By Charles Stuart Kennedy
(Foreign Affairs Oral History Project)
Complicity in the coup that toppled Jawara’s government in 1994 has dogged the US Embassy in Banjul. The matter has been brought to the fore in the past weeks with witnesses testifying before the TRRC stating that they suspected Washington of involvement. To present the US perspective, we reproduce a February 2010 interview with the US ambassador in the country at the time, Mr Andrew Winter with Mr Charles Stuart Kennedy of the US Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project. Excerpts:
Charles Stuart Kennedy: What were the major developments while you were there [Gambia]?
Ambassador Andrew Winter:… In January of 1994 the Nigerian general in charge of the Gambian army was due to rotate back to Nigeria and a new Nigerian general was scheduled come. The general who was supposed to come was delayed and then finally he didn’t come at all. There was a three or four-month period when the Gambian Army was basically on its own. As we would figure out later, that is when four lieutenants started thinking about staging a coup. I don’t know what their motivations were except, possibly, a little bit of frustration that they were under the thumb of the Nigerians. Their arms were still under lock and key.
The US Navy’s West African Training Cruise (WATC) sent word that The Gambia would have a ship visit in July, which both the government and I were very happy about. These ship visits brought Marines to do training exercises and civil engineers to do civil works. These were very positive missions and there was certainly nothing bellicose about them. In retrospect, it was clear that the coup plotters considered this as an opportunity. The ship that came was the La Moure County, which had Marines and Marine amphibious vehicles onboard. The consular officer and I worked with the ministry of defense on a schedule of activities. Interestingly, again in retrospect, the Army suggested having some war games in order to get some real training, and everyone agreed.
It was agreed that we’d use a national park just outside of the capital for the war games. All of this appeared to be on the up and up. We went ahead with the preparations for the ship visit, which kept me as busy as I’d been since I’d arrived. A few days before the ship visit, the permanent secretary of the ministry of defense, Bun Jack, called and said, we don’t think that the location of this national park for the maneuvers is that good an idea. They’d be more realistic if they were held at the bridge at the entrance to Banjul. Banjul, the capital, is actually a tiny island with just one small bridge, Denton Bridge, from the mainland. He said it would be more realistic if we pretended that the attack was coming from the mainland towards the capital over the bridge. He told this to the consular officer.
I didn’t like that idea, but not because I had any suspicions of a coup. This was the only bridge into the capital and did not seem like a very convenient place to hold war games. It would be disruptive; it would make people nervous. I put in a call to the Minister of Defence, who was also the vice president, and I couldn’t get through to him to discuss this change. I ended up talking to the permanent secretary. He said he would pass the word to the Vice President [Saihou Sabally] and would let me know. The word came back that the vice president was OK with having the war games at Denton Bridge.
I wasn’t deeply concerned about it, I wish I had been, and therefore let it stand. Again in retrospect, the permanent secretary appears to have been in cahoots with the coup plotters and probably never consulted the vice president… On the morning of Friday, July 22, 1994, I arrived at the Navy vessel, the La Moure County, to escort the ship’s commanding officer on official calls in Banjul. At 9:00 in the morning we arrived at the executive offices of the presidency to call on the permanent secretary for the minister of defence in the office of the vice presidency. As we walked towards the permanent secretary’s office, the door to the vice president’s office opened. The vice president asked us to come in and quickly told us there was a problem at the army barracks at Yundum. Yundum is where the airport is and is about 10 or 15 miles from the capital.
The vice president excused himself to go see the president, returning some five minutes later he informed us that Gambian troops were moving towards Banjul. He requested that we take the president and him to the Navy ship for safety. After a brief and private consultation, the captain and I agreed to take the president and the vice president to the La Moure County. The vice president suggested that the president ride in my official car for security reasons. A few minutes later President Jawara, his wife, Lady Chilel, an entourage of children, security and servants, many with overnight bags emerged from the house and entered the waiting vehicles. We sped to the port, five minutes away, and the safety of the ship. Onboard the ship the president and vice president were shown to the officers’ wardroom. Other members of the government came onboard the ship: finance minister Dabo, Kebba Ceesay, the chief of the national security service, the inspector general of police, Pa Jagne, and the permanent secretary of ministry of defence were all onboard. They all sat in the officers’ wardroom discussing what they should do in this emerging situation. We were neither privy to their talks, nor did we try. Both the captain and I were taken aback by how many people we all of a sudden had in our charge, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Later Washington would certainly second-guess me on that.
Yes but you think of the results if you hadn’t.
Exactly. We had moved the family of the president down to a lower deck. Everybody was very well behaved; there weren’t any problems or issues and no great demands. After the president had met with his advisors, the chief of police left. The police tactical support group and the military’s presidential guard was sent to Denton Bridge to intercept the troops. A few minutes later the head of the national security service and the permanent secretary of the defence ministry also went to the bridge to negotiate with the troops. Now, when I say “troops,” we’re talking about 100 soldiers. On the other hand, the police and presidential guard numbered maybe 20. We weren’t looking at a major confrontation here.
