This is a guest post by Maggie Dwyer (@MagDwyer). She teaches courses related to security and politics in Africa at University of Saint Andrews and University of Edinburgh.
Nicknamed “the smiling coast,” the Gambia has long been known for its beach resorts, which are particularly popular with European tourists. The country has never experienced a civil war and is generally considered peaceful. Its president, Yahya Jammeh, came to power in a coup in 1994 and has won four elections since.
A deeper look at the Gambia, however, shows that the appearance of stability comes at a high cost for the population. The repressive style of the Jammeh government has led to a growing list of human rights abuses. Critics of the regime are often met with harassment, arrest, detention, and disappearance. The country is shrouded in secrecy due to a lack of press freedoms. With no presidential term limits and no significant opposition, many see no end in sight for Jammeh’s regime.
The military is often viewed as the strong arm of the Jammeh regime and is responsible for many of the abuses. Yet, the military is also kept on edge. An endless series of promotions, demotions, firings, and re-hirings leave military personnel in a constant state of uncertainty. The sense of fear within the military is exacerbated by severe punishment for those deemed disloyal. Several military members were officially executed for alleged involvement in coup plots in 2013, and there are many more suspected executions, disappearances, and torture of military personnel on which the government has never commented.
There have also been reports of growing military discontent within the military over preference for Jammeh’s minority ethnic group, the Jola. There are claims that the Jola have been given a disproportionate number of promotions, top positions and opportunities (e.g., training and participation in peacekeeping), and that this favoritism has created divisions and spurred resentment in the military.
Despite the fate of past coup plotters in the Gambia, military personnel have continued to try to oust Jammeh. He has endured at least eight alleged coup attempts during his 20 years in office. Many of the accused plotters had served at the highest military positions, including Army Chief of Staff and Director of the National Intelligence Agency, suggesting divisions at the most senior levels. It should be noted that there is speculation as to whether some of the attempts were real or simply ways to purge members of the military. The ambiguity of these events is another cause of uncertainty and fear within the military.
These tensions, divisions, and dissatisfaction within the Gambian military probably contributed to the most recent and past coup attempts against Jammeh. Unfortunately, internal military tensions are difficult to observe and quantify, especially in repressive states like the Gambia. Because these tensions are hard to quantify, they rarely factor into larger statistical forecasts, even though we have good reason to believe they contribute significantly to coup risks.
The recent coup attempt in the Gambia will switch the “domestic coup activity” variable used in Jay’s models from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ and will thereby increase its ranking in the next iteration of those assessments. The climate of fear in the Gambia will also intensify following the crackdown from this week’s coup attempt, however, and may deter copycats in the near future.