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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Jawara recollects the 30th July 1981 abortive coup

Yesterday marked the 33rd anniversary of the single bloodiest political event in contemporary history of The Gambia. It was on this day that Kukoi Samba Sanyang, and his not-so-merry men seized power and held onto it for the next several days before Senegalese forces intervened and restored President Jawara to power.In this chapter from his seminal autobiography, Kairaba, Sir Dawda recollected the tempestuous events of those few days in July/August 1981. Excerpts:


Njaimeh and I proceeded to England where I began a well-earned rest at my home in Birchen Lane, Haywards Heath. Britain was in the grip of a royal wedding fever. Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and Lady Diana Spencer, were to be married. The wedding took place on Wednesday 29 July 1981. My wife and I considered it a great honour not only to have been invited to attend but also to have the royal palace accord us the use of a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce to bring us from our home in the Sussex countryside to St Paul’s Cathedral, London, where the nuptials were taking place. We immersed ourselves in the sights and sounds, glamour and pageantry of the fairytale wedding. We went back home in the quiet warmth of the early summer night and went to bed as soon as we got in. 

The next day I was playing a round of golf at the Haywards Heath Golf Club when Richard Luce (now Baron Luce), then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, came with really bad news. I can’t remember his exact words, but he must have said something like “Sorry to interrupt your game sir, but I regret to inform you that there is a coup in your country.”

My initial thoughts went to the safety of the people back home, particularly my family. I abandoned the game and left for Birchen Lane immediately. 

We tried unsuccessfully to get through to Banjul. Finally about midday on Friday 31, July I spoke to Vice President Assan Musa Camara. He reported to me his shock over what he heard on Radio Gambia in the early hours of 30 July. He said he was preparing for the day’s work ahead when he heard the shrill and agitated voice of a man on the radio denouncing the Jawara regime and announcing the suspension of the constitution, the dissolution of parliament and the arrest and detention of all government ministers. The voice announced the establishment of a Marxist-Leninist government under the chairmanship of Kukoi Samba Sanyang and his 12-member Supreme Council of the Revolution. 

The rebels and some civilians had broken into the armoury at the Field Force Depot in Bakau, seizing a good quantity of arms and ammunition. They then opened the prison gates at Mile 2 and armed any prisoner wishing to join them, thus strengthening their numbers. They also took over the airport and State House.

Through the telephone line I could hear the gunshots and the booming chaos through the crackling line from the police headquarters where a few ministers and a handful of other brave men were holed up and working on strengthening the resistance. The vice president said Attorney General Momodou Lamin Saho came early that morning to his residence to discuss the announcement that he had also heard on the radio. Together, they left in a taxi under pelting rain and drove to the Police Headquarters in Buckle Street. There they found Inspector General of the Police Abdoulie Mboob already in with 17 lightly armed men on duty. They then sent for Agriculture Minister Saihou Sabally who promptly joined them there.

With weapons seized from the rebels. The loyalists were able to increase their firepower. This situation further improved considerably when a small unit of reinforcements from Farafenni led by Modou Njie turned up on the second day, after having made their way against countless odds to reach the police headquarters.

Overnight, the world was told that our claim to democracy and our socio-economic progress as a country since 1965 were nothing more than a sham. Some people agreed with Kukoi Samba Sanyang that I was the oppressive despot sitting heavily on the heads of a wretched citizenry yearning for freedom. The rest was left to the imagination of the readership of the newspapers that were ready to believe the worst about misrule and despotism in Africa.

The vice president told me that after the longest sustained rebel attack the day before when the action began and not being quite sure of how much more firepower the rebels could muster, Saho advised that the 1965 Mutual Defence Agreement with Senegal be invoked. I gave my blessing to the decision and informed him that we were also in active discussions with the Senegalese Embassy in London. I was glad that they had gone ahead and invited the First Secretary at the Senegalese High Commission to the Police Headquarters. Their discussions ended with the vice president signing the official request to President Diouf for the commitment of Senegalese troops to assist in putting down the coup.

During the course of that Friday morning, the Senegalese Ambassador in London came to Haywards Heath. We called Dakar and spoke to President Diouf. I formalised our request for Senegalese assistance under the Mutual Defence Agreement. President Diouf confirmed his agreement and I decided to go back home as soon as possible. We discussed the absolute necessity for me to be close at hand to direct the rest of the resistance. There and then, Diouf kindly offered the used of his official aircraft, Pointe de Sangomar, to airlift my party to Dakar.

Before long, a cablegram from Dakar reached Banjul sealing the agreement between President Diouf and me. The vice president’s next move was to give assurance to the key foreign diplomats in Banjul that Senegalese troops were on their way and that the government had not fallen.

Later that day, I gave an interview to the BBC Network Africa programme. I told them of my dismay at the coup because whether it succeeded or not, it had cost The Gambia the impression of an unstable country. It would be a pity indeed if the list of rebels I had received – Kukoi Samba Sanyang, Dembo Jammeh, Kartong Fatty, Junkung Saho, Jerreh Momodou Sanyang, Simon Talibo Sanneh, Kambeng Badjie, Ousainou Jawo, Apai Sonko – many of them school drop-outs and taxi-drivers were to be allowed to take over our peaceful country.

