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The attempted Gambian coup d’etat of 30 July 1981

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By Arnold Hughes

Within twenty-four hours of the announcement of the coup, President Jawara, who initially seemed poised to give up power, determined to return to West Africa, and flew in a chartered aircraft to neighbouring Dakar, where he invoked once more the 1965 defence agreement with Senegal. After an unsuccessful appeal to the rebels to accept an amnesty, Senegalese forces were mobilised remarkably quickly and began to move against the Banjul area by the second day of the coup (reconnaissance flights were observed on the afternoon of the first day). ‘Operation Foday Kabba II’ had every appearance of advance planning, but the invading Senegalese encountered an initial reversal when the first wave of paratroops dropped on Yundum airport suffered heavy casualties. Anticipating a repeat of the paratroop drop on Yundum in October 1980, rebel forces were ready to intercept them.

Senegalese ground forces advancing to the airport from Casamance also faced resistance in the Fonis and around Brikama. Much would be made of these acts of defiance afterwards by rebel spokesmen in exile, but it was generally apparent that armed resistance was ineffective and limited to a few locations in the Banjul-Kanifing area and the Western Division. Sallah (West Africa magazine 22 and 29 March 1982 edition) claimed that ‘the great majority of our people.. embraced it [the coup]’ and that ‘hundreds of thousands of Gambians came out to jubilate’. Equally questionable was his assertion that, ‘Our population, armed and unarmed, stood up heroically against an overwhelming military machine’. His wildest claim was that Senegalese ‘death squads’ were active in The Gambia following the foiled plot of October 1980 – A small mutiny was also reported among Field Force personnel at Farafenni, but there was no evidence of fighting elsewhere in the country, which seriously challenges rebel claims that the Senegalese had provoked a war of national resistance.

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Radio Gambia was used not only to try and rally popular support for the coup and threaten hostages with death if the Senegalese did not withdraw, but also to appeal to ‘socialist’ countries to aid the insurrection. The USSR, Libya, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry were all appealed to, but without success; although Guinea-Bissau did condemn Senegalese intervention and later provided temporary sanctuary for Kukoi and nine companions who made their way there. Gambian claims of Guinea-Bissau complicity in the coup were never proven. It was popularly believed that Yafai Camara, Guinea-Bissau’s Vice-Minister for the Armed Forces, came from Sukuta [sic – Yafai came from Kantora near Basse, URR], a township in the Kombos, provided backing for the rebels. Kukoi did call on the Guinea-Bissau mission in Fajara during the uprising, but with no apparent success. Lack of credibility in a Libyan/Cuban link was reinforced by Kukoi’s action in visiting the house of the NCP leader, Sheriff Dibba, to try and obtain Colonel Gadaffi’s telephone number! (Dibba evidence. Criminal Appeal No 29/82, 31-33) Some 3,000 Senegalese troops were deployed (over one-third of their total military strength) by land, sea and air against the rebel positions. Abandoned by what were expected to be friendly countries and under increasing Senegalese military pressure on all sides, the insurgents pulled out of Banjul by Sunday morning, when President Jawara returned to his capital, and fell back on the Field Force barracks at Bakau.

Depite initial panic caused by more determined resistance than expected, the Senegalese forces acquitted themselves well, and casualties were surprisingly light given the urban terrain of much of the fighting. The Gambian Government claimed a total of some 500 deaths, but it is likely that the figure was rather higher, given the indiscriminate nature of the killings. Senegalese losses were officially listed as 30, though rebel spokesmen claimed they were much heavier. In this respect, it is significant that afterwards President Jawara presented $1 million to the Senegalese army in recognition of its services.

Kukoi and a number of his confederates had already left the country by sea from Kartong, some three days before the rebel positions were finally taken without the feared blood-bath of hostages. Fears for the latter’s safety partly explains the decision of the British Government to send three SAS personnel to advise the Senegalese army; these were in evidence during the freeing of the hostages. The American Government, alarmed by the apparent Marxist/Libyan orientations of the insurgents, also considered sending in members of the Delta Force (anti-terrorist unit). Presumably because of the speed of the Senegalese advance and the presence of the SAS men, they were never despatched.

