US Ambassador in Banjul, Gambia, Andrew Winter, was not expecting a coup on the morning of July 22, 1994 — but that is what he got. With little violence and no casualties, 29-year old Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh and other junior army officers occupied the capital and the presidential compound, ousting long-serving President Sir Dawda Jawara.
Jawara took refuge on a visiting U.S. naval vessel, and Gambia’s days as one of a handful of African democracies had come to an end. Jammeh’s erratic and increasingly oppressive rule lasted until 2017, when a combination of popular discontent and regional diplomatic and military pressure forced him into exile. Ambassador Andrew Winter recalls that remarkable day in his oral history. Winter joined the Foreign Service in 1970 at the age of 24.
In addition to service as US Ambassador to the Gambia, he served as Executive Director of the Bureau of African Affairs, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Information Technology, and Minister Counselor for Administrative Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. He retired in 2000.
Q: Okay, do you want to talk a bit about The Gambia, what it was like at the time you went out and what were the currents there and American interests or non-interests or what?
WINTER: President Jawara had been democratically elected multiple times since independence in 1965. He was a British trained veterinarian who truly loved his country, a very decent man, and people respected him. There was never any real opposition to his rule and his rule was democratic, and elections were free and fair. As for the Gambians, there were many different tribes, but they were the most peaceful and friendly people I had ever, ever come across in my life.
Q: Were there any movements in The Gambia, military or civilian or any economic concerns or anything destabilizing there?
WINTER: Not really destabilizing. It was an incredibly poor country. Peanuts, actually groundnuts, were their major crop and all of their peanuts were of a quality that all they could be made into was oil. They were actually good to eat, but they were certainly paltry looking. There was always a little tension with Senegal, which literally surrounded The Gambia. There had been a leftist political coup in The Gambia in 1981 and Senegal had restored Jawara as president. At that time they set up the Senegambia Confederation. They tried to have a more cooperative relationship, but the Gambians, and particularly Jawara, didn’t particularly care for that because they were clearly the weak sister.
Therefore the confederation broke down. There wasn’t great animosity, but there wasn’t great friendship, and the Senegalese clearly resented that Jawara wasn’t more appreciative that they had restored him to power. There was tension.
Also, The Gambia was a de facto free trade zone while Senegal had very heavy import duties. Since The Gambia was a 250 mile long sliver in the middle of Senegal, it was a major source of illicit trade, smuggling. That added to the tension.
Jawara was a careful and cautious individual. He was very much a democrat but wanted to make sure things stayed peaceful. To minimize the possibility of a coup, he arranged to have a Nigerian general in charge of The Gambian army, which was very small to begin with. The Nigerian general had a number of senior Nigerian officers under him and the highest-ranking Gambian was a captain. This would become important later. The army’s weapons were locked up most of the time since they didn’t need them.
The Gambians were 92 percent Muslim, the rest were mostly Christian. They were devout, but there was no radicalization there at all. However, female circumcision (genital mutilation) was still common. Under pressure from the United States and other countries, the Gambian government had outlawed female circumcision, but it remained a very common practice.
Q: How were British ties?
WINTER: That question reminds me of a great story of how the borders of The Gambia were determined. The British discovered the Gambia River and established a colony the length of the Gambia River with French colonies on either side. The French were quite nervous about the British Navy, with good reasons, since it was the most powerful navy in the world. Finally the French and the British negotiated an agreement on borders that were 10 miles either side of the river, which at that time was as far as a cannon could fire from a British naval ship. This agreement in effect gave the French secure borders and it didn’t cost the British much of anything.
Relations with the British were excellent. Jawara welcomed all the help he could get from the British, the US, the UN, and the EU (European Union), who were the four major donors. The U.S. gave about $10 million in aid and the total foreign aid was $20 to $30 million, which was a paltry sum when you think about it, but it was a small country. There were a few other embassies there, mostly from West Africa, and they were all friendly and quiet.
Q: American interests there?
WINTER: I’d say my most important job, other than overseeing the USAID mission, was maintaining good relations with the Gambian government.
One of the greatest pleasures of my tenure there was the ambassadorial self-help fund. I was fond of teasing the USAID director that she had $10 million and I had $10,000, and I felt that that $10,000 ultimately was used more effectively. It was money I could use any way I wanted and I focused on a few projects: digging of solar powered wells in small villages, setting up sewing cooperatives, establishing natural fencing, and providing books. In choosing villages for projects I totally depended upon Peace Corps volunteers and the Peace Corps program. I worked very closely with the Peace Corps director. The volunteers would submit projects, which typically cost $100 to $300. These projects gave me a wonderful opportunity to tour the country. My goal was to visit every Peace Corps volunteer; we had 75 Peace Corps volunteers, which in such a small country was quite significant. I managed to visit about 50 of them before the coup. Typically, and not surprisingly, in Africa, we trained the women in the village on how to keep the solar panels clean, how to operate the wells, and how to keep the wells clean. Most of these projects were successful.
