DAY OF THE COUP D’ETAT
[…] What prompted the Gambia’s 1981 coup d’état has not been well documented. However, the opposition parties had leveled unfounded charges of corruption against the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) regime right after the country became a republic. The rift between the PPP regime and the former vice president Sheriff Mustapha Dibba prompted the creation of both the National Convention Party (NCP) by Sheriff Mustapha Dibba, who would be implicated in the 1981 coup d’état, and the National Liberation Party (NLP) by Cheyassine Secka (founded in 1975). In the 1977 election, Kukoi ran as a candidate for NCP in the Fonyi District; both he and his party suffered a disappointing defeat against the PPP. The continued discontent among the opposition led to the subsequent creation of the Movement for Justice in Africa–Gambia (MOJA-G) in 1980, a movement that advocated measures other than the political process. In the same year, MOJA-G leaders were implicated and charged with seditious activity in the assassination of the paramilitary field force commander Mahoney. A few months later, the 1981 coup d’état took place.
At independence in 1965, the Gambia’s population stood at three hundred thousand people. Despite a milestone as significant as a nation’s independence, the country inherited a mere £9 million (252 million in today’s dalassi) of postcolonial GDP, a single cash crop (peanuts) economy, subsequent with four years of disastrous farming seasons (1973-1974, 1976-1977, 1977-1978, 1980-1981) of Sahelian drought and pest infestation. Considering all those factors, in my opinion, sixteen years is too short of a period to expect extraordinary economic results. Despite the fact, the country has experienced significant economic downturn due to the prolonged Sahel drought of 1980/1981. Also, the aggressive economic development policies implemented as part of the government’s five-year development plan of 1975 made a significant difference for the government. It created 10,700 civil service jobs and 5,000 nonpermanent jobs by 1985, up from only 4,000 civil service jobs and 2,000 nonpermanent jobs.
By the afternoon of the day of the coup, signs of instability began to show in the streets everywhere in the country, especially in Brikama town. There was festive gunfire all around, and people took advantage of the lawlessness filling the streets. Some people wandered the streets aimlessly out of curiosity or tried to figure out what was happening.
Brikama is the quintessential cultural, ethnic, and social melting pot of the Gambia and second to none. Because of the cultural and historical affinity with the old Kabu Empire, many refugees from Guinea Bissau’s liberation war against Portugal in the 1970s settled in the town. Other prominent demographic groups included people from the Kiangs, Basse, Mansa Kongko, Foni, and Casamance regions of Senegal, to name a few. This is not to forget the village of Barajally, the home of the Jawara family, who migrated to a successful home for generations in Brikama. Brikama played a powerful and respectable role in the birth of the improbable nation of the Gambia. Hence, it is also no accident that it was known as a political and vibrant town that earned its reputation as an opposition stronghold. Because of a combination of all these factors, the rebels set up ambush in the town against the advancing, liberating Senegalese forces, a last stand as their control weakened in the urban areas. Many innocent people were killed in the cross fire, but my family and I were among the lucky who survived to tell the story.
Since our compound was located at the center of the town, at the busy intersection where passenger vehicles parked, we could see all the activities happening in and around the area. As we gathered around our radios listening to the events unfold—and while my grandfather paced around looking more confused—a massive and restless crowd was gathering outside, loudly celebrating the coup. They honked their car horns wildly and indiscriminately fired a series of live rounds in the air with their Kalashnikov rifles, or AK-47s.
Mounted on the leading vehicle was the coup leader, Kukoi Samba Sanyang, holding an AK-47 pointed in the sky and firing continuous shots in the air, followed by more than ten vehicles as people chanted, “Long live the revolution!” This was clearly an attempt to terrorize the population and frighten any potential resistance. As the crowd grew near, we stood by the gate staring in dismay at this huge crowd of young people celebrating and chanting. They looked threatening and drunk with the perceived taste of power. It was apparent to us all that we would not be safe staying at that house—we had to heed the advice given by our neighbors.
