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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Ebrima Ismaila Chongan, former assistant IGP

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 The Standard: You started your early education in Basse where your father was police commander, can you tell us a little about growing up in the rural area?

Chongan: In those days in early 70s, there was a big contrast with urban Gambia. Also, during that period the population was small and there was a lot of green and vegetation. We lived in Mansajang and I really enjoyed the millet fields, cashew trees and interacting with the rural boys. Also, remember, my mother Huleymatou Mbakeh is from the rural area, Koli Kunda in the Sami District next to Laminkoto. There is a misconception that I am from Banjul. That’s not the case, I was born in Latrikunda but my parents are provincial people. 

Upon completion of your O Levels at Gambia High School, you joined the Gambia National Gendarmerie, did your father influence that decision in anyway?

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Well, my father was not keen for me to join the forces as he thought that I was a privileged kid and will suffer. Also, he retired in 1977 and I joined in 1982. However, my view is that I was subconsciously influenced by my dad. Growing up around uniformed people and barracks must have swayed me. Even though, I had eight very good O’level subjects and dad was keen that I go to 6th Form.

The Gambia National Gendarmerie was later metamorphosed into Tactical Support Unit of the police, can you tell us the history of both institutions?

Following the attempted coup of 1981, the Senegalese troops remained in the country providing state and overall national security. The strengthened bilateral relation between the two countries in the wake of the bloody abortive coup was consummated in the Senegambia Confederation in 1982. For The Gambia, thanks to the acute security need exposed by the costly coup attempt, the most consequential outcome of the confederation would be the birth of the Armed Forces comprising the Gambia National Army (GNA) and the Gambia National Gendarmerie (GNG) in 1983. The Senegalese were in charge of training and commanding the Gendarmerie, a French security orientation, while a British Army Training Team (BATT) went about forming the national army. Colonel Ndow Njie, a former ADC to President Jawara from the Field Force, became the joint commander of both GNA and GNG. However, few years later, he handed over responsibility of the Gendarmerie to Major Pathe Seck, a Senegalese officer who would become a Lieutenant General and the Commander of the Senegalese National Gendarmerie. Col. Ndow Njie moved to the Yundum Barracks, the headquarters and main training depot of the army at the time. There was also a Confederal Army Force formed from the Armed Forces of the two countries under the command of Senegalese officers. This force became an important security safety net for President Jawara and his government. With Senegalese troops deployed under the confederal flag in the country, Senegalese officers commanding the force along with the Gendarmerie, and the British Officers in charge of the army, a coup d’état by the Gambia Armed Forces was virtually foolproof. Soldiers in the Confederal Army earned the same pay grade as their Senegalese counterparts, which was higher than the pay scale of the Armed Forces. That financial advantage made it the dream assignment of every Gambian soldier.

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Former president Yahya Jammeh served there, when did you first encounter him, and what was the nature of your relationship with him?

Well, I knew him in Gambia High School as he was a class below me and in the same class with some of my childhood friends. When he joined, I was a cadet officer and instructor at the training school. Our paths crossed several times and I commanded him. Contrary to lot of speculations, we didn’t have any animosity between us at the time. I saved him during the 1987 Presidential tour when he fought with a civilian, which was a dismissible offence and as the Captain and company commander, I fought hard to prevent his sacking. Further, we were neighbours from 1990 to the day of the coup. I was married and he was a bachelor and as is Gambian tradition, we would regularly eat at my house and do many other things. There are still living witnesses both in the service and retired who can attest to that. The rest is history.

It was said that because the two of you never agreed on professional matters, you feared his vindictiveness and left the country after your detention, is that true?

I did nothing wrong as I was defending the Constitution of my dear motherland. If a neighbour and former junior officer can detain me illegally for 30 months with serious torture at Mile II Prisons, I had no choice but to proceed on exile. Also, fundamentally, I am against coups. With no future and my service career destroyed, I decided to move on and retrain. I’m glad I went to exile.

At the time of the 1994 military takeover that ousted the democratically elected government of President Jawara, you were an assistant Inspector General of the Gambia Police Force, what was the worst you experienced during those tense and unusual times?

I am sure you have covered my testimony at the TRRC. The worst was the betrayal by former trusted colleagues on the day of the coup. Also, my own colleagues tried everything to illegally convict me on bogus charges. I am grateful to Allah and also Magistrate Borry Touray for a brave judgement and doing justice to our case. I am not bitter and have moved on. Everybody abandoned me and my family, lessons for an individual fallen on difficult times.

In the compelling and touching memoir, The Price of Duty, you spoke about your experiences and the inhumanity that reigned at Mile II during your incarceration there, did you expect to come out of there alive?

