The US ambassador to The Gambia at the time of the 1994 coup d’etat had very little respect for the then vice president and defence minister.
Speaking in a US foreign services personnel anecdotal forum in 2010, Ambassador Andrew Winter now retired, said while President Jawara was a good and admirable man, his vice president, Saihou Sabally, “was not a good guy, was not a nice guy; was a crook, [and] was corrupt”.
Mr Winter said he knew and had dealt with the top echelon of the Jawara government including the ministers. “All of the ministers, the head of the National Security Agency, and the police chief… I had known all of them and they were very decent and good people. The only really bad guy was Vice President Sabally.”
He added: “President Jawara did not have a corrupt bone in his body. He lived well but not extravagantly. He didn’t travel a lot except on business. He did have two wives in the Muslim fashion. They dressed well but not extravagantly. His vice president, Saihou Sabally, who was also the minister of defence, was a less savoury character… Jawara had been in power at that point for almost 30 years and corruption had increased during that time. The Daily Observer started ferreting out this corruption and government officials weren’t quite used to this, but Jawara was enough of a democrat, and he truly was, that he wasn’t going to take action against the newspaper. Some of the ministers would publicly criticise the Daily Observer.”
Ambassador Winter said a major reason for the success of the coupists’ takeover of Banjul and State House was because of the decision by the Defence Ministry under Sabally, to change the venue of the planned war games with the visiting US Marines on the Friday morning the coup took place.
“In retrospect, it was clear that the coup plotters considered this as an opportunity. The ship La Moure County, had Marines and Marine amphibious vehicles onboard. The consular officer and I worked with the Ministry of Defence on a schedule of activities. Interestingly, again in retrospect, the Army suggested having some war games in order to get some real training, and everyone agreed. It was agreed that we’d use a national park just outside of the capital for the war games.
“A few days before the ship’s visit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of defence, Bun Jack, called and said, we don’t think that the location of this national park for the manoeuvres is that good an idea. They’d be more realistic if they were held at the bridge at the entrance to Banjul… He said it would be more realistic if we pretended that the attack was coming from the mainland towards the capital over the bridge. He told this to the consular officer. I didn’t like that idea, but not because I had any suspicions of a coup. This was the only bridge into the capital and did not seem like a very convenient place to hold war games. It would be disruptive; it would make people nervous. I put in a call to the Minister of Defence, who was also the vice president, and I couldn’t get through to him to discuss this change.
“I ended up talking to the permanent secretary. He said he would pass the word to the vice president and would let me know. The word came back that the vice president was OK with having the war games at Denton Bridge. I wasn’t deeply concerned about it, I wish I had been, and therefore let it stand. Again in retrospect, the permanent secretary appears to have been in cahoots with the coup plotters and probably never consulted the vice president…
“…The consular officer and I realised we had been had, that the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence had clearly been complicit in the coup, that his actions had allowed the troops to get access to their weapons, and that he had changed the location of the manoeuvres to allow the troops to enter Banjul. Clearly the vice president had been more had than we had been had. It was clear that this fellow [Jack] had been a traitor to his country…”
Read the detailed excerpt of Ambassador Winter’s interview in Bantaba on the subsequent pages.