With Omar Wally
Papa Faal was born in Brikama. In 1991 he left for the US, enrolling in the University of District of Colombia. In 1994 he moved to Strayer University and graduated with a BSc degree in Information Systems. He later got certified as Microsoft System engineer. In 2007, he got an MSc in Technology Management and an MBA the following year. He spent ten years in US military and served in Afghanistan. In 2012, Papa Faal retired from the military with the rank of sergeant. In December 2014, he along several other people mainly former military officers travelled to The Gambia to forcibly dislodge President Jammeh but the attack was thwarted and some of the plotters killed. Upon his return to the US, Papa Faal was arrested, charged, arraigned and sentenced and imprisoned. He is now a free man currently working on a doctorate programme in Business Administration focusing on Technology at Walden University in Minnesota. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Omar Wally talks to him about the gory events of two Decembers ago. Excerpts:
During the July 1981 abortive coup, your family was held hostage while your grand uncle, President Jawara was in London. Tell us about the harrowing details of that experience.
I981 was a terrible event in the history of The Gambia. That was when Kukoi Samba Sanyang came, like you said, Sir Dawda was out of the country and they toppled the government. I was 13 years old and when it began the signs were not good because we knew that if Sir Dawda did not relent to let things go, we would be targeted. We were targeted because people thought we were benefiting from the government which was not true. We know Sir Dawda was not somebody who will give money out willy-nilly. We went into hiding. We were kidnapped three days later by somebody we knew. We were supposed to be taken to Depot [in Bakau] to join my great aunty Mama Chilel and children but the Senegalese cut off the road at Yundum. So we had to be taken to the house of Chief Sanjally Bojang in Kembujeh. That was where we were until everything calmed down.
My book The Week of Hell, lays out everything that happened from the beginning to the end, based on interviews from people and my own perspective and some articles that were written at that time.
Who kidnapped you and your family?
I try not to mention names in that book and I don’t think I will name names here. Sometimes, it is very dangerous to name names because on the spur of the moment things happen and people who are really close to you usually are the ones who will turn against you for one reason or the other. They commit this kind of crime but then down the line you see that their family members are friends to your family members. That is the reason why we try not to name names. I used pseudonyms in the book to hide the identity of some of the perpetrators. If you look at the number of people that were killed, I think it was 500, some reports say 1,000 on both the Senegalese and Gambian side, it was not the rebels who were mainly killing. The killings happened because some civilians had access to weapons. May be they had some argument or jealously against somebody, so they went on the rampage and that was what happened to us too. Kukoi was using us as a bargaining chip. Sir Dawda’s resistance to the coup placed Kukoi in a very funny situation. He panicked and at that point he had to do whatever to change Sir Dawda’s mind. My great uncle Sheriffo Jawara was captured and we were captured too because we lived with him. The person who came for us was our own driver. Imagine the person who sits and eats with you, reporting you! Those were the very people who turned around, came, took our vehicle from our house and arrested us. The main idea for Kukoi to go for Jawara’s family was to give him leverage.
Although your grand uncle is no longer head of the PPP, do you still support the party?
PPP has done a lot for this country which young people don’t know. I live in the US for 26 years; and out of those 26 years I served ten years in the military. People and political parties perished but the country remains. If you look at the US, the founding fathers are the most revered. You talk about George Washington, Jefferson and Adams, they are amazingly revered and people appreciate what they have done for the US to actually be what it is now. They laid the foundation. Why can’t we do the same for this country? PPP is a political party but if we look back at the history of political parties that were here prior to 1965, the idea of independence was far from their minds. They were mainly a group of localised political parties who wanted prestige but the PPP changed that because from its inception, its major objective was to bring freedom and independence to The Gambia. They were unyielding until it was achieved.
All right, but do you still support the PPP?
