In this interview, published in the country’s leading newspaper on July 25, 1994, the young lieutenant explained what led to the takeover, the forming of a new government and among other things, the fate of former government officials.
How long was this takeover planned?
Lt Yahya Jammeh: Well it was planned within 24 hours when we came from the airport where we went to welcome the president from his annual leave. We were humiliated publicly because the politicians accused us of plotting to overthrow the government, and we were searched in public. All soldiers were searched and weapons seized. And that was the last straw. I myself was disarmed, even though most of the time I’m armed, but on that day I was disarmed for no apparent reason. None of them could take action to inculcate discipline in the PPP regime and there was random plundering of the country’s assets just to benefit a few people. So we realised that even though we hated coming to power because we were not elected by the people, we had to make sure that people had their voice. So, that is why we decided to come here.
What is the fate of former PPP ministers?
We are not out to take revenge, okay. We do not want to go out and hunt for them, to give the public the impression that we are out to harm anybody. We are not here for that. They are Gambians. Wherever they run, they will come back. I want to make sure that their conscience will prevail upon their emotions to come for accountability. No minister needs to be afraid. We are not going to set up any military tribunal to try anybody. We are going to institute a government that is composed of mostly civilians, and those who will be tried, will be tried publicly. We are not here to set up a secret military tribunal. What we want is for the nation’s assets that have been plundered to be returned to the state for the benefit of all Gambians. This is why we are not hunting anybody. We want all of them to report to the nearest police station. If they fail to do so we would get them because they have their families here. They’ll come back.
So far, how many former ministers have you been able to capture?
Well it is not a question of capturing any minister. It is a question of taking them into custody, for their own protection because the masses of the people would lynch any minister that is seen in the street and we don’t want bloodshed. We don’t want to shed anyone’s blood, we don’t want any counter-resistance, and we don’t want anybody to take the law into his own hands.
How soon should we expect a new government to be named?
A new government will be named as soon as possible. We are not naming a government now because we need the support of the civilians, intellectuals and patriotic Gambians who are clean, who will make sure that they serve in their appointments without fear or favour and for the good of every Gambian.
What are your plans for the establishment of democracy, which you said was one of your main objectives for taking over?
Well, as soon as a new government is instituted, which is composed of mostly civilians, democracy would be in place and we will welcome all contributions from all corners of the country to make sure that everything is done in the right way and that transparency and accountability will be the order of the day. We will not tolerate any sort of corruption. We will not be secretive in anything that we do. We want the press and the international community, including Gambians, to criticise us where we go wrong. We are not here for praises, we are not here to enrich ourselves. We are here to set up a just system that is not corruptible; to make sure that the living standard of Gambians will be augmented to an acceptable standard within the limits of our resources. We are not here to use the limited resources of the country for our own good at the detriment of the masses.
Did you encounter any resistance during the takeover?
We encountered a lot of resistance from the TSG, their commando unit and the police. We came under fire. We marched from Yundum to State House, but we did not want to shed any Gambian blood. We are not here to shed innocent blood. We are not bloodthirsty military officers. We were obliged by the urgency of the situation to step in, and that is why we have warned them that we are not here for bloodbath. We are more heavily armed than they are. If we had released our heavy weapons, it would have been a catastrophe. That is why we did not even release any weapon; we just kept on the advance and those of their officers who came forward we told them of our resolve to march to the State House and take it over to overthrow the government under all circumstances and at any cost, and if they continued to fire at us, we may retaliate which was not our aim.
So as far as you are concerned, there was no bloodshed during the takeover?
We marched from Yundum to Banjul, took over the TSG headquarters, State House, took over Banjul. As far as we are concerned, there was no casualty on either side of the security forces and there was no bloodshed. No civilian was shot. Nobody was shot.
What is the rapport between the army and the police now?
Well, you see, we are here for a common interest and the differences in uniform do not signify differences in patriotism. They have understood the situation because most of us are from the provinces, we are the people who are
suffering. Everybody’s relatives are suffering. They know that they are suffering the same
injustices. So at the end of the day, we have to come together for a common cause. We are working harmoniously, we are not sidelining anybody, we are grouping together, having meetings, integrating the forces, joint patrols and there is a harmonious relationship.
So since Friday, the national and international telephone lines have been cut off and this has developed into the international community misinterpreting what actually took place. How soon do we expect these lines to be opened?