Close to midnight on 31 July, three hundred Senegalese airborne paratroopers dropped over the village of Jambur and began combing through the bush as they headed for Yundum Airport. They encountered a barrage of counter fire, but after a while of stiff fighting, they soon destroyed rebel positions. Infantry units supported by tanks entered the country through Seleti and proceeded to Banjul through Brikama, Lamin and Serekunda. As soon as Serekunda was cleared, the rebels only held the road around Radio Gambia and other parts of Bakau towards the military barracks.  The relatively long hours it took the Senegalese to advance over the territory was because they were under strict instructions to minimise civilian casualties and damage to property.

I learnt that the coup plotters had seized my wife Chilel and ten of my children, forcing them at gunpoint to declare their support for the coup over Radio Gambia. When I later heard the recordings, I was deeply distressed at the terror in Chilel’s and my children’s (Momodou, Fatoumata, Foday, Mariam, Njaimeh, Ebrima, and Mustapha) voices pleading with me and the government to give in, because the rebels threatened to kill them unless we surrender. My daughter Chilel was only 3 at the time and my two babies – Ramatoulie and Housainou – 5 months and 1 month respectively.  

At one point, Kukoi seized the microphone and announced who he was – the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Revolution! He said he wanted the Senegalese, the outside world and Gambians to know that I could not frighten him and that the whole country was with him. I could not quite assess what “whole country” he was talking about. It certainly could not have been the country that gave the PPP a landslide victory in the 1977 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in an 83% turnout of voters. 

Then he made the most macabre of proclamations about his childlessness and reference to his possible death. “All of Jawara’s children are here,” Kukoi declared. “His wife is here and I shall kill the whole lot and thereafter stand to fight against the Senegalese soldiers. I have no children and I am prepared to die. The Supreme Council of the Revolution has empowered me to kill the whole lot… Jawara has eight children. Baby Anne is here. I have no sympathy for them if Jawara has no sympathy for his family. I am prepared to fight with the Senegalese and if I am killed, well that is that. I shall know that I died in the cause for The Gambia.”

I did not have a Baby Anne among my children. Nevertheless, the misnaming of one them added pain to the whole charade that showed me how neurotic Kukoi was. At the same time it galvanised me with the resolution to ensure that I free my family, my ministers and the other innocent hostages from the grip of a mad man. I feared seriously for the lives of my loved ones and other innocent people in Kukoi’s hands. It was clear to me that this was a man desperate and armed who had reached the end of his tether.

Other hostages included my elder brother Sheriffo, Sanjally Bojang, my father-in-law Momodou Musa Njie, Momar Fall, one of the secretaries at the Senegalese High Commission, Saidou Nourou Ba, the executive secretary of the Senegalo-Gambian Secretariat, his wife and children. They threatened to kill all of them if the Senegalese troops did not withdraw.

What cowardly coercion by sick criminals who could seize the elderly, women, children, and even babies at gunpoint to achieve their aims. Later, I learnt that on their way to Radio Gambia the rebels stopped at the residence of Sheriff Mustapha Dibba in Banjul, only a few metres away from the residence of the vice president, who was busy at the time coordinating the resistance.   

Back in London, Richard Luce put me through to Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, and I asked her for the British Government’s assistance with resolving the hostage crisis. Two British Special Air Services (SAS) troopers – a Major Ian Crooke and a sergeant were dispatched to Banjul via Dakar. Upon their arrival in Banjul they were met by Mr Clive Lee a former SAS major who was working in The Gambia at the time of the coup. I was confident that the three-man SAS team – men with considerable experience in dealing with hostage situations – would, with the help of our own loyal forces and the Senegalese, be able to free the hostages unharmed.

I gave a press conference before leaving London on Saturday 1 August making it clear that my government had not been removed and that I was at that time most concerned with foiling the attempt than apportioning blame as to who was behind it. I expressed no fear for my own person whatsoever in returning and doing something about the situation. I reaffirmed the plurality of the system in place in The Gambia which should have made a coup unnecessary. It was a democracy with freedom for everybody to express themselves strictly in terms of the constitution and in conformity with the respected principles of human rights. 

Our flight from London to Dakar went by quickly. The five hours it took were filled with an intense review of the situation and what I would have to cover in the broadcasts and interviews I would give. When we landed in Dakar we were received by the High Commissioner Bakary Dabo and senior Senegalese government officials. Dabo gave me a precise briefing of the negotiations with Diouf on the size of the contingent of troops that was already deployed in Banjul. We went straight to work, finalising those matters as well as the statements I had prepared.

The Senegalese government immediately accorded me the privilege to address the Gambian people on Radio Senegal. I did so in English, following up in Mandinka and Wolof. I announced that I had arrived close to home and that I understood my supreme duty to do everything possible to save the country from the hands of the coup leader and his collaborators. I saluted the courage of my vice president, ministers, the inspector general of police, his officers and others in the Field Force who stood loyally by their country and government. I paid tribute to those who lost their lives in the tragedy, and assured their grieving families that they did not die in vain. 