Yes, I support PPP because it has done so much for this country. Its policies were solid, brought peace, stability and prosperity. I will tell you why prosperity. When Yahya Jammeh took over power in 1994, the government reserves were forty-eight months. That was the money Jammeh was embezzling. So why won’t I support Jawara? Yes people might think that it is my grandfather’s party, that is true, but I also believe in the policies it initiated.
But honestly, why were you so embittered by Jammeh. Is it not also because your family lost power and prestige?
I had that question before, I keep hearing people saying, ‘Oh you know what, Faal joined the movement because he wants to avenge his grandfather’. If I step back and look at when the coup happened and the time I became active, it was when there were killings in 1998. I did some demonstrations against some of the things that were going on, but I was not involved deeply. The reason why I was not getting involved was because I was working on developing myself. The country is bigger than Sir Dawda. Me, the political parties will all perish but the country will still be here. The people of The Gambia deserve the best of peace and stability and if that is taken from them there is nothing else left. I used to come to The Gambia almost every two years; my last time was in 2013 when I came down to meet Papa Jawara to interview him for my book. What I saw was pain in people’s heart. You can see it in their eyes, I paid attention. I saw the difficulty. I did not jump in one day and say Sir Dawda is my grandfather, Yahya Jammeh did this to him then I have to go after him. That was not the case.
How did you join the 30 December attackers?
When I was invited to join the December 30th Movement, I never hesitated because of one thing. Even before I was invited, in April 2014, at the Raleigh Conference, I submitted documentation and made statements that the option for an armed movement should not be ignored because it may be a necessary evil. We saw election after election being rigged and people being killed and made to disappear. The country was horrible and people were suffering and the president had become the sole provider of goods and services and he kept enriching himself. How can anyone who has a heart for the country stay behind? That was my conviction. When I knew about the movement, I called a friend of mine and I told him you know what, this is an option which should not be ignored and we have to take it. That was when he said, ‘I will call you back’ and after a few weeks, I got a call from Njaga Jagne and I was invited to a meeting. When I went for the meeting, I saw their plan. I did not hesitate because I went to Afghanistan and fought for United States. When the call came, why won’t fight for my country, to defend the people of The Gambia and pull them out of the tragedy that they found themselves in?
America was fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, in The Gambia it was repression, why didn’t you opt for a fight that was in line with the law?
There is nothing that Gambians have not done. Before Jammeh left, the efforts of the Diaspora were given a bad image. Most Gambians had this inclination that the people in the Diaspora were jealous of the Jammeh regime for the good work that it was doing. But what the Diasporans did and the information that they were getting from the Gambia, from Pa Nderry and Fatou Camara’s radios, from Saul Mbenga and Pa Samba Jow, you name it… They were day in, day out talking. We went and talked to senators. We wrote to the State Department. A handful of others and I sat down with three senators and with us was a lady whose father disappeared for five years. We invited her to tell the senators her story. We put our grievances, demonstrated in the streets but nothing happened. They did not take any action. If you hitting the wall and anytime you want to get to the other side and you are tired, what would you do? You will need a bulldozer to bring the wall down so that you can go to the other side. We did not have any other option but to force him out.
What took Yahya Jammeh out? It was a military operation that took him out. Yes, it was legal. We have Ecomig who were made up of several countries, but our action was a wake-up call, especially to the international community. I was interviewed by somebody from The New Yorker [magazine], he asked me ‘Yes your coup did not succeed, but it succeeded in one other way, that is I didn’t know about The Gambia before the coup, but now I am forcing myself to learn more about The Gambia.’ It brought awareness around the world that The Gambia was a ticking time bomb and it could explode any time. When I went to the State Department, I told the deputy secretary for The Gambia desk that if we did not do something, we will see the Rwandan style in The Gambia.
But the US could not get involved because The Gambia is a sovereign country.