They attempted to negotiate with the troops – from what I heard later it was very cordial and peaceful; everybody knew each other – and the troops said no we have the upper hand here; we’re coming in. The police and the president’s security guard decided not to stop them. Only a single shot was fired.
We later reported that one soldier’s weapon accidentally discharged and shot the leg of a dog and that was the only casualty of this very nonviolent coup. The inspector general of police came back to the ship and said, they’re coming in and there’s not much we can do. At this point the president, vice president, the captain of the ship and I were talking – we were up on the top deck – and trying to decide what to do. The vice president asked the captain and me to deploy the US marines to the bridge. There were 71 Marines with four amphibious armored vehicles (AAVs) who certainly could have prevented the coup. The captain and I weren’t totally opposed to the idea. Both he and I both sent off messages, knowing we weren’t going to get a positive reply, recommending that we deploy the troops.
Our messages stated very clearly that if we deployed the troops we were very confident that we could stop the coup in its tracks with minimal or no loss of life. We weren’t looking at a very risky situation here. The Gambian troops did have their weapons but they were primarily rifles and maybe a few semi-automatic weapons; nothing of any great threat. The captain did agree to lower the plank so the amphibious vehicles could deploy, but we did that more as a scare tactic as we had not received Washington approval to deploy the Marines. The captain and I did talk to the Marines who said it would take them about 90 minutes to get the ships in the water, deployed and at the bridge, ready to stop the Gambian troops. We then received word that the troops were entering Banjul. The captain and I decided to leave the dock for the security of the harbor. This was about 1:00 in the afternoon. We went three or four hundred yards offshore, a location that granted us a very clear view of the State House and enabled us to watch what was going on.
Shortly thereafter we saw the troops entering State House and we received a message from The Gambia national army asking us to move further away. We immediately complied and moved to a position off Cape St Mary, which is halfway between Banjul, the capital, and Fajara where the embassy was and where most Gambians and foreigners lived. The Gambian army was clearly nervous. We never received permission from State or the Navy to deploy the Marines and we never really expected to. Throughout the afternoon and evening I stayed in touch with Washington by an open Inmarsat line and with the embassy, USAID and the defence attache´, Major McLean, who was in The Gambia but resident in Senegal, by high frequency and very high frequency radios. During this period the president and vice president requested approval to contact General Abacha in Nigeria, the foreign minister of Senegal and the chairman of Ecowas who was also in Senegal. Jawara was trying to find support.
At Washington’s urging the ambassador impressed on the president the need to leave the ship. Washington’s clear preference was that Senegal send a boat to rendezvous with the La Moure County and take them all to Dakar. Then the La Moure County could remain off the Gambian coast for possible evacuation of the few Americans who lived there. Unfortunately Senegal was not very accommodating and the ambassador advised Washington of the difficulty of a mid-sea transfer with women and young children aboard. We were therefore faced with a dilemma; the La Moure County could remain off the coast of The Gambia with its guests onboard or it could steam to Dakar. As ambassador, I made it clear that if the ship left for Dakar, I would return to the embassy in Banjul. Now, at this point I was second-guessed for being onboard the ship and not returning to the embassy, but in fact, it was very fortunate that I stayed. The Gambian troops turned off the entire telephone system. Therefore the embassy had no means to communicate with Washington. The cable system was down, they had radios for internal use, but the emergency radio system, which should have reached Dakar wasn’t reaching Dakar very well. My presence on the ship turned out to be the focal point for all communications. I was able to talk by high frequency radio to the DCM in Dakar, by Inmarsat to Washington and to the Gambian government because they were our guests. So, as second guessed as I was, it turned out damned well. If I hadn’t been there negotiations would have been much more complicated.
At Washington’s direction, I continued to push The Gambians to make arrangements to go to Senegal. Being on the ship gave me command of the greatest amount of information and communication with all parties involved. At some point Friday evening the situation became complicated by the illness of a sailor onboard the ship. It was an apparent heart attack and the doctor onboard did not have the necessary equipment and medicine to treat him. The captain began to consider going to Dakar. His decision was complicated by the fact that four of his sailors were at an orphanage 20 miles south of Banjul. The defence attache´ attempted to get Gambian National Army approval to extract them. Permission had been denied. It would take until Saturday evening, by which time the sailors had made their way to the ambassador’s residence, to arrange for their return to the ship.
