By Cherno M. Njie
The circumstances under which I met these men –and I am speaking of the late Captain Njaga Jagne, Colonel Lamin Sanneh, and Alagie Jaja Nyass, all men of the military either in The Gambia or abroad– were difficult. Those circumstances—well, a political and social situation in the Gambia, in our country, that was intolerable to us. Maybe it is regrettable that we all could not have come together as simply friends and fellow Gambians, unrelated to any sense of urgency that we all felt about four years ago at our first meetings. Regrettable—maybe, yes—that the horrors committed against the body of the Gambian people for something like twenty-two years were what brought me to meet Captain Jagne, Colonel Sanneh, and Alagie Nyass. But still, the fact is that I
came to meet these men as Gambians, with an intense and common concern for the evils Gambians were everyday experiencing as we watched apprehensively from the outside. I think the more important question is whether or not we regret our actions, which is a really a question of whether or not these men, who paid the ultimate price, died in vain. Of whether or not our actions, at the head of which was the failed coup attempt of December 30th of 2014, was a senseless action and just another hopeful expectation, or an act of great meaning and heroism.
Now, for me this is an easy question, but for some looking from the outside it is hard question to answer, and one we cannot confront without a great deal of feeling and pain. It is better, I think, to begin with the lives of these men, who we now commemorate as heroes. We are here, after all, to remember these men, and we would rather like to remember their lives as they lived then than to remember only their last moments.
Captain Njaga Jagne and I met sometime in the fall of 2013 through his sister Sigga. I met Sigga Jagne earlier that year, in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was in May, a kind of conference held among those of us in the Diaspora in the United States. The idea was to come together in unity as Gambians in order to exert pressure on the then current government of the Gambia. The result was the “Raleigh Accord” and the creation of a network that would foster a broad political coalition between different Gambian organizations agitating for democratic change in the Gambia. That was called the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in the Gambia, with Dr. Abdoulaye Saine serving as President and Sigga as Vice-President.
A couple of months later Sigga introduced me to her brother Njaga; he had suggested to his sister another way of funding political activities in the United States, basically an endowed fund that the political organizations could pull from in order to finance those efforts rather than funding initiatives started up whenever that funding was necessary. Sigga and I had kept in touch; when Njaga mentioned his idea, she called me to speak with Captain Jagne. We had a long conversation about life in the Gambia and the problems we faced as citizens, as well as the obligations we have towards each other.
Njaga was born the 9th of August, 1971, in Lamin, Kombo North district, to Aja Yassin Jobe and Alhagie Mamour Jagne. He spent his early years there in Lamin, an intelligent and ambitious child; by 1981, Jagne began at St. Peter’s primary school. He was a top student, a quiet and reserved boy, Bai Njaga to his family, and Pa Njaga to his friends in school. The Gambia, we remember, was then a peaceful and stable place; if poor, the country was at least safe and easy, a fine place and time for a child to grow.
It was quickly apparent that Njaga was a bright student, performing at high levels in his studies. In 1986 he took his WAEC Common Entrance exam, and his scores were among the best in his class. So he then begun to attend St. Augustine’s High School in Banjul. Though still a modest and quiet adolescent, he nevertheless began to make the sort of friendships that would last many years and many miles. I am told his love and loyalty for his friends was unending. Njaga’s modesty and humility was complimented by a kind thoughtfulness—though he, in our minds, may have spoken little, the words he did speak were signals of the complexity and care of his reflections.
As his years at St. Augustine’s came to a close, the young man began to look elsewhere, there being few options at the time to continue his studies in the Gambia. So, following his sister, he left the Gambia to the United States. Njaga transitioned into the routine of college life in Frankfort, Kentucky and began, again, to form friendships at the university. As he began to make friends there in Frankfort with students who, like him, had traveled to the United States to study in the quiet state of Kentucky, Njaga organized and founded with others the International Students Association. Njaga graduated, finally, in 1995, with a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Science.
After some years passed, Njaga prepared to enroll at the University of Mississippi for his Master’s education. He left Frankfort sometime in 2000, but he did not stay away long. There was another calamity, in The Gambia, just as Njaga was beginning start graduate studies in Mississippi. His younger brother, Assan, was shot during a protest at Westfield; the protest at Westfield was organized by the Gambian Students Union, for the beating and torture of a student by the fire department in Brikama. Both the ineptitude and reluctance of the Jammeh regime to investigate or reprimand the perpetrators provoked the protests. The government refused to grant permits for
the protest, but the students turned out anyways—as the group attempted to march into the center of Banjul, they were fired upon.
We all, surely, remember the protest which turned into a massacre. Assan, Njaga and Sigga’s younger brother, was shot in the back while trying to flee the bullets fired upon the protesters. Once they heard of the spate of violence the injury, Sigga committed her time to getting Assan to Frankfort, out of the Gambia. Njaga dropped his studies in Mississippi, worried for his brother, and feeling guilty, perhaps, that he could do nothing. The incident, for Njaga, seemed to bring about a period of turmoil in his life.
