With Omar Wally
Sheriff Samsudeen Sarr was born in Serekunda in 1950s. He studied at Yundum College from 1974 to 1977 and taught as a qualified teacher at Latrikunda School. As president of Debating and Writing Club at Yundum College, he started writing the novel Meet Me In Conakry.
In November 1980, Sarr left for the US and studied Agricultural Engineering and graduating with an associate degree. Upon return to The Gambia, while scouting for a job, he walked into the military barracks, registered and passed the exam. In August 1986, he went to US for infantry military training at Fort Benning and later Fort Bragg. In 1987, he became platoon commander at Kartong as part of Confederal Army. In 1988 while serving at Kartong he shot himself in the leg with a pistol and was evacuated to Senegal for treatment. Sarr served in the Confederal Army until the end of the Senegambia Confederation in 1989.
He was posted to State House and became a liaison officer between the army and the PPP government until the 1994 coup. He was a captain, the second highest rank in the army by then. In 1999, after a disagreement with Jammeh, he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel with all his benefits. He left for US, where he spent 18 years in exile until 2015 when Jammeh appointed him deputy representative at the UN. Sarr who has since returned to The Gambia and operates a vehicle services business, talks to Bantaba anchor Omar Wally.
Your book Meet Me In Conakry, was a popular novel, what inspired it?
I had a story to tell. It was a nice story that suited the time. It was like the ‘backway’ mentality of the youth rebelling against parental control and trying to go out of the country and run into hurdles that force them to come back. It was the first Pacesetter [series book] ever written by a Gambian.
It has long been rumoured that Omar Jallow (OJ) helped you to join the Gambia Army.
Haha! Omar Jallow is here. Ask him if he even knew that I was applying to join the army. I walked into the army barracks with my credentials, my associate degree and handed it to Major Wright and they slated me for an exam with almost 24 officers. Major [Momodou] Bojang took first and I came second. The results are there.
Why did you try to supress the 1994 coup?
A coup is a taboo. It is not even taught at military institutions or any military academy. That was why I decided to write the book Coup d’etat in The Gambia National Army, to highlight the inherent dangers in a coup. We must also respect the fact that behind every action there is a purpose. There were indications that there would be a coup in 1994. I did not try to supress the coup, I tried to discourage it. I was afraid of the situation deteriorating into an armed conflict. Rwanda was in my eyes in those days, it was the same year when Rwanda went into that chaotic ethnic genocide. I was afraid that if the situation should go in to the crisis mode where the soldiers lose control, the security and the country will go into an armed conflict that we could not stand. I did not want the coup to happen at all because it was too irresponsible. The day of the coup when I met them at Denton Bridge, Edward Singhatey and Jammeh, I begged them to stop.
Yet you later became a spin-doctor of the regime. But before then, you were on the record as saying: ‘I’m pleased, I’m no more a member of AFRPC because I don’t want to associate myself with the killings, torture, illegal detentions etc. Anybody who worked with AFPRC guys will be equally quality of the crimes they have committed’.
Circumstances change based on the developments that occur.
But a coup is a coup, you are just trying to coup proof.
I have never supported the coup in the sense that when it happened, I was afraid of its unintended consequences. But the situation that led to the coup, I wish I could change that situation without making it a coup. The situation that led to the coup was so bad that if, I had the means of changing it without necessarily using a coup as the means to do it, I would have done it. Gambia’s army was formed in 1985, and in 1990 Gambian soldiers were sent to Liberia for peacekeeping. They were young and never exposed to any international crisis. When soldiers died there, all parties that contributed contingences, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Guinea Conakry repatriated the bodies of their fallen soldiers. When Gambian soldiers wanted to repatriate the bodies of two Gambian soldiers who died there, the PPP government said, don’t bring them here, bury them there [Liberia].
It was said you refused to go to Liberia for peacekeeping?
Things were bad and they wanted to take soldiers who were inexperienced to a war zone. There was never a time the GNA was commanded by a Gambian. It was the British who were in command and control of the army. Liberia was at war but when I saw the soldiers being sent their and were denied the right to be buried home when they died there, I felt it was unjustifiable to send any child there. I was a solider and saw the soldiers who were killed in Liberia and I knew them very well. Sama Jaba was in my company and Lamin Bojang was in the medical field and they were good boys. The day I heard that they were killed, I was sad and we were looking forward to seeing their bodies brought to The Gambia for burial. The government said they were not going to be buried here.
Why was government against their burial?
