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KAIRABA by Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry,
President of Writers Association of The Gambia

Excerpt (pp 414-420)

Chapter 28: Democracy overturned

On our arrival at Banjul on 21st July 1994, I caught myself having to piece together a chain of strange events unfolding right before my eyes. To begin with, Vice President and Minister of Defence Saihou Sabally was not there to receive me. Instead, I was being received at the foot of the aircraft by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice Hassan Jallow. Sabally, I was informed in due course, had accompanied the corpse of his brother, Kebba Ngansu Sabally, to their home village in Kataba in Sabach-Sanjal for burial. Under the shrill notes of the bugles, Hassan walked me to the waiting guard of honour. In all my years of arrival and departure, I had never seen a more excited honour guard commander in action – Captain Sonko clearly appeared nervous. Odd! Considering he was not inexperienced, he must have been under some influence, I thought.  In spite of the guard of honour commander’s faltering, I accepted his invitation and inspected the guard. 

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We breezed through the formalities of handshakes with the party of ministers, senior government officials and members of the diplomatic corps waiting to receive us. We were soon boarded and rolled out of the airport in a motorcade. I learnt much later that there had been some tension at the airport before our flight landed when the Nigerian Army officers had given instructions to disarm a group of junior officers of the Gambia National Army because it was unusual for the men to be armed on official airport welcome duties.

Among those men disarmed was the 29-year-old lieutenant in charge of the Military Police named Yahya A J J Jammeh. The order to disarm them had come from the senior officer of NATAG holding the fort for Colonel Lawan Gwadabe, the new commander head of NATAG and commander of the GNA. Colonel Gwadabe was away for consultations in Abuja at the time. It was odd that Dada whom he came to replace, was still in The Gambia and had refused to hand over to his successor.

There was nothing unusual about our drive to Banjul. Upon alighting from our vehicles at State House, I discovered that Hassan Jallow, who had just received me officially at the airport, was not there.  I learnt that he had broken off from the motorcade and gone home. The traditional debriefing session after foreign visits had to be scrapped because the Attorney General who had deputised for the Vice President at the airport was absent. Tired as I was, the question that kept me awake for a while before I could sleep was the absence of the Vice President and the failure of the Attorney General to come for the debriefing at the State House. 

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The following day, Friday 22nd July 1994, National Security Service Director General Kebba S Ceesay and the National Security Adviser arrived in my private quarters at 9.15 am to brief me about rumours of a coup which, they said, started circulating some three weeks earlier. They had come to inform me that they had checked out all the sources and found the reports to be just rumours. They handed me a report entitled INTERIM REPORT REPORTED PLAN TO OVERTHROW THE GOVERNMENT OF THE GAMBIA, dated 21st July 1994. I thanked them for their diligence and watched them leave.

At about 9.40 am, my Aide de Camp (ADC), Captain Momodu Kassama, burst upstairs looking agitated. He urged me to leave for the US warship. It was the first time I heard anything of a warship in our port. Captain Kassama was beside himself and was insisting with near hysteria that I must leave immediately. He kept insisting that a coup was taking place and that soldiers were approaching Banjul. He said that the US Ambassador Andrew Winter who was at State House at the time, had just given him reliable information that there was, indeed, a coup underway.

Kassama pointed out that the State House was too big for the less than 30 Presidential Guards (PG) on duty at the time to defend against the company (a Company is a military unit comprising between 75-200 men ) of GNA soldiers who were advancing. The GNA soldiers were heavily armed with pistols, AK 47 assault rifles, grenades, light machine guns, heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). The PG at State House had only pistols, AK 47s with an average of 2 magazines each, and a couple of light machine guns. There was also the lack of a defendable fallback position at the State House. The PG was clearly outnumbered and outgunned. It would have been suicide not to surrender or relocate.

In the case of security emergencies, the contingency measure was for the cabinet to converge at the Marine Unit in Banjul, where they would board one of the boats that would then sail out to sea. It was envisaged that the government could be run securely from the boat.

In this instance, there was a strong possibility (later proven) that the Marine Unit was part of the coup plot. Hence Kassama advised that we go to the USS La Moure County instead until the situation was properly assessed. I thought it sounded plausible that the ship could be a tactical location from which to consider further action, especially after the Americans had already offered to evacuate us to the ship.  At this point, Chilel suddenly came to my room, looking very agitated, to confirm what I had just been told – that all the children and some domestic staff were already seated in the cars and ready to go!

I walked with Chilel and Kassama, securing the prepared copy of my intended reply to the ambassador-designate of the People’s Republic of China, whom I was expecting to receive at midday. Out in the forecourt, a convoy of cars stood with engines revving and inside, already seated were some of my children, grandchildren and a few domestic staff. Also present was the US Ambassador, Andrew Winter, and his compatriots, the military attaché from the US Embassy in Dakar and the captain of the US Navy ship, USS La Moure County and Saihou Sabally. Sabally must have travelled all night to be able to make it back to his office early the next morning and in a fit state to coordinate the evacuation of my household.

