Following more than 24-hours of uncertainty after a failed coup attempt that turned deadly, Yahya Jammeh, the dictator who has ruled The Gambia for more than two decades, landed in the capital city after a trip abroad, sparking fears of a brutal crackdown on dissidents.
Jammeh's travels to France were cut short Tuesday after a late night attempt to overthrow the leader, who is notorious for silencing any form of opposition, committing human rights violations, and maintaining a tight grip on media in the West African nation.
While the situation in the country remained in flux, the 49-year-old president swiftly made his way home, landing in Banjul Wednesday morning, much to the consternation of diaspora leaders and activists who supported the coup. The regime has not made any official statements on the attempted overthrow, although state-run radio reports claim, "peace and calm continue to prevail in The Gambia." Most services and public transport in the city has also reportedly returned to normal.
Conflicted reports and confusion emerged as events unfolded Tuesday, largely due to an ongoing media blackout in Gambia. But what is clear is that around 1am, a group of dissident former Gambian soldiers residing in the US, Europe, and Senegal, took advantage of Jammeh's absence abroad and entered the small West African country in an attempt to take control of key strategic locations including the presidential palace.
Some of the coup participants took control of a bridge, cutting off parts of the city, and an airport, where some regime soldiers were said to have joined the so-called freedom fighters. A gunfight at the presidential palace broke out between dissident soldiers and regime-loyalists, which resulted in injuries and deaths on both sides.
Former Gambian army commander Lamin Sanneh has been accused of leading the attack. Sanneh was reportedly killed Tuesday, along with three others, identified by sources familiar with the situation as US army captain Njaga Jagne; a British army member referred to as Nyassi; and another unnamed individual.
Local radio reports indicated that a State Guard captain with prior knowledge of the plot — that was allegedly planned and coordinated by dissidents living outside the country — may have undermined the insurgents and launched a counterattack.
Because of the country's tightly-controlled state-run media, the Gambian diaspora, including political exiles, former officials, and dissident soldiers, play a major role in publicizing the plight of Gambians, as they did this fall when they shed light on new legislation that made same-sex relationships an offense worthy of life in prison.
"We Gambians on the outside know a lot more than Gambians on the inside," US-based diaspora leader Abdoulaye Saine told VICE News.
As developments unfolded Tuesday, members of the Gambian diaspora like Saine waited for updates on the coup attempt, holding out for the possibility that either local forces or the international community would prevent Jammeh's reentry.
At the time, Saine said he had hoped Senegal would intervene, fearing a brutal backlash if the leader was allowed to return. Thousands of Senegalese reside and vacation in the Gambia — a small sliver of a country that is surrounded mostly by Senegal, except for its Atlantic coast, which inspires the popular tourist spot's nickname, "smiling coast."
Saine added that some of the freedom fighters had crossed into Senegal after the firefight in order to regroup.
Saine, who chairs the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in The Gambia (CORDEG), has called on the US and European Union to intervene in the matter. But in a statement Tuesday evening, the US Department of State denounced the thwarted overthrow.
"We strongly condemn any attempt to seize power through extra-constitutional means," the state department said. "We regret the loss of life and call on all parties to refrain from further violence."
The UN Security Council was briefed on the situation Wednesday.
Speaking shortly after the failed coup, Saine said support from the international community would be imperative going forward and predicted a "bloodbath" if or when Jammeh returns.
"People are very scared about the aftermath," he said.
The severe backlash that occurred after an earlier attempted overthrow in 2006, made while Jammeh was on a trip to Mauritania, looms over this week's events. Observers wait on edge to see what happens next.
Following Jammeh's return home in 2006, the leader initiated a swift crackdown, which Jeffrey Smith at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights described as "very, very brutal," with 11 people jailed and executions reportedly carried out.
A second attempted coup on the leader in 2009 saw eight high-level military officials sentenced to death, accused of plotting the overthrow. Just one day after the third and most recent shot at overthrowing Jammeh, the government has shut the country's borders and Reuters reported that checkpoints had been erected in the capital to search people on their way to work — potentially a sign that the backlash has already begun.
"If anything, Jammeh over the past 20 years has ruled with impunity," Smith said. "I have never worked with people or seen a more restrictive environment than in The Gambia. [Jammeh] rules through fear."
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