January 26, 2015

Two days before the world entered 2015, a handful of former officers from the Gambian Armed Forces attacked the State House in Banjul, The Gambia. Published accounts call Lamin S. Sanneh, a former Gambian military officer, the ringleader of the aborted coup. Accounts vary, but 3-4 of the dissidents were killed, including Sanneh. He was my friend, and as I write these words, I still can’t believe that he is dead.

To most people (including me), news of gunfire in an African capital is commonplace enough to barely glance at the headline before moving on to more remarkable news. But those of us in the U.S. defense and foreign policy communities should pay attention to the Gambian case because it tells us something important about our military-to-military (mil-to-mil) relationships. My fear is that we are creating an untenable situation for many of the officers that attend professional military education (PME) institutions in the United States. We teach them our approach to a “profession of arms” and professional ethics, and we teach them our approach to how they can create a successful, secure, and prosperous society back home. But what happens when there are profound contradictions between the ideal they are taught in their PME education and the reality they see back home? The way in which my friend Sanneh answered that question led to his death on December 30.

In 2012, Lieutenant Colonel Lamin Sanneh earned a Master’s Degree at National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, DC. I was his primary faculty advisor and his thesis advisor. We had weekly meetings to discuss progress on his thesis explaining the rise of drug trafficking in West Africa. We frequently discussed the socio-economic aspects of criminality and how drug money was creating a culture of corruption in The Gambia. Upon leaving NDU, Lamin was unexpectedly chosen to become the commander of the Presidential Guard in The Gambia. This appointment came with a promotion to colonel. It seemed that he was being groomed for the highest levels of leadership, but protecting someone like Gambian President Yahya Jammeh involves profound challenges that Lamin did not seem to appreciate. As Maggie Dwyer notes, President Jammeh keeps the military divided and subservient through “an endless series of promotions, demotions, firings, and re-hirings.” According to Amnesty International, Jammeh is complicit in the extrajudicial killings of members of the security officers, students, journalists, and other perceived enemies. These practices along with a policy of ethnic favoritism led to eight coup attempts in Jammeh’s 20 years in power.

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