THE ROLE OF THE AMERICANS IN THE GAMBIA’S 1994 MILITARY COUP
I deliberately avoided calling the names of my characters waiting to complete the entire manuscript before inserting them in the final draft. Certainly, if this anthology passes the ultimate appraisal for publication, I will produce it as my third book. So help me God! I therefore hope my impatient readers asking for names will continue to bear with me until then.
It was after 7:00 pm, July, 22, 1994; all the police and military officers who earlier congregated at the Statehouse for a general meeting that no one would claim ownership of hosting, departed for their homes.
Together with my fellow captain from the army headquarters, the two of us recommended to stay behind, we held a quick meeting together with the MP commander, and the three other platoon commanders to chart the way forward. The MP commander was the most senior officer among the four.
We unanimously arrived at the need to seek further guidance from Gen. Abubakar Dada, the defiant and angry Nigerian army commander figuratively barricaded at his Fajara residence and whose predicament or disappointment with the PPP government, we thought, could be weaponized in our favor. We had to entice him with a quid pro quo of accepting an advisory role for us and in return to be eventually retained in the Gambia and appointed in that capacity permanently.
He sounded satisfied with the offer and suggested the importance of inviting members of the diplomatic corp in the Gambia as the standard operational procedure and apprise them on the situation, preferably, first thing tomorrow morning. They should be given all the best reasons for the takeover and plans to quickly fix the problems to return the country to civilian rule.
After finishing with the diplomats, the next recommended action was to invite the religious leaders in the country for the same reason. My fellow captain from the army headquarters whom I will, for convenience refer to, from now on, as Captain Chambers was tasked with coordinating both meetings the next day. That was all we had gotten from the Nigerian general.
Another subject exhaustively discussed was about the writing of a good speech. My memory of one of the underlying drawbacks on the failure of the 1981 abortive coup against the PPP government was the poorly-written-maiden speech delivered by the leader, Kukoi Samba Sanyang over the national radio, sending a tasteless message to the country and the entire world. The Western world in particular was not under any circumstances going to tolerate the kind of Marxist government Kukoi had intended to establish in the Gambia, surrounded by a French model of a “successful” Neo-colonial-capitalist nation like Senegal. Indeed the invasion of the Gambia by Senegalese military forces to crush the coup was not merely intended to get the PPP government and their British-indoctrinated leader Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara back to power but most importantly to prevent the Soviet Union from adding a third satellite nation in the subregion next to Ahmed Sekou Toure’s Guinea Conakry and Joao Bernardo Vieira’s Guinea Bissau.
For emphasizing the need for a well written speech, I was therefore tasked to focus on doing whatever I could to prepare one. Every Gambian, friends and acquaintance alike, in and out of the army, respected my passion for writing; yet when it came to political speech writing I fully well understood it as a skill perfected by certain kind of writers. One such Gambian that came in mind was an experienced veteran journalist, American-educated who used to help in editing my works as an aspiring writer. He would be consulted the following morning.
As soon as the meeting ended I drove to my house to see my family and got some food for the first time since my 6:30 am breakfast.
In the meantime, to consolidated their authority and make it known to the soldiers in particular and of course the Gambians in general that the four junior officers were in charge and neither the MT nor the “B” Company commanders who tried to “steal” the spotlight from them by making an unauthorized radio announcement earlier, the sub-lieutenant and ostensibly the spokesman went right back to the same fm radio station to make the following announcement:
“Fellow Gambians”, he went on, “this country has been taken over by the Gambia Armed Forces.The previous PPP political regime has been completely toppled and former head of state Sir Alagie Dawda Jawara has fled the nation. Some of the former ministers and officials have also been captured and are in safe hands. An Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) has been set up.
“This ruling council” he said consisted of the MP commander and three of them all lieutenants.
“The council is hereby advising the general public to maintain civil order. So far there have been no killings, no looting and no reports of vandalism. However it is been brought to the council’s notice that the international media has misinterpreted our actions and broadcasting false information. The ruling council would also like to assure the general public that it is solely working towards the public interest. All social workers are urged to report to their place of duty, particularly the medical personnel, GPTC personnel and MSG staff. Meanwhile the public is free to carry on their normal daily activities while still abiding by the curfew order, thank you”.