I don’t think so because US policy is very funny. Their interest is everywhere; it may be indirect but it is always there no matter what. Jammeh has a US$3.5million
house in America; his kids are going to school in New York costing $80,000 per annum; his wife goes shopping there. This guy will come insult the US right on the radio and call them all evil names and yet they didn’t do anything. The US did not leave The Gambia alone as a sovereign nation because they interfered with the political system to prolong Jammeh’s reign, for whatever reason. I believe they had something with Jammeh. We can say the US does not interfere with other nations, but look at Libya, Egypt, Iran. Go back and look at Ghana. Who triggered Nkrumah’s coup? We are going to do this service ourselves. Gambian people cannot outsource their problems to someone else or they will have to outsource the defence of this country to somebody else. Anyone who will want to defend The Gambia has to have an interest in it. Senegal came in because our peace and stability is very vital to Senegal’s stability.
For Libya it was Bernard-Henri Levy, a French journalist, author and philosopher who personally persuaded President Sarkozy to go to war with Gaddafi, not US? The way the US operates, you just have to scratch and keep scratching, you have to dig deeper. On the surface everything will look good for you that they are not part of it. You know the story why the Iraq-Iran war was created? One might say it was Saddam who invaded Kuwait, but if you dig you will find out so much and you will be disappointed. Well, let me say this, if you profess good governance and democracy across the world and US claim to be the beacon of hope, yet a lot of things are going on. I don’t have anything against the US, I’m a US citizen, I live there and serve in the military, but in terms of The Gambia, what happen, I will not decouple it. Jammeh kept doing things and Gambians kept saying the international community will help and it never happened. It was not until December 2015 when the US was able to take any action against Jammeh and it was slap on the face. The EU pulled out their resources and put conditions. That was all what we wanted from US. They should come and put conditions but they never did. The writing was on the wall that we have to take action; that our destiny was in our own hands to help our own people or else they were going to linger in terror.
But your attempt on 30th December failed spectacularly. Why?
I would not say it failed spectacularly. That word spectacularly, I think it does disservice to people who went down there to do their best. I would not say it failed [even though] the outcome was not what we anticipated and expected. But it helped on the other side. If you are going to war with people, you have to have strength and work with people who know the terrain. The Gambian military was subjugated by Yahya Jammeh. A lot of people there even wanted to do something but their hands were tied. What we found out right now, had I known before, the people we put our trust in were actually, not those that we should have trusted. The people who Lamin Sanneh trusted were not the people he should have trusted. For example, you have a military and wanted to invade a place, you don’t know the terrain, you want to get down there with minimal causality, you find somebody, who is inside and can help you get through to eliminate causalities.
Who were your local partners and insiders?
Like I said, I’m not going to name names.
Do you agree with the reports indicating that US knew about the coup and informed Jammeh?
Jammeh had a full knowledge of us being here. We already knew that. That US had actually contacted Jammeh that we were here. That was confirmed and written by the Washington Post. There was this guy Fred from Washington Post, when I got to the United States, he came to my house and wanted an interview. When I spoke to him on the phone, what he told me was that ‘This whole thing didn’t make any sense to me, what Jammeh is doing and US policies are contrary to one another, yet you guys are in prison for doing something that US officials are doing all over bringing down tyranny, putting an end to tyranny.’ He started digging in and he found out that the more he dug, the more he found something that is fishy. He found out that the US contacted Jammeh that we were in The Gambia. It was fortunate that they did not know where we were staying and the day we were going to take action. If not, we would have been killed. The US risked the lives of the people by calling Jammeh. Jammeh did not move, so our plans had to change based on Jammeh’s movements. We already had our operation plan; the first time that we had to do our operation, the target did not show up. We adjusted. The only time Jammeh got out of State House was when he was leaving the country. That did not make any sense to me. When I got to US and this report came that in fact the US was the one that tipped off Yahya Jammeh. A week prior to that we were in country.
Why would the US do that?
You ask me? I don’t know.
You said you had to adjust your plans several times because Jammeh was tipped off but you had several plans. One was to arrest Jammeh, the other was to ambush and kill him. Why didn’t you go ahead with the other plans?
