Saidou Nourou Ba is a career diplomat who served as the last executive secretary of the Senegambian Secretariat in The Gambia. He was in The Gambia at the time of the 1981 abortive coup and was held hostage by the rebels led by the late Kukoi Samba Sanyang. He shared his experience with The Standard editor Sainey Darboe.
My name is Ambassador Saidou Nourou Ba. I am a career diplomat and I was posted in many countries including Russia, England, Belgium, The Gambia, United States, the United Nations and Algeria. Algeria was my last posting where I served as ambassador of Senegal. For 16 years, I was dean of the diplomatic corps. Since I retired some years ago, I have been a consultant on cooperation and international relations. I was in The Gambia as the third and last executive secretary of the Senegambian Secretariat. Before the current one resumed in 2011, I was here from 1978 to 1981. I also served as a special adviser to the minister of foreign affairs some years ago and the deputy permanent representative of Senegal to the United Nations. This was from 1987 to 1989. At that time, Senegal was a member of the Security Council and there are only 15 members in the Security Council – 5 permanent members and 10 non-permanent members covering over 90 states. So if you have the chance like Senegal to be elected, and to have a chance like myself to be there, you should be grateful to God. This is because since Senegal gained independence, it is only twice that it got the chance to be a Security Council member. It has been a symbolic moment in my career to represent Senegal at such high-level.
To get to such high levels in the diplomatic service does not happen by mere chance, how did you do it?
Well, after my graduation from university where I studied law and political science, I went to a school called École Nationale d’Administration which forms the highest level for civil servants in Senegal. Thanks to God I was the best in my class but it was not because I was better than the others. It was a very tough selection and I had the honour to teach at that school up till now even though on a time-to-time basis. As I mentioned, I was a representative at the United Nations Security Council which of course is a milestone in my career. But the biggest achievement is when I was in The Gambia. I am not saying that because you are here but because I think the best diplomacy is what I call diplomatique geographie. You have to get the best relations with your neighbouring countries because we are the same people living in the same house but with two doors of entry. You can enter by The Gambia or Senegal but the same people who share the same culture and languages. I think it is easier to be a diplomat elsewhere than to be a diplomat between neighbouring African countries. This is because everything is sensitive. Even if you are going to the market, they will think you are going to do so and so. Everything you do is sensitive but it gives you a high level of satisfaction that you have contributed more or less into the relations of the countries. It is also a principle for African countries especially The Gambia and Senegal to work towards African unity. This is a constant in the process of diplomacy but how to do it depends on the countries.
What did your work involve when you served in The Gambia?
When I was in The Gambia form 1978 to 1981, I was the executive secretary of the Permanent Secretariat. Between The Gambia and Senegal, we have special relations. This is because we have three structures to monitor our relations. The normal structure is that you have embassies and we have an ambassador in both countries but what is specific from the two countries is that these ambassadors are named high commissioners. Senegal had this only with France and The Gambia but we cancelled the one with France many years ago. We just keep our ambassador in the name of a high commissioner which is a distinctive role. The third structure we have is the Senegambia Secretariat. You don’t see this often between two countries. Why we came to that structure is because long before the independence of The Gambia, I believe this was in 1964, the two governors in The Gambia and Senegal decided to go to the United Nations to ask the body to make a report proposing to The Gambia and Senegal for a kind of structure for cooperation. There were a lot of factors. It was called The Van Muke Report and they made a very good fact-finding. The report was presented I believe in 1966 and in April 1967 but even before that, when they adopted the report, it gave three ways of cooperation. Firstly, the report proposed a complete cooperation. The second one was something that looked like a confederation and the third one is what is called a basket of convention in all areas. The governments decided for the third proposal and so they signed it here in Banjul. It was then called Bathurst when the first Senegalese president Leopold Sedar Senghor made an official visit. I think it was signed in April 1967. This was an international bilateral convention and we set up the permanent secretariat of the Senegambia committee which was based in The Gambia and the executive secretary to be a Senegalese national just to balance things. His deputy should be Gambian and of course, the local staff mainly Gambian. So that structure was set up in 1967 and the first executive secretary was Seidina Oumar Sy who stayed here for a term of five years. From here, he was appointed as ambassador to Brussels in Belgium. In 1973, when he left, another ambassador called Ibra Deguene Ka became the second executive secretary up to 1978. The third one was me from 1978 to 1981. This was the year when a coup d’état happened in The Gambia led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang. I was held hostage with my whole family. This was because I believed in the concept of Senegambian unity. People ran away but I decided to stay and the risks.
So, you were held hostage with your family?
Yes I was held hostage with my family including my wife, children and children of my friends. We were about eight in number. Because I was young and brave, I said even if we were to die, we would rather have a bullet in our heart than in our backs. We never ran away. This is because the cause I was serving was a good one. Even Senegal wanted me to go back but I said no because I was monitoring relations between the two countries. Thank God we were freed by soldiers.
In what conditions were you arrested and kept hostage?
I was in my residence and one day after the coup – I said I will not move from my residence – I did not want to move from The Gambia and so they (the rebels) came heavily armed with a battalion led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang himself. I was expecting them anytime. It is time to really pay tribute to my wife because I asked her to go to the UNDP ambassador’s residence with the children and to leave me alone because maybe they will shoot me or something like that. She said no, because if she goes with the children and after when I had been shot, the whole of Senegal and The Gambia would say she had abandoned me. She decided to stay and said we should all die together. This was very moving and so when they came, I introduced myself to them. They told me they didn’t want me and Senegal to be involved because it was an internal issue. I told them that Senegal could not isolate The Gambia when its peace and stability are concerned and I told him likewise, that if it was Senegal The Gambia would be concerned as well.
That’s very intrepid of you in a moment of great danger. Did you really say that?
Why not? Because I was young, I said I was not moving. When I said that, he [Kukoi] said he wanted me to be a facilitator and wanted me to negotiate with the Senegalese army to tell them to go away from The Gambia. So we went to the airport with them with their guns all over my head. I am writing a book and I am not supposed to say all what I should write in the book.
Can you give me a gist of what you are going to put in the book?
Let me finish with the book and then you will know the details. But then, there was heavy shooting over there between the Senegalese army and the rebels. Many people were killed and thank God I am alive. I left my family over there but I said no, I was going back to them.
But why did they take you to the airport?
This was because the paratroopers from Senegal took the airport. They were air-lifted there during the night together with a very special team of the army in Senegal because we had an agreement on security and defence between Senegal and The Gambia. That was how Senegal intervened. If it was just internal politics where such an agreement is absent, Senegal would not have intervened but this was not the case.
You must have felt very intimidated and fearful of the worst, weren’t you?
I was very young and because I used to hunt, I was used to guns and bullets. And then, I was a pan-African militant which I am still. I believe in Africa and if you are a pan-Africanist, neighbouring countries’ relations should be really important to you. You can have good relations with say South Africa without having better relations with neighbouring countries.]]>