My take on Sanna Sabally’s testimony

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By Dodou Jawneh

What I find problematic in Sanna Sabally’s testimony at the TRRC is his attempt to rekindle the junta’s lying spree in justifying the 1994 illegal takeover. Sanna’s lack of remorse is already widely acknowledged. His position that the summary execution of detained soldiers was an act of self-defence and the rubbishing of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war sent chills through the spines of all who heard his statements.

He went further to enumerate allegations of corruption, nepotism and other cases of institutional failures during the period before the coup, and also added anecdotal evidence of personal encounters with corrupt practices within the government, including after the military takeover. He recounted an instance when he sanctioned the use of a government vehicle to transport certain public servants scheduled to participate in a seminar in Senegal. Sabally was surprised that a document was brought to him for signature and payment in relation to the said seminar. He failed, however, to state whether this document was an invoice. He added that the list was inflated to about 15 names from the original 3 that was initially suggested to him. He then summoned one Saikou Ceesay (probably the late Sulayman Masaneh Ceesay) chairman of the public service commission, PSC, to look into this case, who also agreed that the officials involved should be dismissed but did not say whether any disciplinary proceedings were eventually taken. It is common knowledge that procedural laws, particularly in relation to disciplinary matters in the civil service, had been all but abrogated in favour of the junta’s whims and caprices. The dismissal of public servants on flimsy grounds was commonplace.

However, the flaws in the substance of Sabally’s narrative relating to the seminar can also be easily spotted, adding to the many question marks in his overall testimony. First, it is pertinent to distinguish between SCOT (The special committee on overseas travel) matters from those of the PSC. The former was concerned with scrutinizing applications for overseas trips and approving the payment of required funds and was based in the office of the vice president. The latter has overall jurisdiction over civil service staffing and discipline.

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So consulting the PSC chairman over travel matters reminds me of the proverbial chicken that lost its way and followed boys fetching firewood instead of women processing grains. My doubts about the veracity of a story surrounds these additional question. Why would an invoice or whatever document he referred to be brought to Sanna Sabally for signature instead of the Permanent Secretary who would be the accounting officer? How could payment be made at the VP’s office when the overseas travel vote was centralised at the PMO? Working in the Personnel Management Office in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 coup and involved in both SCOT and PSC matters at the time, I cannot ever recollect this incident the former junta vice chairman was talking about. It appears strange also that public servants would attempt, in this uncertain period, to cheat so blatantly the notoriously temperamental junta number two. And it is questionable also that anyone could get away with this sort of attempt to defraud the government in the face of the accountability measures in place around the travel vote.

Notwithstanding, these kinds of allegations were the raw material necessary for the junta’s propaganda machine that specializes in producing misinformation, portraying the former government in a bad light. His allegation can be seen as part of a larger conspiracy the junta found useful for their purpose. Sabally’s allegations would be dwarfed by some of the most ridiculous lies concocted by the junta number one himself, who famously accused the former regime of siphoning huge sums of money to foreign banks, including British banks after the latter issued a travel warning to its citizens intending to travel to the Gambia.

The junta’s deceit was part of an even grander conspiracy – one involving the Gambian intelligentsia, the media, and other political groupings. It’s not clear how this conspiratorial consensus originated. Could it be due to former president Jawara’s longevity in power and the seeming inability of the political class to convince voters to partake in a democratic change? What can be true is that this consensus graduated to a psychosis, devoid of rational thinking, and later perhaps to the multiple sclerosis of Gambian politics. It is still afflicting Gambian politics but affecting a different organ. Like it did to the Jawara regime, the conspiratorial consensus has turned its attention to the UDP, perceived to be the largest political grouping, especially now that the plethora of political groupings, some ineffectual, have blindfolded President Barrow into believing that the UDP is his enemy.

