How to topple a dictator: the rebel plot that freed the Gambia

Photo Credit: Thierry Gouegnon for Reuters

On Saturday 13 August 2016, six bodyguards from the protection detail of the Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, squeezed into a rental car and drove to the sprawling coastal town of Serekunda. They stopped in Senegambia, the capital’s famous party street, where music blares from bars and white tourists walk around in flip-flops hand-in-hand with young lovers. The men drank some juice and nibbled at some food as they awaited nightfall.

At 1am, when they considered it was safe to move, they got back in the car and drove towards the headquarters of Jammeh’s ruling party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC). They stopped a little distance from the building and peered through the darkness. The building seemed empty. After circling it twice they parked the car 300 metres away. There was only one guard, in a small shed close to the entrance.

The guard, taken by surprise, was tied up and gagged, and four men kept watch while two entered the building. They knew what they were looking for, but they overturned shelves and tables and threw items around the room to make their visit look like a random act of vandalism.

In another room, they piled chairs and computers in the middle of the floor, with folders, binders and papers. On top of the pile, they placed what they had come for: three cardboard boxes containing ID cards for citizens registered to vote. The guards had intelligence that fake IDs would be given to foreigners paid to vote for the ruling party. Rather than dislodge the president by force, the guards would try to stop him rigging the election. One of them poured petrol on the pile, the other took out his lighter and set the heap ablaze.

It was one of several small steps that would culminate in the toppling of one of Africa’s strangest and most enduring dictators. During his 22-year rule, Jammeh treated this impoverished, elongated west African country as his personal fiefdom. He liked to drive at speed across the country in his motorcade, throwing biscuits and money to the crowds from the sunroof of his Hummer limousine – a stunt that killed and injured several of his citizens. He had sworn to rule “for a billion years”, and had held elections every few years to give his dictatorship a gloss of legitimacy, after suppressing any opposition. His intelligence service infiltrated every layer of society, and his personal militia, the Jungulars, made critics, journalists and political opponents disappear.

The regime had made clear its willingness to shut down public demonstrations of dissent with lethal violence. In 2000, when hundreds of students from the national university marched through the streets of Banjul to protest the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by a policeman, Jammeh’s security forces opened fire. Fourteen students and one journalist were killed, and the crackdown sent a clear message to the Gambian people: anyone who challenged the regime would be punished.

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