Cherno M. Njie
Eulogy for December 30th Heroes
Cherno M. Njie
If I must die in the forest, let it be a lion which kills me
(Su ma dee chi alla, gayndee ma rey)
The circumstances under which I met these men – and I am speaking of the late Captain Njaga Jagne, Colonel Lamin Sanneh, and Alagie Jaja Nyass, all men of the military either in The Gambia or abroad– were difficult. Those circumstances—well, a political and social situation in the Gambia, in our country, that was intolerable to us. Maybe it is regrettable that we all could not have come together simply as friends and fellow Gambians, unrelated to any sense of urgency that we all felt about four and a half years ago at our first meetings. Regrettable—maybe, yes—that the horrors committed against the body of the Gambian people for something like twenty-two years were what brought me to meet Captain Jagne, Colonel Sanneh, and Alagie Nyass. But still, the fact is that I came to meet these men as Gambians, with an intense and common concern for the evils Gambians were everyday experiencing as we watched apprehensively from the outside. I think the more important question is whether or not we regret our actions, which is a really a question of whether or not these men, who paid the ultimate price, died in vain. Of whether or not our actions, at the head of which was the failed coup attempt of December 30th of 2014, was a senseless action and just another hopeful expectation, or an act of great meaning and heroism.
The situation in The Gambia weighed heavily upon them—the pressure did not let up with time, because there was always news of some other atrocity from friends and family, if not in the newspapers: disappearances, torturing, jailings, intimidation, paranoia… All of us are familiar with the immense difficulty of managing such a weight when there is no obvious way to relieve it. It weighs, weighs and weighs more seemingly every day—and it may even be that the weight is not more, only that under it, day to day, one weakens ever so slowly.
In the United States we of the Diaspora have always agitated from afar, through advocacy groups, appeals to international human rights organizations, the United Nations, African Union, and ECOWAS, and pressuring the US State Department to act against Jammeh in some substantial way. The urgent need for change, and the lack of its coming was frustrating—the apparently slow movement of advocacy did not satisfy Njaga, Sanneh, or Nyass.
I spoke a moment ago about weight, a weight that, quite literally, pushes one into particular decisions, into specific ultimatums. The load on top of you has, in a certain sense, trapped you, forcing you to move slowly and with utmost exertion. Meanwhile, it often feels that you must keep up the veneer of peace while you are being almost literally crushed. If the weight does not let up, the regular rules of common sense naturally give way to another sort of instinct, but, still, the shift is a reasonable one. From one point of view, the so-called normal point of view –I mean that view that has the privilege of clarity, safety, security, and plenty of time to think– the decision of these men may seem to be the result of a unique irrationality, that understandingly, but with error, yields to a route of action that is misguided, though perhaps justifiable. But that is, we have to say, unfair—not to mention that these rationalizations are entirely unsatisfactory for those who loved these men, and always had some clue to their inner turmoil. It is horrible for one who loved Captain Jagne, or loved Colonel Sanneh, or loved Alagie Nyass in any sort of way to think that these men were acting irrationally up to the moment of their deaths. No—the thought does not settle well. Such a privileged rationalization leaves one with an ambiguous uncertainty that relates more to a sense of misunderstanding, or of incomprehensibility than to any fault in the decision-making of our loved ones. That incomprehensibility I think comes from the situation itself, the circumstances that in the first place pushed these and other men into a radical decision. The behavior of Jammeh and the state of things in The Gambia were always more surreal to us than our decision to act against him. It was always very natural for us to recognize that forceful removal was our only option. Those of us involved in the decision were looking at a set of unusual circumstances that called for a different sort of consideration. We must not blame these men if we are to call them heroes—we may lament their deaths, but we must blame, above all, the situation in The Gambia at the time, we must blame a regime that was repulsive to these men, and the fact that evil had taken root in our homeland. Their deaths in the line of fighting betray a passionate commitment to the routing of that evil, an attempt to wrest free the government of The Gambia, its institutions, and above all its people from a repressive state of affairs that at every point made impossible a safe, healthy living and the basic freedoms to make that living. The attempt was a selfless act, and we have also come here to commemorate that act, even while we grieve their loss.
It is not fair that I stand here speaking rather than one or all of these men. It is not fair that the world that we know, that The Gambia, the country that we know had, at the time, come to such a state that pushed these men to a drastic action. It was not fair that the body of the Gambian people should endure terror while these men at a distance felt a nagging and impenetrable sense of guilt— that they, because of that distance, were out of the way of Jammeh’s violence. They were, are men, who then, in 2014, saw that the world, our country, could be another way, so they declared “no.” At the bottom of their actions, which many may still have a difficult time understanding, was a fundamental decision to utter “no” and to begin to practice the meaning of that “no.”
The act of resistance led to their deaths. We know the list of deaths at the hands of Jammeh is a very long one. We all gather here as, in some way, victims of his terror of twenty-two years. I stand here with a heavy heart, because I have lost three great friends. My heart is heavy because these men, like so many Gambians, tragically paid with their lives in their attempt to stop the Jammeh regime from reducing human beings to victims. Their humanity would not permit them to stand idly by and watch Gambians denied their humanity. It burdens my heart that their lives were claimed by an arbitrary and irrational evil that wished only to maintain its hold on power. Nevertheless, we are here today to remember that these men with great effort and purpose challenged that evil. But, exactly because they were men of the good, it should not be forgotten that these men throughout their lives were good men. They developed a sense of purpose and principle early in their lives, and carried these through to the end of their lives. Sadly they did not see Jammeh finally forced from power; as we, collectively, carry on the project of rebuilding The Gambia so that such evil can never again claim the lives of good men, we remember Captain Njaga Jagne, Colonel Lamin Sanneh, and Alagie Jaja Nyass. It is they who still live with us, propelling in some way the mission of reconstruction, recuperation, and repair in our homeland. We grieve their loss—they will not come back to us. Still, we must remind ourselves that their deaths did not come to pass in vain, for they contributed to the long struggle against evil that eventually prevailed upon Jammeh. I remember each with a heavy heart—but it is uplifted when I look up and see, everywhere, their legacy in this country.