By Samsudeen Sarr
Let me start by making it abundantly clear to all my readers that I have not and will never advocate for any kind of military conflict between the Gambia and Senegal, contrary to misconception currently peddled by certain crackpots. What I simply suggested in the article in question was the exploration of the possibility of reorganizing and retraining the Gambia Armed Forces in counter-conventional warfare given their limited capability in offensive conventional war when they are still expected to be efficiently defensive against any hostile foreign aggressors. But for lack of an appropriate adjective, I called it a guerrilla-warfare orientation, capable of neutralizing heavily armed and conventionally trained invaders. It doesn’t however mean underestimating the combat aptitude of the GAF after 22 years of being tested and proven remarkably successful in their national and international duties.
Beside their fortitude and outstanding achievement acclaimed in the international peacekeeping arena, we have witnessed our soldiers crushed insurgencies launched twice by state enemies from Senegal in 1996 and 1997. In October 1996, Kukoi Samba Sanyang, the culprit behind the 1981 abortive coup against the PPP government, foiled by Senegal’s military intervention in which 33 of their soldiers were killed, assembled his hardened gang of international mercenaries from Liberia at the Senegalese towns of Sokone and Tambakunda where after a month they attacked the Farafeni Barracks to overthrow the AFPRC government. The GAF troops captured all attackers except two after they brutally killed 8 Gambian soldiers. The same GAF forces defeated and captured the 1997 armed assailants on Kartong Barracks, another operation marshaled from a paramilitary camp of Senegalese forces in Cassamance; they also killed two Gambian soldiers. And last but not the least, was their spectacular obliteration of an idiotic bunch of armed renegades, sponsored from America in 2014 in the dumbest operational strategy ever orchestrated to overthrow a government.
Ironically, the principal ex-convict and mercenary wannabe in that doomed operation, hatched on a delusional battle plan to overthrow the APRC government and hand it over to a credulous real-estate developer residing in Texas, is the joke today soliciting a heroic recognition. The same fellow who had by all attestations, induced his colleagues into a deathtrap and deserted them at the first burst of gunfire and sprinted across the border with his tail between his legs, shameless expects to be celebrated a warrior. The ex-convict needs to be reminded that warriors are not invented in thin air or by mere pretense but are tested fighters often unassertive and in most cases detest the description. But once a blockhead always a blockhead. I can’t be distracted, anyway.
I will however continue to reiterate my concerns over our political and military cooperation with Senegal which I believe, if fashioned on a sincere and mutually beneficial cornerstone will yield excellent dividend to both countries, given our inherent destiny to eternally coexist culturally and geopolitically. We are, in a nutshell, more similar than different in every conceivable state of affair. Except that I am somewhat bothered by our neighbor’s familiar trickery frequently applied on our leaders that had in the past failed our bilateral agreements geared towards consolidating a durable union.
You see, homogenous to the root cause of the political divorce of President Sir Dawda Jawara and President Abdou Diouf, after their confederation, following the 1981 bloody kukoi rebellion mentioned above, was indeed the overarching circumstances that initially brought about a trustworthy cooperation between President Yahya Jammeh and President Abdou Joof in 1994 but eroded in a couple of years from insincerity.
Jawara with every “assistance” provided to save his government, utterly resisted Senegal’s ultimate hankering for an economic union of the two states, clandestinely championed by France where the Gambian had to forgo the dalasi currency for the West-African zone CFA Fran. The Neo-colonial group, composed of mainly Francophone West African nations and Guinea Bissau continue to annually pay US$500 billion to France as colonial dues.
Needless to say, Jammeh was also very appreciative of President Abdou Diouf’s termination of Senegal’s intention to deploy combat troops into the Gambia to quell the coup on the night of July 22, 1994, but as explained later Jammeh’s trust was clearly betrayed.
I was in the company of President Jammeh on the upper floor of the Statehouse, by his bedroom, when his first phone call, from a number provided by Senegalese ambassador to the Gambia at the time, Mr. Kebbeh, was placed to Diouf’s office to discuss their first bilateral relationship, on Sunday, July 24, 1994.
They both “honestly” pledged to work together amicably in a spirit much better than what had obtained during the PPP regime that led to the disintegration of the confederation; they further agreed to re-explore its possible reestablishment. In his closing remarks, Diouf had assured Jammeh his commitment not to entertain any subversive activities by his adversaries from Senegal, although he had confessed to have offered political asylum to deposed Sir Dawda Dawda with his government officials purely on humanitarian grounds.
During the transition, I can’t exactly say when, but things were so cordial that presidents Abdou Diouf, Yahya Jammeh and Joao Bernardo Vieira (Nino) of Guinea Bissau signed a defense treaty intended to come to the rescue of any of the three nations aggressed by foreign forces. France was very instrumental in the ratification of the entente.
It was a time when Guinea Bissau was in a precarious economic condition which France exploited and eventually won the loyalty of President Nino Vieira.
Hello my dear President Adama Barrow, are you listening?
Following their independence in 1974 after fighting one of the bloodiest liberation wars in Africa, Guinea Bissau for sometime remained an ally of the Soviet Union, the superpower credited for supporting their war financially and ideologically against the Portuguese colonizers up to victory; Moscow continued the economic and political assistance to its satellite socialist nation in the subregion until the end of the cold war and the collapse of the communist empire in1989. The assistance abruptly ceased, tanking the Bissua economy.
Coincidentally, it was the same year that the eight-year-old-Senegambia confederation unceremoniously ended. The overwhelming majority of the Senegalese military forces in the Gambia had to be redeployed to Cassamance, flaring up the separatists rebellion that started in1982 from a low to high intensity insurgency.