Its most debilitating impact is the acceptance or endorsement of illegality to bring about the change they failed to effect fairly. In other words, foul was accepted as fair. The July 22 coup and its success have to be viewed in this context. Sections of the political class all but expressed total support for the coup. The NCP welcomed the junta’s action and the leaders of PDOIS expressed the view that the junta would not lead the country on the wrong path and expressed an optimistic outlook of the events. The media described the putsch as a bloodless coup, a veiled endorsement of the coup. Several other civil servants and members of the intelligentsia availed themselves to work with the coupists. In effect, the use of a sledgehammer to crack a nut got formalised.

Another symptom was the deliberate fabrication of ideas and the distortion of facts in support of the necessity to change the status quo by any means. The junta escalated this policy as in Sanna Sabally’s testimony, but, other institutions played their part. The corruption allegations were dramatized through, for instance, the Alghali Commission and embellished in local language translations by journalists such as Sarjo Barrow.
Corollary to this deliberate fabrication of facts was the refrain from the balancing act of measuring the country’s politico-economic development failures that they love to highlight, against achievements in the face of deep scepticisms of the Gambia’s nationhood at the time of independence.

The critics also never bothered to account for the Gambia’s political achievements/failures in comparison with other countries in the wider African region even though its human rights and democratic credentials were acclaimed internationally. Even the internal hype around corruption was not shared by international observers. A report by the USAID, for instance, suggested corruption in the Gambia during the period was only minimal. World Bank’s Division study paper of June 1991 stated thus: ‘The problems experienced by the civil service in The Gambia were clearly smaller than those of Ghana; the economic decline had not been as steep nor as long-lived, and its impact on skills, morale and operation of the civil service was less pronounced.’ In fact, the post-Jawara corruption probes found nothing incriminating against government ministers, although this did not stop the accusations lingering on until today. The post 1994 generation of young Gambians took this claims at face value and ran away with them, becoming a strategic blunder for the fight against dictatorship and perhaps abated Jammeh’s longevity. The disproportionate nature of political analysis of the period is still palpable.

The anti-PPP government consensus also turned a blind eye to the reform measures the government embarked on following major economic shocks of the 1980s, some of which had external origins. A fundamental case for reference to support the believers of the PPP era corruption was the defunct Gambia Commercial and Development Bank and the subsequent establishment of the Assets Recovery and Management Commission tasked with the recovery of debts incurred by this bank. It is believed that Commercial Bank’s aim was to support lending for domestic investment. It may be pertinent to ask whether its failure was due to corruption or mismanagement. Whatever the case, the government appeared to have acted in good faith with the establishment of the AMRC, supported in Parliament by all MPs except one nominated member, Ousainou Njie, who at the time described the AMRC bill as ‘obnoxious law.’

The government also carried out some infrastructural projects including the construction of the Denton Bridge and the Banjul roads and sewage systems. However, the successor government allowed the infrastructure of the capital to decay over the years through neglect. The institutional ‘calamity’ that Sanna Sabally described of the pre-1994 civil service cannot be farther away from the truth. As part of the institutional reform programmes, parastatal organizations had been given greater managerial autonomy leading to the improvements in the performance of Gamtel, Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation as well as GPTC. Following the Peat Marwick study into the civil service in the late 1980s, reform measures were introduced aiming to inculcate a new culture of managerialism whereby civil servants would be made to account for their decisions as reflected in the revised General Orders and Financial Regulations. The reforms also included the streamlining of the civil service, including a retrenchment exercise followed by grade restructuring and pay increases. These reforms put together created greater optimism and sense of direction within the civil service prior to 1994 contrary to Sabally’s testimony of a disjointed and failing organisation.

The rational Gambian citizen might have thought through the country’s myriad problems and gauged these against the successes with a view to building an alternative consensus that seeks to engage in problem-solving. The post independent generation who had been educated and provided jobs in the public service, such as these young soldiers and their counterparts in other fields, should have realised the heavy burden these privileges carry. And they should have adopted the cultural ethos of sacrifice and dedication to nation building with a view to moving the country to the next level instead of resorting to recrimination and rebellion. Furthermore, the politics of consensus building should be made a central plank for citizens but one that projects the country toward the attainment of mutual respect and justice for all so that the ‘never again’ slogan of the TRRC can become a reality.

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