Well, the reason for cutting off the international telephone lines was the fact that some of the former ministers were making calls to some people outside for what reasons we don’t know. It was necessary to cut off the international lines to make sure that nobody misinformed the international public as to what was going on here. That is the reason we cut the international lines, but we have given orders for Gamtel to re-open them.
How soon will that take place?
Well, what happened is that those people responsible for the restoration of the lines disappeared, and we had to go in search of them until they were found. They said it would take a number of hours to restore the international lines and we hope that they will be restored soon. (They were restored early Sunday morning).
Do you have any intention of including any member of the PPP government in your new structure?
You see, we are not painting all members of the PPP government as bad or corrupt. Whoever is clean and has the interest of the country at heart rather than personal interest, is welcome to be a part of the government, because we want advice. We want people who have contributed to the development of the country under constraints. We want them in the new government. We are not sidelining anyone who is clean. We are not out to wipe the entire PPP. There are some good guys in the PPP. They are free to come forward and we’ll sit together and work in the interest of our country.
There have been conflicting reports about the situation of the former Vice President Sabally. Is it true that he has been reached?
The vice president is in safe hands. He is with the president aboard an American vessel together with the inspector general of police and some officers of the presidential guard and the police, including the aide-de-camp. They are on board the American vessel.
How did they get there?
How they got there I am not certain, but for some reason the ship was anchored at the port waiting for the exercise that was supposed to have taken place. When we decided to put a stop to the plunder and the looting of national assets for the benefit of a very few, we were advancing towards State House; knowing that all the forces they had put to counter us had failed to stop our advance. I think that’s when they decided to flee to the ship.
Will you make any effort to question them about the whereabouts of the government funds?
Well, it is up to them to come back as Gambians and account for whatever they want to account for. But as for the president, we all know that we owe it to him that the name of The Gambia has reached the international level and we respect him. But the people who were behind him misled him, were corrupt, did whatever they wanted to do because he was too lenient. We have no intention of harming him – or humiliating him. We want to treat him as an elderly man. He is free to come to the country as a Gambian citizen and we can provide for his security if he needs it, and from time to time we will need to consult him. We will not sideline him, we will consult him for advice. We have nothing against him, but the people behind him were doing whatever they wanted, uncontrolled.
A four-man council has been set up, who is in charge of this council?
Well I am in charge of the council, but being a four-man council doesn’t mean that that is where it stops. We are going to include civilians, put civilians and members of the armed forces in to the council to make sure that it’s a broad-based council to make decisions.
Do you have any advice for the public or for Gambian citizens who may be panicking because they don’t know what the situation is now?
The Gambian public have no cause to panic because since we came in, we have made sure that there was no rampage, there was no looting, there was no bloodshed and we provided patrols to make sure that Gambians are safe because we do not want anybody to take the law into his or her own hands or settle old scores. We are not here for bloodshed, we are not here to harass anybody. The masses of the Gambian people suffered enough under this system and they need not fear us simply because we are soldiers. We are not setting up a military dictatorship to dictate what is going to happen, we are here for the public to know that they have to contribute positively to the development of the country for everyone, irrespective of where they come from, what language they speak or what they do. This is our main objective, so we are assuring all Gambians that we are here for them, not for our own interest, but for them.
So how soon then, can the ordinary Gambian say, “I am looking forward to free and fair election”? What time-table can you give?
We are not giving any timetable for free and fair elections. That does not mean that we are here to stay too long. We are not here for that.
How long then?
I cannot give you a fixed time-table because we have to make sure that Gambians are aware of what their rights are, what kind of leaders they want, and what type of system they want to put into effect in this country, that’s all. And we also want to make sure that the term of presidency in this country is limited. We don’t want life presidency, a president who will rule for decades, so from that you will know that we are just transitional.
So what term are you suggesting for presidency in The Gambia?
Well that will be up to the Gambian people. I cannot decide for the people. I am not here to dictate what should happen to the Gambians. We will set up a national electoral commission and organise a referendum as well to ask the people of The Gambia what kind of leaders they want and the term of office they want that leadership to serve. Certainly it will not be a term that will exceed ten years. In fact, ten years is too much for a Third World country like The Gambia, so we will make sure that there’s a democratic system of government that will be elected by the people and can be kicked out by the people if they don’t want it, peacefully, and through the ballot box, and that is all we want.]]>