By Samsudeen Sarr
I must have in my last article astounded quite a few of my readers. In particular, younger Gambians about our late president, how among other things, he was in 1976 the best friend of the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. How The Gambia benefitted enormously from that association, what happened when the friendship fell apart. And how this culminated in their mortal enmity, essentially compelling Gaddafi to sponsor Kukoi Samba Sanyang-Sir Dawda’s worst enemy-and his gang of rebels on the run since 1981 to move to Libya for free military training to destabilise The Gambia.
I just can’t recall the meaning behind the name of the rebels’ organisation commonly known by its acronym SOFA, but after finishing their military training as mercenaries in Libya waiting for the opportune moment and resources to invade The Gambia, they signed a contract with Charles Taylor in 1989 to help attack Liberia starting off that catastrophic civil war that wasted the lives of over 250,000 people in the span of eight years (1989 to 1997).
In 1985, Charles Taylor with four of his friends, mysteriously escaped from a US maximum security jail and got adequately funded principally by Americo-Liberian dissidents living in America spearheaded by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, former president of Liberia and former minister of finance of the late President William Tolbert. Ellen’s life was spared by Samuel Doe when he seized power in 1980 and summarily executed 13 out of 17 of her minister colleagues along with President Tolbert. From America, Taylor surfaced in Libya and took war classes before launching his first incursion into Liberia from Côte d’Ivoire.
He thought the war was not going to drag longer than few months agreeing with the SOFA combatants to support them to go for Sir Dawda Jawara’s government as soon as Samuel Doe was ousted. But the war with its unintended consequences turned out differently, dragging beyond expectation with most of Kukoi’s multinational fighters killed or wounded and some, including the rest of the lucky Gambians, settled down with Liberian wives and raised families there. In June 1996, the remaining survivors of SOFA, about 17 Gambians and one Senegalese, moved to Senegal in a controversial arrangement approved by the government of President Abdou Diouf. In November 1996, they launched a surprise dawn attack from the Senegalese town of Sokone on the GNA Farafenni Barracks killing eight unarmed soldiers trying to escape. It’s a long story to be covered later. Except Kukoi, the majority were captured and remained in custody in The Gambia until granted amnesty by President Yahya Jammeh in 2015.
I hope my keen readers are now cognisant of the troubling political and military rollercoaster from a hybrid of events highlighted in this series taking us back to the 1960s when the colonial masters of post-independent Africa infiltrated and corrupted the armies they left with our innocent new governments to introduce the first coupd’etats in the continent that taught us how to kill our best leaders like Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961 and how to force them into exile in the case of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah in February 1966. Since then, the vicious cycle as an unbreakable curse lingered and shrewdly supported and encouraged by the same neo-colonial policies. Divide and rule has always been their modus operandi and they have an unfathomable reservoir of unconscionable politicians, intellectual gangsters and clueless mercenary minded military officers always willing to keep the flame of the curse smoldering.
To change that toxic mindset and break the curse in The Gambia I believe we must first recognise how one past episode after another had a direct or indirect impact on what ultimately spurred the catalysts of the 1994 military coup.
One must for instance, acknowledge how in 1980 Liberian soldier Master Sgt Samuel Doe, aided and abetted by the American CIA, surged to power in the subregion, lowering down the conventional calibre of military leaders expected and accepted to lead responsible military takeovers. Rather than being the business of generals and senior military officers, Doe proved the rule wrong to the world illustrating that the job could equally be handled by non-commissioned officers (NCOs) or subalterns in a dirtier and more intimidating manner. Samuel Doe’s success incited The Gambia Field Force officers who were honest to recognise their intellectual limitations, entrusting the leadership role of the 1981 coup to Kukoi Samba Sanyang a civilian risk-taker who in a brief moment pulled it off and dethroned the PPP government.
The compulsion and obsession of Senegal to militarily intervene and crush the Field Force rebellion and the attempt to stay in the country indefinitely with an agenda of controlling and dictating the political narrative of the PPP government ultimately failing in1989 with the disintegration of the Senegambia confederation.
Its consequential economic and security trauma to The Gambia gave birth to a friendship between Nigeria and The Gambia, well-sustained from1989 to1993. 1989 heralded the beginning of the civil war in Liberia. It is where the virgin GNA flirting as peacekeepers lost its innocence to continue enduring their state-sanctioned abuses in their barracks. The year also marked the last coup in Nigeria and ushered in General Sani Abacha, and effectively disrupted the political, economic and military friendship of the two Anglophone countries at a time when the PPP government was hopelessly polarised by Sir Dawda Jawara’s controversial declaration to retire from politics just to change his mind on a flimsy divinely-ordained excuse.
It is therefore justifiable to assert that the overall ramification of the unpredictable and, in most cases, unavoidable events enumerated above had significant bearing to the resolution of the GNA subalterns to overthrow the PPP government in 1994.
Looking back holistically, I keep on asking myself what else could anyone have done differently in that final precarious moment when two NATAG commanders fighting over who should command the Gambia National Army, one month before the soldiers’ rebellion, while Sir Dawda Jawara who exclusively negotiated the contract that brought them in the country in the first place was no longer in talking terms with his Nigerian counterpart because of political correctness. Certainly, for lacking a better solution to the unsettling situation when Abacha seized power, Sir Dawda chose the insecure but conventionally adopted wisdom of delegitimising the new Nigerian military government who provided the head of his army.