There was an ambush but there was never a time that we wanted to kill Jammeh unless we were attacked. If we hit resistance and we were not able to capture Jammeh alive yes, we would have killed him.
You trailed Republican National Guard commander Lt Gen Saul Badjie. You spotted him in a supermarket but allowed him to drive away. Why and why Saul Badjie?
Well after Jammeh, who is in charge? We cannot say Isatou Njie-Saidy who was in charge. Saul was the most prominent after Jammeh in terms of the country’s affairs. When Jammeh left, our next target was him. That was the case because we could have chosen the State House and kept firing and taken over the whole thing. Or we do it strategically and cut the head of the snake until we get what we wanted. Our target was to capture him and force him to surrender State House because if he gave command, it will be obeyed.
But the Army is there and there was the 1st and 2nd Infantry Battalion. Reinforcement could have been called from anywhere.
We had the 1st Infantry Battalion. They were supposed to join us but they never showed up.
Was Gen Musa Savage privy to your activities? There were speculations that he was the one who betrayed you?
Musa Savage betrayed us. I remember Sanneh spoke to him. I was standing right next to Sanneh when we were getting ready to go. We found out that Savage was going to be the commander at the sentinel. He spoke to Sanneh before he left our rally point. He knew that we were coming. If Sanneh he was not on favourable terms with Savage, he would not have contacted him. His agreement with Sanneh, I’m assuming, the coup would flow freely. We would go in, disarm the soldiers without killing them and no shot will be fired. If we look at the whole thing, how we failed, some think our plan was an inferior plan. How many coups have been attempted in The Gambia? The only movement that went all the way was ours. If it were ill-designed, you think we would have got there? Three weeks we were in country. The president and the US knew that we were here, yet we managed to do what we did.
Apart from Gen Savage which other senior military officers were part of the coup and betrayed you?
I don’t think I will like to mention for now.
Well if you can mention Musa Savage, why not others?
You mentioned his name. And the others like I said, Savage was the only one [among them] who did not go to prison. All the others [with us] served their time. Just look and see who were sentenced for treason.
Going by your statement, Captain Abdoulie Jobe, Private Momodou Njie and others were part of your team then?
I’m not telling you anything. I’m just saying that look at the configuration and I think you can see for yourself.
In the aftermath of the coup, you were vilified by the Gambia government as terrorists.
Do I look like a terrorist to you Omar Wally? These people were the most honourable the cream of the crop. I used the cream of the crop because of the risk they took. For 22 years, we saw what happened. For 22 years they left everything, Njaga had a family, he was in the military; Sanneh had a good life, Bai Lowe, Musa Sarr, Modou Njie and Bojang were in Germany waiting for their [residency] papers. They cut that to come down to The Gambia with no expectation but to serve their country. Would you call those people terrorists?
Government claimed you intended to destroy key infrastructure including the Central Bank of The Gambia building, Denton Bridge, Gamtel House and Kotu Power Station among other strategic national assets. That would have constituted great acts of terrorism.
Let me ask you a question: We attack State House, then turn around and destroy all those infrastructure? Does that make any sense to you? Who will take over the government and destroy the infrastructures? That would be madness. Denton Bridge was named. If we destroy Denton Bridge, aren’t we locking ourselves in Banjul?
Do you see yourself as a failed revolutionary?
I’m not a failed revolutionary. I will tell you how I’m not a failed revolutionary. Is Che Guevara a failed revolutionary?
Che Guevara’s guerrilla campaign deposed President Fulgencio Batista of Cuba and you travelled thousands of kilometres to The Gambia and could not remove a tin-pot dictator from power?
A tin-pot dictator? My brother Omar, I think if you fall back on this whole Gambian situation, the first time I had somebody speak their mind was in January 2015. You will not be sitting down here interviewing me. You know why? Because now they saw that the myth that was built around State House was actually a facade. For the first time Gambians were able to stand up and speak their minds. Looking behind, I say the coup did not fail, it led to something that was never heard of [before].