The Gambia was an alternate abort site for the Space Shuttle. If the Space Shuttle had to abort immediately after launch, The Gambia was in the immediate flight path of the Shuttle for certain launches. NASA had upgraded Banjul’s airport to handle the Shuttle including the installation of some very special netting that would be deployed at the end of the runway to stop the Shuttle after the landing. NASA even had an office at the airport. Whenever there was a shuttle launch that would take it over The Gambia, NASA would deploy an astronaut to The Gambia to monitor the launch. He or she arrived on a small US Air Force jet, which was used as a spotter plane during the launch. The office at the airport had a direct link to the Johnson Space Center. I often went out there to listen to the launch countdown. The astronaut would spend about a week in The Gambia and was always willing to visit schools and other venues. It was always a great hit.
Q: What were the major developments while you were there?
WINTER: We have to divide my time into the first year and then the second year. The first two months were a learning experience for me because I’d never been a political officer, an economic officer or a DCM; I’d never done any conventional reporting. I had to learn my job and that was fun and a challenge. The Embassy was very small and I did not have any seasoned officers to help me. The embassy was six of us: the office management specialist, the communicator, an administrative officer, a GSO, and a consular officer who doubled as the political/economic officer. The consular officer, Jim Knight, was a second tour junior officer who I had gotten to know when he was in Nigeria and I asked him to come work for me. I’m very proud to say that 17 years later, he’s ambassador in Togo. I had a good eye and he did a superb job. He accompanied me to almost all my meetings, was the note taker and wrote the reports. It was a great relationship for both of us. The administrative officer was only a third tour officer and the GSO was a second tour officer. It was a bit of a lonely job because there was no one I could turn to for seasoned advice except the USAID director who was in a separate building.
At the beginning, I was figuring out what I wanted to do because there sure as hell wasn’t that much of importance to do. Being an ambassador to a country Washington didn’t care about, I could do whatever I wanted to do. I decided to focus on public affairs; I would go out and talk to people and I would focus on the importance of education.
I had one FSN who was my public affairs person and I said, I want to start talking to people. Who do you suggest I talk to? She said why don’t we go around to schools? I said that’s a great idea. Once every two or three weeks I’d go to a school and I’d give a very short speech. I would talk for 10 or 15 minutes, primarily on the importance of education. Then I would open it up for questions and at first they were very shy and reserved. However, as soon as one student asked a question the flood gates would open and I’d usually spend at least an hour there answering their questions about the U.S., about the world, and about anything they could think of. The students, teachers and I really enjoyed it. That was the highlight of my time there.
I would visit with government officials and I would deliver a demarche occasionally. The demarches normally sought The Gambia’s vote at the UN, which we could almost always count on; Jawara was very pro-West. Some of these demarches were unnecessary and I quickly discovered that Washington didn’t keep track of whether you replied or not. Sometimes when I thought a demarche was of no interest to The Gambia, I just wouldn’t deliver it. If I received a reminder from Washington, then I would go deliver it, but most of the time I never got a reminder. I also kept telling Washington that the Gambian ambassador in the UN was the one who decided how The Gambia voted; it wasn’t the foreign ministry or the president. But somehow they felt they had to send it to the embassy. Basically the first year was very quiet.
There was a very special man in Banjul, Ken Best. Ken Best had been the publisher of one of the most important newspapers in Liberia. He was a deeply religious Christian and a man of the highest integrity. When Sergeant Doe took over, Ken Best and his newspaper kept speaking out. Ultimately he was threatened, he was imprisoned, his newspaper offices were torched and eventually he had to leave Liberia. The Gambia welcomed him. He came there and opened a newspaper by the same name as the one he had in Liberia, “The Daily Observer,” which was the first daily newspaper The Gambia had ever had. He sold enough newspapers to run a legitimate business and to live a simple and decent life. Early on he and I became friends and, of course, it was in his interest to have a source and mine to have a public platform.
President Jawara did not have a corrupt bone in his body. He lived well but not extravagantly. He didn’t travel a lot except on business. He did have two wives in the Muslim fashion. They dressed well but not extravagantly. His vice president, Saihou Sabally, who was also the minister of defense, was a less savory character, let’s say. Jawara had been in power at that point for almost 30 years and corruption had increased during that time. “The Daily Observer” started ferreting out this corruption and government officials weren’t quite used to this, but Jawara was enough of a democrat, and he truly was, that he wasn’t going to take action against the newspaper. Some of the ministers would publicly criticize “The Daily Observer” and, in response, I started talking to “The Daily Observer.” One of my themes was the importance of good governance; another was education. I would regularly give interviews to “The Daily Observer,” which were mildly critical of the government but hopefully encouraged the government to do the best it could.
