With Omar Wally
Cherno Njie was born and raised in Banjul. After graduating from secondary school, he worked for Standard Chartered Bank for several years before moving to the US for further studies. He graduated with BA in Government Studies from the University of Austin, Texas. He then worked at the City of Austin Planning Department dealing with housing, eventually moving to Texas State Department of Housing where he worked for a decade in a unit dealing with the taxes and bonds – a mechanism to finance affordable housing using the federal tax. Njie resigned and moved to the private sector as a consultant real estate developer. In December 2014 he alongside several other Gambians, mainly former military officers of The Gambia and US armies, staged an unsuccessful bloody coup against President Yahya Jammeh. In the wake of the foiled forcible overthrow of government, he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced in the US. He served his prison term and recently visited The Gambia where some hail him and some denounce him. In this edition of Bantaba anchor Omar Wally talked to him about these and related matters:
Mr Njie, you are a rich man whose son attends a private school and you bought a million-dollar home in a gated community. How did you strike it rich?
Well, I have three children. One is now 26 years old. I wanted to give him the best education I can afford. So I sent him to a private school; a very good school, St Andrews. I served on the board of the school for several years. That was the best choice.
In your critique of Jammeh, you said he did not emerge out of a vacuum — that he was in some ways both a product and a symptom of our present society, can you expound on that?
It is very easy for us to blame Jammeh for everything that occurred. [But] Jammeh is a product of Gambian society; he was born and educated here. We need to ask ourselves some tough questions. How was it possible for Jammeh to take up the educated class to do his bidding for so long, to be complicit in his raping of The Gambia in terms of resources? You only need to listen to the Janneh Commission testimonials. What we are hearing is they [civil servants] were following directives. How was it possible for Jammeh to commit the sins and crimes he was committing? We have a culture of maslaha, privileges, conjugality and harmony. If you look at the whole arc of Jammeh’s rule, you wonder why religious leaders, for example, were going to Jammeh to pray for him to lead and rule us for many decades. How was it possible? Should we examine our Gambian moral character in order to be able to move forward? We have to begin to re-examine the maslaha culture and start to question and to be comfortable with positive criticism.
On 30 December 2015, a group of armed men sponsored by yourself tried to topple Yahya Jammeh. What was your overriding motivation?
In a nutshell, it was an act of conscience. We got together and said that was the best option available. I had been involved quietly for many years in helping to strengthen the capacity of the Gambians in the diaspora to campaign against Jammeh in terms of financial support to online newspapers and activist groups who were organising demonstrations against Jammeh. I have done that for many years, and we came to a position where by the sanctions that the international community imposed on Jammeh did not in any way change the behaviour of the regime. So you begin to wonder what other options are available and I became part of December 30th [group]. We called ourselves The Gambia Freedom League. I became part of it because we believe that was the only option left. I wasn’t the founding member of the group until later when they requested financial assistance for the operation. Because we did not succeed therefore we did not publish all our documents that we had in preparation for transition period.
So to you, extra-constitutional means are justified to bring about change?
Anybody who believes Jammeh had won elections free and fair must be delusional. Jammeh had mechanisms for rigging elections and he was quite comfortable calling elections because he knew he could rig them. There was no level playing field and 2016 elections showed that. Certain actions taken by patriotic Gambians denied Jammeh the ability to rig those elections, otherwise he would have won.
What were the mechanisms you claim Jammeh had to rig elections?
He had phantom voters. Voters he could mobilise from Casamance and bring over and rig the election. There was an incident at the APRC headquarters where voters cards were burnt in a fire. That in effect was one of the most significant under-reported and unappreciated events in the 2016 elections. Jammeh had tens of thousands of voters cards that he had consistently in past elections to rig the vote. When that was denied, he basically was trapped.
Was it not foolhardy to risk it all by staging that coup because many schemers in the military tried it a dozen times from 1994 and failed?
Just because prior attempt had failed does not mean that we shouldn’t try. Yes the attempt did fail but I don’t regard it as total failure. Frankly, it was more of a setback. But we had confidence in the plan and an operation of this nature is always risky. There is always potential that it will fail… We thought we had a good chance. In the end folks we relied on within the Gambian army failed us at the crucial moments. That was what accounted for the failure.
Who were those people in the military who failed you?