General Abacha was perhaps fully aware of the chaos he was creating in The Gambia by sending Colonel Lawan Gwadabe to replace General Dada without even consulting Sir Dawda and perhaps with the full awareness that the Gambian president was in a hopeless and helpless quandary, an unsustainable situation that would sooner rather than later break his government’s will to survive. It made no sense to replace General Dada, a celebrated anti-coup officer in the Nigerian army with Colonel Gwadabe a widely reputed coup architect who was indeed instrumental in the success of the 1993 putsch.
The Gambia government first learnt about the order to replace Dada from The Point, a report they apparently lifted from a local newspaper in Lagos, Nigeria.
General Dada thought that the newspaper editor fabricated the story and wanted him arrested and charged.
He went to the Ministry of Defence huffing and puffing with anger, demanding immediate action to be taken against the editor, but was ultimately consoled by the permanent secretary advising him to just disregard the story since nothing about it was communicated to The Gambia government.
Notwithstanding, within two or three weeks, the official letter from Abuja recalling Dada and appointing Colonel Lawan Gwadabe as commander of NATAG and the GNA arrived at the Defence ministry.
I was instructed by the permanent secretary to hand deliver the letter to General Dada at his Marina Parade office.
He was alone in his office and took his time to sombrely read the letter before handing it back to be returned to the originator.
He asked me to inform the permanent secretary his unwillingness to accept or acknowledge the letter until he met President Sir Dawda Jawara to discuss his original contract.
He insisted throughout that his appointment to come and fix the problem of the GNA which was partially completed will not be abandoned for another junior officer to come and sabotage his work. That Sir Dawda was aware of the terms and conditions of his contract that designated him the unique commanding right of NATAG and the GNA until the completion of his programme; so unless the president asked him to leave the country he was not budging an inch.
Colonel Gwadabe escalated the crisis when he arrived from Nigeria on a private jet to formally takeover as commander.
Divided were the rest of the members of NATAG over who to show their loyalty; and as typical of folks whose congenital loyalty gravitates to the source of their dollars and cents than anything else, almost all of them oscillated their sympathy from one commander to the other depending on who in the week showed promising prospects to win and keep them in The Gambia. None of them wanted to go back to Nigeria in those trying times.
General Dada in the middle of the crisis tried to normalise the situation by organising a field exercise, first of its kind and magnitude by the GNA since their arrival in 1992. But the overarching confusion within the group aggravated by their sour moods, turned the exercise into dismal failure and only helped to provide the young GNA officers the ideal platform to hold their first secret meeting initially aimed at mobilising troops to hold a demonstration against NATAG’s presence in the country. All the respect the soldiers had harboured for NATAG dissipated in that short period. Their selfish desires to stop at nothing in tearing each other’s character apart before our eyes in order to keep their jobs, exposed their vulnerability as ordinary humans like all of us living with intrinsic flawed habits of insincerity, insecurity, disunity and above all treacherousness.
At the Ministry of Defence at the State House, some of us took it up among ourselves to convince Sir Dawda’s advisers to arrange an appointment for Dada to meet him, but all efforts failed. They were unusually difficult about the whole matter.
I can’t remember the exact date, but it was on a Friday in the last week of June 1994 when at the heat of the standoff, Sir Dawda left the country for holiday to England. As soon as Dada learnt about the president’s departure, he abandoned his office and went home to his Fajara residence swearing never to report to duty again until the president returned and meet him. He wouldn’t handover to Colonel Gwadabe even if his life depended on it.
The colonel on the other hand ran out of patience and flew back to Nigeria to report the problem to his superiors. He left along with the NATAG operation commander while the administration commander assumed the unofficial position of army commander. In a nutshell, the GNA was now without a commander.
In his book Kairaba, Sir Dawda briefly discussed the problem indicating his incognisance of the command crisis in the army before his departure to England.
Yet, everyone of his immediate advisers including the secretary general, the minister of defence and all prominent permanent secretaries were aware of the looming national security threat in the army requiring urgent executive action. Nonetheless, they behaved as if it was too trivial for serious consideration, probably because the trip abroad with the president was all set and per diems checques cashed at the Central Bank and plowed into the construction of privately-owned mansions. They adamantly contended that General Dada had to respect his government’s decision and leave; but meeting Sir Dawda was not going to happen on their watch because the president couldn’t do anything more than what they could do about his case.
I had then wondered what was wrong with Sir Dawda together with his top advisers holding a meeting with General Dada and Colonel Gwadabe to discuss how the two commanders with the same mission could work together for the best solution mutually beneficial to both of them, The Gambia and Nigeria if their intentions for the country were as good as they wanted people believe? But thinking about it today, I see the stalemate still lingering where that option had to require calling the heavyweights in Abuja to seek their opinion over the problem when the two governments were not willing to talk to each other under any circumstances.
The Gambia in those last days was therefore reduced to a country without a president, having an army without a commander that obviously created the conducive atmosphere on July 22nd, 1994 for the lieutenants to successfully carry out their intention of overthrowing the 30-yearold PPP government of President Jawara.
My next topic will be all about what exactly happened that fateful day, less than 24 hours after Sir Dawda returned from his vacation in England.
Samsudeen Sarr, currently on a sojourn in New York City, US, was a former commander of the Gambia National Army, a diplomat and the author of several books.