The Bureau of Intelligence and Research did annual report cards on reporting by post. They would interview all the agencies that used our reporting. My first year the report card indicated that our reporting was good but there wasn’t a whole lot of it. I responded back that I would take their criticism to heart. However, I noted that there really hadn’t been much to report about and that I didn’t feel like filling the airwaves with things that were of no particular value. In May 1994 the consular officer and I did a series of cables on the government, on the fact that Jawara was getting older, and on concerns about succession. There wasn’t a good strong candidate to replace him and the most likely candidate was the vice president, who was the least savory of the lot.
In January of 1994 the Nigerian general in charge of the Gambian army was due to rotate back to Nigeria and a new Nigerian general was scheduled come. The general who was supposed to come was delayed and then finally he didn’t come at all. There was a three or four-month period when the Gambian Army was basically on its own. As we would figure out later, that is when four lieutenants started thinking about staging a coup. I don’t know what their motivations were except, possibly, a little bit of frustration that they were under the thumb of the Nigerians.
Their arms were still under lock and key. The U.S. Navy’s West African Training Cruise (WATC) sent word that The Gambia would have a ship visit in July, which both the government and I were very happy about. These ship visits brought Marines to do training exercises and civil engineers to do civil works. These were very positive missions and there was certainly nothing bellicose about them. In retrospect, it was clear that the coup plotters considered this as an opportunity. The ship that came was the Lamoure County, which had Marines and Marine amphibious vehicles onboard. The consular officer and I worked with the ministry of defense on a schedule of activities. Interestingly, again in retrospect, the Army suggested having some war games in order to get some real training, and everyone agreed. It was agreed that we’d use a national park just outside of the capital for the war games. All of this appeared to be on the up and up.
We went ahead with the preparations for the ship visit, which kept me as busy as I’d been since I’d arrived. A few days before the ship visit, the permanent secretary of the ministry of defense, Bun Jack, called and said, we don’t think that the location of this national park for the maneuvers is that good an idea. They’d be more realistic if they were held at the bridge at the entrance to Banjul. Banjul, the capital, is actually a tiny island with just one small bridge, Denton Bridge, from the mainland.
He said it would be more realistic if we pretended that the attack was coming from the mainland towards the capital over the bridge. He told this to the consular officer. I didn’t like that idea, but not because I had any suspicions of a coup. This was the only bridge into the capital and did not seem like a very convenient place to hold war games. It would be disruptive; it would make people nervous. I put in a call to the Minister of Defense, who was also the vice president, and I couldn’t get through to him to discuss this change.
I ended up talking to the permanent secretary. He said he would pass the word to the Vice President and would let me know. The word came back that the Vice President was OK with having the war games at Denton Bridge. I wasn’t deeply concerned about it, I wish I had been, and therefore let it stand. Again in retrospect, the permanent secretary appears to have been in cahoots with the coup plotters and probably never consulted the Vice President. The embassy, by the way, was on the mainland, about three or four miles away from the actual capital.
On the morning of Friday, July 22, 1994, I arrived at the Navy vessel, the Lamoure County, to escort the ship’s commanding officer on official calls in Banjul. At 9:00 in the morning we arrived at the executive offices of the presidency to call on the permanent secretary for the minister of defense in the office of the vice presidency. As we walked towards the permanent secretary’s office, the door to the vice president’s office opened. The vice president asked us to come in and quickly told us there was a problem at the army barracks at Yundum. Yundum is where the airport is and is about 10 or 15 miles from the capital.
The vice president excused himself to go see the president, returning some five minutes later he informed us that Gambian troops were moving towards Banjul. He requested that we take the president and him to the Navy ship for safety. After a brief and private consultation, the captain and I agreed to take the president and the vice president to the Lamoure County. The vice president suggested that the president ride in my official car for security reasons. A few minutes later President Jawara, his wife, Lady Chilel, an entourage of children, security and servants, many with overnight bags emerged from the house and entered the waiting vehicles. We sped to the port, five minutes away, and the safety of the ship.
Onboard the ship the president and vice president were shown to the officers’ wardroom. Other members of the government came onboard the ship: finance minister Dabo, Kebba Ceesay, the chief of the national security service, their intelligence agency, the inspector general of police, Pa Jagne, and the permanent secretary of ministry of defense were all onboard. They all sat in the officers’ wardroom discussing what they should do in this emerging situation.
We were neither privy to their talks, nor did we try. Both the captain and I were taken aback by how many people we all of a sudden had in our charge, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Later Washington would certainly second-guess me on that.
Q: Yes but you think of the results if you hadn’t.
WINTER: Exactly. We had moved the family of the president down to a lower deck. Everybody was very well behaved; there weren’t any problems or issues and no great demands.
After the president had met with his advisors, the chief of police left. The police tactical support group and the military’s presidential guard were sent to Denton Bridge to intercept the troops. A few minutes later the head of the national security service and the permanent secretary of the defense ministry also went to the bridge to negotiate with the troops. Now, when I say “troops,” we’re talking about 100 soldiers. On the other hand, the police and presidential guard numbered maybe 20. We weren’t looking at a major confrontation here.