I was hungry, but I had no appetite and could not eat. In fact, I did not remember any of us eating that day. My grandfather was not looking well. I wondered what was going on in his mind at the time. If anything, I am sure he was wondering about the safety of his family, himself, and, most of all, the country.
The commotion lasted into the evening before I finally found the guts to walk outside and follow the crowd. I thought I was in no danger, thinking no one at the time would care about my presence or my relation with the president—I guess I was only a curious kid. I followed the crowds all the way to the Brikama Mosque by the passenger vehicle park for the village Dasilame and then to the Brikama primary school and to the Brikama secondary school and back. By dusk, the size of the crowd dwindled to about a few hundred people.
I walked back home after the exhausting walk with the crowd and found, to my surprise, two rebels dressed in their mismatched battle dress uniforms (BDU), each with an AK-47 strapped around his shoulder, standing guard, as if to prevent anyone from going in or out of the compound. My heart started beating faster and faster from the sight of that arrangement. I thought to myself, Well, here it is; we’ll all be dead by morning. I walked briskly and tried to pass them when one of them turned and said in a loud and scary voice, “Stop!” I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I live here,” I replied with eagerness and anger at the same time. I thought to myself, Who the hell does this guy think he is, stopping me from entering my own home? But I knew my boundaries and would not instigate any trouble.
“Go ahead.” He motioned me through and walked away.
I hurriedly walked past him and ran straight to my mother. “Maa,” I said, “there are two soldiers standing at our gate!”
“I know,” she replied as she nodded in agreement.
I walked past her and went to my grandfather’s room. There, I found him still in his pajamas sitting down and talking with some of our neighbors from Sanneh kunda. From his look, I could tell he was distressed. His wife—my step-grandmother, Filly Sandeng—who looked just as distraught, sat next to him with her hands folded in front of her and her eyes bloodshot from crying. I know the main question in their minds was, “What will become of us now?”
I could perceive that my grandfather, at that time, was not thinking about what would happen to the wealth he had built over the years or even about his own well-being. But he may have been worried sick about the welfare of his younger brother, who was now in exile abroad—how he was feeling, what he was thinking, what could he do to change the situation. He must have felt helpless and inept, for the situation was obviously beyond the realm of his or any else’s control, except the Almighty God.
I returned to join my mother and the others as we all gathered around the radio listening to updates pouring in from Radio Syd (private radio), Radio Gambia, and Radio Senegal. Throughout the evening and into the night, no good news emerged. Announcement after announcement indicated that the rebels were getting a stranglehold on power and the overall affairs of the country. One major sign of such was Kukoi’s announcement of suspension of our great nation’s constitution, the dissolution of the parliament, and a ban on political parties—a predictable next step in a coup d’état process.
The rebels began rounding up parliamentary members and taking them to a Bakau paramilitary depot for detention, creating havoc around the country—everyone fearing for their own safety and that of their families. Outside of our compound, the view of the Brikama market was quite evident of the state of the country’s health—not a single soul roamed the streets except those with the rebels and young kids whose knowledge of the consequences of the developing events were limited. The barrage of gunfire and celebration continued throughout the evening and well into the night. We barely got any sleep.
Back at Number One Marina Parade, it was supposed to be a regular day for Mama Chilel and the kids. Pa and Mama Njemeh, Pa’s second wife, were out of the country on a delayed return home in order to attend Diana and Charles’s wedding in England while Mama Chilel took care of the kids. Mama woke up early that morning as she always did to pray and prepare the kids for school. She took a shower and performed her fajar prayers. She walked into the kitchen to make breakfast when the phone rang. She walked to the phone and picked up the call. “Hello,” she said. Suddenly, her demeanor changed after a few moments on the phone. “What?” she asked, reacting to the message she’d just received. She returned the handset to the hook, rushed into her bedroom, and turned the radio on to Radio Syd, but she received static from the radio. The radio was turned off. She switched the dial to Radio Gambia. She could not believe her ears. The voice of Kukoi’s rambling slammed through the speakers and into her ears. What is this? she thought. “This cannot be,” she murmured. She could not believe what she’d heard.
