Andrew Winter US ambassador to The Gambia at the time of the 1994 coup

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By Charles Stuart Kennedy
(Foreign Affairs Oral History Project)

Complicity in the 1994 coup that toppled Jawara’s government in 1994 has dogged the US Embassy in Banjul. The matter has been brought to the fore in the past weeks with witnesses testifying before the TRRC stating that they suspected Washington of involvement. To present the US perspective, we reproduce a February 2010 interview with the US ambassador in the country at the time, Mr Andrew Winter with Mr Charles Stuart Kennedy of the US Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project. In today’s edition of Bantaba, we reproduce the final installment of extracts of Ambassador Winter’s interview:

Charles Stuart Kennedy: Any thought of pulling the Peace Corps out or anything like that?
Ambassador Winter: No, there was no reason to. The United States Government immediately cut off aid as required by law. The USAID director, Rose Marie Depp, and I sent messages by separate channels saying fine, cut off aid. However, she had done her homework, she was a terrific officer, and the law was clear: money that was in the pipeline could stay and the USAID mission didn’t have to pull out in any hurry. We convinced Washington to continue the programmes, which were assisting the government in improving governance and building sustainable institutions. The new government would need that assistance even more than the old one. Washington agreed. For the remaining year I was there the USAID mission stayed and the money continued to flow.

Even the coup plotters appreciated the continuance of assistance. A new AID director came in and maintained good relations with the government. The Senegalese asked Jawara to leave as soon as he could. Jawara had a small house in the English countryside. He retired there and after several years negotiated with the Gambians to retire back to The Gambia. He said don’t worry, I’m not going to be a threat but I love my country, I want to go there to live out my old age. I focused on human rights. All of the ministers, the head of the National Security Agency, and the police chief were in jail. I had known all of them and they were very decent and good people. The only really bad guy was Vice President Sabally and he went off with the ship to Senegal. The military government immediately let the International Red Cross have access to the ministers who were in prison in Banjul.

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The Red Cross came to visit me and assured me that everyone was being well treated. They were living in very simple circumstances, were receiving food, weren’t being mistreated, weren’t being tortured, and they weren’t being interrogated. They were separated from the criminals and they had basic freedom on the prison grounds. I immediately started talking with the foreign minister, Blaise Jagne, a career Gambian diplomat, who had served in Washington. He was an opportunist and quickly endeared himself to the young lieutenants who clearly were in need of somebody who was articulate. They made him the foreign minister, under the condition that he would – in a very diplomatic way – do their bidding. He became a very effective agent. He clearly didn’t like me because of the way I had stood up to the coup plotters that very first day. He made it clear to me that the government didn’t like me. He was polite bordering on the impolite. He wasn’t very interested in talking to me but he tolerated me.

 

Well isn’t that kind of the best solution? Because we didn’t want to embrace them.
Right. However I kept pushing for the release of the ministers. I put in a formal note. I did this without consulting Washington. After the coup and once the Americans were safe, The Gambia disappeared from the Washington map again with good reason. I kept insisting I would like to see the ministers to be assured they were being treated humanely. The foreign minister kept reminding me that I had no right to see them, that the International Red Cross was there, and that everything was fine. I said I have no doubt but it would be a goodwill gesture to allow the diplomatic community, in the presence of me, to go see them.

I said I know these people, they’ve been my friends for the last year; I would like to be assured that they are being treated well. After two weeks, I received a call that I could go visit the prison. I was allowed to bring food and books; I wasn’t searched. My chauffeur, the consular officer and I carried in all the food we could. It wasn’t much; three big boxes of food and a big box of books so they’d have something to read. We sat outside their quarters; they actually each had their own room. There were two one-story buildings facing each other with about six cells each, each with cell doors that were unlocked. There were straw mats to sleep on and a communal place to wash.

We sat on orange crates in a circle and chatted for a good hour. They all assured me they were well and they also assured me, which was one of the key purposes of my visit, that all they wanted to do was to go home to their families. They wanted to resume their private lives and stay out of trouble. After that I kept pushing the government to release the political prisoners. I would raise the subject with every minister with whom I met. I tried to see the president, but he wasn’t interested in seeing me. At one point I even scribbled a note to him, a personal note, and managed to hand it to him, saying that I’d like to sit down and talk to him. He never responded.