The situation in The Gambia weighed heavily upon him—the pressure did not let up with time, because there was always news of some other atrocity from friends and family, if not in the newspapers: disappearances, torturing, jailings, intimidation, paranoia… All of us are familiar with the immense difficulty of managing such a weight when there is no obvious way to relieve it. It weighs, weighs and weighs more seemingly every day—and it may even be that the weight is not more, only that under it, day to day, one weakens ever so slowly. But, too, it is not as if there were not happy moments during these years: both his sons were born during these years in Kentucky, first Omar Malleh Jagne and then Andrew Badara Jagne.
He joined the Kentucky National Guard in 2005. By 2006 he was deployed to Iraq for his first tour of combat. He returned to Kentucky after his tour and continued with his work for the military. He received a series of promotions, went to Iraq a second time in 2010, traveled to Germany twice for different assignments. He was deeply involved in his work in the military, on and off active duty. He ranked Captain by his second tour in Iraq; in the time in between the deployments, Njaga spent much of his time supporting other service members as they returned from the war in Iraq—reintegration programs designed to provide a network of help to those afflicted by the trauma of war. He volunteered with the same dedication, caring whenever it was needed, no matter the time or the circumstances.
The military gave Njaga a definite structure for action and articulated a definite set of principles. And if the military instilled anything more than these principles, it was the complement to those principles—the necessity for moral and ethical actions based on those principles. I mean: actions that are consciously active and immediate, affected according to practical principles, a truly practical philosophy. And Njaga’s practice of it was quickly very apparent.
After 2010, however, there were little avenues for anything to be done about his concerns for The Gambia, little opportunity for practical action. Space, distance, time, all these separated the now US military captain from what was at the time happening in The Gambia. Of course, in the United States we of the Diaspora have always agitated from afar, through advocacy groups, appeals to international human rights organizations, the United Nations, African Union, and ECOWAS, and pressuring the US State Department to act against Jammeh in some substantial way. The urgent need for change, and the lack of its coming was frustrating—the apparently slow
movement of advocacy did not satisfy Njaga.
Around this time is when I came to meet Captain Njaga Jagne. We both recognized the urgency of the situation in The Gambia, and, too, the necessary use of force. Though I do not have the time, here, to go into our short time together over 2013 and 2014, I saw quickly saw in Jagne and upright, dedicated, and professional man. I first met Captain Njaga about the same time that another, Colonel Lamin Sanneh fled to the United States to escape the dangerous uncertainty that dogged Sanneh after falling out with Jammeh in 2013. Colonel’s Sanneh’s history is, again, another story of Gambian ambition, accomplishment, and competence stifled, in a horrible manner, by the systems of power in our country.
Lamin Sanneh was an outstanding soldier—his quick rise through the ranks of the Gambian shows as much. Sanneh’s skill and ambition were quickly seized as an opportunity for the Gambian army to groom an intelligent and able commander. Through military-to-military exchange programs between The Gambia and the United States and the United Kingdom, Sanneh traveled to both Washington D.C. and Great Britain for officer training; he spent most of his time abroad in Washington, working at a Master’s Degree at the National Defense University. He finished in 2012, and submitted a thesis about the trafficking of drugs through West Africa and the wellknown intersection between drug trafficking, corruption in West African states, and the socioeconomic
conditions of West African populations. But Colonel Sanneh picked up another valuable piece of education that would, in the end, make his appointment in the military a rather difficult one—namely competence, and a rigorous sense of professional morality and ethics.
Colonel Sanneh, after some two or three years of studying and developing his own sense of military professionalism in the United State was probably aware of the irony. He returned to the Gambia in July of 2012 after graduating, and a promotion was waiting: he was to be the commander of the State Guard, tasked with protecting President Jammeh. The appointment was a short one—in a typical round of routine purges symptomatic, really, of any authoritarian style leader within seven months of beginning, Sanneh lost his job and was then ejected from the military altogether. He caught wind of rumors that he would be arrested and, with his family, quickly fled to Senegal then to the United States as a refugee. He and his family found a new home
outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and they begun to carve out a new American life for themselves, without the possibility of ever returning home, at least for the immediate future. The reason for Colonel Sanneh’s persecution was not entirely clear, but it seemed inevitable, given his penchant for professionalism, and ethical integrity. But these ran against the grain of the protocols of an institution controlled totally from the top—Colonel Sanneh’s attempt to implement the standards that he consciously developed over his time in Washington did not actually come to anything. And, even more, Sanneh witnessed Jammeh’s megalomania first hand, at the greatest proximity: his prerogative, after all, was the protection of the president.
After Colonel Sanneh refused the order made by his commanding general to randomly purge soldiers from the State Guard that he commanded, Sanneh was almost immediately purged himself. I met Colonel Sanneh under these circumstances, in 2013. Less than two years after leaving the Gambia as a refugee, an option and an opportunity not available to the majority of Gambians, he was back, to enact what we saw as the only solution to the end of Jammeh’s regime.
