By Samsudeen Sarr
The paragraph below in my last paper was misunderstood by certain readers who interpreted it as if I was only talking about 2nd Lt Sana Sabally; they therefore couldn’t understand how he “didn’t survive the November 11, 1994 “counter-coup” and needed further clarification on the topic.
This is the paragraph on the identification of one of the soldiers present at the Denton Bridge on 22 July 1994:
“Then to my utter disappointment I saw the presence of a very important GNA senior NCO, the second-in-command of the Mortar Platoon headed by 2nd Lt Sana Sabally. He was holding an anti-aircraft gun mounted on one of the GNA trucks. Disappointed because he was one of the few men I had asked about the rumoured coup on that Monday, 18 July, and he had denied anything like that happening in the barracks. He even assured me that he will never support a coup and that one couldn’t happen without his cooperation. I later learnt that he was forced to join the coup but didn’t survive the 11 November 1994 ‘counter-coup. May his soul rest in peace!”
I guess I further needed to explain that NCO means a non-commissioned officer in military terms that was referring to a senior person in that military ranking structure. Second Lt Sana Sabally on the other hand was a commissioned officer and was the commander of the Mortar Platoon. The NCO was his deputy a position often referred to as “second-in command”. He had the rank of a “Warrant Officer Class 1 or 2”. In fact Sana Sabally, the late Sadibou Haidara and Edward Singhatey allegedly took part in his execution in November 1994.
In any case, I boarded the State Guard vehicle with about ten GNA soldiers including Corporal Njie and headed to Radio Gambia to make the announcement of the coup aimed primarily to warn the Americans to stand down on the exercise. That it should be considered aborted owing to a developing situation of special national emergency and for all of them to leave the capital and return to their ship forthwith.
For a quick recap of my activities on the day, I had so far since in the morning been at the State House where I was first informed about the coup by the aide-de-camp to the Gambia’s head of state. From there I went to the Gambia Marine Unit Base on Wellington Street in Banjul then to the Denton Bridge where I had had a phenomenal encounter with the DIG of the Gambia Police Force, the TSG troop commanders, Captain Amadou Suwareh and 2nd Lt (now Dr) Binneh Minteh and a senior police officer said to have suspected my activities and had even recommended my arrest.
On the GNA officers encountered, there were B Company commander (a captain), the GNA Military Police commander Lt Yahya Jammeh, a C Company platoon commander 2nd Lt Edward Singhatey and the NCO mentioned above, the deputy commander of the GNA Mortar Platoon, commanded by 2nd Lt Sana Sabally.
I think I did explain my reasons for not revealing the names of certain individuals so as not to offend them especially of those who are yet to appear as witnesses or who may never even appear before the TRRC for one reason or the other. I am more concerned with the witnesses who had given evidences that affected me directly or indirectly and appeared to tell stories laced with indisputable discrepancies.
Corporal Njie, a GNA soldier, is an exception on the name restrictions because of his position as the section commander of the ten men who went with me to Radio Gambia on the orders of the coup leaders and had to stay with me there for the best part of the day.
I don’t know whether he is still serving in the army but I believe he is alive and if contacted could bear me witness on this factual account. I hate the idea of parading witnesses who have passed away, especially when the evidence submitted sounds outrageously flawed.
However, I still can’t wrap my mind around the rationale behind why the police officers at the Denton Bridge tried to evade or change the facts in their testimony. Why for instance, as significant as my encounter with the DIG at the bridge was that day, he failed to say a word about it at the TRRC? Likewise, 2nd Lt Binneh Minteh whose misleading story about what happened at the bridge to the commission only left the listeners with more unanswered questions than otherwise expected. It baffled everybody when he explained how he negotiated with Edward Singhatey and arrived at an agreement to go back to the police headquarters in Banjul and report to his superior officer on what the two of them had agreed upon but wouldn’t say a word about it when he found that very superior officer few metres away at the other side of the bridge.
Only Captain Amadou Suwareh remembered seeing me there but by the time he concluded his attestation he had added, subtracted, divided, integrated and differentiated his story so much that he left me wondering what he had smoked that morning. He had claimed to have led the GNA officers and soldiers after convincing them on his own terms and conditions from the bridge all the way to the State House and up to the entrance where after a brief negotiation with the State House deputy commander, the gates were hurled open finally allowing the soldiers to take over the place. He then immediately left for his home. Anyway, while on that same “heroic” march as the “leading man”, down the road about two miles away, he could still take the Banjul-South-bound road, Bund Road with Samsudeen Sarr (me) to the Gambia Marine Unit Base at Wellington Street in search of heavy weapons.
How stupid did the captain think his listeners were to just accept such a farfetched story?
Another important live witness deployed at the Denton Bridge was a tough and well-built TSG commando called Omar Sonko. The last time I checked he had left the army and was working as security guard at the Banjul Central Bank Building. He was the only person I saw that day standing his ground and, for a moment refused to hand over his weapon to the soldiers until I had to plead with him to do so on my personal responsibility.
Just before I was arrested on 27 July by Sabally and Haidara, I saw him again at the State House as part of the inner circle guarding Chairman Jammeh.
“Now commando?”, I asked him jovially, “is this not better than fighting?”
“Yes sir”, he replied with a happy smile.