They attempted to negotiate with the troops – from what I heard later it was very cordial and peaceful; everybody knew each other – and the troops said no we have the upper hand here; we’re coming in. The police and the president’s security guard decided not to stop them. Only a single shot was fired. We later reported that one soldier’s weapon accidentally discharged and shot the leg of a dog and that was the only casualty of this very nonviolent coup. The inspector general of police came back to the ship and said, they’re coming in and there’s not much we can do.
At this point the president, vice president, the captain of the ship and I were talking – we were up on the top deck – and trying to decide what to do. The vice president asked the captain and me to deploy the U.S. marines to the bridge. There were 71 Marines with four amphibious armored vehicles (AAVs) who certainly could have prevented the coup. The captain and I weren’t totally opposed to the idea. Both he and I both sent off messages, knowing we weren’t going to get a positive reply, recommending that we deploy the troops. Our messages stated very clearly that if we deployed the troops we were very confident that we could stop the coup in its tracks with minimal or no loss of life. We weren’t looking at a very risky situation here. The Gambian troops did have their weapons but they were primarily rifles and maybe a few semi-automatic weapons; nothing of any great threat. The captain did agree to lower the plank so the amphibious vehicles could deploy, but we did that more as a scare tactic as we had not received Washington approval to deploy the Marines. The captain and I did talk to the Marines who said it would take them about 90 minutes to get the ships in the water, deployed and at the bridge, ready to stop the Gambian troops.
We then received word that the troops were entering Banjul. The captain and I decided to leave the dock for the security of the harbor. This was about 1:00 in the afternoon. We went three or four hundred yards offshore, a location that granted us a very clear view of the State House and enabled us to watch what was going on. Shortly thereafter we saw the troops entering State House and we received a message from The Gambia national army asking us to move further away. We immediately complied and moved to a position off Cape St. Mary, which is halfway between Banjul, the capital, and Fajara where the embassy was and where most Gambians and foreigners lived. The Gambian army was clearly nervous. We never received permission from State or the Navy to deploy the Marines and we never really expected to.
Throughout the afternoon and evening I stayed in touch with Washington by an open Inmarsat line and with the embassy, USAID and the defense attaché, Major McLean, who was in The Gambia but resident in Senegal, by high frequency and very high frequency radios. During this period the president and vice president requested approval to contact General Abacha in Nigeria, the foreign minister of Senegal and the chairman of ECOWAS (Economic Council of West African States), who was also in Senegal. Jawara was trying to find support.
At Washington’s urging the ambassador impressed on the president the need to leave the ship. Washington’s clear preference was that Senegal send a boat to rendezvous with the Lamoure County and take them all to Dakar. Then the Lamoure County could remain off the Gambian coast for possible evacuation of the few Americans who lived there. Unfortunately Senegal was not very accommodating and the ambassador advised Washington of the difficulty of a mid-sea transfer with women and young children aboard. We were therefore faced with a dilemma; the Lamoure County could remain off the coast of The Gambia with its guests onboard or it could steam to Dakar. As ambassador, I made it clear that if the ship left for Dakar, I would return to the embassy in Banjul.
Now, at this point I was second-guessed for being onboard the ship and not returning to the embassy, but in fact, it was very fortunate that I stayed. The Gambian troops turned off the entire telephone system. Therefore the embassy had no means to communicate with Washington. The cable system was down, they had radios for internal use, but the emergency radio system, which should have reached Dakar wasn’t reaching Dakar very well. My presence on the ship turned out to be the focal point for all communications. I was able to talk by high frequency radio to the DCM in Dakar, by Inmarsat to Washington and to the Gambian government because they were our guests. So, as second guessed as I was, it turned out damned well. If I hadn’t been there negotiations would have been much more complicated. At Washington’s direction, I continued to push The Gambians to make arrangements to go to Senegal. Being on the ship gave me command of the greatest amount of information and communication with all parties involved.
At some point Friday evening the situation became complicated by the illness of a sailor onboard the ship. It was an apparent heart attack and the doctor onboard did not have the necessary equipment and medicine to treat him. The captain began to consider going to Dakar. His decision was complicated by the fact that four of his sailors were at an orphanage 20 miles south of Banjul. The defense attaché attempted to get Gambian National Army approval to extract them. Permission had been denied. It would take until Saturday evening, by which time the sailors had made their way to the ambassador’s residence, to arrange for their return to the ship. Throughout the coup the Gambian National Army was very anxious and nervous about the USS Lamoure County and its intentions. It finally took the ambassador’s (my) word to obtain permission for the Lamoure County to dispatch a boat to the beach in front of the ambassador’s residence to retrieve the four sailors.
