By Samsudeen Sarr
Sunday July 24th, 1994 marked the day the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) government strengthened its position to govern The Gambia.
Sub-Lieutenant EJabaiteh (not real name) in a telephone call arranged with the US ambassador in The Gambia around 10am for the coup leaders to speak to Sir Dawda Jawara who was still offshore in the USS Lamoure County battleship told the deposed president not to ever think about coming back to power, threatening him with severe punishment, if he dared to return to the country. After that call, the American visitors decided to leave the shores of The Gambia to Senegal on their way back home.
The young officers also came up with official appointments of members of the new government. I was not present at the meeting upstairs but Captain Chambers was: Lt Janneh became the Chairman of the AFPRC and head of state of The Gambia; 2ndLtBS Sillabar Vice Chairman and deputy head of state; 2ndLt Jabaiteh Minister of Defence; 2nd Lt Saibo Hammed Minister for the Interior; and co-opted council member 2nd Lt Yanka Turo Minister of Local Government, Lands and Mines.
I was verbally informed by 2nd Lt Jabaiteh of my appointment as Minister of Trade and Industry with Captain Chambers appointed as Minister of Information and Broadcasting. There were no letters. Our appointments were however publicly announced at the national radio in the afternoon news.
A special meeting was convened to identify civilian prospects for ministerial appointments who were all consulted for their consent. By the next afternoon, Monday, the 25th, almost all prospective civilian ministers were notified and invited to the State House for their swearing-in ceremony the next day, except for the Minister of Finance who was President Sir Dawda Jawara’s Minister of Finance and had fled the country along with him to Dakar. He will eventually leave Sir Dawda in Dakar and return to take up the position.
The Senegalese ambassador, Mr Kebé, as promised, called around 1pm to inform Chairman Janneh that the Senegalese president Mr Abdou Diouf was ready, expecting his call from Dakar on the number he gave us on Saturday.
I was present when the two heads of state talked for roughly 15 minutes. Chairman Janneh was very judicious, reassuring the Senegalese president an honest and mutually beneficial cooperation between the brotherly states of The Gambia and Senegal. That his government will be friendlier and will pursue through every avenue of bilateral treaty, bringing the two countries closer than ever before. That the smuggling of goods by rogue traders undermining the economy of Senegal in particular was no longer going to be tolerated by his government. The chairman, with all honesty spoke very well in a way I never thought he could. Personally, I could tell that he was by far more mature than all the other council members.
In response, President Diouf first congratulated the chairman and members of his government for the successful and orderly manner they had conducted the peaceful takeover, declaring his government’s neutrality and non-interference position in what he explicated as purely an internal Gambian affair. That though he had agreed to offer political asylum to President Jawara who had just arrived in Dakar and his entourage on humanitarian grounds, his government would never to allow anyone to orchestrate any sort of subversive activity in Senegal targeted against the AFPRC government.
The telephone conversation ended with both heads of state affirming each other better days ahead for a new and genuine relationship, reciprocated by both countries in purpose and spirit.
By Monday morning July 25th, 1994, everything appeared to have been falling in place except for the disturbing and ceaseless wave of arrests and detentions of police and military officers at Mile 2 Central Prison by the vice chairman and the minister for the interior.
These two maniacs throughout contributed no ideas or plans to improve anything for the betterment of the initial chaotic situation; they persistently behaved as if they were at war with their superiors and peers in the security services, especially in the army and police.
I could remember preventing the arrest of two officers, a GNA captain and a TSG officer who had done nothing wrong to deserve being detained at Mile 2. The GNA captain would be arrested after I was detained.
That Monday, July 25th, the country started to return to normalcy. Public and private businesses were back in full gear and all government workers reported for duties.
Amazingly, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence showed up at his office where I was glad to meet him briefly. I didn’t know when he was released from Yundum Barracks and by whom but I also sadly learnt that his partner, the director general of the National Security Service was whisked away to Mile 2 prison by the loonie twins.
The PS still gave me a cold shoulder when I tried to engage him in a discussion on what had happened in the past including the warning letter I had given them months ago about the danger of the imbalance of power between the army and police. He didn’t want to entertain any of it.
I was later able to make a familiarisation visit to my ministry where I held a quick meeting with the officials including the permanent secretary and other senior and junior staff members.
I stayed at the State House chatting with Chairman Janneh until around 11pm before going back to my residence. I was the only officer among us having and living with a wife and kids. They all occupied different rooms in the presidential palace where they spent the night.
Captain Chambers who was a divorcee at the time had his own room too.
Tuesday morning July 26th, 1994 was scheduled for our swearing-in ceremony as newly-appointed ministers. I drove into the State House premises and found a big crowd of soldiers standing idly by. The senior officer on the ground called the attention of everyone to stand still while he complimented me with a salute.
I walked into the building and went straight upstairs to the chairman’s lounge where I last met him the previous night. It was baffling to find one TSG corporal alone in the place, who told me that the chairman was still in bed, not at all part of his habitual trait. I walked over through the corridor to see whether Captain Chambers was in his room but ran into Defence Minister 2nd Lt Jabaiteh who for the first time was oddly snobbish. At that moment I instinctively felt that something was fundamentally wrong.
