The Dilemma of an African Soldier


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.

Within a year of taking up his assignment, Sanneh fled his country after a falling out with his government. According to Gambian sources, he was dismissed from his post, reassigned (just like his predecessor), and under investigation by the Gambian internal security agency. He and his family sought asylum in the United States and seemed to be transitioning into normal civilian life. Lamin wanted to write a book about security in West Africa, and I helped him write an article for a peer-reviewed journal based on his NDU thesis. But unbeknownst to me or his other friends from his NDU days, he was apparently leading an effort to plan and equip a force of Gambian diaspora to return home to liberate their country from Yahya Jammeh’s rule. I didn’t know about Lamin’s plans, and I don’t know his motivations beyond what I can ascertain based on his personality and the descriptions from news reports and witnesses. However, I can’t shake the feeling that his education in the United States somehow influenced his actions.

I can tell you firsthand what they learn. They learn what might be called “democratic security theory.” Political violence is caused by grievances that must be addressed by increasing political opportunities to seek redress (i.e., democratic governance). In their coursework and research, students often discover that their countries need to reduce corruption and decrease political repression to address the grievances that drive rebellion. They also learn that civil-military cooperation is required to implement a comprehensive strategy. When an officer that learns these lessons goes back to his home country and sees entrenched and intractable corruption, human rights abuses, incompetence, and oppression, what is his solution set? When civilians are part of the problem rather than part of the solution, what is the appropriate response? If political reform is necessary but impossible under the current regime, what is a young, bright, and courageous patriot supposed to do?

Sanneh’s story would be simply a personal tragedy if it were unique. One must only look to Mali to see an example of another coup (this one successful) led by a US-trained officer, Captain Amadou Sanogo. In reaction to the Mali coup, former AFRICOM commander General Ham suggested that the training Sanogo received was partly to blame. Ham told an audience at Howard University, “We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics, and military ethos.” Another relevant example is the celebration of the Egyptian military’s restraint in Tahrir Square. According to some, this restraint was fostered by the education Egyptian officers received in U.S. PME institutions. This understanding of Egyptian officer behavior suggests that we are educating foreign military officers to do what is ethical according to an American sense of ethics and professionalism. But what happens when they go home to a place conspicuously void of an American sense of morals and military professionalism? In the Egyptian case, we are happy because we believe that education in the United States encouraged officers there to ignore illegal and immoral orders. We also seem to be at least tacitly supportive of the 2013 coup d’état led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a graduate of the U.S. Army War College. But in other cases when officers take positive action to overthrow a regime run by a corrupt and abusive dictator, we condemn them.

What Can Be Done?

We in the U.S. defense community involved in educating foreign military officers should examine our own professionalism and ethics. When we accept officers from military dictatorships guilty of systemic corruption and human rights abuses, what do we expect these officers to learn at our institutions? What do we expect them to do when they return home?

What is needed is a more honest understanding of each of our students’ situations. One step forward is to help students think about second-best solutions and a program of “muddling through.” How can we improve the security situation in a country without fundamentally challenging entrenched interests? How can we mitigate rather than solve? This approach may be seen as non-strategic (and of course every lieutenant colonel and colonel needs to be thinking at the strategic level!), but it is more realistic. In the context of widespread corruption, fraudulent elections, and minority repression, what can be done?

What advice can I offer the faculty and leadership of our PME institutions? First, do no harm. We should be careful that we don’t raise the expectations of our foreign students too high. Many of them will have very little impact on the state of their countries when they return home; let’s not pretend that they should all return home with grand strategies to solve their nations’ problems. Instead, students should seek deep, substantive knowledge on a certain area of professional interest, such as disarmament, demobilization, and reconciliation or naval strategies to combat piracy. Second, while our war colleges do a great job of understanding and working with cultural differences of our foreign officers, they are not as good at understanding the differences in military culture. When I was advising Lamin at NDU, I had no idea that the life of a Gambian soldier was so precarious. If I had known, I would have done more to help calibrate his ambitions.

While I consider Lamin Sanneh to have been a friend, he did not give me any hint about his plans to return to The Gambia, and I have no deep insight into why he took the daring and seemingly quixotic step of attempting to overthrow the Janneh dictatorship with only a handful of comrades and a container of small arms. I don’t know if his education in the United States and United Kingdom had any effect on his falling out with his leadership or with his decision to take up arms against Janneh, but I can’t help but wonder if simply imprinting our foreign students with the “American program” is counterproductive and unethical. At a personal level, I can’t escape a feeling of regret. As an instructor and friend, is there something I could have done differently to help Lamin avoid his untimely death? It is conceit on my part to think that I could have done something to change his path. Even so, I’ll be haunted by that possibility for many years.


Jeffrey W. Meiser is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Portland. He previously taught at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.


Photo credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen