With Omar Wally
Baboucarr Jatta was born in Tujereng in 1960. He attended the village primary school before proceeding to Latrikunda Secondary, then St Augustine’s High school. In 1983 he joined the Gambia National Army first batch of intakes. In 1984 he was promoted to officer cadet and left for the US the following year becoming the first student of the International Military Exchange Programme with the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. In 1986 he moved to Fort Benning where he studied basic infantry course. Jatta later went to Fort Gordon for an instructor’s course. He later moved to Fort Bragg to study civil and physiological affairs before going back to Fort Benning for infantry platoon officers mortar course. He also studied at the Nigerian Staff College. In 1985, he was confirmed 2nd Lieutenant and became a platoon commander under Major Maba Jobe. He later took over platoon B Company from Major Jobe and was promoted to lieutenant. He served in Liberia during the war from 1990 to 1991.
During the 1994 takeover he was major and was subsequently promoted to lieutenant colonel. In 1996, he was promoted to colonel. He served for ten years as chief of staff of The Gambia Armed Forces until 2004 when he was discharged from the military. On 13 April 2005, he was appointed Interior Minister and he served in that position for 20 months. After his removal he turned to farming in his home village. Midweek, the affable retired colonel sat down with Bantaba anchor, Omar Wally. Excerpts:
Why did you think you manage to serve the longest as chief of staff of Gambian army?
Maybe I know the job little better than the rest. I was able to read between the lines to know my boss better. In the army they say know your boss, if you know your boss it will help you a lot. Know where he is leading. That is what we call in the army anticipation at all levels. Don’t wait to be told, move faster than your boss, there he will appreciate what you are doing. But it reached a stage where, I felt little frustrated and felt that I should leave. I can’t see my boys coming up to the rank of major, lieutenant and I’m still sitting down as a colonel, no promotion. So I decided to give way. I told the then president you either promote me or push me out.
Some say you served that long because you were just a ‘Yes sir!’ type of fellow.
But some served three years and they passed my rank. I have living witnesses here – Samsudeen Sarr and Col Badjie. I did everything possible to encourage Jammeh to drop the dismissal of officers, I stood firm. I was not a yes sir officer. As a professional officer, there is nothing like yes sir. You question, if it doesn’t work, you discuss with your boss. That’s why when I left the service, I have never been in trouble.
What type of a boss was Commander-in-Chief Yahya Jammeh?
Knowing your boss is a prerequisite, but then sometimes he also had other problems. So you got to know when you have to approach him for problems, when you should sit joke and laugh with him, and whatever he says do it and get away with.
During the November 11 killings in the wake of the attempted coup there were accounts that you were present when AFPRC junta members and their cohorts went to Yundum Barrack and executed the alleged plotters. What exactly happened?
I used to be someone who liked to talk to the junta. On the day of the incident I went to Yundum Barracks and [Vice Chairman Lt Sana] Sabally met me there to pick Major Bojang and Alagie Kanteh. I pleaded with him and he went back. Basiru Barrow was part of those who had planned to overthrow the government.
Unfortunately, no senior officer was ever contacted. When suspicion arose, a few elements were interviewed and I wasn’t happy with what was going on. When I got to know about it – I was informed by senior officers – I went down there and met the disaster. Yes it happened. I would not hide from you. And I was pleading with Sana Sabally, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it!’ and he nearly broke my leg when his car was passing. I pleaded and the boys knew that I pleaded with him but by the time he got to change his mind, it was late, those people were gone.
How many people were executed?
I don’t remember, now.
You were able to persuade Jammeh not to dismiss people but you failed to dissuade his assistant not to kill. How?
Those were the early days. The day before that fateful evening, the junta were there and were telling them this was what is going to happen. In fact one of the junta leaders fired a shot and said, look, a bullet should not go between us, but at night the boys went ahead. After warning that night they decided to go ahead. When they were battling for Yundum, I was not there. I had a very good team, if we got to pressurise Jammeh, he could never dribble us. I used to mobilise all my senior officers when we want something. But along the way things fell apart, the centre could not hold.
In April 2000 you were in the thick of the bloody crack down on the student demonstration. Who gave order for the killings?
That thing has gone through a commission; we don’t have to talk about that. Let me tell you, maybe this could be a breach of state secret. Demonstrations of that nature were never my area, it was not the military’s concern, it was a police concern. I did not attend any of the meetings on whether Boy Barry was killed by Fire Service [personnel]. We just saw an explosion. From what I got to learn, the committee was supposed to meet the then vice president to discuss about the problem. But all of a sudden we saw the crowd at GTTI but when I was passing by early in the morning the students were not hostile. If the police felt that they could keep the students there, I have my own idea, that they should not be at GTTI. To breach a state secret to you, GTTI is close to Radio Gambia. That was why I had to stop all my officers from involvement in the matter until we are called upon. So we distanced ourselves but as time went on, it was getting out of control and we were getting some signals. I decided to go in person, and the only people around me at the time were my orderly and one of my secretaries. I went to Westfield and met Omar Joof of Gamsu. He told me that what was happening was not the arrangement. He said I needed to help out, and I told him I would see what I could do. I got closer to the boys and talked to them… but it got to a point it was not going well.
WHO gave order to shoot?
I just don’t know. The bullet passed me. This was something that had gone through the commission, let us not go too far. I was not very happy with it.
You may not be happy, but you were the head of the country’s military, you certainly knew who gave the order to shoot the students?
No. Let the commission dig into that.
Gambians want an answer!
I really don’t know. I was with the boys.
So you were not even curious enough to find out after?
Yes, I know, but it is for my own consumption.