As Friday night fell, it was becoming apparent to the president, vice president and Finance Minister Dabo that they had to make preparations to go to Senegal. In their conversations with the Senegalese, it became apparent that the Senegalese were not anxious to accept them. Negotiations with the Senegalese continued through Friday night and all day Saturday. With Washington and Embassy Dakar intercession and President Jawara’s acceptance of Senegal’s conditions a deal was struck. The president understood and accepted that Senegal would not help him return to power and would allow him in only if he agreed not to use Senegal as a platform to return to power. Yet, as late as Saturday morning, when the phones were returned to service in Banjul, President Jawara spoke with someone in Senegal using a Gambian cellular phone. In the conversation he clearly asked for Senegalese assistance to return to The Gambia.
As an aside, it was quite a sight on Saturday morning when the Gambians onboard realized that their cellular phones were again operational. They all quickly called home; within 15 minutes all the batteries were dead. I used my phone for a quick call to my wife, who was holding down the fort at the embassy residence with 30 Americans and the four sailors from the Lamoure County as guests. Many of the Peace Corps volunteers near Banjul, the USAID Americans, the few private American citizens, and the Peace Corps director all found their way to the ambassador’s residence, which accorded with the emergency plan. The residence had an emergency radio and was right on the sea, which provided the potential for an evacuation.
Throughout his time on the ship President Jawara maintained his dignity. He never showed emotion or betrayed any anger. He was always polite and in control. On the other hand, Vice President Sabally, who I’d always found to be an extraordinarily self-confident man, was clearly shaken and worried. Finance Minister Dabo was the most saddened of all, sincerely concerned for the future of his country, not only himself.
Throughout the ordeal I worked closely with our embassy to take care of the staff and the American citizens. The ship served as a communications relay point for messages from official Americans to their families at home. By cable and phone message from the ship to the ops center we were able to fulfill our consular and American citizen service functions. I directed that several Peace Corps volunteers and dependents of mission personnel be moved to safe haven at the ambassador’s residence. Taking advantage of the coincidence that our consular American Citizen Services (ACS) PIT was onboard the ship as liaison officer for the ship visit, I pressed him into service to collect US citizen information from the embassy via high frequency radio and transmit it to Washington via phone and cable from the ship. The phone was an Inmarsat. The Defense Department later tried to charge the State Department because I kept the Inmarsat line open to Washington at about $10 a minute for about 36 hours. I never totaled it up, but it was a hell of a phone bill and I don’t know who ever paid it.
Our ACSs PIT was born a Gambian, and could speak Wolof, one of the primary languages of The Gambia. We took advantage of his presence to move him from the midlevel deck where he was with most of the president’s family and other lower level Gambian government personnel to the upper deck where he could be near the president and vice president and figure out what was going on. It turned out to be a very good move.
Late Friday night the Gambian National Army (GNA) indicated that they wanted to initiate a conversation with President Jawara. Jawara was quite anxious to negotiate with them. Our defense attaché worked tirelessly to arrange a radio conference call but as the night wore on it became ever more evident that the GNA was no longer in any hurry to talk to Jawara. On Saturday the GNA indicated they were willing to receive a call from Jawara. Again Jawara was most willing, but it was difficult to arrange a time. At last they arranged a teleconference for 5:00 Saturday afternoon. This was more than 24 hours after the coup had taken place.
The transcript of the conversation between the president and the Gambian National Army should be available in the Department. I sent it by cable later. Jawara, being a very quiet and dignified man, just kept asking them to go back to the barracks, and let him come back and resume his office. He said that nothing would happen to anyone involved in the coup. His army interlocutor, Lieutenant Singhateh, one of the coup plotters, was very polite but very firm and said thank you very much, Mr. President, but we’re in charge now and we’re not leaving. You could see the sadness entering the face of Jawara, and of the defense minister and the finance minister who were by his side. One of the coup leaders was at the other end of the radio. He was one of the four lieutenants who were responsible for the coup. It was apparent that the Gambian National Army was no longer interested in Jawara’s return.
On Saturday evening we arranged for the four sailors to be picked up from the beach in front of the ambassador’s residence. The sick sailor had again taken a turn for the worse. The ship’s captain decided to head for Dakar, even though we did not have permission to dock there. We sent a message to Dakar and Washington, pressuring for approval to go to Dakar, if only to drop off the sick sailor and, if necessary, keep our Gambian guests onboard. Clearly this helped pave the way for the eventual agreement with the Senegalese to accept our shipboard guests. I decided to get off the ship and radioed the defense attaché to ask for permission to go ashore. Permission was granted. The ACS PIT, the embassy nurse, who was a Gambian, and I prepared to board the boat that would take us to the shore. We donned heavy life preservers and construction helmets and began the three-story descent on a rope ladder. I, of course, was dressed as an ambassador in a suit and good leather shoes with leather soles, which were not exactly made for going down a rope from the deck of the ship to the boat awaiting us in the rolling surf below. It was a somewhat harrowing climb down as the rope ladder swung back and forth against the ship in the rolling sea.