Members of PPP are here, ask them. That really instilled the anger in the minds of the soldiers. Remember when they came there were delays in paying their allowances and they organised demonstrations and those were rehearsals for coup. The officers who took part in the demonstration were angry with the government. So, I hated Liberia. Every soldier who was supposed to go there was sure if he died there, they will not be buried in The Gambia. And you are being paid $3 per day to fight a battle that you did not even know what you are fighting for. I was against Liberia by spirit, sentiment and my conscience. Hey, I’m a solider and I have a right not to accept illegal commands.
Was that command illegal?
It was an illegal command, I was not even selected. In July 1997, when they attacked Kartong, I was the first they call to say there was an attack. We all came together and rushed there because we taught it was Casamance rebels who attacked Kartong. I told them whoever attacked Kartong and is successful, they will come and kill all of us with our families so let us die with them over there. I went to Guinea Bissau at the height of the war between Nino and Ansumane Mané. I was almost killed there but I went there. So those saying Sarr is a coward, it is a joke. I hate reckless war. War is bad and if I can avoid it, I would just like coups but they are here to stay with human kind.
After the coup, what led to your fallout with Jammeh?
After the coup, I was going home because I was not happy and I was against the coup. It was Lieutenant [Basiru] Barrow who said, why don’t you keep Sarr and Mamadou Cham around. We agreed and I stayed there and helped them in trying to stabilise the situation because it was unstable. Americans were convincing us to bring back Jawara and make him a ceremonial leader. In that case they could tell Washington it was not a coup as the president was still there and then after six months we could conduct an election and return it to civilian rule. That was the recommendation from the Americans.
Going back to my question, why did you fell out with Jammeh?
In the beginning there was misunderstanding. I was reported to him that I did something wrong which I did not.
What was that?
I don’t want to go into details. I have sorted out all the differences with people I got conflict with in the past.
It was over 20 years ago, tell us.
Revisiting that and calling names will bring back memories that I don’t want anyone to remember. I’m concerned about the present.
Were you at fault?
Some people thought I was at fault, I was right. In fact that was what led me to write Coup d’etat in the Gambian Army which is basically my autobiography. I mentioned part of the coup in there which was all true but with anger and frustration which I regret a lot. The anger [with which] I wrote that book was not necessary.
Jammeh called that book ‘a pack of lies’.
I was quoting people who were present. When I left jail, I was brought back in the army. They accused me of masterminding an attempted coup on 27 July 1994. Sana Sabally and Sadibou Haidara arrested me and took me to Mile 2. Nobody told me why I was arrested with almost thirty five others. While we were in jail, people were campaigning that we should be executed. I understand Valentine Strasser of Sierra Leone, was trying to encourage the government to execute us. That was the impression they were giving to the world that we were trying to stage a countercoup. But in May 1995, I was released from jail and reinstated into the army and literally became the deputy commander of the army. People were telling me with all I went through, why didn’t I quit. I said if I quit I will not be able to justify the fact that I was innocent. If I were a coup agent, I would not have been brought from jail to the army. I stayed and work with the government until 1999, a period that was orderly and calm.
Why and how did you come to reconcile with Jammeh?
With all the years I tried going against him, I did not make an impact in fighting him. The whole world loved Jammeh. Even my family loved Jammeh; they go to his ceremonies, praise him and I will call home and nobody would like to talk to me. It was like a taboo. It came to a point I said forget about the fight, I have more important things to take care of.
How can you say the whole world loved Jammeh?
Because there was no sign or anybody agreeing with the fact that he should leave. I did not see any opposition to Jammeh at that time.
Of course there were a thousand opposition against him.
There was no popular opposition there.
That justified you joining Jammeh?
No, my justification of joining Jammeh, I did not go there yet. You should remember that
Jammeh was married within the family I’m married to. And the family became so close together, so being vocal against the regime was not going to be very good within the family. So I stepped back and there was negotiation and we talked and I reconciled with Jammeh.
Did he give you money?
No. I felt that he was running a government and you cannot judge a government when you are outside. Judging a government and trying to take your ideas the best against the government is not justifiable when you are out of government. So unless you are in there you don’t know the way they act. That was the reality. I said let me step back. When you are inside, it is a different ball game.
You later apologised to Jammeh when you met him in New York.
That is not true. Do you know who was present at the meeting? They were Gambians sitting there, Amadou Samba, Lamin Manga and Ansu Jammeh, when I met Jammeh that night. I did not disclose it anywhere but he offered me a job that night.
What job was that?