It was clear in my mind that my supreme responsibility was towards our country and its people. I told them that apart from invoking the Defence Agreement, I had decided to come immediately to help restore law and order as quickly as possible. I assured the nation that Senegalese troops had joined forces loyal to my government and their effort was producing a marked turnaround in the rebels’ standoff. The Senegalese troops had already retaken the airport and had also expelled the rebels from the Trans-Gambia Ferry at Farafenni. With the troops cleaning the Kombos, before long they would be joining up with loyal forces in Banjul. With more Senegalese troops continuing to enter The Gambia through Casamance, I reckoned that it would only be a matter of hours before the coup would be over. I urged all citizens, wherever they were, to continue to defend their country against such lawlessness. I asked them to be calm and vigilant.

I reminded my compatriots that for the nineteen years I had been at the helm of affairs of our country, my efforts had consistently been in the direction of safeguarding the liberty of its citizens and at the same time striving to improve their living conditions. Indeed, my country was not a country flowing with milk and honey, and our economy has come through some severe times. But my government never promised the impossible. However, I was prepared to see to it that the peace and progress achieved so far was not destroyed. I promised to be home with my people shortly to continue that noble task. I urged Kukoi and his fellow insurgents to lay down their and stop the wanton shedding of Gambian blood.

The Supreme Revolutionary Council, it turned out, was made up of nonentities; their leader Kukoi Samba Sanyang was a candidate for the NCP in the 1977 general election in the Eastern Foni constituency, where he polled 708 votes against 4,532 for the PPP candidate, Ismaila Jammeh. He thus updated his curriculum vitae as a failed teacher, a failed seminarian, an unsuccessful politician and now a coup plotter, directly answerable for the deaths of hundreds of people between 30 July and 4 August 1981. It was a long-drawn-out ordeal. I prayed fervently that every one of the hostages was safe. I had meant every word I said in my stern warning to the rebels that there would be severe retribution should any of those innocent people get hurt. I was also sincere when I offered them a fair trial and possible lenient treatment if they released all the hostages unharmed.

After Senegalese troops had cleared Yundum Airport and stretches of the road through the Kombos of rebels, we flew in from Dakar. We arrived around midday on Sunday 2 August and I was received by the vice President. After a short debriefing, we were airlifted by helicopter to Banjul around the admiralty Wharf from where we then travelled in an armoured convoy to the Senegalese High Commission.

I immediately made an Emergency Proclamation and got published the Emergency Regulations 1981 (Legal Notice No 8 of 1981) having considered it expedient that certain measures were necessary for securing public safety, the defence of The Gambia, the maintenance of public order and the suspension of mutiny, rebellion and riot and for maintaining supplies and services essential to the life of the community. The notice stipulated stiff cash fines and terms of imprisonment. It gave the presidency wide-ranging powers but which, in my own conviction, would be used with the greatest consideration and restraint.

I drove to Radio Syd, the Swedish-owned private radio station just outside Banjul. I spoke in Wolof to the terrified and besieged people who in the previous few days had no markets to attend and no shops from where to get food. It was highly reassuring and welcome to the populace that I was back and speaking to them, especially telling them that the ordeal was virtually over.

We spent the next two nights at the Senegalese High Commission. On Monday 3 August, reporters from Radio Gambia came to see me for an interview. I gave them one not only to further assure the people, but also to allay the rumour making the rounds among the people that I was not really among them in Banjul. I reiterated the messages I had broadcast from London and Dakar and thanked all those who physically and morally stood by my government and by the nation when we were faced with a most regrettable event.   

As the day progressed, we were ready to move to the State House that has been safely under the command of the Senegalese forces. What was of great relief to me was the news that the SAS men had successfully freed Chilel and some of the children at the Medical Research Council without incident. The US Embassy has also furnished us with the information that the Senegalese troops had freed my other children and scores of hostages including some Europeans from the Bakau Depot. The rebels holding them fled when they realised their colleagues guarding Chilel and some of the children at the MRC had been disarmed and arrested.   

Kukoi had escaped on Sunday 2 August and was broadcasting recordings of his ranting from portable transmitters. He had slipped with some of his men through the confusion and made it to Kartong, a fishing village in southern Kombo, from where he escaped to Guinea Bissau. We would express our concern to President Joao Bernardo Vieira that he was harbouring the fugitive murderer and his gang if he allowed them to stay on in his country. From Bissau Kukoi flew to Cuba, and finally to Libya. 

I was united again with my family. Chilel and the children looked tired from the ordeal they had gone through, but had held up admirably well. I cringed to think of the level of cruelty meted out to my family and the other hostages; it must have been horrendous for them. Their captors constantly barked threats at them, feeding them poor food comprising mainly half-cooked potatoes and rice not fit for human consumption.




The Kairaba is available for sale at Timbooktoo Bookshop on Garba Jahumpa Road, Bakau


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