HOW THE 1982 SENEGAMBIA CONFEDERATION ORCHESTRATED THE JULY 1994 COUP

The concept illustrated by one critic of my last paper that after the 1981 abortive coup led by the late Kukoi Samba Sanyang that Senegal and the Gambia never established a bilateral Confederation of the two Countries but instead merely agreed on a “Loose Union” of the two nations is completely a new theory to me. I served in that Confederation Army. Its Battalion headquarter was located at Bakau and its operational centers spread out to Kudang, Brikama, Yundum and Kartong. For two years, April1987 to September1989 I commanded the Senegambia Confederation Platoon at Kartong Village. And that is exactly how we referred to the unit in name and substance.

Even before my deployment from Yundum Barracks and during the two years I spent there, every active service member of the organization, Senegalese and Gambians alike understood and called it the Confederal Army; all the trucks, equipment, letter heads, receipts, vouchers and correspondences carried the “Batt. Confederal” insignia.

Anyway, the idea he raised that the Senegalese head of state was in a “Federation” supposed to be permanently appointed president of the two countries while the Gambia’s head of state remained the vice president had throughout Confederation been the conventional wisdom. In fact, one of the reasons often cited among those that finally angered President Abdou Joof into Senegal’s unilateral withdrawal was a letter said to have originated from President Jawara around August 1989 addressed to President Abdou Joof demanding an amendment of that part of the Confederal protocol so as to make the presidential position rotational. Accordingly, it was the last straw that compelled the Senegalese to withdraw their troops a month later.

Mark you, the main reason for writing my paper was an attempt to resolve these ever lingering confusions over what was officially done right or wrong up to the regrettable end by suggesting the exploration of constituting a commission of inquiry to clarify the whole phenomenon.

Is that not going to help put to rest such doubts or arguments as to whether we had a Confederation or a Loose Union? I would also hope that it will at least get us to where we could finally regularize the 1989 indefinite border closure still hemorrhaging the Gambia’s economy. Unless that problem is settled, our cooperation with Senegal will appear insincere to me.

You see, I may be wrong but I believe the Senegalese military is back in the Gambia in full force with a political agenda that I am yet to fully understand; and with the European Union supporting their mission in the country at a whopping cost of 14 million Euros annual grant, I see nothing to remotely convince me of their departure any time soon. This is no longer merely about ECOWAS and the Gambia but a wider international body blessed by the EU.  And trust me, the longer they stay without an alternative plan the more difficult it would be to wean the Country of its dependency on the foreign forces.

I have nothing but a very good impression of the Senegalese Armed Forces for being one of the best in Africa. They are renowned for their professionalism, high standards and above all carried the commendable record of defying every temptation to interfere in the political affairs of their nation. Simply put, Senegal survived the wave of coup de tats that was once highly fashionable in Africa and beyond because of their well trained and well behaved armed forces. I would rather work with them in the Gambia than with any foreign army in the world.

Nevertheless, I think by disbursing a fraction of that European grant to the Gambia Security forces and integrating part of them with ECOMIG in a bid to boost their morale and operational efficiency will indeed start a meaningful cooperation mutually beneficial and sustainable for Senegal and the Gambia. The two armies had in the past successfully worked together in such terms and had kept the peace in the Gambia for close to a decade.

That brings me to an important question raised by a reader asking how the departure of the Senegalese forces in 1989 as highlighted in my last paper contributed to the Coup de tat in 1994.

Answering his question requires revisiting the special events of 1984 when the Gambia government acting unconventionally signed a contract that tasked a British Army Training Team (BATT) to form the Gambia National Army (GNA) fashioned to be typically Gambian with no influence from the Senegalese forces in the Country who since 1981 had been the organizers, trainers, advisers and in certain units like the Gambia National Gendarmerie (GNG) commanders of the Gambia’s security forces.

I don’t know how the Senegalese had felt about the British involvement but they seemed to have played along with the initiative while focusing on their pet project of training, building and commanding the (GNG) who exclusively provided security for the president.

Conversely, no sooner had the first British-trained recruits of the GNA passed out to become the first unit, Alpha(A) Company, than the Senegalese requested and got the whole contingent attached to the Confederation Battalion.

It was a real blessing to the GNA! From earning relatively very low income in the GNA with no special benefits whatsoever, the integrated troops to the Confederation Battalion immediately started receiving salaries and entitlements exponentially higher than received in the GNA. Bravo (B) Company, the next BATT-trained detachment subsequently replaced Alpha Company followed by Charlie(C) Company in a rotational arrangement that sooner or later affected every GNA serving member.