Alagie Jaja Nyass was another solider, an ex-soldier who had left the Gambia after, like Colonel Sanneh, a dispute with his superiors. Again, it was an issue of professionalism, of incompetence in a military influenced at the highest levels by paranoia and megalomania. He moved, unlike Captain Jagne and Colonel Sanneh, to the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom he worked as a sort of merchant, buying various things in Great Britain then sending them to The Gambia. His mind, I am told, really remained in the Gambia; much of the money he made there in the UK he sent home as support for friends and family who had to manage ever more obstacles and growing difficulties in everyday life in The Gambia, because the regime was cultivating a culture of fear.
The slumping economy, too, began to make impossible affordable and stable living conditions. Nyass’s attachment was not so much to the land itself, but to the people of The Gambia, to the regular Gambian who at the time was in a rather difficult position, as we all know. He, too, returned to The Gambia at the end of 2014, to meet the rest of us, coming from the United States.
I spoke a moment ago about weight, a weight that, quite literally, pushes one into particular decisions, into specific ultimatums. The load on top of you has, in a certain sense, trapped you, forcing you to move slowly and with utmost exertion. Meanwhile, it often feels that you must keep up the veneer of peace while you are being almost literally crushed. If the weight does not let up, the regular rules of common sense naturally give way to another sort of instinct, but, still, the shift is a reasonable one. From one point of view, the so-called normal point of view –I mean that view that has the privilege of clarity, safety, security, and plenty of time to think– the decision of these men may seem to be the result of a unique irrationality, that understandingly, but with error, yields
to a route of action that is misguided, though perhaps justifiable. But that is, we have to say, unfair—not to mention that these rationalizations are entirely unsatisfactory for those who loved these men, and always had some clue to their inner turmoil. It is horrible for one who loved Captain Jagne, or loved Colonel Sanneh, or loved Alagie Nyass in any sort of way to think that these men were acting irrationally up to the moment of their deaths. No—the thought does not settle well. Such a privileged rationalization leaves one with an ambiguous uncertainty that relates more to a sense of misunderstanding, or of incomprehensibility than to any fault in the decision-making of our loved ones. That incomprehensibility I think comes from the situation itself, the circumstances
that in the first place pushed these and other men into a radical decision.
The behavior of Jammeh and the state of things in The Gambia were always more surreal to us than our decision to act against him. It was always very natural for us to recognize that forceful removal was our only option. Those of us involved in the decision were looking at a set of unusual circumstances that called for a different sort of consideration. We must not blame these men if we are to call them heroes—we may lament their deaths, but we must blame, above all, the situation in The Gambia at the time, we must blame a regime that was repulsive to these men, and the fact that evil had taken root in our homeland. Their deaths in the line of fighting betray a passionate commitment to the routing of that evil, an attempt to rest free the government of The Gambia, its institutions, and above all its people from a repressive state of affairs that at every point made impossible a safe,
healthy living and the basic freedoms to make that living. The attempt was a selfless act, and we have also come here to commemorate that act, even while we grieve their loss.
It is not fair that I stand here speaking rather than one or all of these men. It is not fair that the world that we know, that The Gambia, the country that we know had, at the time, come to such a state that pushed these men to a drastic action. It was not fair that the body of the Gambian people should endure terror while these men at a distance felt a nagging and impenetrable sense of guilt— that they, because of that distance, were out of the way of Jammeh’s violence. They were, are men, who then, in 2014, saw that the world, our country, could be another way, so they declared “no.”
At the bottom of their actions, which many may still have a difficult time understanding, was a fundamental decision to utter “no” and to begin to practice the meaning of that “no.” The act of resistance led to their deaths. We know the list of deaths at the hands of Jammeh is a very long one. We all gather here as, in some way, victims of his terror of twenty-two years. I stand here with a heavy heart, because I have lost three great friends. My heart is heavy because these men, like so many Gambians, tragically paid with their lives in their attempt to stop the Jammeh regime from reducing human beings to victims. Their humanity would not permit them to stand idly by and watch Gambians denied their humanity. It burdens my heart that their lives were claimed by an arbitrary and irrational evil that wished only to maintain its hold on power. Nevertheless, we are here today to remember that these men with great effort and purpose challenged that evil. But, exactly because they were men of the good, it should not be forgotten that these men throughout their lives were good men.
They developed a sense of purpose and principle early in their lives, and carried these through to the end of their lives. Sadly they did not see Jammeh finally forced from power; as we, collectively, carry on the project of rebuilding The Gambia so that such evil can never again claim the lives of good men, we remember Captain Njaga Jagne, Colonel Lamin Sanneh, and Alagie Jaja Nyass. It is they who still live with us, propelling
in some way the mission of reconstruction, recuperation, and repair in our homeland. We grieve their loss—they will not come back to us. Still, we must remind ourselves that their deaths did not come to pass in vain, for they contributed to the long struggle against evil that eventually prevailed upon Jammeh. I remember each with a heavy heart—but it is uplifted when I look up and see, everywhere, their legacy in this country.