Throughout the coup the Gambian National Army was very anxious and nervous about the USS La Moure County and its intentions. It finally took the ambassador’s (my) word to obtain permission for the La Moure County to dispatch a boat to the beach in front of the ambassador’s residence to retrieve the four sailors. As Friday night fell, it was becoming apparent to the president, vice president and Finance Minister Dabo that they had to make preparations to go to Senegal. In their conversations with the Senegalese, it became apparent that the Senegalese were not anxious to accept them. Negotiations with the Senegalese continued through Friday night and all day Saturday. With Washington and Embassy Dakar intercession and President Jawara’s acceptance of Senegal’s conditions a deal was struck. The president understood and accepted that Senegal would not help him return to power and would allow him in only if he agreed not to use Senegal as a platform to return to power. Yet, as late as Saturday morning, when the phones were returned to service in Banjul, President Jawara spoke with someone in Senegal using a Gambian cellular phone. In the conversation he clearly asked for Senegalese assistance to return to The Gambia.
As an aside, it was quite a sight on Saturday morning when the Gambians onboard realised that their cellular phones were again operational. They all quickly called home; within 15 minutes all the batteries were dead. I used my phone for a quick call to my wife, who was holding down the fort at the embassy residence with 30 Americans and the four sailors from the La Moure County as guests. Many of the Peace Corps volunteers near Banjul, the USAID Americans, the few private American citizens, and the Peace Corps director all found their way to the ambassador’s residence, which accorded with the emergency plan. The residence had an emergency radio and was right on the sea, which provided the potential for an evacuation. Throughout his time on the ship President Jawara maintained his dignity. He never showed emotion or betrayed any anger. He was always polite and in control. On the other hand, Vice President Sabally, who I’d always found to be an extraordinarily self-confident man, was clearly shaken and worried. Finance Minister Dabo was the most saddened of all, sincerely concerned for the future of his country, not only himself.
Throughout the ordeal I worked closely with our embassy to take care of the staff and the American citizens. The ship served as a communications relay point for messages from official Americans to their families at home. By cable and phone message from the ship to the ops centre we were able to fulfill our consular and American citizen service functions. I directed that several Peace Corps volunteers and dependents of mission personnel be moved to safe haven at the ambassador’s residence. Taking advantage of the coincidence that our consular American Citizen Services (ACS) PIT was onboard the ship as liaison officer for the ship visit, I pressed him into service to collect US citizen information from the embassy via high frequency radio and transmit it to Washington via phone and cable from the ship. The phone was an Inmarsat.
The Defence Department later tried to charge the State Department because I kept the Inmarsat line open to Washington at about $10 a minute for about 36 hours. I never totaled it up, but it was a hell of a phone bill and I don’t know who ever paid it. Our ACSs PIT was born a Gambian, and could speak Wolof, one of the primary languages of The Gambia. We took advantage of his presence to move him from the mid-level deck where he was with most of the president’s family and other lower level Gambian government personnel to the upper deck where he could be near the president and vice president and figure out what was going on. It turned out to be a very good move. Late Friday night the Gambian National Army (GNA) indicated that they wanted to initiate a conversation with President Jawara. Jawara was quite anxious to negotiate with them. Our defense attache´ worked tirelessly to arrange a radio conference call but as the night wore on it became ever more evident that the GNA was no longer in any hurry to talk to Jawara.
On Saturday the GNA indicated they were willing to receive a call from Jawara. Again Jawara was most willing, but it was difficult to arrange a time. At last they arranged a teleconference for 5:00 Saturday afternoon. This was more than 24 hours after the coup had taken place… Jawara, being a very quiet and dignified man, just kept asking them to go back to the barracks, and let him come back and resume his office. He said that nothing would happen to anyone involved in the coup. His army interlocutor, Lieutenant Singhatey, one of the coup plotters, was very polite but very firm and said thank you very much, Mr President, but we’re in charge now and we’re not leaving. You could see the sadness entering the face of Jawara, and of the defence minister and the finance minister who were by his side. One of the coup leaders was at the other end of the radio.
He was one of the four lieutenants who were responsible for the coup. It was apparent that the Gambian National Army was no longer interested in Jawara’s return. On Saturday evening we arranged for the four sailors to be picked up from the beach in front of the ambassador’s residence. The sick sailor had again taken a turn for the worse. The ship’s captain decided to head for Dakar, even though we did not have permission to dock there. We sent a message to Dakar and Washington, pressuring for approval to go to Dakar, if only to drop off the sick sailor and, if necessary, keep our Gambian guests onboard. Clearly this helped pave the way for the eventual agreement with the Senegalese to accept our shipboard guests. I decided to get off the ship and radioed the defence attache´ to ask for permission to go ashore. Permission was granted. The ACS PIT, the embassy nurse, who was a Gambian, and I prepared to board the boat that would take us to the shore.