I was never sure of coming out alive or with my mental faculties intact. We underwent a very difficult and harsh regime at Mile II. Real cruelty both mental and physical torture. With me and two other colleagues went through a mock execution when Yankuba Touray shoved a pistol in my mouth releasing the safety catch. Edward Singhatey was very drunk that night and anything could have happened. All praise to Allah for surviving the ordeal.  We may forgive but we will never forget how junior army officers became sadists and went on torturing their seniors.

You are also the lone officer who opened fire and stood in the face of a revolution – July 1994. What gave you the audacity that you alone can stop a coup?

Well, Alagie, there was a combination of circumstances. First, I was the AIG Operations, my country gave me education, privilege and above all I swore on the holy Quran when I joined the forces that I will defend the constitution. I am grateful to Allah that I did not betray my country, The Gambia. You may not be aware that I am a great grandson of Lat Njor Ngone Latir Diop [a nineteenth-century king of Cayor] and may be its in our blood. On a serious note, it was never a Revolution but a mutiny that succeeded to become a coup.

Why did you blame the intelligence service under the former NSS for the success of the coup?

Alagie, I suspect, you read my book and heard my testimony, both are now late but everybody knew of the division at the NSS. Let’s pray for them that Allah have mercy on them.

Later, you went into exile with your family in the UK and worked for the UK Home Office, can you talk a little about your experiences there?

Exile is never easy; it was very difficult at the beginning. I had to go back schooling. I spent three years either studying or working during my undergraduate. Did my Masters and law School, the Bar part time, working and looking after a young family. That was the biggest test after political prisoner period. I am an experienced official with a substantial breadth of experience (20 years British civil Service). I have an extensive track record as a negotiator working on behalf of the UK Government at the highest levels of the EU, G8 and Council of Europe (CoE) in the law enforcement and national security space. I have over 15 years of experience negotiating on international police and judicial co-operation in the fight against serious and organised crime. My family and I are very grateful to the British government and people for giving me and my family refuge in their country. We couldn’t have a better home.

You were also among those who helped the beauty queen Toufah Jallow flee the country following alleged rape by Jammeh, what was your motivation?

Well, I was approached by Fatu Camara and Ahmed Gitteh. I had the contacts and did what we could to help her. The motivation was to save her as I have a daughter who is a bit older than Toufah. I was touched by the expression of gratitude from her mum.

You later decided to come down and testified before the truth commission, what are your fears regarding the implementation of the recommendations of the TRRC?

I have trust and confidence in the TRRC and hope that they will produce a good report in accordance with their mandate. I know there are fears in some quarters that the government may not implement the recommendations. We will cross that bridge when we reach there. However, I would like to point out from an international human rights perspective, we the victims can seek redress and justice with or without the government. I don’t want to preempt the government’s anticipated decision, but it will be inconceivable for the government to ignore the victims four months before the presidential election.

Why did you say the AFPRC coup was ‘accidental’?

It was a mutiny and their initial grievances were against the Nigerian army in The Gambia. However, unfortunately when the President left the State House and boarded the American Naval ship, the power was in the street and the young army officers picked it up. The rest is history.

Chongan, the defenestration of the Jammeh regime engendered a lot of enthusiasm for change, however five years down the line those aspirations faded with many Gambians now disgruntled, where did the Barrow administration get it wrong?

First was the breakup of the Coalition and failure to adhere to their agreement of having a transitional government for reforms. Things have changed, there was an opportunity to unite the nation but now we are very divided. We need to move away from a culture of mediocrity, promote equality of opportunity, and go for the best and brightest with sound policies rather than political expediency. Let’s fight tribalism, regionalism and nepotism. It’s paramount for a robust and genuine reform of our civil service and security forces. One thing we should applaud is the reform of the judiciary.

Halifa Sallah said we had a change of government and not a change of system, is he right?

I agree with him that we didn’t have a system change…

Are you worried that despite the TRRC and its Never Again Slogan, rights violations even within the police continue unabated in Gambia?

It will take some time for law enforcement to do away with old culture. Both citizens and law enforcement are aware of human rights. The late IGP (we pray Allah receive him in the highest heaven) started some good work and am confident the new IGP will effect further reforms with a view to address current challenges. I will urge him to include human rights in all police training. You know, I have a soft spot for the police as a son of the founding fathers of the Gambia police force.

Any final remarks?

I urge all Gambians to be united, we can support different political parties but that should not make us enemies. The Gambian people should use their voter’s card wisely as they will leave with the consequences of their actions.

WE also need to bring back ethics and values, should start teaching it from primary school to secondary. This is very important for the young to understand the importance of honesty, principle and genuine love for country.

Long live The Gambia.

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