In Brooklyn Park, Papa Faal waits until daybreak for presidential election returns from Gambia. The fate of the West African strongman Faal tried to dislodge in an armed coup is on the line, and he cannot sleep.
The botched 2014 coup thrust the soft-spoken father into international headlines. It also dismantled much of the comfortable life he had carved out in his adopted home. An IT consultant with two master’s degrees and a distinguished record in the U.S. military, he is now a cabdriver and felon, haunted by the deaths of fellow coup plotters.
What hasn’t budged is Faal’s conviction that few sacrifices are too steep to make change in his faraway birthplace. Now, amid the political suspense unfolding in Gambia, he again feels the tug of his native land and weighs complicated allegiances spanning the Atlantic.
“The United States is my home,” he says. “But if a new government needs me in Gambia, I will go.”
It’s early December, and Faal listens to a crackling satellite radio station at his brother-in-law’s dining room table. Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s ruler of 22 years, has blocked the internet and phones on Election Day, but results are trickling in.
As a gaggle of relatives and friends chat around him, he pores over a spreadsheet of returns. If he pays close attention, he can catch Jammeh cheating 5,000 miles away.
Jammeh will steal the election, Faal is convinced; a newly energized opposition won’t stand for it.
“Dictators never, ever relinquish power without bloodshed,” he said. “People are going to die. It’s worth it.”
Faal had arrived at that chilling belief when he got a call in 2014 inviting him to join a group of Gambian-born U.S. citizens plotting to overthrow Jammeh. He did not hesitate.
At first blush, he seemed an unlikely recruit. The wonkish father of a toddler, he had left Gambia two decades earlier and worked as an adjunct IT instructor and consultant as he wrapped up an online doctorate. But he was also part of a diaspora network of activists bent on regime change. A Muslim, he had joined the U.S. military in part because of outrage over the Sept. 11 attacks; a decade later, he left determined to focus on Gambia.
Faal traveled the country to lobby human rights groups and elected officials, arguing in vain for a harder line on Jammeh. This was the ruler, after all, who claimed he could cure AIDS, threatened to behead gays, detained and tortured critics. He was also the man who had overthrown Faal’s great-uncle, Gambia’s president for 24 years.
By the time that 2014 call came, Faal was raring to shake off a sense of futility. He shipped eight semi-automatic rifles to Gambia and traveled there that December. His wife, Sainabou, who didn’t know about the coup plot, and his daughter traveled as well; Faal was that certain the plan would go smoothly.
A coup gone wrong
The morning after last month’s election, a restless Faal heads out in his cab though he has the day off. After many agonizing hours, the final results poured in at daybreak. Opposition candidate Adama Barrow was declared the winner. Jammeh would concede later that day.
Could the change Faal tried to achieve with force really come about at the ballot box?
From Faal’s arrival in the Gambian capital Banjul in December 2014, the coup attempt ran into hurdles. Word was Jammeh had been tipped off and left the country. The plotters decided to go ahead and take over the statehouse, convinced they would not meet resistance.
But in the early hours of Dec. 30, Faal found himself returning heavy fire from a statehouse watchtower. From behind an ambulance parked by a nearby maternity hospital, he saw one of his companions run out of ammunition, get into his car and drive toward the compound wall as bullets riddled the windshield. On his shortwave radio, he heard only static. He called off the assault.
“I still have nightmares about my escape,” he said. “It was like being confined in a box with a snake.”
The next day, Faal managed to slip onto a ferry to neighboring Senegal. His wife and their daughter left safely as well.
Faal turned himself in at the U.S. embassy and gave a detailed account of the plot that claimed three lives. He believed his adopted homeland would not begrudge him an effort to restore democracy. But he was charged under an 18th-century law against attacking friendly nations. Faal and his co-conspirators set out to craft their own foreign policy, prosecutors said, endangering U.S. interests and U.S. citizens abroad.
Faal pleaded guilty.
Court of public opinion
Faal spent most of 2015 under house arrest replaying the coup over and over as he awaited sentencing. The family’s savings melted. Sainabou Faal started a design business that kept the household going.
Many in the local Gambian community of about 2,000 rallied around Faal. Supporters like Yero Jallow hailed him as a hero and chipped in for legal expenses. But some friends kept their distance, fearful of landing on the FBI’s radar. Still others argued Faal was “crazy” to fight a regime they said had spurred development in Gambia.
Faal’s brother-in-law Cherno Bah and others assured him the coup attempt had made a difference. Abdoulaye Saine, a Gambian political science professor at Miami University in Ohio, says previous coup attempts had fizzled out before any shots were fired, boosting Jammeh’s aura of invincibility.
“The fear factor was crushed by that attack,” said Saine. “For me, that emboldened Gambians and began to spell the end of the regime.”
Kamissa Camara, a West Africa expert at the National Endowment for Democracy, is more skeptical. “The coup was seen as the diaspora being out of touch with the reality on the ground,” she said.
The Western media also dismissed the plot as “amateurish” and “an abject failure.” But fascinated by well-to-do longtime immigrants plotting an armed coup, they ran articles highlighting Jammeh’s human rights record.
“For the world, the Gambian problem didn’t exist,” Faal said. “After Dec. 30, the world started noticing.”
At a Minneapolis mosque, local Gambians in suits and festive dresses celebrate the opposition’s election victory. Seated near the back of the room, Faal listens to talk about holding the new government accountable and finding ways to pitch in from Minnesota. His wife cradles their second child, 9-month-old Cherno Muhamed, on her lap.
In between speakers, Faal takes a cellphone call in a whisper. The man next to him listens in and shouts, “There is a coup d’état in the Gambia!” As the room erupts, Faal rushes out of the hall and returns to announce, “It’s not true.”
But less than a week after his defeat, Jammeh goes on national television to announce he is contesting the election results. Experts agree Jammeh’s government likely won’t survive his reversal, which drew international condemnation. His opponents remain tense; Jammeh might not go without bloodshed.
Last spring, Faal was sentenced to three years of probation. Two co-conspirators received six-month sentences. The coup’s leader, a wealthy Texas real estate developer named Cherno Njie, was sentenced to a year in jail.
The last time Faal and Njie spoke, Faal says Njie blamed his sentence on the account Faal gave to the FBI. To Faal, cooperating with the investigation was taking responsibility, and he insists he never cut a deal to avoid jail time.
“People died,” he said. “This is not the kind of thing you can do and come home and pretend it never happened.”
Njie could not be reached for this story.
Under his probation terms, Faal can use a computer only to work on his doctorate, so restarting his IT career is not an option. His felony record might have scuttled a recent application for a warehouse job requiring only a high school diploma, said Mustapha Touray, a family friend.
Faal and his wife have slowly rebuilt trust, she says: “I still love him, and I am proud of him.”
Meanwhile, transfixed by the news from Gambia, he feels again the pull of the homeland. He dreams of taking a role with the new government — some predict a wave of expatriates will return to help. Without a passport because of his conviction, he needs the U.S. government’s permission, or he has to wait. Meanwhile, he’s working to revive his great-uncle’s once banned party.
“I am not going to feel useless any more,” he said.