We donned heavy life preservers and construction helmets and began the three-story descent on a rope ladder. I, of course, was dressed as an ambassador in a suit and good leather shoes with leather soles, which were not exactly made for going down a rope from the deck of the ship to the boat awaiting us in the rolling surf below. It was a somewhat harrowing climb down as the rope ladder swung back and forth against the ship in the rolling sea. Once aboard we started for shore. Suddenly we received a radio message from the defence attache´ to abort. There was a patrol on the beach and the Gambian National Army did not have radio contact with them. They could not guarantee our safety. We returned to the ship. On returning to the ship I used my ambassadorial prerogative and, although it was Navy procedure to go back up the rope and not be lifted up by the pulley system that lifted the boat up, I said that I would take my chances and go up with the pulleys and not go up the rope ladder again. The defence attache´ continued to work through the evening with the Gambian National Army to allow me ashore on Sunday morning. We had still not received approval for the ship to go to Dakar. Finally, at 12:30 on Sunday afternoon the Bolongkanta, a patrol boat we had given to the Gambian National Army a few months earlier, with the defence attache´ aboard and flying the ambassador’s flag rendezvoused with the La Moure County. We went onboard and Nancy McKay, a USAID officer, took my place for the voyage to Dakar. At arrival at Banjul harbour, the Gambian Marine Unit greeted me warmly. I entered my car accompanied by a NASA security officer who happened to be there for a launch of the space shuttle. The Gambian National Army provided me a military escort back to my residence.
Well, looking at it, in the first place when you’re on the spot how the hell can Washington give instructions? They really have to rely on you.
Yes, but that doesn’t stop them, and I had been part of that when I was executive director. Washington will always second guess and ambassadors ultimately will often do what they think is best, and a lot of our ambassadors including me did. I am absolutely convinced that the decisions I made were in the best interests of the U.S. Government. Not being technically at my post but being on a ship that was less than a mile offshore enabled me to provide management and leadership to the embassy, communicate with the embassy in Dakar, deal with the Navy, deal with the president of the country, deal with the Gambian army and deal with Washington.
Were any of the Americans under any threat particularly?
As I mentioned, at this point only a dog had been injured. The troops that had fomented the coup were in Banjul; all the Americans lived outside of Banjul. Other than Peace Corps volunteers who were up country, almost all the Americans were at my house, the ambassador’s residence, and my wife and my servants were taking care of all of them… I arrived back at my residence, took a shower, had a quick bite to eat; it was 11:00 in the morning on a Sunday. The coup had taken place on Friday. Lt Jammeh and his three lieutenant cohorts, who had taken charge, had called all of the ambassadors to a meeting at State House. I talked briefly to my British and EU colleagues, who had not received instructions. I arrived at State House and they proceeded to tell us that they were now in charge, there was nothing to fear and that things were peaceful.
They didn’t appear very in charge; they were quite nervous and ill at ease. Lt Jammeh, [who became president until 2017], was a high school graduate, which probably meant the equivalent of an eighth grade education by American standards. He had received a little training by the US military in the US. He liked Americans. The ambassadors from Senegal, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, stood up and said innocuous things. The British ambassador, who clearly was much more instructed than I was, had nothing to say because he had no instructions. I also had no instructions, but I stood up and said that they should all go back to the barracks, that they should allow President Jawara to return, that what they had done was illegal and contrary to international law. I told them they were making a terrible mistake that would have consequences in terms of the support and assistance they received from countries like the United States.
I had no authority to say that but I thought it was the right thing to say and I think it was. And that really upset them. They were not expecting anybody to say anything negative. I must say, I’m quite self-confident individual, but I was nervous delivering that message. It didn’t just flow out naturally; it was not something I’d ever said to anyone, obviously. It wasn’t polite or friendly. It was firm and said in an ambassadorial tone of voice. That led to the end of the meeting and clearly I had cut my ties with the new government rather quickly. It was very apparent that they weren’t too happy with what I had said. Over the next several days, there was no violence. There was no opposition. They rapidly took over. They arrested all of the ministers. They arrested the permanent secretary of the ministry of defence, but he was released very quickly and in days was back in his job as permanent secretary. The consular officer and I realised we had been had, that the permanent secretary in the ministry of defence had clearly been complicit in the coup, that his actions had allowed the troops to get access to their weapons, and that he had changed the location of the manoeuvres to allow the troops to enter Banjul. Clearly the vice president had been more had than we had been had. It was clear that this fellow had been a traitor to his country. Very, very unfortunate. If I had to guess, I think the permanent secretary was bothered by the same things I was, the president was getting older, the vice president was becoming more powerful, more in control and the most likely successor. He was not a good guy, he was not a nice guy; he was a crook, he was corrupt. I think he may have been offended by that and therefore decided to help the coup plotters, but I have no idea. It would be hard, and I’m being somewhat humorous and facetious, to find an agenda among Gambians. They’re just very peaceful, quiet, take one-day-at-a-time; they may be Muslims, but they’re very Buddhist in their approach to life.
To be continued…