By Samsudeen Sarr
I leant about the coup at around 8:00 AM, on July 31, 1981 after waking up to hear the announcement on Radio Gambia. My mother was traumatized because of her support of the PPP government while my father, a strong supporter of the opposition NCP couldn’t conceal his delight over the overthrow of the government that like most disenchanted Gambians about Sir Dawda Jawara’s overstay in power-over fifteen years-he felt the change was well overdue.
I had had mixed feelings about the whole incident.
A man named Kukoi Samba Sanyang sounding as if he was on fire read a speech at Radio Gambia that impacted me as concept of our country deeply immersed in an unimaginable tragedy. As much as I was no longer excited about the timeless rule of the PPP government and while I was also beginning to be radicalized by the teachings of Karl Marx, Fredric Angels and Mao Tse Tung, fathers of the communist political ideology, Kukoi’s speech ostensibly prepared by staunch Marxists, sounded too arrogant and scary, generating more uncertainty on where he wanted to take the country than where he had found it.
The speech expounded on how under his leadership, championed by the “gallant” members of the Gambia Field Force, some private individuals and other interest groups whose identity were to be disclosed later, the PPP government was overthrown with immediate effect. That the Gambian constitution was suspended, all political parties banned, the capitalist system of the government replaced by socialism hinged on the communist doctrine of “dictatorship of the proletariat where the people will from now on work according to their abilities and earn according to their needs”, rhetorically condemning the PPP government of perpetrating rampant corruption, institutionalized tribalism and nepotism and closing his speech by announcing the names of his 12/15-member National Revolutionary Council (NRC). It was supposed to be a temporary ruling body until the actual government composed of the real executive was announced later. Kukoi and a good number of his NRC were civilians never heard of in the county. Six or seven were Non-Commissioned officers from the Field Force with a few shortly identified as uneducated taxi drivers.
My father explained to me the little he knew about Kukoi whose real name was Dominic Sanyang and was indeed a member of the opposition NCP and had contested the previous general elections on the party’s ticket, Foni constituency, but lost against a PPP candidate woefully including his security deposit for not winning the minimum votes required. He didn’t know anything about the other civilians in the council.
By 10:00 AM, massive crowds, mainly composed of the youth in Serekunda, my hometown, took to the streets celebrating and displaying all sorts of unruly behavior which soon metamorphosed into indiscriminate looting spree of private and public properties. The Serekunda police instantaneously lost control of the disobedient crowd who attacked and looted shops, warehouses and liquor stores consequently exacerbating the nightmare when audacious drunks joined the rampage.
The Field Force was stretched thin in trying to secure Banjul and the other disorderly towns like Serekunda, Bakau and Brikama, simultaneously consumed in the mayhem. Vehicle dealerships were forced to surrender the keys of their imported cars; and for those who abandoned their warehouses had their vehicles hot-wired and stolen by criminals; fuel station owners as well left their properties at the mercy of vandals. It was anarchy at its worst. Kukoi and his band of Field Force revolutionaries had no choice other than to start shooting and killing the recalcitrant youth.
It’s important to mention that in their first operation the night before, the rebels broke into Mile Two Central Prison, freed Private Mustapha Danso, killer of Deputy Commander Eku Mahoney of the Field Force, together with all the prisoners in custody. He joined the band of “revolutionaries” to attack State House where the second deputy commander of the Field Force Commander Bojang was shot and killed exchanging fire with members of the loyal Field Force guards on duty. But somehow Kukoi and his men managed to kidnap one of the two wives of President Jawara and some of her children, plus a toddler and took them to Fajara Barracks as hostages.
Sir Dawda Jawara was in England as the Queen’s invited guest, spending the crisis night with his second wife enjoying the fanfare at Buckingham Place in celebration of the Royal wedding of Prince Charles & Princess Diana. He was on the BBC international radio the next morning answering questions from British journalists on what was going on in his country.
However, C-130 troop carriers were heard throughout the night of June 31, flying over the country, most likely taking off from French military bases in Senegal or from NATO aircraft carriers from the Mediterranean, alerted by the prospect of a Soviet-backed communist regime in the Gambia. By daybreak, Gambians began to learn about the hundreds of Senegalese Special Forces, commandos and paratroopers parachuted to different strategic locations in the country, occupying vast expanse of our coastal beaches and Yundum International Airport.