Ramatoulie, who was just a toddler, and Ousainou, who was only a month old, lay asleep in their cribs. Mama Chilel’s nieces were also staying with them at the time. She walked to the babies’ room and stared at them for a few moments as she stood there confused. She decided to go inform the other children about what was going on and to inquire from the guard what actions they must take to protect the compound. Pa had moved the family to Number One Marina Parade only a couple of months prior because the statehouse was under renovation. The compound of Number One Marina had two buildings. Pa, Mama Chilel, Mama Njemeh, and the girls, Fatoumata, Baby Chilel, Baby Njeme, and Mariam lived in the main building, while the boys—Momodou, Foday, and the others—lived in the second building across the compound.
Before Mama had the chance to walk to the boys’ room, the phone rang again. She rushed and picked up the phone. The voice on the other side of the line told her the kids did not have to go to school that day. “I understand,” she replied. She hurriedly hung the phone up, rushed into her bedroom, and sat down on the bed and thought about her next move. While she sat on her bed, she realized that she must go talk to the guards. Before she had the chance to get up from the bed, she heard loud, frightening noises that sounded like firecrackers coming from within the compound.
Bullets began raining down through the compound. Kukoi and his rebels stormed Number One Marina Parade with AK-47s and fired indiscriminately at everything that moved. The guards fired back, but the rebels outnumbered them. One by one, the guards fell to their last breath as Kukoi and his men moved through the compound with the intention not to leave one soul breathing there. Bullets rammed through the wooden doors and glass doors in the main building and the boys’ quarters. Fortunately, some of the guards managed to take the kids, along with my cousin Haddy Jobe and her friend—now husband, Omar Bah—into the guardroom and secured them there before the rebels overpowered them.
In the main building, Mama Chilel rushed and grabbed Ramatoulie and Ousainou from their cribs and ran into her bedroom, dodging the flying bullets coming through the windows and doors as she did. She yelled at her nieces to lie next to her. She placed the two infants on the floor behind the bed as they screamed at the top of their lungs. She lay next to them and held them closer to her as she managed to keep them down. Above them, bullets flew indiscriminately as Kukoi and his rebels cleared the compound of any living soul. The firing continued for over twenty minutes before it abruptly stopped. At that point, Kukoi and his rebels were sure that they had killed everyone in the compound. They left reassured that they had accomplished their mission. Thank God that they did not walk into the main building and the guardroom to ensure that everyone was dead. Mama Chilel and the kids survived, but the rebels killed many of the guards. Only a few had escaped that brutal carnage.
After over an hour of quiet, the kids got out of their hiding places and went outside in search of Mama Chilel. When the kids saw how rattled the main house was, they were terrified, thinking that the rebels killed Mama. They became frantic and began to scream, “Mama is in there! Mama is in there!” They became emotionally incapacitated. They screamed and screamed for Mama. When Mama heard their cries, she jumped out of her hiding place and rushed outside to meet them.
“I am here,” she said as she grabbed them in a tight embrace. “I am OK. Are you all OK?” she asked them.
“We are,” they sobbingly responded.
“Thank God,” Mama said as she consoled them. “It’s OK. It is OK,” she told them.
Momodou was my age at the time, thirteen. Foday and the girls, on the other hand, were younger. Mama walked them into the main room and closed all the doors to the building. They all stayed in the main room without guards or any type of protection while they continued to monitor the developing events through the radio.
Dr Papa Faal DBA, MBA, MTM, CNE, MCSC.
Born in Brikama Town, WCR, Dr Faal holds a Doctoral degree in Business Administration, a Masters in Business Administration, and a Masters in Technology Management. He is a Certified Novel Network Engineer and a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. He worked in various companies and positions in the US as Computer Network and Systems Engineer and Management for over 15 years. He is the author of two books (A Week of Hell and A Stranger in Newborn). He is currently working on the third book. Dr Faal served in the US Armed Forces for ten years and lectured at ITT Technically Institute for five years. He is a politician and a Freedom fighter.