The Dilemma of an African Soldier

January 26, 2015

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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

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11 thoughts on “The Dilemma of an African Soldier

  1. Important article in many ways. “First do no harm” and learning about the reality of the environment in which our foreign proteges must work in is a start in the right direction.

  2. I met Jammeh shortly after the coup that put him in power. At the time, I remarked that he looked like nothing more than a thug in uniform. Time has proven my initial assessment correct. The dilemma we face is training the soldiers in countries led by such thugs – we’re throwing them back into a meat grinder. I’m not arguing for regime change a la the Bush Administration (which I also worked for), but we need to take a long, hard look at our IMET and other military assistance programs in Africa to make sure we’re not putting more people in harms way than we’re helping.

  3. Not the conclusion I was expecting, or hoping for. The fact that Western officer education is having such a profound effect on foreign officers is honestly a glimmer of hope. Teaching officers the ability to recognize corruption in society and then giving them the moral impulse to act on it is an amazing success story. I understand that there are other factors and second/third order effects here, but from a purely educational perspective I think it’s pretty clear that ethics education is not at fault for what happened to Mr. Sanneh.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I see two possibilities. (1) PME education is effective in shaping the future actions of students or (2) PME education has no effect on future actions of students. If #1 is true then educators have a responsibility to think about what actions the eduction might cause or contribute to. If we give foreign students the tools to recognize the problem but don’t give them the tools to create a realistic solution, then we are not setting them up for success. If #2 is true then we are just wasting our time.

  4. There is a level of presumption and paternalism in sentiments that U.S. military courses and training are significant factors impacting African military students’ decisions about whether or not to attempt a coup.

    Coup d’états have been a historical occurrence in Africa for over 50 years. In some sense, coups almost seem to be viewed as a form of government transition. In West Africa only 2 countries have avoided this fate (Senegal and Cape Verde). Africans hold agency. U.S. ideals about democratic transitions and elections are what they are but Africans demonstrate an affinity for different approaches.

    Most of the African military members trained in the U.S. who attempted coups have also been exposed to and trained by militaries in other countries (France, UK, China, and Russia). Why is it plausible that U.S. training influences soldiers’ behaviors over another countries’ training? And why do we apologize (General Ham’s comments) for it?

    1. Thanks for the comment, your points are certainly valid and help me clarify my thinking.
      I don’t mean to suggest a general explanation for coups in Africa, instead I try to add context to the Gambian case. Because I have knowledge of this particular case, I can see how American PME education likely shaped Lamin Sanneh’s views about the problems in his country and what should be done. It would take a in-depth cross-national analysis to determine whether or not foreign education has any effect on coups and whether education in a particular country has a larger effect than education in other countries.

  5. I am sorry, but to skew PME to safeguard the students rather than to teach them professionalism and ethics seems senseless.

    What would you be saying if Sanneh succeeded in overthrowing Jammeh and brought about a new paradigm in the Gambia? I for one would be proud.

    I am reminded of the foreign officer who, when asked what he would do if he had access to America’s firepower, replied, “Why, I would be President!”

    We need to teach foreign officers to the same standards as US officers, perhaps counseling them on the dangers inherent in trying to force change.

    With power (and education) comes responsibility. The foreign officers we teach need to know how to wield that weapon responsibly.

  6. “With power (and education) comes responsibility. The foreign officers we teach need to know how to wield that weapon responsibly.” Yes! That is exactly my point! PME educators have a major role to play here.
    If Lamin had succeeded, I would also be proud, but guess what? The State Department would condemn it, just like they condemned the coup attempt. If our curriculum fosters action that our government will condemn, then there is a problem.
    “We need to teach foreign officers to the same standards as US officers, perhaps counseling them on the dangers inherent in trying to force change.” Again, yes! I completely agree, though I would change the “perhaps” to a definitely.
    I agree that we should teach professionalism and ethics to foreign students, but with the knowledge that they will be going back to a place where American-style professionalism and ethics is viewed with hostility.

  7. Kudos Mr Jeffrey Meiser for this brilliant and insightful article about the perils of a US trained African military officer. I must say beforehand that i’m no military personnel but as an African who has witnessed how corruption, bad government and nepotism has destroyed the abundant potentials and economies of various nations in this continent, I can empathise but not support the actions of Late Col Lamin Sanneh. As regards the Egyptian military leadership serving as a model of restraint during the Arab spring revolution in Tahrir square, one needs to look closely two years down the line to see the same military perpetrating what was described as the single biggest civilian massacre in Rabaa where 817 people were killed. As ideal as the teachings of professional military education is and i support its propagation, the complexities of individual personalities and environmental factors still also play a major role in the decisions taken by these African military officers trained in the US. Hopefully, further research and dialogue on this subject should be conducted as it is fundamental to shaping the region’s military and their roles

  8. From Jeffrey Meiser’s exposition it appears PME is not inclusive of broad imperatives of officers understanding historical and current socio-political situation in their countries and continents of origin. The officers should be made to foster for the future in their career in the army; that they are an army not for the army but an army for the civilians that compose the greater percentage of the population. President Jammeh is a symptom in the socio-political make of the Gambian people, not the ailment. Lamin should have taken time to think, analyze the ailment and cause of the ailment when training in USA. His strategy should have been enlightening the army and civilian population about the need to change course to develop the Gambia. The population together with the army that knows the history of the country and what is best for it would then oust Jammeh. Without such a grand plan with focused implementation, most military coups result in suppression and repression contrary to ‘coups’ of the population. This kind of ‘coup’ seeks to replace a system and not individuals of a system and thus leaving the system intact. That’s what Jammeh did when he ‘couped’ himself to power. He is now in for the vicious struggle to cling to power! Dying once like that of Col. Lamin is better than dying many times like Capt. Campore – living painfully, slowly pinning away to death and ruing your actions to coup; ask Hosni Mubarak!

  9. The military in africa over the years has successfully inched towards professionalism, example is the case of ghana and other west african countries. Democracy has taken root in west africa despites some flash enclaves like gambia where yaya jameh is dictating and he has enslaved the entire population with terror and enthincity. The situation in gambia needs a drastic change.