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The attempted Gambian coup d’etat of 30 July 1981

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By Arnold Hughes

New political organisations and new forms of direct action emerged by around 1979. The latter included the burning of two government vessels, a spate of political graffiti and the nocturnal circulation of a free underground newspaper, The Voice of the Future. The latter was thought to be financed from foreign sources, though its publishers were never caught; the chief suspects were tried after the coup but the prosecution dropped the case. It engaged in Marxist polemics against the ‘neo-colonial’ Gambian state and libellous, if not necessarily inaccurate, exposures of corruption in government and official circles. Two political organisations in particular emerged in 1979/80; there were other less important ones too, such as the intriguingly named Four World Terrorist Organisation.

The first was an offspring of a coastal movement, originally based in Liberia, called the Movement for Justice in Africa (MoJA). This organisation also adopted a Marxist/pan-Africanist critiqaue of Gambian politics and economic policy and, initially at least, favoured a policy of raising the political consciousness of workers and farmers. In Liberia, the original MoJA had played an important part in the destablisation of the Tolbert regime and gave strong support to the Doe coup in March 1980, seeking to provide intellectual leadership and ideological direction to the semi-literate army leaders. However, there is no indication that MoJA-Gambia had achieved much success by October 1980, when it was banned as a subversive organisation. Tijan ‘Koro’ Sallah, reportedly a graduate of American and Russian universities and ex-secondary schoolteacher, was identified as the main spokesman of this grouplet, though its most articulate representative was a part-time journalist, Ousman Manjang (who continued to champion the MoJA cause in the columns of the weekly news magazine West Africa from time to time).

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Another and if not ideologically identical movement was the Gambia Revolutionary Socialist Party, founded by ‘Dr’ Gibril (‘Pengu’) George, an unsuccessful small-time businessman with a grudge against the Inspector-General of Police, and a purchased doctorate to gain him intellectual credibility. Kukoi Samba Sanyang, leader of the 1981 coup, joined this organisation perhaps sometime in 1980, on his return from his travels around Europe, where he had embraced Marxism. Little is known about the coup leader; it has been necessary to rely on information obtained orally in The Gambia after the coup. He was born around 1953 to a Roman Catholic Jola family and called Dominique Paul Sanyang. He is reported to have obtained only one school certificate pass, in French, and to have left a Catholic seminary in the Casamance region of Senegal after two years, thus emulating the careers of two earlier revolutionaries – Josef Stalin and Kwame Nkrumah. His political career may have commenced with the general elections of 1972, when this author met him acting as a spokesman for his brother, who unsuccessfully stood as an independent candidate in the Foni East constituency. As noted above, Kukoi himself stood unsuccessfully in the same constituency in 1977, after which he disappeared from public view until 1981.

Of the two, MoJA was regarded as the more intellectually credible and popular among discontented youths, helped perhaps by ‘Koro’ Sallah’s reputation as an amateur sportsman. Indeed, George’s group, whose members plotted the coup, was seen as faintly ludicrous.
As suggested, membership of the extreme left in The Gambia was principally confined to discontented, mainly youthful elements in the Banjul-Kanifing area and the townships of the Kombos. Disaffected minor intellectuals, such as teachers, junior civil servants and students at the Yundum Teacher Training College (where there was a well-established tradition of rebelliousness), secondary school pupils and elements of the semi-literate unemployed provided the bulk of its recruits. In contrast, there was only limited support among trade unionists and the one self-styled Marxist labour organisation, the Gambia Labour Union, kept its distance.

Where it did have support, and this would be crucial for its attempt to challenge state authority through violent means, was among the ranks of the para-military police – the 500 strong Field Force. One should not exaggerate the degree of disaffection among the Field Force though; a list allegedly drawn up by the coup plotters included only 36 Field Force personnel and a further 10 civilians (see evidence of Simon T. Sanneh, Criminal Appeal No 5-11/81, 106-115). It is doubtful that mutinous policemen understood, let alone shared, the ideological views of civilian malcontents, as there seem to have been purely internal grievances affecting their loyalty to the Jawara government. For instance, the murder of Commander ‘Eku’ Mahoney, Deputy Commander of the Field Force at their Depot (barracks) in Bakau on 27 October 1980, by a Field Force constable, Mustapha Danso, was initially regarded as nothing other than an act of violent insubordination by a drug-intoxicated sentry.

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That there was more to it was indicated by the Government’s rapid action in calling in a force of 150 Senegalese soldiers to stiffen the morale and counter possible wider disaffection within the Field Force. These troops, ostensibly engaged in joint exercises (Operation Today Kabba I), remained for a week until the crisis had been resolved. Both MoJA and GSRP were banned and the somewhat large and politically-suspect Libyan embassy in Banjul shut down. The government was not only concerned about possible communist backing for what appeared to be Marxist-inspired dissident groups; it also believed Tripoli to be secretly supporting them and to be funding the Voice of the Future. Up to this time Libya had enjoyed good relations with the Gambian government and was regarded as an important source of development funds.
Additionally, the Government forcibly retired an Assistant Commander in the Field Force, Ousman Bojang, whose resentment against the police leadership is thought to have led him to join the civilian plotters the following year. There is no indication that Bojang was inspired by radical beliefs, but it is quite possible that he was part of a mutinous cabal already existing within the Field Force, resentful of what was claimed to be an urban-Wolof/Aku (both Banjul rather than provincial communal groups) domination of the security forces, and prepared to combine with the radical dissidents to overthrow the government. Bojang’s resentment certainly assumed seditious form in July 1981 and he died in the fighting.

The events of October 1980 revealed two things. Firstly, there was the beginning of a dangerous convergence of disaffected elements within the security forces and civilian society; but, secondly, government intelligence gathering and counter measures were effective. In 1981 the shortcomings of the latter would allow this fused extremist opposition nearly to overthrow the Government.
Attempted Coup
From the fragmentary and admittedly disputed evidence available to us today, it is possible to provide some reconstruction of events in the Gambia between the morning of Thursday, 30 July, when insurgents seized the Field Force Depot and Friday 6th August, when the remnants of the rebels were mopped up by Senegalese troops and loyal Gambian forces. The trial evidence (Criminal Appeal No 5-11/81 and No. 29/82) is uncontested as far as the execution of the coup is concerned, though claims that a wider group of individuals and organisations was involved were vigorously denied. It was Gibril Pengu George’s GSRP (its name changed to Gambia Underground Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party – GUSRWP, since its banning), which hatched the plot and it was Kukoi Sanyang who implemented it. The decision to launch a coup was taken some time in early 1981 though the choice of date was only made shortly before it occurred. (Kukoi was keen on a Wednesday and was reported as having consulted a marabout about the most propitious time.) It is not correct that the coup was timed for Jawara’s return from London. (The plotters lacked the resources and organisation to attack the airport and rebels who turned state evidence make no mention of such a plan.) Neither is there any evidence to suggest that fears of exposure led to it being brought forward.

Kukoi relied on a small group of eleven persons, all fellow-Jola residents of Talinding-Kunjang, the Jola quarter of Serekunda, and most of whom were illiterate, to carry out the action. According to Appai Sonko’s evidence (Criminal Appeal No 5-11/81, 28-42), these were Kukoi S. Sanyang, Appai Sonko, Jerreh Colley, Junkung Sawo, Dembo Jammeh, Ousman Jawo, Taffa Camara, Simon T. Sanneh, Mbemba Camara, Kantong Fatty and Kambani B. Badji. Apart from being Jola, they were largely illiterates, ex-Field Force or connected with the taxi trade.

This reliance on close Jola acquaintances fuelled speculation that the coup was a ‘Jola’ coup, intended to link what was perceived as the low status Jola community of The Gambia with its ethnic compatriots in what is referred to as the ‘three Bs! – Banjul, Bignona (in Casamance) and (Guinea-) Bissau. However, the GUSRWP was not an exclusively Jola organisation -Gibril George was an Aku, and several other conspirators whose names were allegedly on the rebel list of those sworn to carry out the undertaking were Wolof or Mandinka (e.g., ‘Koro’ Sallah, Pap Secka and Ousman Bojang). Contradicting evidence was given at Secka’s trial that Kukoi went to Guinea-Bissau to obtain arms (Criminal Appeal No. 29/82 and exhibit ‘HH’, statement of Saloum Jahateh, 127-2), but the conspirators were armed with five hunting guns acquired from villagers in the Fonis – the Jola region of The Gambia – and a revolver. They left Momodou Sanyang’s house at 2.00 am and walked all the way to the barracks, a distance of about five miles. (As the coup was later described as the ‘taxi driver’s coup’, because several of its organisers drove taxies for a living, it seems remarkable that they did not choose to travel in greater comfort!) They cut through the perimeter fence and overpowered the sleeping guards.

One of the conspirators, identified as Momodou Sonko, a disaffected Field Force man, was already in the Depot and helped arrange the taking of the armoury and the seizure of the remainder of the barracks. Commander Bojang was summoned by dawn and rebel elements, comprising sympathisers and others coerced into supporting the coup, stood guard over the Depot or fanned out to the airport, Radio Gambia and central Banjul to seize strategic objectives and arrest government ministers and senior police officers. Among their first victims was the Assistant Commander of Police, Kikala Baldeh, gunned-down at his front door.
Their first setback was their failure to take the Central Police Station in Banjul, where a dozen or more defenders led by the Inspector General of Police, A Sulayman M’Boob, created a defence zone which successfully resisted rebel attempts to storm it. Their numbers were increased by a detachment of loyal Field Force men from the up-river Pioneer Unit base at Farafenni, who made their way to the capital. Within this ‘fortification unit’ Vice President Assan Camara and other ministers found refuge and were able to claim to the outside world, as well as reassure the wavering President in London, that the Government still existed.

By mid-morning of 30 July, the insurgents were distributing self-loading rifles to their supporters and more generally to anyone producing a voter’s card. However, as public order collapsed, so did that of the rebels, furthered by the general exodus of convicts from Mile Two prison outside Banjul, following the release of Mustapha Danso, imprisoned after the October 1980 incidents. Lacking any but the most general plans for dealing with the consequences of their action, Kukoi and his fellow-conspirators lost control. Their coup degenerated into a series of localised initiatives, characterised by much confusion, and sparked-off widespread looting, robbery and killing. Divisions within the rebel ranks also appeared, for on 31 July Gibril George was shot dead at the Depot. Kukoi used the captured radio station to some effect during the first few days of the rebellion to declare his revolutionary programme of a ‘Marxist-Leninist state’ under the control of his ‘Supreme Council of the Revolution’, and to persuade or coerce a large number of Gambians and some Senegalese to denounce the Jawara administration and later Senegalese military intervention (among them a wife and children of the President, a cabinet Minister and a leading Senegalese Muslim dignitary). Some 105 hostages were detained at the Depot, including Lady Chilel Jawara and eight of the President’s children.


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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