n the dark hours of the morning on December 30, 2014, eight men gathered in a graveyard a mile down the road from the official residence of Yahya Jammeh, the president of the Gambia. The State House overlooks the Atlantic Ocean from the capital city of Banjul, on an island at the mouth of the Gambia River. It was built in the 1820s and served as the governor’s mansion through the end of British colonialism, in 1965. Trees and high walls separate the house from the road, obscuring any light inside.
The men were dressed in boots and dark pants, and as two of them stood guard, the rest donned Kevlar helmets and leather gloves, strapped on body armor and CamelBaks, and loaded their guns. Their plan was to storm the presidential compound, win over the military, and install their own civilian leader. They hoped to gain control of the country by New Year’s Day.
The head of the group was Lamin Sanneh, a bulky 35-year-old who had commanded an elite military unit charged with protecting the president, until he had fallen out with Jammeh the year before and taken refuge in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. To the men in the graveyard, Sanneh seemed perfectly suited to the mission. He had been trained at the best foreign military academies and was familiar with the inner workings of Jammeh’s security apparatus, from the armaments in the State House’s guard towers to the routes taken by the presidential motorcade.
“Abanana shoved into the mouth of Senegal”—so goes the polite version of a local saying that describes the Gambia’s appearance on a map. The country, home to fewer than 2 million people, is a narrow strip of territory carved out of the banks of its namesake river. The Atlantic forms the western edge; Senegal surrounds the rest.
Weak borders and weak governments still characterize much of West Africa, and the coup d’état brewing in the graveyard would not be the Gambia’s first. Sanneh was on summer break from middle school in 1994 when, one morning, a group of junior army officers angry about their low salaries seized the national radio station, the airport, and government buildings in Banjul. The incumbent president, Dawda Jawara, who had led the country since independence, found safety on a docked U.S. warship while his guards evacuated the State House. When the disgruntled officers arrived, Andrew Winter, then the U.S. ambassador to the Gambia, told me, “I think much to their surprise, it was theirs.” At about 6 o’clock that evening, an announcement came on the radio: A four-member group called the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, or AFPRC, had taken over. Its chair was Yahya Jammeh, then a 29-year-old army lieutenant who was little known outside the barracks.
Under Jawara, the Gambia had been a bright spot in post-independence Africa. From the start of decolonization, in the 1950s, until the end of his tenure, leaders in continental West Africa were more likely to be ousted by members of the military than to lose power in elections. During that period, the 14 other countries in the region together experienced 35 successful coups. But Jawara, over his three decades in office, fostered a multiparty democracy, tolerated a free press, and outlawed the death penalty. Before the AFPRC takeover, the Gambia was Africa’s longest-surviving democracy—and Jawara was the last of its hopeful crop of 1950s and ’60s nationalist leaders still in office.
A member of the Jola people—a small ethnic group that was the last in the region to convert to Islam—Jammeh stood out on the base for his extreme superstition. According to Sey, Jammeh claimed that he could cure fellow soldiers’ sprains just by touching them, and at night he would rub himself with leaves to ward off spirits. He also had a reputation as a small-time bully. At the base’s gate, he once made a pregnant visitor dance like a monkey until she fainted. After Jammeh locked Sey out of the dormitory one evening, Sey wrote Jammeh a letter calling him a dictator. “I am the first person who used that word for him,” Sey told me.