What do you think should happen to those soldiers who killed Sanneh and others?
Well, you are a Muslim right?
I’m a Muslim too. In Islam when soldiers go to war and a group betrays, what happens to them? They are charged with treason. In the West, when a soldier deserts a war field, he is charged with treason. So, I’m leaving that to the people of The Gambia and the government. I cannot dictate that. It is not a coincidence that Musa Savage was promoted from major to general.
You mean Savage’s meteoric rise from major to general was a reward for him betraying you?
You just need to look at it.
Okay Gen Savage was promoted, do you also deserve some recognition from the new government for you role in 30th December events?
I only deserve the feeling I have inside me. Looking out there seeing people doing what they are supposed to do. That is the freedom, peace of mind that they have day in, day out. They can stand out there speak their mind to the government without interference. That is my reward. I don’t need anything, I have everything my brother.
Having a criminal record will it affect you in anyway in America?
Well sure, that is how it is. A criminal record in US affects your life in the US.
Sanneh had a job at Baltimore Community College as IT instructor and he was being paid US$28 per hour. You were teaching in an institution and you told them you would be taking the next semester off. After the failed attempted coup were you accepted back?
When I was in jail my students were writing to my lawyer to vouch on my behalf. And when I met some of them, they said I could go back anytime I wanted. But my restriction did not lift until December 2017. I can’t work as an instructor. My condition prevented me from going back to teach.
Would you have done it all over again?
If the opportunities arise again, yes I think so. This is our country, if you can fight in Afghanistan why would I not do it for The Gambia to help people get out of repression? It is my civic and religious duty. I will not stand by and watch oppression.
When the coup failed and you went to the US Embassy in Dakar, they gave you pizza and you opened up. Was that not snitching?
A pizza can make me snitch, right? One thing I’m going to make clear, you talk to anybody my team is everything to me. The condition of my mind when I was going, I was with the impression that everybody had died. When I got out, I had only one person that was left out with me and that was Musa Sarr. The information I was getting on my way to Senegal was that all of them were dead. Their family members were in US, they needed to be informed. That was the state of mind I was in. I didn’t care. I did not give anybody’s name. I gave out code names but not real names. People think I’m a snitch. I did this to help myself but there are so many things that have happened and I had to lay out the foundation for those who were coming in. When I went to the embassy, I was not in danger, nobody ever knew that the US was actually going to against us. I was not with that impression. When I got there, what they said was, you are not safe here, we will transport you back to United States.
But the FBI agent told you that what you did was a crime. Right?
Yes he did.
And what did you tell him?
I told him I don’t care. I’m not a liar, I will never lie for anybody, and I will not lie to save my own skin but what I will do is to honour those people who died. Some can call me coward, snitch but it was only eight of us who came to defend The Gambia. Those who were here never showed up. Had 1st Infantry Battalion shown up things would have been different. Had the people in State House kept their words, things would have been different. The three would not have been dead. I’m going to caution Gambians to look at things broadly and not from a narrow point of view.
When you wanted to come your wife was not happy, Banka Manneh’s mother confiscated his passport. Why was Banka removed from the call conference group when his passport was taken away by his mom?
Listen I don’t want to talk about it. Banka is a great and honourable man, a friend of mine.
What do think about ‘New Gambia’?
The new Gambia is wonderful. Look around. The people are happy, no stress. They don’t turn around everywhere and fear being arrested or a midnight knock on their family member’s door and disappeared. The new Gambia is beginning and there is lot of potential and great hope for the future. Gambians’ destiny lay in their hands. They should never think the US or the EU is going to come and help them or protect their destiny for them. The new Gambia would only be promising as long as Gambians protect their own destiny and freedom and not let any leader to the advantage of them again. If not we will go back to the past 22 years, because leaders will not give out power without accountability.
Sergeant Papa Faal, thank you