Forty years ago today, The Gambia was rocked by a coup attempt against the PPP government of Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara.
According to historian Hassoum Ceesay, the violence lasted 8 days, killing 1000 Gambians and while property worth US5million was lost to looting and arson. Mr Ceesay added that “the coup was unique in that it was led by a civilian, and the plotters led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang, were mainly civilians including taxi drivers, fishermen and watchmen.”
Historian Ceesay went down memory lane to explain the prelude to the coup: “The writings were literally and figuratively on the walls. There was a looming disaster and all Gambians knew something terrible will befall our nation. In the period 1979-1981, there was youth revolt led by the various anti government subterranean groups like Black Scorpions, Movement of Justice in Africa (MOJA), and The Gambia Socialist Revolutionary Party of Pengu George etc. These groups organised youths into resistance mood, and there was arson such as the burning of President Jawara’s yacht, the MV Mansa Kila -ba; the burning of markets, street graffiti and sustained insults on state leaders including Jawara and denigrating of state institutions like The Gambia Commercial and Development Bank.
In November, the assassination of Field Force (Paramilitary) Commander Eku Mahoney at Bakau Barracks by a sentry, Mustapha Danso shocked the nation and by the time Kukoi struck, the PPP government was under sustained attack and severely undermined.”
Kukoi’s coup was the coup de grace; a lot of damage had been inflicted on the state already”, he said.
Asked who was Kukoi Samba Sanyang, the historian explained: “He was a brilliant young man, born in 1953 and died in 2013. He attended Saint Augustines High School in Banjul and entered the famous Ngasobil Seminary in Senegal to train to become a Catholic priest. After a few years, he was expelled and in 1977, he stood as a candidate for the National Convention Party of Mr Sheriff Mustapha Dibba in the elections of that year. Kukoi had lost faith in the democratic process of our country when he lost the elections for the Foni East Constituency that year scoring less than 800 votes, he became disillusioned. Between 1977 and July 1981, he travelled the world learning revolutionary ideas. He lived in Libya and became known to Colonel Gaddafi who is suspected to have given him support to overthrow the PPP government. Kukoi was a brilliant man who became a miserable revolutionary”.
Mr Ceesay said while President Jawara was away in London, UK, attending the marriage ceremony of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, Kukoi, assisted by 11 men walked from their base in Tallinding to Bakau where they attacked the Field Force armoury and started the coup on 30 July 1981, a day before Tobaski.
“The first to die was Kikala Baldeh, the armoury commander. Then the rebels took over Radio Gambia, Yundum airport, and State House. At Radio Gambia, Kukoi made his first broadcast to Gambians announcing his coup, and his new government called Supreme Council of the Revolution (SCR) which he chaired. At State House, Kukoi kidnapped the First Lady and the rest of the Jawara family and held them hostage, until they were freed by a special British force. Hostage taking was a disturbing peculiarity of the Kukoi coup hitherto unknown in coup making in Africa,” Hassoum Ceesay said.
But according to the historian, Kukoi had other techniques at hand: “He kidnapped notable Gambians and forced them at gunpoint to denounce Jawara over Radio Gambia. Sanjally Bojang, the respected chief and farmer was a good example. They were forced to denounce Jawara and to ask him not to return to The Gambia’,” Ceesay said.
Asked how the coup was crushed, Hassoum explained that when Jawara heard of the coup he was advised by his loyal ministers, then holed up at the Police HQ in Banjul, that there was enough resistance by loyal forces of the police to stop the coup. He invoked the 1965 Defence Pact with Senegal and asked his High Commissioner in Dakar Bakary Bunja Dabo to work on military support from Senegal to restore democracy in the country. Senegal sent troops to Banjul on 1 August 1981 and they crushed the coup with leader Kukoi fleeing to Bissau. Dozens of Senegalese soldiers died in including 18 soldiers on board a military chopper shot by Kukoi’s rebels at Radio Syd. Senegal sacrificed a lot to restore democratic order in The Gambia”, Ceesay noted.
Asked about the aftermath of the coup, the historian explained: “Jawara handled the aftermath well. He refused to be vindictive or vengeful. No ethnic group or region was profiled for the coup. Over 2000 people were detained but each was accounted for, and there were no missing prisoners. Each detained person was given an arrest warrant and their names gazetted. There was no impunity. The hybrid courts tried the accused, and many, including opposition leader S.M Dibba, were freed and others sentenced. No executions took place from the treason trials. Rule of law was maintained. All the 3000 rifles let loose from the Bakau depot were recovered by end of August 1981. Also, Jawara defied the odds and dared the assassins to conduct his annual Meet the Farmers Tour from August 12 to 20 1981 to explain to Gambians what happened and to call for national unity and reconciliation”.
The media, especially radio, played a key role in the reconciliation process. Through the Radio Gambia flagship programmes like One Gambia, One Nation, Gambians quickly reconciled and started the recovery process. He further explained that “through the Looted Properties Commission led by Alh K. Conteh, contrite Gambians returned over 70 per cent of looted goods back to their owners; through the Detainees Review Panel led by Sheikh Joof, many people who were wrongfully arrested were released even before the end of August 1981. Through the External Aid Commission led by Ambassador E.M. Taal, international support poured into the country and ordinary Gambians also contributed money, chicken, and cows to the Government recovery effort”, Hassoum Ceesay revealed.
Asked what lessons Gambia of 2021 can learn from Gambia of July 1981: “Well, there was too much bile and bitterness and insults against our elected leaders and public institutions in the years leading to July 30 1981 catastrophe. Public confidence was severely eroded. There was anger. The opposition NCP started their ‘Sosolaso’ campaign promising not to spare the PPP, for example. Kukoi used this opportune moment to strike. So Gambians should remember this.”