By Arnold Hughes
The coup in retrospect…
Even supporters of the coup, such as MoJA, were later to denounce Kukoi as a naive adventurer. Such celebrations as occurred were largely confined to Banjul and the townships of the Kombos; most Gambians preferred to adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.
With general elections due in the spring of 1982, the overwhelming majority of the populace felt that a coup was both unnecessary and unlawful, and the excesses accompanying the seizure of power – the killings, robbery, dislocation of food supplies – led to a rapid and sharp decline in support for the rebels. Threatening hostages ‘live’ over the radio was also counter-productive, neither deviating Jawara from his purpose, nor winning converts to the rebel cause.
Was the coup limited to the GSRP? Trial evidence led to the conviction of Pap Cheyassin Secka as the eminence grise of the rebellion. Evidence was offered of meetings between Secka and other conspirators in Senegal and at Somita in the Fonis. A crucial letter recovered from the rebel ‘headquarters’ in Talinding Kunjang convinced the trial judge (a Nigerian) that Secka was in league with Kukoi and had prepared the speech used by the latter to announce the ‘revolution’. The authorship of rebel broadcasts remains to be determined.
While their composition does not suggest a well-educated writer, such phrases as ‘the iron law of oligarchy’, as well as more familiar Marxist expressions indicate a level of political sophistication and literary expression greater than might be expected of the group that launched the coup from Talinding Kunjang. The actual draft speech was never recovered and Secka’s plea of innocence was rejected. He was found guilty of taking part in the rebellion and sentenced to death (subsequently commuted to life imprisonment, but released in early 1991). Critics of the judgement claimed that he was sentenced because of his part in acting as MoJA’s defence counsel during the trial of MoJA activists in November 1980.
More controversial was the testimony of captured rebels that ten civilians and 36 policemen swore an oath on the Qur’an at Gibril George’s house to carry out the coup. Not only were Secka and Ousman Bojang’s names on this alleged list (which was never produced in court) but also those of ‘Koro’ Sallah and Ousman Manjang. These MoJA leaders later claimed from exile that they joined the coup after witnessing security forces firing on ‘innocent’ civilians. Their explanation seems no more convincing than the prosecution’s charge. It does not seem hard to accept, at the least, that MoJA militants acted opportunistically to spread revolution, misjudging in the early hours of the coup, Jawara’s determination to fight back and Senegal’s willingness to back him.
Sheriff Dibba, although detained for over a year and charged with supporting the rebellion, was rightly acquitted at his trial (one of the witnesses who helped to exonerate him being the Inspector-General). A constitutionalist politician, and fully expecting to win the 1982 elections, Dibba had no reason to plot treason with a band of obscure amateur revolutionaries, whose leader had broken with the NCP. It is telling that his name was not on the controversial list of plotters. That individual NCP militants joined the coup is not inconceivable, but widely-reported rebel wearing of white (the NCP colour) headbands was probably coincidental.
A retrospective analysis of the 1981 coup confirms the general conclusions of the writers Hughes and Wiseman that it was a domestic affair, plotted by a politically obscure group of individuals, civilian and para-military, with mixed motives, but who, in their different ways, hoped to gain personally as much as ideologically from overthrowing the government. Others, radicals or non-politicals, opportunistically joined the fighting once it had begun, but these too were local people; no conclusive evidence of external involvement has yet been produced. If external inspiration, as opposed to material assistance, can be found, it was more likely to be the radical military coups led by Jerry Rawlings and Samuel Doe in Ghana and Liberia in 1979-80, rather than Ghadaffi’s Libya, let alone Cuba, though the ideological commitment of the Field Force is questionable.
That the coup came close to success, despite its bungled nature, cannot be denied, and there is evidence of mass alienation from the government as well as of poor intelligence work on the part of the authorities. Public unwillingness to face armed insurgents and the demoralisation of most of the Field Force and police (far more ran away than joined the insurgents) testify to the general problem of generating loyalty to the state in post-colonial Africa, but do not amount to the mass enthusiasm for revolutionary change and violence, or to a national struggle against the Senegalese, as claimed by exiled rebels.
The defeat of extra-constitutional radicalism in The Gambia presented a fundamental crisis to the Gambian left. Kukoi himself, remained quite unrepentant. He surfaced at a conference in Libya in March 1988, where he gave guarded answers to an interviewer (West Africa magazine 29 March 1988). While admitting his tactical errors, he remained committed to a revolutionary and violent replacement of the Gambian government. He argued the necessity of working with like-minded elements in Senegal, given that the Treaty of Confederation permitted the Senegalese armed forces to under-write the security of the Gambian state. This statement was made before the break-up of the Confederation in October 1989.