Foreign intervention, it now seems, was largely in support of the Gambian Government rather than against it. The Senegalese role was crucial in limiting public support for the rebels, rather than in turning their illegal action into a national crusade, as rebel apologists would later claim. An examination of Gazetted notices of detention of over 1,000 detainees held after the coup reveals that over 91% of suspects came from Banjul/Kanifing and the Western Division; over half came from Kanifing. Over 800 of the detainees were later released without being charged, which further reduces the national impact of the insurrection. The NCP leader, Sheriff Dibba, was typical of many others, when he refused to broadcast in support of the coup and warned Kukoi of impending Senegalese military intervention.

Limited British and American backing has also been noted. Equally important was the diplomatic (and subsequent economic) support for Jawara offered by all African countries (save Libya) and many others. Some US$30 million in relief aid was provided by the international community to help in national reconstruction. Even countries regarded as radical – Tanzania, Guinea-Conakry, Algeria and Cape Verde Republic – immediately backed the lawful government; Guinea-Bissau made swift moves to restore relations with its neighbours, sending a special envoy to Banjul in August and, though not prepared to return Kukoi and his fellow-conspirators to The Gambia, expelled them to Cuba the following April.


The coup in retrospect
There is little support now for the initial claim by the Gambian and Senegalese governments that the coup had external sponsors. It is significant that Jawara played down this factor after his return, though in an interview at the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Gambian independence he re-iterated (but once again failed to elaborate) the claim of Libyan involvement. The President stated in an interview with West Africa magazine (12-18 February 1990) that Kukoi was a failed politician, ‘being secretly cultivated and trained by an outside power, Libya, and prepared for staging this coup.’ It is correct that, following the coup attempt, Kukoi did establish links with Libya, but no positive connection before July 1981 has been publicly established by either the Senegalese or Gambian governments.

The claim of outside interference may have been prompted by a shared feeling on the part of the two governments that Libya was generally pursuing an adventurist foreign policy in West Africa aimed at undermining pro-Western states. In part, it may have been a general error arising out of the confusion of the time. For example, a British newspaper erroneously claimed during the fighting that Russian Kalashnikov rifles used by the rebels had been imported in a consignment of Lada cars, whereas in fact they had been stolen from the Field Force Depot. It may also have been calculated, in order to legitimise the Senegalese intervention. Ostensibly, the 1965 defence agreement was to be invoked when either country was subject to external threat, and its legitimacy in the event of suppressing internal unrest was to be challenged by opposition elements in Senegal and The Gambia.

Neither is there any support for the insurgents’ claim that theirs was the commencement of a patriotic revolution, rather than the amateurish if murderous action of a few disgruntled Gambians from the Kombos and Fonis. Overt public support for the coup was limited both in extent and duration. Generalised dissatisfaction with the Jawara Government undoubtedly existed at this time, accentuated by economic problems arising from natural calamities as much as by poor government performance, but this should not be equated with active public support for a coup d’etat by a small body of unknown individuals. Neither should the rush to accept weapons from the rebels be interpreted as evidence of support for them, for among those armed were common criminals who used their weapons to rob and loot, as well as to settle private scores.

It was not only the personal obscurity and lack of any credentials to govern of those who claimed to speak for the masses which dissuaded the public from endorsing them. Suwaebou Conateh (1982) has shown how the rebels made clever use of the captured radio station, but at the same time the alternative programme outlined by Kukoi in his speeches baffled or alienated a largely illiterate and conservative Muslim society. Marxist jargon and revolutionary slogans concealed a poverty of concrete policies and realistic objectives. (Transcripts of tapes of rebel radio broadcasts made by the author and by Bakarr 1981: 10-18).

While rebel criticism and condemnation of corruption in government and economic hardship reflected wider public feelings, its rhetoric was hardly likely to promote popular confidence. What were people to make of organisations such as the ‘Supreme Council of the Revolution’ and its ‘National Liberation Army’ (the name given to the Field Force mutineers); or such slogans as ‘Death to neocolonialism, racism and fascism in The Gambia’ and ‘Victory for the Gambian revolutionary struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leadership of a Marxist-Leninist party’? Neither could the suspension of the constitution and the judiciary, the abolition of Parliament and political parties; the closure of all financial institutions and the creation of a body calling itself the ‘National Revolutionary Redressing Committee’ command public confidence. While claiming it had ‘brilliant ideas’ for the country’s future, this body could provide no positive programme of redress.


This article was originally written in 1991 by Arnold Hughes, a renowned researcher of The Gambia, who was until retirement, Emeritus Professor and Director of the Centre of West African Studies at The University of Birmingham, UK.

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