Obviously, Sanneh had a lot of sources in the military. I do not know all of them, but I know of some. Some of them were court martialled and sentenced. There were other sources that we were not aware of. There are others that we knew but we will rather not mention [them now].
Was Gen Musa Savage one of them?
Like I said, there were some that we did not know. There has been a lot of talk about whether Savage was involved or not. I know for a fact that Sanneh intended to talk to Savage because he told me. I knew he had Savage’s number and there is collaboration that he did talk to Savage. I believe it but I don’t know for a fact that he talked to him. Now Savage has denied that but based on the evidence as I understand things, I think there is high probability he actually did talk to Savage. The approach to State House would not have gone the way it did had Sanneh had not received much assurance that the operation would be a friendly takeover. In other words, they did not go there to assault State House. Basically it was negotiated to take over State House.
Apart from your ‘sources’ in the Gambian military who else snitched on you?
Clearly Jammeh had some idea that we were here. Jammeh had wind of the threat and that led him to leave and [Gen] Saul Badjie also disappeared. The most likely source of that would be the US government. The Washington Post reported that Jammeh was tipped off by US government either directly or through a third party. There is some indication that he received some information about a credible threat and decided that he would leave.
There was speculation among segments of Gambians in the diaspora that Neneh MacDouall-Gaye was privy to your plans and leaked it to Jammeh and that was why she was made Foreign Minister a few days after the attack. Is that true?
That is categorically untrue. I don’t know Neneh, I have never met or communicated with her. I don’t know of anybody within the group who had any links to her. I don’t know what is the source of that information. Neneh could not have had that access to anybody relating to the December 30th [plans]. I have never met her. The idea that you will have any relationship with somebody you’d never seen or talked to is bizarre.
Gambians voted for Jammeh to be their president, who gave you the mandate to remove him?
We are citizens of The Gambia and as citizens we have moral rights. We don’t need permission. When Jammeh closes all avenues of peaceful change citizens have the right, duty and obligation to act on their own behalf to remove tyranny. We don’t need any approval from anybody, we did not take a poll of Gambians who will support us or who wouldn’t. We are aware that some Gambians did not agree with what we did, it is fine, they are entitled to their opinions. But as citizens we believe it was a moral obligation to remove tyranny where all other options were closed and that was why we acted. Gambians voted to remove Jammeh yes, but was Jammeh removed through peaceful means? I don’t think so. Jammeh was removed by the arrival of Ecomig forces. The use of force was what removed Jammeh. Without those forces Jammeh will still be here. The events of December 2016 were a vindication of our approach; it was use of force that removed Jammeh not the elections.
Did you lobby to be the interim president?
Lobby? That is the wrong word. There was no lobbying to be interim president. When I decided to finance the operation it was not conditional on me taking any position. I was approached by Lamin Sanneh, Barrow, et cetera. They made the decision and asked me.
Did you regret sponsoring the December 30th?
Not at all, I believe we have been vindicated.
You may have been vindicated but lives were lost
That is regrettable. If I had any regret, it is the loss of lives. We lost three sterling and patriotic Gambians and it is a tough loss. But the legacy will live with us for many generations. They paid the ultimate price because of their love for the country and all of them did a patriotic duty eagerly without looking for any positions or favours. They did it because they felt it was the right thing to do.
You came to ‘salvage’ the country, but you left more confusion and ran away when things broke down
It was not a suicide mission. We thought this was a campaign that will go on. It was not a one-time deal. We had to regroup and see what the next step will be. So staying in The Gambia under those circumstances would not have allowed us to regroup. We had regrouped and were watching what would happen, unfortunately the US intervened and arrested us but our plan was to regroup and see what next.
There was talk that you put pressure on Sanneh to act fast because you were not comfortable living with all those weapons in the house.
That is utter nonsense. There is no truth to that. The timing of the necessary action was determined purely by the military leaders, I had nothing to do with that. Regarding whether I was uncomfortable with weapons that is also untrue because the lethal weapons we had in our arsenal were bought by me and I had custody of those weapons. I owned the handgun in Texas for many years. Furthermore, if I were uncomfortable with weapons I would have stayed in Dakar and not ventured to come in.
Did your charmed life and business suffer because of the fallout of the coup?
It had an impact on my business but the loss of lives on the part of our men is a greater loss than any losses on my part. I can recover from that but we cannot recover those lives.
