The Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh has blamed foreign attackers for a suspected coup on 29-30 December, sparking a crackdown on dissidents in the capital Banjul in recent days. Although little is known of the identity of the attackers, the incident is a further indication of divisions within the military and the fragility of the Jammeh regime. The coup attempt will add to concerns over the country’s long-term political stability, while threatening its economically vital tourism industry.
Many of the details surrounding the alleged Gambian coup remain unclear, though the violence is known to have begun late on 29 December while Jammeh was on a private visit to Dubai, and continued into the early morning of 30 December. A unit of heavily armed troops, including members of the presidential guard, are reported to have attacked the presidential palace after arriving in Banjul by canoe. The attackers engaged guards at the palace in an intense firefight, in which five of their members were killed, before the group was overcome and several were arrested. Following the violence, soldiers were deployed across Banjul and blocked off the Denton Bridge, which links the capital to the south of the country. Most banks and businesses were closed for around 24 hours.
The exact identity of the attackers remains unclear, but Gambian military officials have been cited in foreign media as blaming Lamin Sanneh, a former lieutenant-colonel who had deserted the army and was killed in the assault on the palace. In the aftermath of the alleged coup, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) launched a major crackdown on suspected dissidents, arresting several of Sanneh’s relatives and shutting down an independent radio station. The NIA also claimed to have uncovered documents containing an attack plan, as well as a large cache of weapons and explosives. Jammeh, meanwhile, has denied military involvement, instead blaming unnamed dissidents based in the US, Germany and the UK and insisting on the armed forces’ loyalty. This was followed on 5 January when the US announced it had arrested two individuals of Gambian descent suspected of supporting the coup attempt, including a Texas businessman who is believed to have financed the operation, and a man from Minnesota responsible for supplying the weapons. According to US court documents, the men are suspected of shipping 30 firearms in 50-gallon barrels and had hoped to have led a largely bloodless coup, but a mutinous Gambian battalion they had expected to support them failed to materialise.
Despite Jammeh’s protestations of the armed forces’ loyalty, eyewitness accounts of Sanneh’s involvement and reports that a Gambian battalion was part of the conspiracy suggest that some degree of military involvement is likely. Although the attack appears to have been ill-prepared the incident is nonetheless indicative of ongoing divisions within the military and considerable opposition to Jammeh’s rule from dissidents overseas. The Gambia has witnessed eight alleged coups during Jammeh’s 20-year rule, several of which involved senior military personnel, including a former army chief of staff and a director of the NIA. The military plays a key role in maintaining Jammeh’s position in power, but divisions have been growing in recent years in response to the president’s divide-and-rule tactics, which result in constant demotions, sackings and re-hirings of key personnel. This has been further exacerbated by allegations of preferential treatment for Jammeh’s Jola ethnic minority, which opposition groups claim receive a disproportionate number of promotions and opportunities in lucrative assignments. Dissidents based overseas have also repeatedly criticised the Jola’s preferential treatment on opposition websites and Jammeh has previously accused these individuals of conspiring to attack The Gambian state. Although the exact motivations for the latest coup remain uncertain, these factors have bred considerable resentment within the military and may have played an important contributing factor in the recent unrest.
The political situation in The Gambia will remain precarious amid ongoing opposition to Jammeh’s rule and tensions in the military. The extreme secrecy of The Gambian state means these will often be difficult to monitor or predict, with previous coup attempts following a familiar pattern of a sudden outburst of violence, followed by a crackdown on dissidents and then a period of relative calm. The restoration of calm would indicate that the threat to Jammeh’s regime has passed for the time being, but his government will remain vulnerable to further coup attempts while tensions in the military persist. Any future incidence of major defections, reshuffles of senior army posts, or animosity towards Jola factions within the military, will be key indicators of potential unrest.
The unrest will also impact upon the country’s vital tourism industry, which contributes around 16-20 percent to GDP. The ministry of tourism ministry reported in October that negative reports associated with the ebola outbreak in West Africa had already seen the number of tourists fall by 50-60 percent, and the latest unrest will further undermine the country’s reputation overseas. The UK, which provides around 60,000 tourists to The Gambia each year, has issued a travel warning to its citizens urging caution and any further unrest will increase the risk of major package holiday operators withdrawing from the country.