Are you an accomplice because if your hands are clean you will say who did what?
I will mention it at the commission. I went to meet the students as a good Samaritan. Because I thought if we talk to those boys, things will be ok. I went with them from Serekunda Market via Dippa Kunda to Kairaba Avenue. People claimed the students beat me, that was not true. All they said was that they wanted their leaders out and it happened. But whatever happened was a controversy. We are going to keep it, tight lips.
Your brother Malick Jatta, who you took to the army became a Jungler, did you make any effort to stop him what he was doing?
What happened was a replica of what happens when a head of state runs into disarray with his army. I did everything… For seven years whether he goes to work or not, I didn’t call him. He was operated at RVTH and was dumped there until one of my younger brothers had to pick him at State House during the impasse. For seven years, he was not going to work, and was never promoted except the last promotion by Jammeh before he left the country. He was a warrant officer, class one. At one time he was an RSM. Every time I met him at home, I would ask him why he was not going to work; his reply was he will be going for peacekeeping. Then I sensed something and I told him, you hold it there. I told him to say whatever he knew to the court martial. There are two rules that govern the army: Rule No. 1 says the boss is right and 2 says if the boss is wrong, refer to rule No.1.
If you are recalled to serve, will you accept?
Certainly, that will be a call to duty. I will go and assist. Meanwhile we can be on the sidelines advising them. I have met the official from the Pentagon and I know the security sector reform is on. We have something to tell them. And now my deputy Momodou Badjie has been appointed national security adviser.
What do you make of the presence of Ecomig forces?
Look, Ecomog was born in The Gambia in 1990, proposed by Sir Dawda Jawara. We have been exposed to lot of peacekeeping. After 1994, we were in East Timor, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Guinea Bissau.
What do you know about the gruesome death of Finance Minister Ousman ‘Koro’ Ceesay in 1995?
His case was never brought before any commission or investigated. So whatever we get to know, maybe it could be side talks. We know that he was murdered and we attended the burial.
So you were not privy to any information regarding his death?
No, whatever I say will be ‘dem say’.
In July 2005, 45 Ghanaian migrants were allegedly murdered in The Gambia, what do you know about that?
I was the interior minister. All we know was that they were migrants and they should be deported to Ghana.
What were the circumstances of their death?
At that time the matter was not investigated. I got to know that the Ghanaian Foreign minister Nana-Akuffo Addo, who is now the president, was frequently in this country. He met the former president and former inspector general of police.
Col Jatta, 45 people cannot die in your country and you as the Interior minister doesn’t know what was the cause of their death.
That is it, who killed them? You tell me.
I ask the questions.
This is my question also, whom do we hold to find out?
You, for example.
The former government should have set up an investigation team but they did not handle it at that level.
You want to tell me you don’t know anything about that incident?
I know that they were arrested here.
Who arrested them?
Interior and NDEA at the border.
Interior was under your purview?
We deported them.
How can you deport dead persons?
If you don’t know how to send them back… are you going to deport them by plane? We know how we do it. The way you come, go back, the same route?
You admitted that you killed them?
Forty-five is huge number, what happened?
The state said they did not know what happened. Now I don’t know what happened.
You are not willing to tell The Standard who killed them but will you make it clear at the commission?
If they call me I will tell them what I know.
This is a good chance for you to tell us who killed them
No. Is this going to be press trial? I’m responsible and I agree that I have failed in my responsibility as interior minister.
You were said to have prevented the summary killing of the men who attacked Kartong and Farafenni barracks. How did you do that?
They were Gambians. The Geneva Protocols says if you arrest a prisoner of war, treat him humanely. The reason being if you maltreat them and if they also get your men they will maltreat them. But principally, we want to know who these people are behind the attacks. If you go about shooting and killing them you will not know anything. It took us time to know that Farafenni was Kukoi. When Kukoi was going up and down going to the State House we did not know anything about it. The head of state can have his underground investigation about matters, we have ours.
Did you regret serving when all those atrocities were committed?
When were the atrocities committed?
April 10-11 student massacre, the 45 Ghanaians, the list goes on…
No I did not regret. But my heart, soul and prayers go to those who got injured or lost their lives during the demonstration.
Who do you hold responsible for that incident?
If you are to point finger at, hmmm, whatever happens is the responsibility of The Gambia Government. And whoever headed The Gambia Government was responsible. Whatever the security do reflects on the head of state. If I commit an atrocity and I am not punished for it serving under somebody elected by the entire nation to oversee the country. If he does nothing about it there is something that he is hiding.
So The Gambia Government is responsible, is that what you are saying?
I don’t want to mention names, but it is Yahya Jammeh. I was with the students until 1pm and I know that we were dealing with a very responsible person who was the then vice president [Isatou Njie-Saidy]. It was well handled. Administratively, she was smart. They were there early morning. The students were supposed to be at her office but it all boomeranged.
So you and VP Njie-Saidy were here and the order came from outside to shoot the students?
What order came from outside? There was no communication between me and Jammeh and there was no communication that will warrant us to do something.
You spent 25 years in the military, what was your biggest achievement?
The headquarters at Atlantic was built by me. The peacekeeping. I sent soldiers to do professional courses in Nigeria and the Americans accepted all the courses. The American ambassador built a clinic for me behind the Fajara Barracks. President Pervez Musharraf sent 737 loads of equipment for the army. Afinjang Band went around maintaining good relations and so many other things.
Did you kill anyone throughout your career in the military?
I never spilt blood.
For better understanding and reconciliation, we need to be committed and be honest to one another. The army is willing to serve, there is no illiterate in the army. I sent 55 soldiers to university through the welfare fund and I forced Defence to do the same.