That leader, Yahya Jammeh, launched a bloodless coup in 1994, ousting the Gambia’s democratically elected president and instituting military rule. In the two decades since, as the rest of West Africa has grown more democratic and developed, Jammeh has taken his country in the opposite direction, routinely harassing and detaining political activists. A paramilitary group called the “Junglers,” according to Human Rights Watch, has assassinated Jammeh’s opponents, sometimes dumping their bodies in an abandoned well near the president’s hometown. One alleged target was Deyda Hydara, the editor of an independent newspaper, who was shot dead on his way home from work in 2004.
When Jammeh took power, he was a 29-year-old lieutenant, fresh off four months of military-police training at Fort McClellan, Alabama. According to a childhood friend of his, it was there that Jammeh gained an affection for all things American. He befriended an officer at the base, Major Fouad Aide, whom he took to calling his “American father.” After the coup, Jammeh invited Aide to the Gambia. In a photo taken at Jammeh’s personal zoo during one of Aide’s visits, the president is wearing not his usual Islamic getup of a flowing gown but American hip-hop casual: chunky black boots, baggy jeans, and a denim jacket to match.