Once aboard we started for shore. Suddenly we received a radio message from the defense attaché to abort. There was a patrol on the beach and the Gambian National Army did not have radio contact with them. They could not guarantee our safety. We returned to the ship. On returning to the ship I used my ambassadorial prerogative and, although it was Navy procedure to go back up the rope and not be lifted up by the pulley system that lifted the boat up, I said that I would take my chances and go up with the pulleys and not go up the rope ladder again.
The defense attaché continued to work through the evening with the Gambian National Army to allow me ashore on Sunday morning. We had still not received approval for the ship to go to Dakar. Finally, at 12:30 on Sunday afternoon the Bolongkanta, a patrol boat we had given to the Gambian National Army a few months earlier, with the defense
attaché aboard and flying the ambassador’s flag rendezvoused with the Lamoure County. We went onboard and Nancy McKay, a USAID officer, took my place for the voyage to Dakar. At arrival at Banjul Harbor, the Gambian Marine Unit greeted me warmly. I entered my car accompanied by a NASA security officer who happened to be there for a launch of the space shuttle. The Gambian National Army provided me a military escort back to my residence.
Q: Well, looking at it, in the first place when you’re on the spot how the hell can Washington give instructions? They really have to rely on you.
WINTER: Yes, but that doesn’t stop them, and I had been part of that when I was executive director. Washington will always second guess and ambassadors ultimately will often do what they think is best, and a lot of our ambassadors including me did. I am absolutely convinced that the decisions I made were in the best interests of the U.S. Government. Not being technically at my post but being on a ship that was less than a mile offshore enabled me to provide management and leadership to the embassy, communicate with the embassy in Dakar, deal with the Navy, deal with the president of the country, deal with the Gambian army and deal with Washington.
Q: Were any of the Americans under any threat particularly?
WINTER: As I mentioned, at this point only a dog had been injured. The troops that had fomented the coup were in Banjul; all the Americans lived outside of Banjul. Other than Peace Corps volunteers who were up country, almost all the Americans were at my house, the ambassador’s residence, and my wife and my servants were taking care of all of them. They were sleeping on the floors and fortunately it’s a temperate climate so, although we didn’t have air-conditioning, nobody was terribly uncomfortable. We emptied the freezers to feed everyone. The embassy was able to ferry food to the residence. One of the things I’m most proud of is we got several Americans out, and we took good care of the Americans that were there. We received reports from London, where most of them ended up, praising the embassy for how well we did with very, very limited resources. And that continued afterwards. Once I was back at the embassy we regularly conducted briefings for the Americans who were left, let them know what was happening, and made sure the emergency radio net was working. In spite of the fact that we had a one-person consular section, we all knew that taking care of Americans was number one and it was done to perfection.
I arrived back at my residence, took a shower, had a quick bite to eat; it was 11:00 in the morning on a Sunday. The coup had taken place on Friday. Lieutenant Jammeh and his three lieutenant cohorts, who had taken charge, had called all of the ambassadors to a meeting at State House. I talked briefly to my British and EU colleagues, who had not received instructions. I arrived at State House and they proceeded to tell us that they were now in charge, there was nothing to fear and that things were peaceful. They didn’t appear very in charge; they were quite nervous and ill at ease. Lieutenant Jammeh, who is president of The Gambia today, was a high school graduate, which probably meant the equivalent of an eighth grade education by American standards. He had received a little training by the U.S. military in the US. He liked Americans. The ambassadors from Senegal, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, stood up and said innocuous things. The British ambassador, who clearly was much more instructed than I was, had nothing to say because he had no instructions.
I also had no instructions, but I stood up and said that they should all go back to the barracks, that they should allow President Jawara to return, that what they had done was illegal and contrary to international law. I told them they were making a terrible mistake that would have consequences in terms of the support and assistance they received from countries like the United States. I had no authority to say that but I thought it was the right thing to say and I think it was. And that really upset them. They were not expecting anybody to say anything negative. I must say, I’m quite self-confident individual, but I was nervous delivering that message. It didn’t just flow out naturally; it was not something I’d ever said to anyone, obviously. It wasn’t polite or friendly. It was firm and said in an ambassadorial tone of voice. That led to the end of the meeting and clearly I had cut my ties with the new government rather quickly. It was very apparent that they weren’t too happy with what I had said.
Over the next several days, there was no violence. There was no opposition. They rapidly took over. They arrested all of the ministers. They arrested the permanent secretary of the ministry of defense, but he was released very quickly and in days was back in his job as permanent secretary. The consular officer and I realized we had been had, that the permanent secretary in the ministry of defense had clearly been complicit in the coup, that his actions had allowed the troops to get access to their weapons, and that he had changed the location of the maneuvers to allow the troops to enter Banjul. Clearly the vice president had been more had than we had been had. It was clear that this fellow had been a traitor to his country. Very, very unfortunate. If I had to guess, I think the permanent secretary was bothered by the same things I was, the president was getting older, the vice president was becoming more powerful, more in control and the most likely successor. He was not a good guy, he was not a nice guy; he was a crook, he was corrupt. I think he may have been offended by that and therefore decided to help the coup plotters, but I have no idea. It would be hard, and I’m being somewhat humorous and facetious, to find an agenda among Gambians. They’re just very peaceful, quiet, take one-day-at-a-time; they may be Muslims, but they’re very Buddhist in their approach to life.
