By Samsudeen Sarr
A reader of my last article using a pseudonym insinuated in the newspaper commentary box that my story was aimed at justifying the 1994 coup which is definitely not true.
If the reader was following my writings for the past two decades or more, he would have recognised my consistency in speaking against coup d’etats.
That I have never supported coups and will never support them as a means of changing any government, civilian or military. What I am doing right now is to share my experiences with interested readers-and there are many of them out there-on what I witnessed as a member of the Gambia National Army from 1985-one year after its formation-to 1999 after I was retired as the army commander. Before joining the army, I had developed this propensity of writing about my experiences and have over the years honed my skills in doing so with minimal strain.
Appearing anonymous and cynical about what I am writing by cherry picking a sentence or two in perhaps a five-page write-up with multifaceted concepts, some as contrastive as day and night, merely uncovers the mindset of a conspiratorial character indistinguishable from a familiar coup plotter. More often than not, it boils down to readers not understanding what they read but still eager to criticise as a means of massaging their egos with self-important substance.
Back to my central subject, another military colleague who read the same paper
called to remind me that President Sir Dawda Jawara indeed sought for the Nigerian Army Training Assistance Group (NATAG) help from General Ibrahim Babangida in 1991 right after the first demonstration of the GNA soldiers and not after the second one in1992, as I had stated.
He was right. That was indeed the reason why the young GNA military officer appointed to replace the Field Force commander carried the designation of Acting Army Commander until NATAG took over in 1992.
Colonel Abubakar Dada visited The Gambia in early 1992 on a familiarisation tour of the country and the army and held a meeting with the officers at the Yundum Barracks Officers’ Mess Room.
In the meeting, after his introductory remarks, the prospective commander explained how in the Nigerian Army commanders regularly meet their unit subordinates for such counseling sessions called “Durbar”, aimed at sharing concerns over specific and general issues essential for policy revamping.
Outstanding among the topics discussed passionately with him was how the army could transcend the unethical and unprofessional tradition of the promotion of soldiers and officers not rooted on merit or qualification but on who was conscripted or commissioned first.
It was a policy inherited from the old Field Force vanguard, perhaps along with the first commander, a product of that generation.
Regardless of the BATT’s primary role in forming the modern army in 1984, the archaic and discriminatory custom persisted.
And it was rather obvious that Gambian officers trained in British military institutions enjoyed a more favourable treatment from the BATT than those trained elsewhere like from America in particular and Pakistan.
Before leaving, Colonel Dada assured us of prioritising the correction of the undesirable promotion practice with the introduction of meritocracy as soon as he returned with his team. He couldn’t tell us when they were due to arrive or start.
After his departure to Nigeria, the government deliberately dragged its feet over the whole process of implementing the contract while the new young commander continued in his acting capacity with several Gambians convinced of his capability to handle the job. That The Gambia may not after all need Nigerians to sort out the GNA problem because he was proving quite able to handle the situation. Then in September 1992, the second contingent from Liberia rioted more violently in Yundum Barracks, crumbling the young army commander’s ambition like a house of cards. Scared and confused, the government sped up the arrival of NATAG faster than customary.
They were all in the country within a month and wasted no time in starting the job. The young acting army commander couldn’t get along with the NATAG but Dada recommended to the government to retire him from the army and redeploy him to the foreign diplomatic service. It was done.
The government did not terminate the contract of BATT per se, but the team’s role was rendered redundant in the presence of NATAG, forcing Colonel Jim Shaw and his assistants to honourably withdraw and leave the country right away.
The NATAG started well. They were very happy in The Gambia and were well paid in US dollars by the Nigerian government while The Gambia government subsidised their income with other basic services such as housing, utility, travel and medical expenses.
Nothing changed in the earning capacity of the GNA officers and soldiers. That gave the Nigerians a far more respectable status in the community than the indigenous soldiers.
But we were optimistic about the good times ahead under NATAG.
They started reorganising the army doing a splendid job of structuring the force properly like a real conventional army, composed of a commander’s department at the apex of the pyramid branching down into two major bureaus, operation and administration, with the latter broadly expanded into support units hinged on making the work of the former much easier. It was a brilliant reorganisation, relocating the headquarters from Yundum Barracks to Banjul, separating the administrative personnel from the combat and support forces.
With all honesty, the GNA administrative structure in particular as we know it today has to be credited to the wisdom and sweat of Colonel Dada and NATAG which I still cannot wrap my mind around why the British never upgraded us to such a vital establishment.
The Nigerians further compiled a reference document imperative to all military institutions, elucidating the terms and conditions of services of every enlisted soldier and commissioned officer in the GNA.
They however took command of all key positions in the army from the headquarters to the battalions including certain support units. That was later discovered to be a big mistake.
Colonel Dada’s promise of stratifying the officer corps based on meritocracy instead of on first-come-first-served basis was never executed.
He conducted a two-week training programme for all officers and subjected the participant to an aptitude test, disregarding ranks, specialisations or qualifications in subjects purely infantry and staff office duties. NATAG’s understanding of staff office duties was exceptional.
