By Samsudeen Sarr
Continuing from where I stopped in the above series , this part seven begins on my arrival at the Mile 7 Radio Gambia broadcasting studio on July 22, 1994 with a section of soldiers-10 to 12 men- who had accompanied me on the orders of the Gambia National Army (GNA) officers leading the coup. I was to make a special announcement to the public and particularly to the Americans about the ongoing coup operation. I had no idea about what to broadcast but I was going to say something anyway.
For a quick recap of what transpired earlier, I had started the morning by reporting to the Banjul seaport where together with the US Ambassador and his aides, I accompanied the officers of the visiting American ship on scheduled program to pay a chivalry call to the vice president and minister of defense. We arrived at the State House around 8:00 a.m but in what sounded like a fairy tale, I got alerted about soldier’s mutiny at the GNA main military barracks at Yundum Village, where a significant number of troops had heavily armed themselves and heading to the capital Banjul with unknown demands.
I speedily left the State House to the Gambia Marine Unit to explore the possibility of using the heavy weapons mounted on their patrol as support weapons for ground warfare. The concept was impractical. The weapons were fixed machine guns designed to work with the mechanical constituent of the Chinese-manufactured patrol boats.
Hopeless for staying around, I drove from the Marine Unit via Bond Road, committed to go to Yundum and find out what was going on. But at Denton Bridge, I found the Gambia police Tactical Support Group (TSG) tactically positioned with strict orders to close the bridge to all traffic. The GNA soldiers had also arrived at the other end of the bridge and had communicated their unconditional demands to the police. They will cross over to Banjul or start a fire fight.
After talking to the police Assistant Inspector General (AIG) Ibrahima Chongan, the most senior police officer leading the resistance forces on the ground, he understandably let me crossed the bridge on foot to meet the soldiers.
The three officers commanding the GNA soldiers were Lt. Yahya Jammeh GNA Military Police Commander, 2lt. Edward Singhateh “C” Company platoon commander and Capt. Momodou Sonko “B” Company Commander. The involvement of the three officers indicated a serious thing happening.
Totally unprepared for the disclosure of their determination to overthrow the PPP government that day, I pleaded with them to restrain their fire or else cause the possibility of their confrontation with the US Marines if by incident or accident they suffered casualties in any hostilities. Since the American Marines were expecting to conduct an exercise with the GNA that morning, advising them to stay away with their “amphibious tanks” was the safest and wisest thing to do. The GNA officers were also to be mindful of the criminals and bandits seizing advantage of the chaos in a gun fight that could start massive looting spree of private and public properties.
The question of how to contact the Americans without communication gears or cell phones at the time gave plausibility to the suggestion of utilizing Radio Gambia to make the important announcement.
I was tasked to go and make the notification at the radio station. Ten to twelve soldiers-a section-were ordered to accompany me to the studio, three miles down the road. We however found out that the radio transmitters had no fuel to run on. The person to fuel them was stuck in Banjul with traffic in and out of the city shut down.
I was able to use the telephone facilities of the station to contact the State House and informed them about my encounters since leaving Banjul earlier that morning. On his office line, I briefed Capt. Momodou Lamin Gassama, the Aide de Camp(ADC) to the head of state about the situation.
There were no cell phones then and he was the last person I spoke to before leaving the State House to the Marine Unit.
He eventually left the presidential palace with the head of state, members of his family and some key government VIPs to the American vessel for safety.The state guard commander Capt. Bajo had to go as well.
That left Lt. Lang Tombong Tamba the deputy state guard commander in charge.
I ended “Part six” of my last article there, on when I called and got Lt. Tamba on the phone whom I also gave a quick breakdown of what was going on plus the composition and estimated size of the GNA troops currently walking from Denton Bridge towards Banjul and the kind of heavy arms in their possession. He was to know that the TSG at the bridge had either surrendered or joined the mutineers.
He had to use his wise discretion in dealing with the defiant soldiers but should be cognitive of the repercussion of the situation degenerating into senseless and protracted violence.
The state guard deputy commander assured me not worry given that the key elements of the government and the president had left the city to the American battleship. He promised not to act recklessly.
Around 2:00 p.m., the final sobering message reached me at the Radio Gambia Station that the state guard had surrendered upon the arrival soldiers who had now taken control of the State House without a shot fired. It was unbelievable.
I called my wife at her work place to check on her and the kids. She was still working and the kids were safe at home after closing from school. She was however informed by a stranger that there was a coup by the army and that her husband who seized the Radio Gambia Station was part of it. Since they were all safe, explaining to her what happened had to wait.
I asked the soldiers around to join me in prayers and to thank god for the miracle of a successful coup without bloodshed.
Soon after, a white private pickup truck driven by a GNA corporal arrived at the station. I still didn’t know who exactly were involved in the coup. The driver drove me to Fajara Barracks after being informed that 2Lt. Sana Sabally and 2Lt. Sadibou Hydara led the troops that attacked and took over the police TSG main barracks.
The soldiers were all over the camp electrified with joy while mounting antiaircraft guns and 81mm mortars at different positions. The two leading junior officers, Sabally and Hydara were not around but Captain Momodou Sonko suddenly appeared. We both boarded the pickup truck and headed to Yundum Barracks. Still, nobody could tell me who was the leader of the coup and the officers in it. Captain Sonko whom I thought was among the leaders showed no sign or interest in asserting a command role. Anyway, I thought Yundum Barracks was going to provide me with all the necessary answers since everything started from there.
We drove through Atlantic road on to Kairaba Avenue, passed the Westfield Clinic on to the Brikama Highway towards the Yundum Barracks.The road was punctuated with civilians thronged to clap for soldiers in passing vehicles. I still couldn’t believe that there was no looting or unruly behavior from the public.
