There has been slow but gradual progress in getting the discipline to understand this fact, to understand how important the study of intelligence is outside of the Five Eyes. In recent years, particular emphasis has been paid to Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel, just to name several. But the countries of Africa, unfortunately, have largely remained a near blank analytical slate when it comes to deeper work on respective nations’ intelligence communities. As recent events in The Gambia show, that absence needs to be rectified as some deeply disturbing aspects of state development and political stability hang in the balance.
A few days ago, the ex-head of the Gambian NIA (National Intelligence Agency), along with eight other intelligence officers, was arrested and charged with the murder of Ebrima Solo Sandeng, a top political opposition figure. Sandeng, the National Organizing Secretary of the United Democratic Party (UDP), died in custody after being arrested for his participation in a protest demanding electoral reforms back in April of 2016. The protests were geared to influencing the December 2016 presidential election, which ultimately saw the defeat of incumbent President/Strongman Yahya Jammeh to Adama Barrow. Jammeh had corruptly governed the country since rising to power as a young military officer in a bloodless military coup in 1994.
The official docket accused Yankuba Badjie and eight other members of the NIA of ‘conspiring amongst themselves to take part in the murder of Mr. Solo Sandeng.’ Back on April 14, 2016, Sandeng and five other members of the UDF party were arrested by police and taken to Mile 2 Prison where, after two days of torture, Sandeng died of shock and respiratory failure. Arguably, this was the case that broke Jammeh’s stronghold rule on power: the disgust and shock of the murder (following what most in Gambia considered an illegal arrest) pushed voter motivation all the way into the presidential election. Perhaps more importantly, it became the final Jenga block removed from a tower of intolerance, abuse, corruption, and torture that had plagued the National Intelligence Agency since it was founded by Jammeh in 1995 through Decree No. 45, issued by the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council. Indeed, the NIA has always operated outside of the formal legal framework in The Gambia: originally set up to supposedly combat threats within the armed forces, it ended up combating real and perceived domestic threats to Jammeh. As an organization that remained under military decree, the NIA de facto behaved like an extra-legal institution, above and beyond the law. Until, it seems, the murder of Solo Sandeng. But there are still many questions remaining for the future of Gambia. Perhaps a corner has been turned. But it does not mean old forces will not strive to prevent a new day from dawning.
The clear immediate threat is Jammeh himself, who, after initially conceding defeat to Barrow, changed his mind and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the election. Adama Barrow was sworn in as President of The Gambia on January 19, 2017, but did so at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal. It was only two days later that Jammeh was forced to step down and go into exile when a combined military force team of several ECOWAS countries entered The Gambia. Jammeh first went to Guinea and then to Equatorial Guinea, where he still sits and claims rightful ownership of the Presidency. The obvious danger is that as long as Jammeh makes such claims and is free, The Gambia will be susceptible to coup, insurgency, or outright invasion by paramilitary forces.
Newly-elected President Adama Barrow is doing his part, at least symbolically. On January 31, he announced that the National Intelligence Agency was going to be renamed the State Intelligence Services, while also claiming to have stripped the NIA of its extraordinary and extra-legal state powers. This attempt to reign the intelligence services back under proper state oversight and control is essential and logical. But it is also likely to be the first area ripe for Jammeh to recruit malcontents for future attempts against the new regime. After all, NIA operatives were once before accused of an attempted 2006 coup d’etat against Jammeh. Making moves against a new President trying to strip away all of its special power is not much of an analytical leap.
More interestingly for the long term of Gambian democracy, Barrow has promised a truth commission and open investigation into all of the alleged human rights violations carried out under Jammeh. However, any such investigation is going to inevitably end up shining an even brighter light onto operatives of the NIA/SIS, many of whom still work for the organization. This is the precarious security/intelligence balance The Gambia finds itself in today. A new presidency is trying to take the necessary steps to not just emerge from a generation of corrupt autocracy, but must take those steps under the eyes of people who were also part of the corruption. So, while Intelligence Studies within the Five Eyes will undoubtedly remain dominant in the immediate future, situations like The Gambia show why more focus needs to be placed on events far outside it. For perhaps the effort to study and analyze these places, bringing more international light and attention to them, will end up helping the fledgling efforts to establish stability, rule of law, and democratic consolidation.