United Nations and to work for him. But that was not the essence of reconciling with Jammeh. I wanted to reconcile with Jammeh so that I could come back home. I didn’t want to be in exile for the rest of my life. I could do my own thing, I had a good job, and my kids were going to the best schools. After all I did not lose anything; it might not be superficially bad. Realistically, leaving The Gambia was the best thing for me. But even if I retire, I could not go back to The Gambia because I did not see Jammeh going away. He was winning election after election.
So you joined Jammeh because tired of living in exile, you wanted to come home?
You have narrowed it to just two things. I gave you so many reasons. My mother, brother and my grandmother who raise me died, I couldn’t come for their funeral. The very friends who encouraged me to be very harsh on Jammeh, would leave me occasionally and come to The Gambia to see their parents. They will not even want me to mention their names and they did not even want people to know that I know them. Why would I be the hero for the rest of the world when people whom I taught could have done the same thing I’m doing were not doing anything to help me? Let us go back to Jawara. He was out there, Jammeh talked to him and he came back and everybody hated Jammeh for that. Sir Dawda was toppled, he went to England and things were very miserable for him. I understand that one of his best friend’s swindled him into going into a business deal that made him lose his house. Things were so tough and Jammeh reached out, gave him some incentives, allowed him to come back and a lot of people were against it. If Jammeh hadn’t done that, Jawara would have been homeless in the streets of England and nobody was going to take care of him. We have to be realistic, my friend, of course Jammeh is gone, there is a change of government but there were so many things that went wrong. If you want to make aright all that went wrong, you will lose what is going to be corrected.
Jammeh said you are a professional liar because some of the comments you made about him in your book weren’t true.
What I think made Jammeh angry was when Karl Bayo came with a letter of appointment and I rejected the appointment. And Jammeh was very upset about that. When Jammeh saw me at UN he took the Qur’an at the entrance of the UN, swore and told me anything that you did to me I have forgiven you. It was not about seeking for job, I had one of the best jobs in US.
How many dollars were you making in an hour?
I was making 30 dollars per hour. I was a team leader and running a whole unit doing maintenance in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I decided to come later and people were saying it was a trap. That Jammeh was trapping me and if I come to The Gambia, I would be killed. I wanted to know where my mother, brother and grandmother were buried before I died. I took that risk and when I arrived people were saying they were looking and hunting for me. Even the day Jammeh made that remark on TV, people came to me and say run.
Many Gambians were upset with you because it was reported that you sanctioned Jammeh shooting protesters.
No. I did not say that. Somebody came to my office and had a tape recorder in his pocket. That was the day I think the demonstration happened. I did not even know what happened – I don’t want to mention his name because I will give him importance. He came to my office and asked me to justify why somebody was killed in a demonstration in The Gambia. I told the person, I did not even know somebody was killed in a demonstration, he said yes. I told him, I cannot give you any official answer because I did not hear from The Gambia. This guy was so arrogant and he started insulting. If I knew he had a recorder, I would not have talked to him. At one point I told him the demonstration you call peaceful was incited here in America because every day if you listen to the radio they are calling for Gambians to go out in the streets and do what the Burkinabè did and in flushing out Blaise Compoarè. And they were even raising funds for people to come and I was afraid.
What did you say then?
What I said was a demonstration can lead to crises and people could be killed and anybody who wanted to agitate for a demonstration while I’m in charge, I will open fire on that person. I made that remark. He was in my office for two hours and he was even asking for job. He took out the 12 seconds out of a two-hour conversation. I’m not that crazy. Ask those who were in the army, they will tell you that if I did not help a solider, I will not hurt a solider, I have never brutalised or killed anyone. I tried to stop people killing each other. I’m not an evil person as they portraying me to be.
Being the international face of the dying days of Jammeh, did you regret supporting Jammeh?
I did not regret anything that he did in the past. I have to be frank with you, I did not regret anything. What I was afraid of was what I was avoiding in 1994. In the same way I was afraid of war breaking out in The Gambia in 1994, it is the same way I’m afraid war breaking and people were ready to see war, just to get Jammeh out. I thought Jammeh will resist and I went to UN campaigning for troops not to come to The Gambia because if the bullets started firing, they will never be stopped.
Some want Jammeh to be prosecuted but others want him forgiven. Where do you stand?
Those who are against him think he should be prosecuted. There are almost over 200,000 people who think he should be forgiven and a fresh page be turned, like what happened in Ghana. If we want to forge ahead, we should close the chapter of the past. There are elements who are pretending not knowing or supporting Jammeh when they were in the inner cycle. Anything that brings peace and harmony, we should work toward that. I was a victim and spent ten months in Mile 2 eating bad stuff, dehumanised, my friends were beaten. If you punish you are not reconciling, because if you punish you are creating more enemies.