The officer, by reminding the public to abide by the curfew order, showed his endorsement of a part of the speech delivered earlier by the MT and “B’ Company commanders. Question! Did he discuss the speech with the two officers and endorsed it before its delivery and when he realized that the MP commander and his colleagues were not accepting such treachery, he turned around and threw the MT commander under the bus by publicly exposing him for being their first leader who betrayed them? Hmmm; but in that same disposition to further appease the MT lieutenant he used to call “Na Kebba”,(meaning my elder in the Mandinka Language) he also cast a doubt over the leadership entitlement of the MP commander by trivializing his role, saying that he was not at all part of the original planners of the coup, the pivotal barometer to measure one’s level of eligibility.
In fact the same officer was accused of lending clandestine approval to the MT commander when he decided to recruit dissenting officers for the November 11, 1994 abortive counter-coup and again, when he realized that it would fail, he turned into the coldblooded psychopath he naturally was but insulated by his genial countenance and even fired the shot from his Ak-47 rifle that killed the MT lieutenant just to silence him. However, no matter what others may have claim at the TRRC in particular, it was obvious in his speech that he coined the name AFPRC for the junta well before any of them had even held an executive appointment. The audio of the speech is trending on social media.
But the most critical part of the sub-lieutenant’s speech that evening was in the statement that read: “the international media has misinterpreted our actions and broadcasting false information”. Behind that statement was an underlying problem that if Captain Chambers and I had not been there for its settlement, the chances of the whole coup failing that night of July 22, 1994 was 99.99% on my prophecy scale.
I came back to the Statehouse from my residence around 9:00 pm finding the soldiers and officers agitated and looking hopeless. Word was everywhere that the Senegalese Armed Forces were amassing their troops on our common borders waiting for their last orders to intervene and foil the coup. Nobody wanted or expected that kind of armed conflict at that moment.
The three sub-lieutenants or council members made futile attempt to meet Mr Kebbeh, the Senegalese ambassador at his Cape-Point-Bakau residence to discuss the matter but were refused entry to the compound by the gendarmerie guards on duty.
Captain Chambers and I hopped in an SUV and drove to the diplomat’s house.
The armed gendarmerie officer guarding the main gate was in the beginning very reluctant to even talk to us until when we identified ourselves as military captains on an urgent mission to meet the ambassador.
He still insisted that Mr. Kebbeh had already gone to bed.
We seriously warned him of the consequence of being held accountable if he denied us our request aimed at averting the dreadful armed conflict looming to happen between our two countries.
Realizing that we were uncompromisingly serious, he asked us to excuse him for a moment to see whether the ambassador’s wife could wake him up.
Mr. Kebbeh welcomed us in the veranda of his house, comfortably furnished with sofas and loveseats. He was very honest with us. The only reason he answered our call was because his guard told him that two army captains, Chambers and Sarr were outsider requesting to speak to him desperately.
We went straight to the point about the Senegalese military forces reported to be on the verge of invading the country to fight us.
“Yes, it was true”, he admitted. The information he was given about the coup and transmitted to Dakar characterized the event as a mutiny by the ordinary GNA soldiers who were on the rampage, looting and destroying public and private properties; that the rebels even had no intention of forming a successor government; he nonetheless expressed his surprise for captains of our officer ranks being in the vanguard.
We confirmed our membership among the leaders, talking to him with all the maturity expected from our seniority.
He was impressed. But for more evidence to strengthen his report to Dakar, we suggested taking a ride in our vehicle with anyone of his free guards for a quick tour of the city and the surrounding vicinity of the Kombos.
Under two hours, we were able to satisfactorily tour the main roads from Bakau to Kanifing to Banjul and back to the ambassador’s residence with one of his trusted agents, a male middle-aged Senegalese in mufti said to be an intelligence officer at their Banjul mission.
The man gave a favorable report to Mr. Kebbeh who in turn assured us that he had already called Dakar and the army was advised to stand down. Before leaving, we extended a verbal invitation to him to our meeting with the diplomats at the Statehouse the next day. He promised to attend but will also arrange for a telephone conversation between the Senegalese president and the leader of the military government.
We drove back to the Statehouse in a very festive mood feeling as if we had just dodged a bullet.