Hence when the Senegalese left in September 1989 with nothing to financially motivate the GNA soldiers with their meager wages and indeed compounded by the same terrible living conditions in the barracks, marred by inadequate food supply and poor housing facilities, morale and discipline among the troops began to tailspin down to an unmanageable crisis. Most soldiers wanted to leave the army but couldn’t because the contract they had signed was not finished yet.

However, in July 1990, a seemingly promising financial solace emerged when the Liberian civil war that was for months raging suddenly captured the attention of the world.The war had degenerated into a genocidal ethnic war with graphic images appearing for the first time on local and international newspapers and magazines of hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children of the Mano and Gio tribes massacred at a Church in Monrovia. The Gambian President, Sir Dawda Jawara was at the time the Chairman of ECOWAS and had to convene an emergency meeting of ECOWAS heads of state in the Gambia to find an expeditious solution for Liberia. With the encouragement of the international community, ECOMOG-Economic Community Monitoring & Observer Group-was formed in the Gambia to intercede militarily and to help stop the insane killing and keep the peace.

Senegal was still very angry with the Gambia over the failure of the Confederation and therefore didn’t want to have anything to do with ECOMOG. Instead, they took an outright and very vocal opposition to the mission denouncing it as flagrant interference in the internal affairs of Liberia and a violation of international law.

As a result, all Francophone nations-members of ECOWAS-except the Republic of Guinea (Conakry) went along with Senegal and boycotted the intervention plan.

So Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Gambia came together as ECOMOG.

This was the good part. According to the initial estimated budget from pledges made mostly by powerful donor countries such as America and the European Union to equip, transport and maintain the troops in Liberia, soldiers were to be paid $100.00 a day a much better income than earned in the Senegambia Confederation Army.

But just when the first 4000 troops assembled in Sierra Leone, the launching ground into Liberia, an unexpected setback affected the budget plan of the operation. The USA after exhausting all attempts without success to persuade Saddam Hussain to withdraw its troops illegally occupying Kuwait and posing serious threat to Saudi Arabia decided to mobilize international military forces through the United Nations to stop and flush out the Iraqi military aggression.

The entire world’s attention then turned to the preparation of the Gulf War effectively stopping donors from fulfilling pledged funds to ECOMOG.

Ironically, Senegal joined the international coalition force assembled in Saudi Arabia to invade Kuwait.

With the burden of funding the ECOMOG mission to Liberia now in the hands of the five ECOWAS nations, expected troops’ salaries dropped from $100.00 to $3.00 a day. The soldiers knew about the wage change at the assembly point in Sierra Leone.

And believe me, with that kind of money no Senegalese soldier would have fought or died for the expedition.

September 1990, the poor ECOMOG troops while being blatantly condemned by West African Francophone Countries spearheaded by Senegal for meddling in the “internal affairs of a sovereign country” made their first beach landing on the shores of Liberia under heavy artillery shelling by Charles Taylor’s rebel forces. Taylor, architect of the civil war and whose rebel forces had at the time taken over 90% of the country with only Monrovia remaining for him to claim victorious vehemently opposed the ECOMOG military intervention and consequently declared war on them the moment they landed on the Monrovia beach.

Paradoxically, two years later in 1992 President Abdou Joof became chairman of ECOWAS. The Americans appealed to him to send peacekeeping troops to Liberia. He accepted on the condition of adequately equipping and financing the Senegalese contingent first.

The Americans gave them everything they wanted. They deployed an impressive-looking infantry unit but to a very hostile terrain. Shortly after consolidating their base they encountered a fatal confrontation with fierce rebels who killed six of their young men. They immediately withdrew their troops, abandoned the mission and flew back home, never to return to Liberia again.

However after stiff resistance from Taylor’s rebels, ECOMOG was able to secure the Port of Liberia, a strategic ground that eventually accommodated  their headquarters. It was an expensive operation with several Nigerians, Ghanaians, Sierra Leoneans, Guineans and two Gambians Killed-In-Action (KIA).

That traumatic experience of the GNA soldiers in fighting a war for the first time worsened when they realized that the Gambia government adopted a policy of not allowing those (KIA) to have their remains returned back home for burial. The government, I guess was afraid that returning back KIA remains home could trigger a mutiny in the army.

Yet, when the first Gambian/ECOMOG contingent returned in 1991,they soon organized a demonstration against the government protesting over the late payment of their $3.00 a day allowance that was delayed without explanation for two months. The soldiers also demanded for the removal of the army commander whom they had accused of corruption and every related problems to their despondency.

The allowances were paid, the army commander removed and replaced by an officer who was part of the first ECOMOG contingent deployed to Liberia. The following year, 1992 the second batch of returning GNA soldiers from Liberia organized a demonstration again for the same reason of late payment of their allowance. It was another scary moment for the PPP government especially when rumors spread around that the demonstrations were rehearsals for a Coup de tat.

