having agreed to recognize Barrow as the winner.
Faye speculates it’s because people close to Jammeh “were looking out more for their self-interest, including some top security people,” though he couldn’t confirm that. “We were told he’s now in Equatorial Guinea,” said the ambassador, naming the nearby West African dictatorship that is also known for human rights abuses, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Jammeh reportedly took millions of dollars with him, and while there have been calls to hold him accountable for his human rights abuses, Barrow has been noncommittal on the issue, proposing a possible truth-and-reconciliation commission for the time being.
The issue of justice versus moving on is a sensitive one for Gambians.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said that opposition members “were a little too giddy after their unexpected win and began talking about accountability and sending Jammeh and his henchmen to the International Criminal Court” — which is likely why the former president suddenly reversed course and decided to hold onto power at any cost.
“The timing was bad. This talk of accountability could have waited until the transfer of power,” Pham told The Diplomat.
He said Gambia faces an uphill battle following Jammeh’s long despotic rule.
“After all these years, it’s not going to be easy. The Gambia was peaceful at the tip of a gun,” said Pham, who has visited the country numerous times. “Other countries in the region said they wouldn’t recognize Jammeh holding onto power, so in that respect it was good that they were resolute. It was not so good that Senegalese troops had to enter the country, and Barrow had to be sworn in in a foreign capital.”
Pham speculated that the Trump administration will do whatever it can to support the new democratically elected government.
“The door is open,” he said. “It wasn’t just that Jammeh came to power through a coup. His human rights record left a lot to be desired — his ridiculous claims about HIV/AIDS and other maladies, his anti-LGBT comments, serious concerns about money laundering. This was not a government the United States could work with.”
Nor could Senegal, which faced an influx of Gambian refugees as the situation in Banjul grew more and more tense.
“In many African countries, the neighbors look the other way. This was a unique case,” Pham said. “ECOWAS has a charter against holding onto power, but ECOWAS acted only because one of its members — Senegal — had a direct interest in this. Even in their acting, it took them awhile to get their act together.”
Now that things have calmed down, Faye said his main priority as ambassador is to cement bilateral relations between Gambia and the United States. Among other things, he would like Gambia reinstated into the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) — a program that provides duty-free access to the U.S. market for 6,400 products for dozens of countries. On Jan. 1, 2015, President Obama dropped Gambia, along with Swaziland and South Sudan, from AGOA benefits because of human rights concerns.
“We want to build on our bilateral relationship to make sure Gambia gets back into AGOA,” Faye said, noting that he also wants to improve his embassy’s outreach to the estimated 13,000 Gambians living in the United States — mainly New York, Atlanta and the D.C. metro area. “We have a longstanding relationship with the United States and together we can do a lot — particularly in agriculture and education — and we also want Americans to go and visit The Gambia.”
One more thing he’s asking for: patience.
“President Barrow is known to be a humble person who likes to listen to others, and he’s surrounded himself with very experienced people,” Faye said. “There are a lot of expectations, but we should take it easy. Things will not happen overnight.”