It was as if they had rehearsed every moment of the deployments, well before and had only waited for the event to execute the order.
Kukoi and his men came into contact with some Senegalese commandos and arrested a squad leader called Master Sergeant Babacarr Jeng who was grilled in a live interviewed at radio station. The NRC leader aggressively asked the captive to explain who invited them in his country and whether he realized the gravity of their illegal incursion.
The soldier retorted in a similar tough language, explaining how they were there to stop the widespread destruction of public and private property. Kukoi threatened him with death for violating the territorial integrity of his country until the soldier mellowed down realizing how unintimidated and dangerous the rebel leader was. Sadly it was later learnt that Kukoi and his men shot and killed the sergeant soon after marching him out of the studio while disarmed.
Everything changed the third day after Sir Dawda arrived in Dakar from England. Senegalese troops numbering 3000 strong assaulted the Gambia from all fronts, land, sea and air.
Totally outnumbered, Kukoi returned to his radio station and started appealing for the Soviet Union and Guinea Bissau to come and rescue the Gambia from Senegal and their “imperialist and Neo-colonial masters”.
That didn’t work.
He then descended to playing the nationalist-sentiment card urging all well-bodied patriotic Gambians, the youth in particular, to report for military duties at the Fajara Barracks in defense of their nation against Senegal’s “illegal” military aggression. Young Gambians some in their early teens and younger, driven by nationalistic emotions, ultra motives and the extensive influence of alcohol and drugs, responded in droves and took quick lessons on how to load, aim and fire semi-automatic weapons before being armed and sent to the frontline to fight the “aggressors”. Those who arrived late with no rifles left to issue, accepted riot truncheons and batons, convinced that their jujus were good enough to protect them from gun shots. Some left to fight while others formed armed-robbery gangs wrecking more havoc everywhere.
Sanjali Bojang was the Chief of Kembujeh and a key founding father of the PPP who accordingly influenced the decision of his counterparts to select Sir Dawda Jawara as the flag bearer of the Party after its formation in 1959 and was still a very prominent figure in the party. A master orator in the local language, Kukoi brought him to the radio station to address Sir Dawda in Dakar. Chief Bojang urged the Gambian leader to tell the Senegalese President, Abdou Diouf to order the immediate withdrawal of his troops ferociously attacking the country. In a very passionate tirade the chief talked about how the entire youth population volunteered to join the revolution and were armed with guns and bullet ready to die for the new government and will never again accept him back to the Gambia as President. That he should accept his fate and stop the greed after staying in power for too long, much longer than his predecessors, such as Pierre Sarr Njie, Garba Jahumpa and Reverend J. C. Faye.
Another Senegalese marabout visiting the country was also dragged to the radio to echo similar sentiment to the Senegalese president Abdou Diouf begging him to halt the bloodbath.
When nothing worked Kukoi threatened to kill the entire family of the President still held hostage at Fajara Barracks.
Nonetheless, the urban warfare simply raged on into unprecedented violence. The amateur fighters, the armed youth and the fearless boys emboldened after killing some Senegalese became more feared by the invaders than the Field Force rebels who were literally obliterated in their first contact with them.
The youth in Brikama and Serekunda in particular fought like seasoned guerilla fighters, laying street ambushes and taking down whole truck loads of soldiers and disappearing into surrounding homes with back exits to other streets or alleys. The boys skillfully used stolen Ladda cars-imported from Russia-in hit and run skirmishes stunning the soldiers by their stealth and resilience.Rapid Propelled Grenade launchers (RPG), soon to be known and feared as bazookas helped in neutralizing the stubborn mobile fighters.
Before the Senegalese mopped up the last pocket of resistance in the country for Sir Dawda to be driven back from Dakar to Banjul in an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) the morgue in the city of Banjul was filled and emptied several times. Vultures hovered over the skies scavenging for human carcasses strewn all over the urban area.
White French soldiers were seen in the streets of Serekunda in the heat of the urban warfare. British Special Forces disguised as doctors rescued President Jawara’s wife and children at the Field Force Barracks.
Kukoi finally abandoned the fight and fled the country to Guinea Bissau along with about a dozen of his colleagues. President Nino Vieira of Guinea Bissau rejected all request from Senegal and Gambia to extradite him and his renegades. Insistent pressure eventually forced them to leave Bissau for Cuba. Ironically in 1996 Kukoi and some of his men after training in Libya and fighting for Charles Taylor in Liberia, converged in Senegal and attacked Farafeni Barracks to overthrow the APRC government Read that episode later.