President Jawara sensed the existential threat posed by the never ending military demonstrations and decided to seek help from Nigeria.

Though he had earlier announced his intention of retiring from politics President Jawara still contracted  a Nigerian Army Training and Assistance Group (NATAG) to come and take over the command and control of his army. The newly appointed Gambian army commander was removed and replaced by a Nigerian Commander who arrived with a sizable team of colonels, majors, captains, lieutenants and non-commissioned officers . Never in the history of an independent nation had the command and control of a national army been out sourced to a foreign army.

The former president of Ghana Jerry Rawlings called it “the biggest insult to the national sovereignty of a country”. If that was not a recipe for inviting trouble, I don’t know what was.

The agreement with the then head of state of Nigeria General Ibrahim Babangida said to be a best friend to President Jawara handpicked and sent the best Nigerian Officers and soldiers to “tame” the GNA.

The Nigerians upon taking over the GNA, noticed the problem caused by sending too many Gambian soldiers to the deplorable conditions in Liberia. They couldn’t wrap their minds around the rationale of forbidding the return of the remains of Gambian soldiers KIA for home burial. Thank god no soldier was killed after the first two.

Since he couldn’t entirely stop the deployment to Liberia the Nigerian commander notwithstanding sought and got the approval to cut down the troops’ numbers from a company size-150 men-to a mere squad of 10 men.

They restructured the whole army in accordance to international standards, introduced a proper   administrative structure with a headquarters in Banjul. For the first time rules and regulations essential in all armies featuring everything about the GNA’s “Terms And Conditions Of Service” (TACOS) were produced and published. It exposed a kind of deficiency in the BATT training package. The BATT couldn’t stand the presence of the Nigerians so after being around for eight years unhappily departed.

The Nigerians continued launching more worthwhile changes in the overall organization and administration of the security forces but also made the monumental mistake of tilting the balance of power between the Senegalese-formed GNG and the British-formed GNA in favor of the latter. In other words, whereas the Senegalese had insulated the Gambia Security forces into equal opposing forces to deter any one unit from easily imposing its power over the other the Nigerians in their zealous reorganization program changed the dynamics by over arming and over expanding the size of the GNA to the disadvantage of GNG. For the first time the GNA was more powerful than the GNG.

The GNG meaning the Gambia National Gendarmerie had a name change into the Tactical-Support Group (TSG) after the departure of the Senegalese and was integrated to the Gambia Police Force.

One year into their hitch-free reorganization and reorientation program, the NATAG started facing insurmountable problems from their new-home government.

President Jawara’s close friend General Ibrahim Babangida had left the political stage in Nigeria and was succeeded by General Sani Abaca whose autocratic rule made him an international pariah making it hard for him to deal with the Gambian president reputed for being the “father of African democracy”.

General Sani Abacha without consulting the Gambia government or his counterpart Sir Dawda Jawara issued an order to change the NATAG Commander in the Gambia who was specially selected by his predecessor General Ibrahim Babangida to start and finish the desired job in the Gambia.

The NATAG commander refused to accept the Nigerian colonel sent to replace him. Carrying the rank of a General, the GNA commander felt it was an insult to his position and career for a junior colonel to replace him after all his achievements. He therefore asked to meet President Jawara to discuss his original contract that he argues would be violated if replaced without the completion of what he had started for the Gambia. So unless President Jawara asked him to leave he wouldn’t budge an inch.

While waiting for a reply from the state house, President Jawara that very week left to England for his vacation without meeting the commander. The General said he would wait for the president’s return in a month’s time. The colonel to replace him returned to Nigeria to report the impasse. He couldn’t take charge without a proper official handover from the General.

The army commander’s position became vacant as the General waited at his house for the return of President Jawara.

The plot by the junior GNA officers to overthrow the PPP government started in earnest.

President Jawara returned from England on the 21st of July not knowing that it was the last day of his government. On Friday, the 22nd day of July his government was overthrown in a mutiny organized at Yundum Barracks. The Nigerians including the battalion commander in charge of Yundum Barracks retreated to their private residences and waited for the drama to unfold. When the dust subsided, they simply collected their belongings and returned home to serve and defend their true nation.

Interestingly in his book, Kairaba, President Jawara wrote about the coup as if he was never in the picture of what had gone wrong in his presence or absence, thanks to his aides who in the end had perfected their craft of misleading him into believing that everything about the country and his government was fancy and dandy.

I will conclude by saying this: since it is time for Gambia’s truth telling, for the purpose of reconciliation and possible reparation of the ills of the past 22 years of the APRC government I will during this period continue to share more of my personal experience as a former GNA officer, Commander and Diplomat.

Once again I apologize to any one offended.

To be continued.

Samsudeen Sarr

Banjul, The Gambia.

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