Commander Dada used the results to convince the government that the junior officers were better qualified than their seniors. And to address that, he further advised them against rushing into organising the officer corps based on the results, lest it could undermine discipline and morale among the senior officers and perhaps render the army unmanageable.
They therefore would need their contract adjusted into a flexible timetable, not restricted to the two-years limit, allowing them to satisfactorily train the senior officers for an orderly transfer of command whenever they were ready. Signifying that they could stay for three, four or more years before the GNA was ready to operate on their own under a Gambian commander. With the good life in town who wouldn’t have done that?
He solved the Liberian problem by downsizing the GNA’s troop contribution to Ecomog from an original company size of about a 100 or so to a section of 10 men with one officer. The Liberian war by then was no longer as fierce as before with Ecomog having a sustainable edge over the rebels.
Their next unwarranted programmes was over-arming and training the GNA with sophisticated arsenals as if we were preparing for war against Senegal. The government just let them do whatever they wanted with no questions asked or limits drawn.
They literally armed the GNA with the tactical and technical know-how that gave them all they needed to overthrow the government without effective resistance from the police who hitherto were equally powerful to confront the army.
Notwithstanding, I still believe that if the political dynamics in The Gambia and Nigeria didn’t change in 1992 and 1993 respectively the coup might not have occurred or succeeded.
Starting with Nigeria, the government of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida came to a controversial end in 1993 and in a manner that afforded Defense Secretary Gen. Sani Abacha, the wherewithal to seize power and continued Nigeria’s nightmare of enduring another military government, when the whole world including Nigerians was expecting the country to finally discard such oppressive systems for civilian rule.
There was worldwide condemnation of the scandalous manner in which General Sani Abacha took over the government on November 17th, 1993 from Ernest Shonekan the interim president appointed by General Ibrahim Babangida after he annulled the June 12th, 1993 national elections, globally accepted to have been freely and fairly won by Moshood Abiola, the top contender.
As a result, both General Babangida and General Abacha became instant international pariahs.
Concurrently, in The Gambia, President Jawara was between 1992 and 1993 trying hard to repair his battered image in the international community for arbitrarily declaring at his party’s congress in 1992 his intention to retire from politics after being in office for way over three decades and when the world was at the zenith of celebrating his humble resolution, he changed his mind to the consternation of every admirer.
His diehard political loyalists assembled the nation’s Islamic leaders or imams to the State House to persuade him to stay for Allah’s sake. He expeditiously retracted his statement with the laughable excuse that retiring when the people still needed him would be like defying Allah’s wish.
The incident caused huge division among his party members between those who thought he meant it and expressed their support of his decision to leave and those who thought coaxing him by any means possible even by weeping like babies which some did before him will make him stay. His reactions later were to reward the sycophants and demote the true believers. Hence, the bad blood within the party veiled the vision of his divided government from recognising the ticking bomb in the army. The coup rumour in the country was everywhere a fortnight before, I am sure a lot of them were aware.
Then I believe his resistance not to betray his reputation as the paragon of African democracy, plus his recent controversial announcement to retire and change his mind to the disappointment of the world coupled with the global denunciation of the Nigerian military for derailing the country’s path to imminent civilian rule, all helped in restraining Sir Dawda’s habit that would have compelled him to be the first to recognise the military government of General Sani Abacha. If he was not burdened by all the issues above, I am sure he wouldn’t have hesitated to congratulate General Abacha for his own interest. And let us not also forget the cold war had ended making coups less desirable to their inventors, our colonial masters. Indeed,a veteran political guru like Sir Dawda, should have understood better than anyone that in politics there are no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interest.
He did it for Master Sgt Samuel Doe in 1980, General Ibrahim Babangida in 1985 and even for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi after the Libyan leader overthrew the Western-backed monarch of King Idris I on September 1st, 1969. I can sense my readers’, especially the younger one’s, scratching their heads over what I am talking about of Sir Dawda having anything to do with a “dictator” Colonel Gaddafi.
But Gambians who had witnessed it all would agree with me that there was a time when Sir Dawda and Colonel Gaddafi were the best of friends in Africa; a friendship so cordial that in 1976 the Libyan government invested heavily in The Gambia to establish the first joint public bus transportation company called The Gambia-Libya Arab Public Transport Corporation? The funds, as usual, were transferred to England and the British Leyland auto production company manufactured and delivered to The Gambia state-of-the-art Leyland buses, very comfortable, spacious and really beautiful that started a modern and very successful nationwide commercial bus service in the country.
What happened between Sir Dawda and Colonel Gaddafi until they fell apart few years later with Libya losing its investment in The Gambia, is food for thought for historians. But it angered Gaddafi bitterly turning him into Sir Dawda’s worst enemy. He even invited rebel leader Kukoi Samba Sanyang and his followers who were on the run since the Senegalese forces chased them out of the country in 1981 to move to Libya for military training in their terrorist training camps. I will be talking about that later.
It was however not until during the 1987-1988 fiscal year that The Gambia parliament amended the act that changed the name of the transport company to Gambia Public Transportation Corporation (GPTC). Did you know about that? Thanks for reading.
Samsudeen Sarr is a former commander of the Gambia National Army and diplomat and the author of several books.