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Gambian Ambassador To U.S. Defies His Country's Leader


It's not often that an ambassador openly defies his country's leader. That is exactly what Sheikh Omar Faye has done. He is Gambia's ambassador to the United States appointed by the same president he is now urging to step down. President Yahya Jammeh has ruled this West African country for more than two decades. He lost his re-election earlier this month and initially conceded but now refuses to give up power.

Ambassador Sheikh Omar Faye is here in the studio. Welcome to the program.

SHEIKH OMAR FAYE: Thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here. And yes, you're right. President Jammeh has ruled for a couple of decades and conceded the elections already when he said he lost, when he believed it was the will of the people. It was Allah's will, as he always calls it. A week later, he came and did a complete 360.

SHAPIRO: You wrote an open letter in which you said Jammeh's refusal to leave has created a serious post-election crisis and put Gambia on a dangerous path. Why do you see this as dangerous?

FAYE: Absolutely. If you follow the news right now, you realize that the ECOWAS...

SHAPIRO: The ECOWAS - this is the West African States.

FAYE: West African community are grouping big military forces. You know, call it the infantry, naval, the air force and everything.

SHAPIRO: Threatening to send troops into your country...

FAYE: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: ...If the president does not step down.

FAYE: Absolutely, to enforce the will of the Gambian people.

SHAPIRO: Play this out for us. If in fact the president does not step down and West African troops do come into Gambia, what happens then?

FAYE: In that case, it's going to bad for Gambia. It's bad for the (unintelligible) region, keeping in view that there is al-Qaida around the corner. There is all these terrorist groups hanging around there, just looking for cracks to get into places like small (ph) Gambia, and we don't want that to happen. So we believe that diplomacy will be given a chance. I strongly believe in diplomacy, and we are hopeful.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think the president changed his mind? We are all familiar with rulers who refuse to accept the outcome of an election, but this president initially did accept the outcome.

FAYE: I believe that he accepted that he was defeated. He said that this election is the most rigged-proof election around the world. We believe that there are a few people behind the scenes trying to push the president not to accept. This is my own I mean investigations and feedbacks I'm getting. I don't know the exact names of those behind, but we believe that there are a few people behind for their own selfish interests - want to put the Gambia in harm's way.

SHAPIRO: You are one of maybe a dozen Gambian diplomats who are encouraging a peaceful transfer of power. Have you spoken to the current president personally?

FAYE: I have spoken to some members of the coalition. I've even talked to some of the current government and including people here in the U.S. So yes, I have reached out to them to let them know that the Gambia is bigger than all of us. And I am part of the majority of Gambians who said that the president should give it up. And they want a change, and I'm with that majority of Gambians.

SHAPIRO: You have been summoned back to Gambia. This is a government that has had a record of imprisoning and in some cases torturing some of its political opponents. What do you believe will happen if you do return?

FAYE: I cannot tell you. I wish I knew. But I am a Gambian. I feel that I am a part of that country, and I want the rule of law and human rights to be respected. The Foreign Service regulation that I belong to allows me a minimum of 90 days to prepare myself, get my family together and get some logistics together. And that will give me time to weigh my options and depends on what happens on the ground and depends on who is doing what. Then that will determine whether I get to the Gambia.

But yes, I cannot predict what's going to happen, but I don't want anybody to stop me from going to my beloved country, which is the Gambia.

SHAPIRO: If President Jammeh remains in power and you return to Gambia, do you believe that your personal safety could be at risk?

FAYE: Absolutely, absolutely. There is no questions about that because of the history and the reputation of the system. So yes, I think my safety will be at risk. There's no doubt about that.

SHAPIRO: But then I have to ask. Given that this government does have a record of human rights abuses, why did you support the government for as long as you did?

FAYE: I have done that because I've been serving my people. I was asked to go and serve the Gambia and not to serve an individual.

SHAPIRO: Sheikh Omar Faye, Gambian ambassador to the United States, thank you for coming into the studio and speaking with us.

FAYE: I appreciate it, my friend. Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.