Captain Chambers, the MP commander and his close partner the spokesman and I all slept in the annex room adjacent to the hall we held the chaotic meeting that evening. It was a wide red-carpeted television room decorated with a huge television set and very cozy brown leather sofas and seats.
We got up in the morning feeling that the gods were working in our favor when for the first time the urban area registered its seasonal thundershower since the beginning of the Gambia’s raining season. It started pouring heavily in the early hours of the morning but tapered down to steady drizzles before finally stopping. Captain Chambers and his assistants went around inviting as many foreign diplomats and religious leaders as time allowed for the planned meetings by midday.
The brilliant veteran journalist was contacted and offered to be co-opted as acting secretary general of the new government to help in every way possible especially in writing us a globally accepted speech but he declined. Nonetheless he was kind enough to provide us with excellent pointers that started me well in drafting the maiden speech. The original copy was however edited with certain significant declarations removed particularly the one guaranteeing the Gambians a new constitution that maximizes the term of the presidency in office to ten years.
Just before the arrival of the invited diplomats, another sub-lieutenant, platoon commander, posted at Farafenni Barracks arrived together with his company commander. They had spent the night at Barra trying to cross over to Banjul but the ferry had stopped working earlier that day. The company commander was ordered to return to Farafenni while the sub-lieutenant got co-opted into what later became a five-man military ruling council.
All the invited diplomats arrived at the Statehouse just before midday. Notable among them were the American ambassador and his political adviser who had been for the past month closely working with me over the visiting US battleship. The European Union representative was present and a representative from the British High Commission; the Sierra Leone ambassador sounding very supportive came as well. The Senegalese ambassador Mr. Kebbeh was also in the house.
Absent was definitely the Nigerian High Commissioner.
The management at the Atlantic Hotel on their own volition sent us cans of non-alcoholic beverage and snacks, sent along with waiters lain on wide-long tables neatly covered with white tablecloth.
The MP commander and the spokesman did all the talking, expounding on why the “corrupt and politically incompetent PPP government” was overthrown and how a transitional government was created by the military aimed at rapidly rectifying the chronic political problems in the country before handing over to a democratically elected civilian government.
The American, British and European representatives in response condemned the coup on solid principles; that their governments will never support a regime that had seized power from a democratically elected one, no matter what the justification. The coup to them was therefore illegal and failure to allow the PPP government to return back to power as soon as possible will translate into immediate economic and political sanction against the Gambia.
Most of the other diplomats either remained quiet or nodded their approval of the sentiments expressed by the Western envoys.
Only the Sierra Leonean ambassador came out vocally in support of the coup. Captain Valentine Strasser, the youngest head of state in the world at the time had seized power in 1992 at the age of 25 and was passionately adored by the sub-lieutenant, spokesman. He in fact derived the name of the transitional council, Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) straight from that of Captain Strasser’s same nomenclature, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). He later made his first trip abroad to Sierra Leone where he returned with recommendations from Captain Strasser to have all security detainees executed by firing squad like he did in Freetown. The idea was killed by his colleagues on arrival.
The Senegalese ambassador before leaving handed us over a telephone number of President Abdou Joof’s officer of which he was to later give us a time, the next day July 24, to call him. It was a welcomed development.
After dispersing, the two American diplomats returned with a proposal that will allow Sir Dawda to come back alone as a ceremonial president while the council formed a six-month transitional government composed of their choice of ministers and technocrats. They wanted us to emulate what happened in Mali in1991 where Lt. Colonel Amadou Toumane Toure seized power and within a year conducted a free and fair election, returning the country back to civilian rule.
The ambassador assured us that with President Jawara allowed back as he suggested, he will report to Washington that the PPP government was still in power to avoid any sanctions while the new government will still be recognized by the Americans.
For a while the idea sounded appealing but after twenty-four hours of toying with it, the young officers rejected it as a ploy to undermine their victory.
The final statement warning Sir Dawda Jawara to accept defeat and acknowledge the end of his regime in the Gambia was relayed to him by the sub-lieutenant spokesman in a telephone conversation arranged by the US ambassador on July 24, 1994 before the battleship set sail to Dakar with what was left of the toppled PPP government.
The next meeting with the religious leaders started just after 5:00 pm.
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