 We rolled out of the State House grounds past the Six-Gun Battery overlooking the beach where Brig Charles MacCarthy had put it 169 years before. We drove past MacCarthy Square, named after the brigadier and which ironically would assume the new name – July 22nd Square – to celebrate the events unfolding right at that moment. We made our way through the shopping crowds down Russell Street, past the Albert Market and down Wellington Street on a straight drive to the Admiralty Wharf at Half-Die, a stone’s throw from my boyhood home, 37 Wellington Street. American navy guards let us through some barricades. There, for the first time, I set eyes on the American Navy ship, the USS La Moure County.

It was strange that in all the official messages I had received daily from Banjul, my Vice President and Minister of Defence had not mentioned to me that he and our security chiefs had given permission for anything as massive as a joint GNA and US Navy training exercise, complete with a warship. I thought if the armed forces of another sovereign nation were going to engage with our national forces in any bilateral military exercise, it would have been important enough for the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the host country, at home or abroad, to be informed of such a major engagement. Those who knew timelines and clearance procedures to get the US State Department and the Department of Defence machinery in Washington to conceive, approve and fund a public diplomacy engagement of such diplomatic complexity and magnitude would wonder at the speed and secrecy of this operation.

Before we boarded La Moure County, Bakary B Dabo appeared. He said he and Attorney General Hassan Jallow and Minister of Tourism Alkali James Gaye had been on their way to report to the Marine Unit as was the procedure in that kind of situation. He said his driver made a wrong turn and ended up driving to the ship, missing the Marine Unit entrance, a few metres away. The other two and several other ministers who had already reported to the Marine Unit were immediately detained. Bakary B Dabo joined us, and we sailed away.

Press Jagne, the Inspector General of Police and Captain Kaba Bajo, Commander of the PG also made it to the ship with a few members of the PG. At some point I wondered who was coordinating and commanding loyal forces on the ground. (I later learnt that Major Ebrima Chongan, then deputy Inspector General of Police, had tried to stop the advancing soldiers at the Denton Bridge, on his own and with only a pistol.)

Members of my family onboard the ship included my wife Chilel, seven of my children – Housainou, Ramatoulie, Chilel, Njaimeh, Mariam, Foday and Fatoumata, and three of my grandchildren. Incidentally Ebrima, Almami and Dawda were still in the country. Dawda and Almami who both lived in Bakau, a stone’s throw away from Bakau Barracks, could not make it to Banjul in time to join us and found it safer to stay put.


Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara was the first President of the Republic of The Gambia in 1971, after serving as the First Premier in 1963 when the Gambia gained self-rule.

He wrote Kairaba, giving a detail story of his journey to politics until he left after the 1994 coup.

Ebrima had left early that morning for Radville Farm, where he was working. However, the US Embassy sent him a driver and vehicle (White Chevrolet van with registration US136) to stay with him. He and the driver could not make it back to Banjul, so they spent the night at the farm in Nemakunku. The next day they drove to the US Embassy on Kairaba Avenue, where a US diplomat told Ebrima that the AFPRC had made it clear that they were not concerned with the former president’s family and that he was free to go about his business as any other citizen. He was reassured that he really was in no danger from the new regime. (Different from the attempted coup of 1981, when innocent civilians, including some of my children, were used as bargaining chips by Kukoi.)

Things moved fast, and before mid-day 22nd July 1994, the coup had succeeded. The US troops could only intervene with the green light from Washington. Unfortunately, Washington was reluctant to get involved beyond granting me and my party safe passage to Senegal who had agreed to grant me asylum.

On the morning of 23rd July, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council led by Lieutenant Yahya A J J Jammeh as its Chairman, Lieutenant Sana B Sabally as Vice Chairman, Lieutenant Edward Singhateh and Lieutenant Sadibou Hydara as members was effectively in charge of the country.

Later that day, while still on board the ship, I had a telephone conversation with Lieutenant Edward Singhateh, arranged by the Defence Attaché of the US Embassy in Dakar, who was in Banjul during the takeover. Speaking on behalf of the new regime, the young lieutenant asked me to return as a senior citizen, perhaps even as an adviser to the regime. He described me as a president to whom they owed the respectable image The Gambia had in the international community. They had no intention of harming or humiliating me; they wanted to treat me as an elder statesman. My instinct, however, was not to return to Banjul at that time. I told him that they should return to barracks and that I would only return as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and take note of any grievances they had. This he flatly rejected.

After a couple more days we arrived in Dakar, and my household and I were driven to the Residence de Medina (It is now a cultural centre.), the now famous mansion that had hosted presidential exiles such as Hissein Habré and Ghoukouni Oueddei.

Meanwhile, the world was just waking up to the fall of democracy in Banjul. On 28th July 1994, Taiwan recognised the military regime and flew its ambassador to present his letters of credence to the Chairman of the AFPRC on that day – the first country to do so. Almami and Ebrima arrived from Banjul, having come via Casamance.