He was still working as a State House guard when I got out of prison, while I was army commander and up to the time I left for the USA in 1999. I recently saw him in Banjul. He may know many more of his counterparts whose testimonies would have cast better light on the situation than those stories already given by some of his officers.
My trip to Radio Gambia by the State House bus with the section of soldiers was short but very troubling.
Whereas I had on the way questioned the wisdom of making the announcement of which I still didn’t know what exactly to say to avoid provoking mass national unrest or instability if the population heard the message, nevertheless my conviction to do it as the only means of getting the Americans out of the way loomed supreme.
Since the coup in 1981 when the putsch leader Kukoi Samba Sanyang first seized the Radio Gambia station and delivered his maiden speech announcing who they were and why the PPP government was overthrown and the type of government they will constitute, prompting a Senegalese military intervention, the radio station was always guarded by armed troops even after the departure of the Senegalese in 1989.
My house was located at Mile 7 as well, not far from the radio station where the TSG guards were always seen with their AK 47 rifles taking sentry turns. I expected to find them there that day.
Thank God there was only one corporal on duty at the radio station found half naked, his weapon on the floor and sheathing himself with numerous waist belts of jujus from a bag crammed with several more including dead animal horns, cowries and plant roots. He was not even in uniform yet.
The moment he saw us, he raised his hands up surrendering instantly. The soldiers seized his weapons and we proceeded into the facility.
Approaching the station building, we suddenly saw a group of the employees rushing out and running to their vehicles. They looked very frightened. I asked them where they were going and one of them pointed to the direction of the building saying that the director was there. I didn’t make any attempt to force them to stay neither did Corporal Njie and his men.
The director was a lady found in her office, seated calmly behind her office desk with wooden file trays filled with folders.
The radio station’s technician was also there who had stayed with us to the end.
I greeted the woman and immediately told her why we were there.
“We want to make a national radio announcement, can we?” I asked.
She said no in a very gentle voice adding that the station was not operational because their transmitters, located at Bonto couldn’t be turned on for lack of fuel.
The person responsible for fueling the machines every morning was still stock in Banjul with no vehicle to get him out of the city.
To further confirm her story she made a call to the man’s home and got him on the line. I talked to him and he also explained the same constraints of the unavailability of vehicles to get him out of Banjul for the routine daily fueling of the transmitters; he had already gotten coupons and was ready to come over if we could send him a vehicle.
In the presence of the corporal and the other soldiers, it was obvious that the announcement couldn’t be done. The situation now required a plan B.
“Can I please use your phone”, I asked the director.
“Of course, you can”, she offered and invited me to use her chair.
I called the aide-de-camp to the president and got him on the line in his office. He was dying to hear from me. I told him what was going on, where I was and everything I had gone through since I left him that morning. Yes, I told him about the officers leading the soldiers who had already crossed Denton Bridge, walking towards Banjul, how heavily they were armed and their ardent commitment to overthrow the government.
The president must have overheard our conversation or was probably listening close by, for I soon heard him asking the aide-de-camp questions.
He asked me to excuse him and hung up the phone.
I dialed the office of the GNA commander of the second battalion at Farafenni. I got the captain on the line. I also explained to him everything about what was going on before pleading with him to mobilise his troops and come with them to Banjul for possible reinforcement should the situation deteriorate for the worse which I still expected to happen at any moment. Second Lt Yankuba Touray, later a council member of the AFPRC, was a platoon commander at Farafenni and was all along present in the office of the captain when I was pleading with him to come over with his men.
The training school commander at the time, another captain, was also present.
However, the captain couldn’t agree with me. He insisted on moving his troops only if the Nigerian acting army commander Colonel Alasana Akoji ordered him so.
“The Nigerians are all at their residences,” I said. “It doesn’t look like they want to be involved.”
I suggested that they take the south bank route by the Bamba Tenda-Yelli Tenda ferry crossing, otherwise they might be stock at Barra on the north bank road, if the ferry there stopped crossing.
We still couldn’t agree on anything unless the Nigerians gave the orders. It was understandable.
We were both captains and I was sure that the coup took him by surprise like most of the senior officers and any mistake in the end, especially if it failed, could be regarded as treasonable offence for a court martial.
As soon as I hung up the phone I again called the line of the aide-de-camp. This time it rang for a very long time with no one picking it up.
I tried the State Guard guardroom and got a lieutenant who was uncompromising and very difficult to talk to. He unyieldingly told me that their orders from above will not change no matter what. They will fight the army if they had to. He wouldn’t tell me anything more even when I asked him the where his superiors were.
I called the office of the aide-de-camp again but like before no body picked up the ringing phone.
I next called the Kudang Camp and spoke to the captain in charge. He argued that there was no vehicle in the camp to bring his men – about 20 – to Banjul.
“What about commandeering a bus or so?” I asked. He agreed and said he was going to work on that right away.
I again called the State House guardroom.
This time I was lucky to get the deputy commander of the State Guard, a very sobre officer who was very receptive to my message. He told me that his immediate commander and the aide-de-camp had all left with the president, his family members and some key members of the government for the American battleship.
“What about the vice president, has he gone too?” I asked.
We started exchanging ideas over the next best line of action.
I said officer…
To be continued.