The Senegalese government reinstated Sir Dawda Jawara and his PPP government, retained a huge military presence in the country committed to protecting him and his government and to rebuild the security forces they destroyed and finally convinced him and his government into an agreement to merge the two countries, politically and economically starting with a confederation and working towards a total federation.
Over 2000 members of the NCP opposition party including their leader Sheriff Mustapha Dibba were arrested, detained and tortured for ten months at the Fajara Barracks without being charged or allowed any legal representation. Mr Kemesseng Jammeh, one of the party’s executive members and former Gambia ambassador to Turkey for the Coalition government was a victim of that mass incarceration and unprecedented brutality. Human rights organizations all over the world condemned the PPP for violating the rights of innocent people yet to be proven guilty in a court of law.
The government out of external pressure commissioned a hasty court to convict the detainees.
But Lawyer Ousainu Darboe, current leader of the United Democratic Party volunteered free of charge to represent them and did a tremendous job in proving the innocence of the overwhelming majority including their leader, Mr. Mustapha Dibba. History will always remember him for standing up against such injustice.
Some were found guilty and sentenced to death with others imprisoned for life although no one was executed except Private Mustapha Danso.
Massive economic aid arrived from all over the world especially from Western Nations who saw the Gambia’s situation as another victory against their arch enemies, the Soviet Union or communism in general.
Sir Dawda in his book Kairaba narrated how he soon paid a special visit to Dakar and compensated the 33 Senegalese soldiers killed in the Gambia with $1,000,000, a purchasing power in 2020 equivalent to $2,911,158.
The country never accounted for the numerous Gambians and non-Gambians killed by the incident or by accident in the battle for Banjul, estimated to be over a 1000 men, women and children from a population of less than a million inhabitants at the time. Only the mass graves on the Banjul Highway remind families of their loved ones who disappeared in the calamity. It is a shame that the PPP government made no official attempt to account for the dead or wounded as if everyone who perished had deserved it and not to be remembered ever.
The innocent deserved a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, yes, a “TRRC” to provide them the justice they were denied. I could still remember men who perished in my neighborhood, Madi Conteh, a customs officer suffocated in an overcrowded police cell in Banjul; Amadou Jallow a Guinean businessman killed in his home along with his wife and two children by a machine gunner fired from an APC. Ebou Faal, an unemployed youth killed exchanging fire with Senegalese commandos in Jeshwang, Malick Mendy likewise.
Anyway if our peoples were to find a perfect justification to permanently unite The Gambia and Senegal, I don’t think there could have been a better one than what brought us together under Sir Dawda Jawara and Abdou Diouf in 1981. They both showed up on TV and pledged their commitment to remain eternal friends and allies, sincerely consenting at all levels of their governments to form a federation of Senegambia.
Yet by 1989, after eight years of trying everything to make the confederation evolve to the next level, Sir Dawda, at some point started violating every facet of the protocol in a bid to terminate the bargain. The Senegalese tried to stay on course perhaps viewing their departure as a political and moral failure that will irreversibly hurt the countries’ relationship.
But Jawara didn’t care and has unfortunately died with the undisclosed reason for his stubbornness to break away from what had looked so good.
It is in fact believed that if the Senegalese hadn’t read his defiant messages and left on time he would have thrown them out embarrassingly.
President Abdou Diouf is still alive and should be able to shed some light on what exactly went wrong.
Why then rush into another dubious confederation in 2017 on a weaker premise by a mediocre government, fraught with snowballing internal problems and of course with no definitive plan to build a better Gambia?
Well before and during the confederation, 1965-1989, our common borders had no restriction to free movement of people, vehicles and goods, providing obstacle-free roads for merchants and commercial traffic throughout the sub-region. Reasonably-priced goods were in abundance at the Banjul Port, metaphorically referred to as the “supermarket of the sub-region”.
After the disintegration of the confederation in September 1989, the Senegalese since then have ended such free and lucrative trade by shutting down our borders through the remaining days of the PPP government, 1989 to 1994 and through the APRC government era, 1994 to 2016 and there is no hope that they will lift the embargo anytime soon, even after the Coalition government seemingly mortgaged the Gambia to them in 2017.
So can anyone explain what the hell is going on folks?
Read my next article. Thanks.