Captain Chambers was in another room talking to a civilian I recognised as the prospective minister of foreign affairs. I talked to the captain in private asking whether he had noticed anything abnormal the previous night because of the perceptible freakish environment.
He told me how in the middle of the night, while sleeping, 2ndLt Jabaiteh woke him up and forced him to find somewhere else to sleep because he needed that particular bedroom as a council member and the minister of defence.
That was it. Something was really wrong, I concluded.
I left him and walked further down to the room occupied by the vice chairman and his partner, the minister for the interior.
They were inside chatting, but immediately walked out of the room as soon as they noticed my presence. They hastily walked away and down the stairs to exit the building.
I went back to ask for more details from Captain Chambers but was interrupted by a soldier who informed the captain that he was needed downstairs by the vice chairman.
“What is going on Captain Chambers?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied with noticeable unease.
The soldier turned to me and said, “and you too sir”.
Downstairs, the two council members told us to board their vehicles for a trip to show us something special.
Two pick-up trucks full of heavily armed soldiers led the convoy out of the State House and out of the city of Banjul.
Two miles towards the Kombos, we branched off to Mile 2 Central Prison.
As soon as the vehicles came to a stop in the prison yard, the soldiers in the lead vehicle jumped off and rushed to us with pointed guns while the vice chairman told us that we were under arrest.
When I asked him for what reason, he again repeated the same thing that we were only under arrest.
Like over thirty police and military officers, we were also arrested and incarcerated at Mile 2 Central Prison. As baffling as the whole episode was, I think for two days or more I thought the whole thing was a joke and that before long someone was going come and unlock our cell doors and take us right back to where we were.
I had to spend ten months in prison, not charged, tried or provided any reason or legal counsel. By the time I was released and reinstated into the army as deputy army commander, the two arresting fools, self-promoted now, Captain Sillabar and Captain Hammed had been arrested and brought to Mile 2 Central Prison where the former will spend nine years and the latter will die in June 1995. Up to this very day, nobody could definitively tell me why I was arrested and detained but I believe it was the best thing at the time to happen to me especially when the soldiers out there started killing each other on allegations of counter-coups. I don’t know how I would have survived the wave of violence that erupted soon after our detention; an affliction, symptomatic of the treachery and unpredictability of most military governments.
After our arrest on July 26, 1994, Vice Chairman Sillabar put under pressure by the international media, to explain why so many security officers were arrested and for how long they would remain detained without charging and trying them for their crimes, he referred to us as security detainees; and as such, we were to be subjected to an investigation by a government-created legal commission comprised legal experts, members of the security forces and religious leaders to determine who was innocent or guilty of any subversive activities.
Those found guilty were to be prosecuted accordingly while the innocent would be set free. The whole exercise by the commission was to end in six months.
It never came that far but we were told at the prison that the current lead council of the ongoing TRRC was going to prosecute those found guilty by the commission. He was an employee of the Attorney General’s Chambers at the Ministry of Justice in the period after the coup.
However, in no other better way to elucidate it than the conception of poetic-justice, on January 26th, 1995 exactly six months after the two clowns and butchers arrested us, they arrived at Mile 2prison in chains to join us, suspected of subversive activities against their colleagues. No sooner had they arrived than they started lamenting over being unjustifiably arrested and incarcerated, that they had done nothing wrong. I left them in prison in mid-May 1995. I had always doubted whether I would have been released that early if the duo were still left loose in their rampageous behaviors.
Captain Chambers on the other hand remained incarcerated for close to two years before he was released and dismissed from the government and armed forces.
Anyway, it really had bothered me when months after our arrest, he confessed to me in the prison that he was approached by the junior officers to help them carry out the coup which he first agreed to, but later changed his mind when they told him that the hierarchy of the successor government will not be determined by seniority.
Another captain from the GNA engineering unit who in fact first told me that both of them endorsed the coup plan said that Captain Chambers was going around saying that he would organise a counter-coup against the “Boys” if they succeeded in toppling the PPP government.
Captain Chambers had denied saying that much, but the fact that he was aware of the coup and supported it before changing his mind and did nothing about it gave me the best reason why we were arrested but treated differently. Had I known, I probably would have never agreed to have stayed at the State House with Captain Chambers on that Friday evening, July 22nd ,1994 when the two of us were asked to help in the formation of the new AFPRC government. Nevertheless, we did a tremendous job together to stabilise the volatile situation that emerged immediately after the coup. I saw that as a noble job for the Gambian nation.
I have recently, during the ongoing TRRC written extensively about what happened at Mile 2 Central Prison in the ten months I was locked up and will add it to other important events in my notes to publish as a book.
I was able to secretly document every detail of the events in the prison on daily basis and smuggled away to my wife for safe keeping thanks to the kind cooperation of few good prison guards.
It was tough but as the saying goes, “tough times never last, tough people do.”.
Samsudeen Sarr the author, was a Commander of the Gambia National Army, diplomat and author of several books. He is currently on a sojourn in New York City.