At Yundum Baracks, the mystery of who exactly were the architects of the coup still remained elusive. I found Company Commander Captain Momodou Badjie and Motor & Transport (MT) Unit Commander the late Lt. Basiru Barrow being the only officers freely moving around. I could have sworn that they knew everything.
Other officers such as Major Christ Davies 2nd-in command to the battalion commander and the Adjutant, Lt. Sheriff Gomez were locked up in the guardroom cells.
With the help of Lt. Barrow, I immediately signed out a personal weapon-AK 47-with two full magazines of 30 rounds each.
I then wanted to know why and who was responsible for locking the officers up in the cells. To my disappointment the three officers including Capt. Sonko couldn’t give me any answers.
The little I was told about the whole coup came from Lt. Basiru Barrow who briefly explained how one of the drivers at the MT Unit, Corporal Musa Manneh, stole all the keys to the GNA vehicles that morning and disappeared with them in order to prevent the soldier from using the trucks in the operation. The auto-mechanic lieutenant credited his special skills in hot wiring the trucks by bypassing the key fobs and starting all the engines.
Sgt. Musa Manneh was later arrested and sent to Mile Two Prison for his action.
I asked them who the leader of the coup was but none of them could give me a name. It was becoming clear to me that none of the senior company commanders had a say on how or why the coup was organized although all their platoon commanders, NCOs and soldiers were active participants to its success.
I expressed my worries to the three-Yundum-based officers about the urgency to come up with a replacement government in what was becoming increasingly clear about a fluid situation after ousting the government. According to military scholars fluid situations immediately after a coup could prompt rogue individuals into taking advantage of the power vacuum and claiming leadership positions that do not belong to them. That could in effect cause a rebellion within the rebellion, changing the dynamics into unintended calamity. At least, the country should be put in the picture that the PPP government was no more in power and that the GNA had taken over the country with officer(s) so and so as the new leaders.
We were outside, but someone suggested that we moved into the adjutant’s officer for better privacy.
Surprisingly, I found Mr. Sulayman Alieu Jack-yes Mr. Bun Jack- my permanent secretary and Mr. Kebba Ceesay Director General of the National Security Service (NSS) seated on a sofa in the office. How the two civilians came there, nobody could explain. Arrangements were made to serve them coffee while I took a tour of the camp.
The Nigerian commanding officer Col. Audu was nowhere either.
While touring the camp, I got the hint that the actual person in charge of the detainees was an NCO called Sgt. Major Ebrima Bah of “C” Company. He was at the company headquarters acting rather bossy than usual. He saluted me as expected of a subordinate but when I asked about why some officers were in the cells in a coup which is now successful without a hitch he told me that his orders were not to release them. On whose orders was he acting, he wouldn’t tell. That was it. The reality was dawning on what coup de tat really meant.
By 4:00 p.m., Lt. Barrow informed us that all officers were invited to assemble at the State House for a meeting. That sounded like a good start after all the uncertainty.
Captain Momodou Badgie and I joined a bus, while Capt. Momodou Sonko and Lt. Basiru Barrow went by an army truck.
Sergeant Cham commonly known as Sir Jackali was driving the bus and was wearing a visible rank of a lieutenant. I simply didn’t know how he got his rank so fast but he was very excited to drive us to Banjul.
At the Kanifing JIMPEX junction, we ran into a roadblock mounted by 2lt. Sana Sabally anf 2Lt. Sadibou Hydara. While Hydara was a bit calmer, Sabally was rather jumpy, incoherent and had asked us very stupid questions.
He wanted to know where we were heading and why.
We told him to the state house.
“For what?” he asked aggressively.
“We got a message to go there for a meeting”.
“Who called for a meeting?”
“We don’t know. Lt. Barrow informed us about it.”
“Where is Lt. Barrow?”
We couldn’t tell, but we told him that he was with Captain Sonko when we left Yundum Barracks about fifteen minutes ago.
“Ok move”, he shrilled to Sir Jackali who sped away without looking back.
Before crossing Denton Bridge, we heard a radio announcement from Gambia Radio FM 1 with the distinct voice of Captain Sonko announcing to the nation about the coup in English, Mandinka and Wollof. I didn’t know that he was going to make such an announcement when we were leaving Yundum, neither was Captain Momodou Badgie.
Around 5:00 p.m., we drove into the state house premises. Some officers of the GNA and GPF were already assembled in a red-carpeted room, very spacious to billet more people than present.
More officers arrived later including Captain Sonko and Lt. Barrow before any discussion started.
Lt. Yahya Jammeh and 2Lt. Edward Singhatey were present but 2Lt. Sana Sabally and 2Lt. Sadibou Hydara were yet to arrive.
I know for sure that the following officers were present: Major Antouman Saho, Marine Unit Commander, Major Sheriff Mbye senior TSG commander, Capt. Momodou Badjie, “C” Company commander 1st Infantry battalion, Capt. Momodou Sonko “B” Company commander, 1st Infantry battalion, Yundum Barracks, Capt. Amadou Suwareh TSG senior commander, Lt. Basiru Barrow MT Unit commander, Yundum Barracks, the late Lt. Kalifa Bajinka, Adjutant TSG unit Fajara Barracks and Lt. Binneh Minteh. There were more officers and other ranks but these were people I could remember.
While waiting for Sabally and Hydara to arrive, Lt. Yahya Jammeh took to the floor and make a harsh remarks that for the first time showed the authority of the officer in charge.
I later learnt that he was very upset with the radio announcement made by Capt. Sonko without consulting any of the four leaders who led the coup.
I thought the remarks were directed to all of us and I responded.
Edward Singhatey stepped in to clarify the situation.
“Let me tell you gentlemen who is part of this coup and who is not”, Lt. Singhatey started.
To be continued