I wouldn’t say I scare people but I come across strong, and that’s been true throughout my career in the Foreign Service even with my American colleagues. I really think I made him nervous. He was insecure and his fellow soldiers were insecure. Two weeks later I was invited to a meeting at the State House without being told what it was about. I was asked to come alone, which made me a little nervous, to be quite honest. I was escorted into the vice president’s conference room. There was the vice president, who was a lieutenant, several other soldiers and all of the detainees, all of the ministers and others who had been politically detained after the coup. It was a very polite, almost formal affair, and I was there as a witness. The vice president said to the detainees that we are releasing you; you all have agreed that you’re going to resume normal lives, and you will not be involved in politics. Ambassador Winter is here to escort you out of State House. We’ve arranged cars to take you home. They went back to their families and resumed normal lives; not quite as comfortable as before and with greater concern for how they were going to make a living. But they were alive, they’d been relatively well treated, and they were going back home and to peace. I wouldn’t say I was responsible for their release, but I played a part and it was something that I’ll always be proud of.
Were there any other ambassadors present?
No.

 

Had you made more of a fuss than them?
Oh yes. Keep in mind there were very few ambassadors. Other than a handful of African ambassadors who basically didn’t give a hoot, it was just the Brits and the EU, who both tended to be very cautious. I was the only one that was pushing human rights issues.

 

This is- I’ve got a very important point, that- as we will follow through on this obviously but just to emphasize here, that the United States, with all its faults and warts and everything else you can think about, is the only country that more or less consistently raises issues such as human rights and all this, whereas our European colleagues whom you would- who often talk about these things don’t do much or they’re at the periphery or something.
I agree with you. But putting it in context, here we had a military coup d’e´tat; a military regime that still by any standards was initially quite decent. They weren’t torturing people, they weren’t killing people, and they had released the ministers. To give it some international legitimacy, they had invited me to attend the release ceremony, which showed a good side of this new government.

 

Later did any of those ministers who had been released come and thank you for what you’d done or not?
I didn’t see any of them again. I think that they saw me as a liability to them because the government didn’t like me. All of these ministers took very seriously the fact that if they stayed under the radar, they would be fine. After that, The Gambia, being the sleepy place it is, went back to being sleepy. We had a not very bright head of state, a former lieutenant who proceeded to dress in very opulent local dress and proceeded to go on the Hajj for the first time in his life. One ironic incident for my wife, who was from Taiwan, and I involved the Peoples Republic of China and Taiwan. The ambassador from China was our next-door neighbor and we were friendly, if not friends. Taiwan, with the change of government, made a move to try and get recognition.

I was at the foreign ministry and they had just recognized Taiwan and, of course, the Peoples Republic had just announced that they were going to leave in protest. The foreign minister couldn’t quite understand why the Chinese were leaving. They wanted both of them to stay and I very politely informed him that, of course, they’re going to leave. At worst it was naivete´ and there were rumors, that I tend to give great credence to, that in addition to a promise of aid that US$10 million, which is a cheap price to pay by Taiwan for recognition, had been deposited in Swiss bank accounts in the names of the president and other government officials. I have no proof of that but it certainly seems credible.

There were a couple of very minor, I wouldn’t even call them counter coups, incidents where more junior military officers tried to foment some trouble, but there might have been 10 shots fired and they were detained. I continued to speak out against the government, primarily using the the Daily Observer. Quoting me was the only somewhat safe way that the editor Ken Best, a Liberian, could print negative views of the government. Eventually they detained him and ultimately kicked him out of the country because he wasn’t a Gambian citizen and they wanted to silence his newspaper.

The newspaper continued to publish under a Gambian editor, but very carefully. With Ken gone the newspaper kept a little more distance from me. In March the government sent a diplomatic note through their embassy in Washington to the State Department informing the State Department that they could no longer guarantee my safety. The State Department sent it to me and asked me for my comment. I replied that the only threats that I could possibly perceive of were twofold; either the government itself or some soldier who hears of this policy and thinks he can improve his promotion possibilities by killing me. The State Department sent a rather curt reply, which the Gambians never responded to, reminding the government of its responsibilities to protect diplomats under international law. Then in May the government sent another note, saying that Ambassador Winter continues to engage in activities that interfere in the internal affairs of The Gambia and that, again, they couldn’t guarantee my safety.

I was scheduled to leave permanently in August and in June I was scheduled to go back to the States for the graduation of my daughter from Longwood College.
This was the end of May and I sent a message back to Washington saying, if I were going to be staying another year, I’d stay another year. But I’m scheduled to leave in August. I’m leaving in June for three weeks; I think the wisest course is for me not to return, given this second threat by the government. Well, the AF Bureau was rather upset at that. They thought I was overreacting. They sent the security officer from Dakar to check out the situation. He came there and evaluated the threat. The Libyans now had a presence in The Gambia and a Libyan embassy car was staking out the embassy. I had absolutely no protection; there were no Marine guards and no local bodyguards. My house was unprotected; the embassy was a former motel, literally. The security officer, after two days, sent a cable to Washington saying Mr Winter is scheduled – this was May 25 – to depart June 6; I recommend he leave tomorrow. It’s unwise for him and for the US Government to risk his safety; although it’s unlikely, it’s possible. I packed out and my wife and I departed, never to return. And with a certain amount of sadness.

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