The military junta had in detention former ministers including Landing Jallow Sonko, Yaya Ceesay, Alieu E W F Badjie, Omar Sey, Hassan Jallow, Omar Jallow, Sarjo Touray, Bubacarr Baldeh, Mathew Yaya Baldeh and Alkali James Gaye. Managing Directors of parastatals arrested and detained included Pa O B Cham (Gambia Ports Authority), Sankung Fatty (Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation), Alieu Mboge (National Trading Corporation) and Abdoulie M Touray (National Investment Board). There were also over 20 officers detained.

On 29th July President Diouf made a public declaration assuring the Chairman of the AFPRC of Senegal’s total resolve to stay out of the events in The Gambia, avowing that he would “not tolerate anybody attempting subversive and hostile actions directed against the Government of The Gambia”. Perish the thought that I would ever want to engage in subversive or hostile actions against my own country, even if I had the power to do so. All fears in Banjul of my invoking again the 1965 Defence Agreement with Senegal as a counter measure were allayed. Diouf also confirmed that he had granted me and my family political asylum purely on humanitarian grounds.

There were many overtures from Banjul for some members of my cabinet to be reinstated if they were only willing to collaborate with the junta. Lamin Kiti Jabang, Minister of the Interior, had left Banjul just before the coup for Dakar, via Casamance. Senegalese Foreign Minister Moustapha Niasse boasted that Lamin would soon be returning to Banjul to a red carpet treatment by the AFPRC. But perhaps the biggest surprise was Bakary B Dabo, who, within ten days of our arrival in Dakar, was back in Banjul serving the new military junta. In my last meeting with him before he left for Banjul, he told me that “he was going back in the interest of the nation. That he was working for the Gambia and not for one man.” I told him that if he felt it was safe for him to return, then I had no objection to his returning. Indeed, there was nothing I could do about it.

Other members of my party who returned were Ebou Ndure (my Chief of Protocol), Press Jagne and Kaba Bajo. I also asked them if they were assured of their safety back home, they weren’t sure, but they were determined to return for various reasons.

Bakary Dabo was back at his desk in early August at his old Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs job. He was soon boldly assuring the general public that there was among other things, enough foreign exchange available in the banking system to hold up the country. He called a special press conference of local and international journalists to dispel rumours of scarcity. He said there would be a continuation of the economic policies of the ousted government. At a meeting with businessmen and senior officials of the Gambia Chamber of Commerce, he revealed that there were adequate reserves to cover the country’s import bill and that there was enough supply of basic commodities, including rice and fuel to keep the country going. He signed a letter on 13th August 1994 and circulated it to all on the list of the country’s development partners, assuring everyone that there would be a timetable for restoring civilian rule in forty-five days.

I could not help but ask myself: What kind of plunder of the economy had we been guilty of then to warrant our overthrow? It was unlikely that a corrupt and vile government would have left a buoyant Central Bank reserve, a functioning chamber of commerce and shops filled with basic commodities. That rosy picture of a stable and vibrant business and consumer environment presided over by my government might begin to lend credence to the suspicion that the reasons for the overthrow of my government were probably far removed from the impression the sing-song “rampant corruption and flamboyant lifestyle” of my government, was meant to convey.

Power will always be prone to the allure of abuse. In government the baits for graft are everywhere. Friends, lobbyists, family members, public relations and business agents are ready with suggestions every step of the way. The slippery slopes are full of people willing to compromise power with the strangest overtures – anything that would promote their own personal ambitions. What they offer government officials and politicians is really not for them but what they can do to further the ambitions of the giver.

In 1982, we were in the throes of reconstruction after the 1981 coup attempt, when my chief of protocol, Sheikh M Jeng, brought to me a London-based Nigerian businessman he introduced as Chief Arthur Nzeribe. Hitherto, I knew nothing of the man and I wish Secretary General Jabez Ayo Langley had immediately shared my visitor’s curriculum vitae with me. I found the man’s business proposals straightforward. I, therefore, encouraged his plans and from the sound of him he probably had the relevant financial muscle to make a difference on the business scene in Banjul. Much of what he proposed was in line with government policy to encourage more sub-regional enterprises and investors to take up and boost inter-African business connections.

However, the high standard of Nzeribe’s discussion with me plummeted when he rose to leave and turned around to propose giving me a gift. I declined immediately. But he almost made a scene, saying it was African tradition that a visitor left a gift with a chief who had been kind enough to grant him an audience. He said it was a simple gift out of deep respect for tradition and that I should think nothing of it. He left a small package on the edge of my table that I refused to touch. Many African leaders had fallen for the ploy and soiled their name and their office with yachts, villas, sex, holidays and bank balances. My personal red light could not stop blinking and I quickly brought the visit to a close.

My chief of protocol handled the package since he had influenced the visit in the first place. When Jeng saw him out and returned, he declared the gentleman had left £5,000 in traveller’s cheques. He was convinced it was all completely innocent. The plot started to thicken with Nzeribe’s arrival sometime later, on a second visit, with proposals to float a company in which he had set aside shares for me and my wife, Chilel. There was no need to proceed with that kind of discussion. I resolutely turned it down, not even with Nzeribe’s further suggestion of the shares being in our children’s names.

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