Q: Any thought of pulling the Peace Corps out or anything like that?
WINTER: No, there was no reason to. The United States Government immediately cut off aid as required by law. The USAID director, Rose Marie Depp, and I sent messages by separate channels saying fine, cut off aid. However, she had done her homework, she was a terrific officer, and the law was clear: money that was in the pipeline could stay and the USAID mission didn’t have to pull out in any hurry. We convinced Washington to continue the programs, which were assisting the government in improving governance and building sustainable institutions. The new government would need that assistance even more than the old one. Washington agreed. For the remaining year I was there the USAID mission stayed and the money continued to flow. Even the coup plotters appreciated the continuance of assistance. A new AID director came in and maintained good relations with the government.
The Senegalese asked Jawara to leave as soon as he could. Jawara had a small house in the English countryside. He retired there and after several years negotiated with the Gambians to retire back to The Gambia. He said don’t worry, I’m not going to be a threat but I love my country, I want to go there to live out my old age.
I focused on human rights. All of the ministers, the head of the National Security Agency, and the police chief were in jail. I had known all of them and they were very decent and good people. The only really bad guy was Vice President Sabally and he went off with the ship to Senegal. The military government immediately let the International Red Cross have access to the ministers who were in prison in Banjul. The Red Cross came to visit me and assured me that everyone was being well treated. They were living in very simple circumstances, were receiving food, weren’t being mistreated, weren’t being tortured, and they weren’t being interrogated. They were separated from the criminals and they had basic freedom on the prison grounds.
I immediately started talking with the foreign minister, Blaise Jagne, a career Gambian diplomat, who had served in Washington. He was an opportunist and quickly endeared himself to the young lieutenants who clearly were in need of somebody who was articulate. They made him the foreign minister, under the condition that he would – in a very diplomatic way – do their bidding. He became a very effective agent. He clearly didn’t like me because of the way I had stood up to the coup plotters that very first day. He made it clear to me that the government didn’t like me. He was polite bordering on the impolite. He wasn’t very interested in talking to me but he tolerated me.
Q: Well isn’t that kind of the best solution? Because we didn’t want to embrace them.
WINTER: Right. However I kept pushing for the release of the ministers. I put in a formal note. I did this without consulting Washington. After the coup and once the Americans were safe, The Gambia disappeared from the Washington map again with good reason. I kept insisting I would like to see the ministers to be assured they were being treated humanely. The foreign minister kept reminding me that I had no right to see them, that the International Red Cross was there, and that everything was fine. I said I have no doubt but it would be a goodwill gesture to allow the diplomatic community, in the presence of me, to go see them. I said I know these people, they’ve been my friends for the last year; I would like to be assured that they are being treated well.
After two weeks, I received a call that I could go visit the prison. I was allowed to bring food and books; I wasn’t searched. My chauffeur, the consular officer and I carried in all the food we could. It wasn’t much; three big boxes of food and a big box of books so they’d have something to read. We sat outside their quarters; they actually each had their own room. There were two one-story buildings facing each other with about six cells each, each with cell doors that were unlocked. There were straw mats to sleep on and a communal place to wash. We sat on orange crates in a circle and chatted for a good hour. They all assured me they were well and they also assured me, which was one of the key purposes of my visit, that all they wanted to do was to go home to their families. They wanted to resume their private lives and stay out of trouble.
After that I kept pushing the government to release the political prisoners. I would raise the subject with every minister with whom I met. I tried to see the President, but he wasn’t interested in seeing me. At one point I even scribbled a note to him, a personal note, and managed to hand it to him, saying that I’d like to sit down and talk to him. He never responded. I wouldn’t say I scare people but I come across strong, and that’s been true throughout my career in the Foreign Service even with my American colleagues. I really think I made him nervous. He was insecure and his fellow soldiers were insecure.
Two weeks later I was invited to a meeting at the State House without being told what it was about. I was asked to come alone, which made me a little nervous, to be quite honest. I was escorted into the vice president’s conference room. There was the vice president, who was a lieutenant, several other soldiers and all of the detainees, all of the ministers and others who had been politically detained after the coup. It was a very polite, almost formal affair, and I was there as a witness. The vice president said to the detainees that we are releasing you; you all have agreed that you’re going to resume normal lives, and you will not be involved in politics. Ambassador Winter is here to escort you out of State House. We’ve arranged cars to take you home. They went back to their families and resumed normal lives; not quite as comfortable as before and with greater concern for how they were going to make a living. But they were alive, they’d been relatively well treated, and they were going back home and to peace. I wouldn’t say I was responsible for their release, but I played a part and it was something that I’ll always be proud of.
