Apart from his official duties as an administrative clerk at Army Headquarters, Abdoulie Sanyang is best remembered for his extra-curricular activities in the army – cutting and trimming the hairs of every soldier from the privates to generals. He enlisted in 1991 and supported the 1994 coup as well as the counter-coup six months later. He escaped suspicion and possible execution because days before the ill-fated 11 November attempted putsch, he had got himself wounded in the hands while escorting a heavy weapon mounted on a vehicle which was his specialty in the first few months of the AFPRC junta.
With a bandage still wrapped around his hand no one bothered to check out his sympathy for the Basirou Barrow planned coup and he was deployed back to his job at the army headquarters.
However in 2000, three years after he resigned from the army, and was working as a surveillance detective at the American Embassy on Kairaba Avenue, Sanyang got arrested and detained at the NIA for involvement in a coup plot linked to Dumo Sarho, Lalo Jaiteh and former military officer and NBR Governor Alagie Kanteh who escaped. Sanyang survived the initial wave of arrests of suspects but months later, he was identified as the man with the walkie-talkie during the planning meetings of the coup which was attended by an agent of Jammeh.
When Sanyang was released on bail the state wanted to use him as witness against his co-plotters but he jumped bail and fled to Senegal and later to Switzerland where he now resides. In this interview with The Standard editor, Sanyang talks about his military career and experience of the coups and attempted counter-coups between 1994 and 2016.
The Standard: Tell us about yourself.
Abdoulie Sanyang: I was born in Banjul but spent most of my adult life in Serekunda, London Corner. I attended Serekunda Primary School and Tahir Ahmadiyya High School in Basse. From there I went straight into the army with Intake 16. Some of my mates included former CDS Masanneh Kinteh and Col Baboucar Sanyang. After training at Farafenni and Yundum in radio communications and signals, I was attached to the then newly-opened headquarters as an administrative clerk mainly under the then senior Nigerian army team in The Gambia.
In 1994 the army took over power. Where were you then and how did you remember this event?
I was at headquarters and my job availed me the opportunity to know a lot about the movements of top military officers and all administrative matters in the army. The coup was very much talked about and known by many people in the army and even government officials some of whom today claimed they did not know about it. They are simply telling lies. I had a residence in Yundum Barracks and I used to rotate between there and my Serekunda London Corner home. On the evening before the coup I slept in Serekunda and as I was heading to work in Banjul, I met a truck loaded with rifles at the Denton Bridge. Every soldier who came was given one after which we marched to State House. I entered through the back gate through the School of Nursing along with Yahya Jammeh. After the success of the coup I was mainly assigned as The Gunner, the man who manned the big gun mounted on top a vehicle. It was momentous period in the army with all soldiers excited about the change and hopeful about life and career.
But six months down the line, an attempted counter-coup and a bloody one for that matter was staged. What went wrong?
This is a very important question because most people did not know or refused to explain the true picture in the period leading to the attempted counter-coup. The whole story is that the July 1994 coup was hijacked from the GNA soldiers who participated in its successful operation. The GNA soldiers were marginalised and gradually former gendarmerie colleagues of Yahya Jammeh were placed strategically around him and he also began to surround himself with mainly people from his tribe. Secondly, none of the promises made by the military council such as promotions and welfare improvement of soldiers was kept. When the soldiers began to wear the new ranks promised to them they were taken from them. All these grievances ballooned to a coup plot. Unfortunately, before the plotters could strike the council members and their loyalists acted and killed them in cold blood even after capturing them without a fight. This is when the culture of killing started in military. It was a very sad moment. The 11 November plotters never wanted to kill the council members. Their plan was to arrest them.
Were you part of the attempt?
Yes I supported the plot and sympathised with the cause. However shortly before the day I had an injury on my finger from handling those big guns in the vehicle and I was taken to hospital where my hand was bandaged and it remained like that for long. All the council members knew that and saw that bandage on my finger and so no one remotely associated me with the plot even though I was fully in support of it. That was how I probably escaped death.
But you eventually got arrested anyway in connection with another coup. Tell us about that.
Yes that was the 2000 coup plot. This was the coup linked to Alagie Kanteh, Dumo Sarho and Lalo Jaiteh. I was no longer in the army having resigned in 1997 but I was part of this plot and attended a few meetings. At the time I was a surveillance detective at the American Embassy and always carried a radio or walkie-talkie. A number of times while attending these meetings my walkie-talkie would ring and I would excuse myself to answer it and come back to the meeting. We did not know that there was a spy among us who reported to Jammeh. Initially all the others were arrested except me mainly because I was not a soldier and they could not remember me so I was not among those arrested. However I think Jammeh’s spies infiltrated our security staff at the embassy and one of them must have told the NIA that the walkie-talkie man they were looking for was myself. I was arrested and held for well over a year at the NIA including a spell at the infamous Bambadinka. When I was released on bail the trial of the other plotters had begun and they wanted to use me as a witness. I jumped bail and fled to Senegal and later to Switzerland.
You became a well-known activist in Switzerland. Tell us about your activities.
Well it so happened that Switzerland is an important base for the UN and other bodies interested in human rights matters and Jammeh’s reputation as an oppressor had reached the attention of most rights organisations. So I joined forces with other Gambians across Europe and America to hold protests and demonstrations to draw the attention of the world to Jammeh’s tyranny. I was a member of many human rights associations recognised by the UN together with people like Amadou Scattred Janneh we waged a sustained campaign abroad against Jammeh’s government. I personally had two NIA operatives in my payroll and they often supplied me and my group with sensitive matters central to government intelligence. So I often know about things before they happened and warned possible targets in harm’s way. Jammeh was a type of a human being who should never have been a leader.
How did you see the change of 2016 and the current political situation?
Well although I contributed a lot to the 2016 change I wouldn’t want to take credit for it as it was a collective mission. However what is important now is for us to assess what has been achieved or lost. Frankly, there is very little to write home about. Yes we have changed the repressive regime but we have not made use of the opportunities that the change provided both economically and socially. We remain divided today than before. We still do not have motorable roads where they matter or equipped hospitals and there is rampant corruption. The sanitisation of our political scene has not been done because those who should lead it are themselves guilty of the current polarisation. The security reform has not been done as much time is wasted on bureaucracy and lack of political will. Look at what is happening now, crimes are on the increase. What we need is a national security conference that would work towards achieving among other things two practical things: Take out those involved in atrocities and deploy or retire others not needed with full benefits to pick up jobs in private firms. That way no one will be angry and we can march forward as one nation. It is not helpful for President Barrow to be beating his chest to say he killed the lion or that he brought about this and that. It was the Gambian people who created the change and he should focus on the reasons for that change.
Thank you for talking to us Mr Sanyang.
It’s my pleasure