During those difficult moments for you, it was reported you suffered from canities subita. Now your hair is gone back to being black.
Haha! Well I am getting old that has nothing to do with the pressures of the moment or of December 30th. It is old age.
If your coup had succeeded what type of president would you have become?
This was transitional period and we had a statement of principles contained in a document we call “Gambia Reborn: Transition From Dictatorship To Democracy And Development”. It was a statement to revamp the economy and the civil service and governmental structures. Some of them are being done under the Barrow administration. For example security sector reform was one of the things we were going to do. Civil service reforms and reform of the economy, constitutional reforms as well as, truth commission to find out the atrocities Jammeh committed and to bring those people to justice as well as the recovery of assets stolen under the Jammeh regime.
Some are of the belief that there would not have been a difference between you and Jammeh. He also came to power in a bloodless coup with good ideas but messed up eventually.
That Jammeh turned into a bad apple and anyone attempting to remove him through force will be another Jammeh is a misguided notion. Jammeh came to power when he was barley 30 years old. No experience in governance or business, not a dollar to his name. I have accomplished much in my life and we have learnt if anything the mistakes with Jammeh to know that what we wanted to do was a transition period for three years. We were mature individuals who have been tested in many fields, so it is a completely different set of individuals than the Jammeh group.
Do you want to ever lead this country politically?
I want to remain in the private sector and make my contribution. Without an effective, efficient and transparent government, we are not going to have a robust private sector-led economy. I will be watching like everybody else to see that we hold the government accountable. At this stage, it is immature for me to talk about a presidential bid as I don’t belong to any political party.
What is your assessment of new Gambia?
There is an air of optimism and Gambians are optimistic that we can build a vibrant and enduring democracy. But there are signs that the euphoria is fading. I talk to lot of political leaders and it is evident that there is division within the Coalition that has brought Barrow to power. Those divisions have resulted in lack of policy coherence and that will slow the path of reform. President Barrow needs to keep the ball moving and must reposition the country and put it on sound footing if we are to get rid of the hangover from the Jammeh authoritarian state. Massive structural changes are needed and I’m not sure using the same crew that was here in the first place will lead us there.
What do mean the same crew?
The administration that Jammeh had is largely intact. There are some notable changes here and there but the civil service needs to be reformed. For example, do we actually need an army? These are the things that needed to be on the table. Bold moves need to be discussed, debated and be part of what we are evaluating in moving forward.
So you do not think The Gambia needs an army?
We need to do an assessment of the security threat the country faces in order to determine, number one, whether we need an army; number two, what would be the size of that army? Nobody can tell you what the size of our army is including people within the military. It has been dysfunctional; so if you don’t know what the size of the army is, how can you do any planning to determine what the threat level is? Do we need an army? If not, what is the alternative? These things must be debated. We are surrounded by Senegal, where is the threat?
What do you think should happen to Jammeh?
We pray that he live long and he will be brought back to face justice in The Gambia. Jammeh will eventually be brought back I’m optimistic.
Will Jammeh get fair trial?
Of course he will be accorded a fair trial.
What do you have to tell the new government?
The new government must close ranks and decide whether they want to govern as a coalition government under the mandate handed by the Gambian people for an agenda of renewal and reconstruction or rather the disjointed approach where everybody is out trying to do what is best for their party and not the nation. President Adama Barrow must decide whether he is a coalition candidate as he was elected or a UDP candidate where he originates from or whether he is posturing as a Barrow candidate to seek re-election in three or five years. Without that clear vision I think we are in for rough times.
As someone who tried to effect regime change in The Gambia, do you want Barrow to go for three or five year?
If you make an agreement, stick to it and move forward.
Any message to Gambians?
Gambians need to be vigilant and understand that the antidote to tyranny is not a virtue, and not to believe that our elected officials will always do the right thing. We need to be vigilant and hold each other accountable and ensure that the people we elected are held accountable to serve our interest and not their interests.
Elected officials are not lords over people, but only their servants and people need to speak up when they see that things are not going the right direction. The things that Jammeh used to rob us were two, primarily, tyranny and mediocrity. Tyranny has been removed but mediocrity in the Jammeh administrative state is still in place and it must be removed as we must seek excellence within the broad spectrum of Gambians regardless of gender, ethnicity or any other status.
Thank you for your time.