Q: Were there any other ambassadors present?
Q: Had you made more of a fuss than them?
WINTER: Oh yes. Keep in mind there were very few ambassadors. Other than a handful of African ambassadors who basically didn’t give a hoot, it was just the Brits and the EU, who both tended to be very cautious. I was the only one that was pushing human rights issues.
Q: this is- I’ve got a very important point, that- as we will follow through on this obviously but just to emphasize here, that the United States, with all its faults and warts and everything else you can think about, is the only country that more or less consistently raises issues such as human rights and all this, whereas our European colleagues whom you would- who often talk about these things don’t do much or they’re at the periphery or something.
WINTER: I agree with you. But putting it in context, here we had a military coup d’état; a military regime that still by any standards was initially quite decent. They weren’t torturing people, they weren’t killing people, and they had released the ministers. To give it some international legitimacy, they had invited me to attend the release ceremony, which showed a good side of this new government.
Q: Later did any of those ministers who had been released come and thank you for what you’d done or not?
WINTER: I didn’t see any of them again. I think that they saw me as a liability to them because the government didn’t like me. All of these ministers took very seriously the fact that if they stayed under the radar, they would be fine.
After that, The Gambia, being the sleepy place it is, went back to being sleepy. We had a not very bright head of state, a former lieutenant who proceeded to dress in very opulent local dress and proceeded to go on the Hajj for the first time in his life. One ironic incident for my wife, who was from Taiwan, and I involved the Peoples Republic of China and Taiwan. The ambassador from China was our next-door neighbor and we were friendly, if not friends. Taiwan, with the change of government, made a move to try and get recognition. I was at the foreign ministry and they had just recognized Taiwan and, of course, the Peoples Republic had just announced that they were going to leave in protest. The foreign minister couldn’t quite understand why the Chinese were leaving. They wanted both of them to stay and I very politely informed him that, of course, they’re going to leave. At worst it was naiveté and there were rumors, that I tend to give great credence to, that in addition to a promise of aid that $10 million, which is a cheap price to pay by Taiwan for recognition, had been deposited in Swiss bank accounts in the names of the president and other government officials. I have no proof of that but it certainly seems credible.
There were a couple of very minor, I wouldn’t even call them counter coups, incidents where more junior military officers tried to foment some trouble, but there might have been 10 shots fired and they were detained.
I continued to speak out against the government, primarily using the “The Daily Observer.” Quoting me was the only somewhat safe way that the editor Ken Best, a Liberian, could print negative views of the government. Eventually they detained him and ultimately kicked him out of the country because he wasn’t a Gambian citizen and they wanted to silence his newspaper. The newspaper continued to publish under a Gambian editor, but very carefully. With Ken gone the newspaper kept a little more distance from me.
In March the government sent a diplomatic note through their embassy in Washington to the State Department informing the State Department that they could no longer guarantee my safety. The State Department sent it to me and asked me for my comment. I replied that the only threats that I could possibly perceive of were twofold; either the government itself or some soldier who hears of this policy and thinks he can improve his promotion possibilities by killing me. The State Department sent a rather curt reply, which the Gambians never responded to, reminding the government of its responsibilities to protect diplomats under international law. Then in May the government sent another note, saying that Ambassador Winter continues to engage in activities that interfere in the internal affairs of The Gambia and that, again, they couldn’t guarantee my safety.
I was scheduled to leave permanently in August and in June I was scheduled to go back to the States for the graduation of my daughter from Longwood College.
This was the end of May and I sent a message back to Washington saying, if I were going to be staying another year, I’d stay another year. But I’m scheduled to leave in August. I’m leaving in June for three weeks; I think the wisest course is for me not to return, given this second threat by the government. Well, the AF Bureau was rather upset at that. They thought I was overreacting. They sent the security officer from Dakar to check out the situation. He came there and evaluated the threat. The Libyans now had a presence in The Gambia and a Libyan embassy car was staking out the embassy. I had absolutely no protection; there were no Marine guards and no local bodyguards. My house was unprotected; the embassy was a former motel, literally. The security officer, after two days, sent a cable to Washington saying Mr. Winter is scheduled – this was May 25 – to depart June 6; I recommend he leave tomorrow. It’s unwise for him and for the U.S. Government to risk his safety; although it’s unlikely, it’s possible. I packed out and my wife and I departed, never to return. And with a certain amount of sadness.
I’d only been in country a little bit less than two years, and I had decided – a very unusual move for someone with the good fortune to have an ambassadorship – to curtail my ambassadorship in order to go to Beijing as management chief. I considered being an ambassador a treat but it wasn’t the end all and be all for me.
Courtesy of Association for Diplomatic Sturdies and Training, (ADST) the world’s largest collection of U.S. diplomatic oral history.