The Bissau government, no long receiving needed hard currency from either Portugal or Moscow, saw an opportunity to make fast money on trafficking their inexhaustible stockpile of soviet military arsenals to the rebels/freedom fighters in Cassamance. Senegalese forces allegedly captured some armed groups in Cassamance with weapons traceable to Guinea Bissau’s armories and protested to President Nino Vieira. France, on the other hand, realizing the desperation of Vieira’s government for money, literally started buying his loyalty.
They provided him with raw cash that saved his presidency but was also conditioned to explain and take serious action against whoever was involved in selling the weapons to the “Casamance insurgents”.
With no reasonable answer to give his French financiers, Nino tried to extricate himself from the misconduct, putting all the blame on his Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), Brigadier General Ansumane Mané.
General Mané was born in The Gambia but migrated to Guinea Bissau when he was very young and where he earned himself a real warrior’s reputation as a member of their liberation-war army, that first elevated his status to full citizenshipthen to the rank of a general in the army and finally to the position of Chief of Defense Staff. Notwithstanding, he was an illiterate.
General Mané in turn counter-accused his president of being in illegal arms trade with all of his senior army officers. While the Bissau Army fragmented into two antagonist forces between Mané and Vieira, France in 1997 at last got President Vieira to do away with the Bissau peso currency for the CFA Fran.
President Diouf wanted Jammeh to do the same with the Gambian dalasi and join the CFA club which would have obviously translated into killing two birds with one stone for mighty France.
But Jammeh by then had lost a lot of faith in Diouf’s sincerity after Gambian dissidents considered his adversaries conducted bloody armed attacks against Gambian troops in 1996 and 1997, as recounted above.
June 1998, the Bissau parliament, after a thorough investigation of the allegations against CDS Gen. Mané, confirmed his assertion that President Vieira was throughout aware of the arms trafficking and was indeed a beneficiary from the proceeds.
But France wanted Nino Vieira to arrest and prosecute Manneh, the warrior they feared may undermine their quest to keep Bissau in the Francophone-slavery zone. The day he sent his presidential guards to arrest CDS Mané was the day the infamous Guinea Bissau civil war started.
Nino’s forces couldn’t execute the arrest plan alone in a fight that almost toppled his government in the first hours of the conflict, prompting his immediate request for military help from President Abdou Diouf.
The Senegalese mobilized a formidable mechanized and artillery battalion and called us at the GNA Headquarters to join them to Bissau invoking the 1996 defense pact. After two attacks originating from Senegal with ten GNA soldiers murdered, inviting us to join them in an unnecessary fight that was exclusively an internal dispute merely showed their naivety.
However, President Jammeh advised President Diouf to give peace a chance by allowing his foreign minister Dr. Sidat Jobe to spearhead a negotiating team. They refused the proposal hoping that the operation was going to be a cake walk of moving in and killing or capturing General Mané and his “rag-tag loyalists”. But they got the shocked and surprised of their lives from the ferocious resistance put up by Mané’s troops causing high number of casualties on both sides. Over 600 people mainly fighters perished in the battle with thousands of civilians displaced.
It finally came to a stalemate, where the Senegalese fighters and Nino’s loyalists took over the main city of Bissau while CDS Mané’s forces occupied the rest of the country including the strategic and only airport in the country of which several attempts to take it over merely increased the number of their casualties.
To say the least, it was an embarrassing fiasco to the invaders. France in a bid to salvage the little pride left of the establishment troops, came back to the Gambia to explore Jammeh’s peace initiative effectively starting our participation in the conflict. I was then the army commander, Colonel Babucarr Jatta the CDS and Colonel Momodou Badjie the National Guard Commander.
The French in addition to accepting the Gambia-mediation initiative led by Dr. Sidat Jobe, further offered to fund and equip a peacekeeping contingent to Bissau from the Gambia to join two others from Togo and Benin.
Contrary to the misinformation that I avoided going to Bissau, I was, despite my position as the Army Commander, ordered to deploy to Bissau with the Gambian company.
I had to go because of my familiarity with the political and military evolution that led to the crisis but most importantly, intelligence from Bissau before our departure indicated that the Senegalese forces were misinformed of the Gambian troops’ scheme to support the “rebellious forces” of CDS Brig. Gen. Ansumane Mané. The same story was circulated at the Dakar port where the vessel that carried us to Bissau had to refuel before our final departure.
We arrived at the port of Bissau around 6:00 pm in the evening and as expected ran into hostile Senegalese forces mounting checkpoints and giving us unwarranted difficulties.
The following morning we sought an appointment to meet the Senegalese contingent commander, one Colonel Koni, a tall officer who, thank God, was very receptive to our objective to work with them rather than oppose their efforts.
For almost a whole week, we shuttled with our white flags to the Airport and back to the city negotiating a peace deal until we finally had a breakthrough. CDS Mané came to the presidential palace and signed a ceasefire agreement with President Vieira on the precondition that the Senegalese forces must withdraw out of the country as soon as possible.
I returned to the Gambia and was replaced by the late Colonel Ndure Cham who was a major at the time.
The Mané forces eventually overthrew the Vieira government on May 1999 that started a vicious circle, wiping out all key stakeholders who had fought for the independence of Guinea Bissau. General Mané was killed in November 2000, later followed by his deputy, Gen. Verissimo in October 2004 after Nino Vieira was killed and mutilated on March 2, 2002.
France still keeps the former Portuguese colony in the franc zone and have since been looking for the opportunity to incorporate The Gambia. Is President Adama Barrow the Nino Vieira they have been searching for? Time will tell.