MoJA activists remain discreet in The Gambia itself, but periodically launch propaganda attacks (including a grossly-distorted Swedish TV documentary) on the Jawara Government. Pro-MoJA graphiti may occasionally be seen on walls in Banjul. (One had to be hurriedly wiped off the polling station wall in Banjul North just before the President voted in the 1987 elections.) Being officially banned, MoJA seems to have lost the initiative within the Gambian left.
Instead, a new and, significantly, constitutionalist Marxist opposition movement emerged in 1986. Called DOI (short for the People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism), it offers an unusually well-reasoned critique of rival leftist groups as well as a denunciation of the shortcomings of the PPP. (See the DOI newspaper Foroyaa for its political views and programmes.) Some of the DOI leaders were popularly thought to be the persons behind the clandestine Voice of the Future. The party was badly beaten in the 1987 general elections, all five candidates being defeated, and four losing their deposits. Even so, it remained surprisingly sanguine, considering its setback as part of the long process of winning public acceptance in the face of what it regarded as a hostile and dissembling government.
The Gambian government has also had to rethink its position since the coup. In the wake of the insurrection, the creation of the Senegambian Confederation put the security of the country on a more stable footing in that the military protocols of the confederation permitted Senegal to station troops on Gambian soil. While this guaranteed internal security for the rest of the decade, critics of the government gained a measure or public approval in attacking the arrangement as Senegalese ‘occupation’ of the country.
The security situation changed dramatically in August 1989. Following a steady deterioration in relations between the two states, and a need to face a military threat from Mauritania, the Senegalese government unilaterally and without prior notification withdrew its security forces from The Gambia. The latter’s defence now relies solely on its reconstituted forces of over 2,000 men, deliberately divided between a Senegalese-organised gendarmerie and a British-trained army battalion. The loyalty of these forces to the government remains to be tested, but experience suggests that patronage political systems such as that of The Gambia find it difficult to generate more than conditional loyalty.
The persistence of corruption and mismanagement in government, advanced as reasons for the 1981 coup attempt, was not resolved by Jawara, despite periodic dismissals of the worst offenders. Meanwhile, the economy has passed through another difficult period since the early-1980s, following the adoption of an IMF-inspired Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) in 1985. While the government and its overseas backers were claiming a measure of recovery by 1990, the means taken to restore the economy have meant particular hardships for public sector employees and the urban population, the natural recruiting ground of earlier radicals.
Despite some loss of support among the general public, the PPP not only won the general elections of 1982 (admittedly under unusually favourable circumstances given the state of emergency and public reaction to the failed coup), but also those of 1987, when it gained control of 31 of the 36 directly elected seats. In addition, Sir Dawda Jawara was safely returned in the presidential election, though it should be noted that the combined opposition forces polled 40% of the vote, but their strength was dissipated in three or four way splits at the polls. Both in 1982 and 1987 the ruling party sought to introduce some much-needed new blood among the ranks of its parliamentarians and the government has followed a policy of leniency and reconciliation towards its revolutionary opponents. Only one death sentence was carried out, that of Danso, for a killing that took place in 1980, and detainees were either released without going to trial or freed later under various amnesties. MoJA and GSRP are still banned and Kukoi Samba Sanyang and a number of other GSRP and MoJA militants are still on the wanted list, but the ban on revolutionary leftist organisations excludes DOI and its publications.
Have the horrors of 1981 permanently turned Gambians away from attempting to replace their government by force? Are President Jawara’s post-coup reforms and reconstruction of his country’s security forces sufficient to dissuade further plots against the state? Talks in late 1990 between the PPP and NCP with a view to merger or alliance could have led to a strengthening of the political centre, but at the same time it could have allowed DOI to draw to it a range of ‘broad-left’ discontented elements and possibly extend its support among a still disaffected younger generation in the urban areas. A constitutionalist and more politically successful DOI, though, would undermine the position of those radical groups, such as GSRP and MoJA, still pursuing violent policies for change.
But the position of the revolutionary left in Africa is uncertain at present in view of the erosion of its credibility in the wake of events in Eastern Europe. Even if DOI and other radical political groups were to abandon their militancy, there still remains the more familiar locus of coup-making – the security forces. The loyalty of the reconstituted but much expanded Gambian defence forces remains to be tested. Will they develop political or personal ambitions, familar elsewhere in the African continent, that will bridge their deliberate division into gendarmerie and army, particularly as the possibility of future Senegalese intervention seems uncertain following the ending of the treaty of confederation? Did the fledgling Gambian democracy narrowly overcome one danger only to expose itself to a future challenge from those very instruments created to counter that danger?
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.