The role of the Americans in The Gambia’s 1994 military coup

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By Samsudeen Sarr

If this series passes the ultimate appraisal for publication, I will produce it as my third book. I therefore hope my impatient readers will continue to bear with me on the missing names until then.

It was after 7pm, July22nd, 1994. All the police and military officers who earlier congregated at the State House for a general meeting that no one would claim ownership of hosting, departed for their homes.

Together with my fellow captain from the army headquarters, the two of us recommended to stay behind. We held a quick meeting with the MP commander, and three other platoon commanders to chart the way forward. The MP commander was the most senior officer among the four.

We unanimously arrived at the need to seek further guidance from General Abubakar Dada, the defiant and angry Nigerian army commander figuratively barricaded at his Fajara residence and whose predicament and disappointment with the PPP government, we thought, could be weaponised in our favour. We had to entice him with a quid pro quo of accepting an advisory role for us and in return to be eventually retained in The Gambia and appointed in that capacity permanently.

He sounded satisfied with the offer and suggested the importance of inviting members of the diplomatic corps in The Gambia as the standard operational procedure and apprise them on the situation, preferably, first thing the following morning. They should be given all the best reasons for the takeover and plans to quickly fix the problems and return the country to civilian rule.

After finishing with the diplomats, the next recommended action was to invite the religious leaders in the country for the same reason. My fellow captain from the army headquarters whom I will, for convenience refer to from now on as Captain Chambers, was tasked with coordinating both meetings the next day. That was all we had from the general.

Another subject exhaustively discussed was about the writing of a good speech. My memory of one of the underlying drawbacks behind the failure of the 1981 abortive coup against the PPP government was the poorly written maiden speech delivered by the leader, Kukoi Samba Sanyang over the national radio, sending a tasteless message to the country and the entire world. The Western world in particular was not under any circumstances going to tolerate the kind of Marxist government Kukoi had intended to establish in The Gambia, surrounded by a French neo-colonial capitalist nation like Senegal. Indeed, the invasion of The Gambia by Senegalese military forces to crush the coup was not merely intended to get the PPP government and their British-indoctrinated leader Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara back to power but most importantly to prevent the Soviet Union from adding a third satellite nation in the sub-region next to Guinea and Guinea Bissau.

For emphasising the need for a well-written speech, I was therefore tasked to focus on doing whatever I could to prepare one. Every Gambian, friend and acquaintance in and out of the army respected my passion for writing; yet when it came to political speech writing I fully well understood it as a skill perfected by certain kind of writers. One such Gambian that came in mind was an experienced veteran journalist, American-educated who used to help in editing my works as an aspiring writer. I was going to consult him the following morning.

As soon as the meeting ended, I drove to my house to see my family and got some food for the first time since my morning breakfast.
In the meantime, to consolidate their authority and make it known to the soldiers in particular, and of course Gambians in general that the four junior officers were in charge and neither the MT nor the B Company commanders who tried to steal the spotlight from them by making an unauthorised radio announcement earlier, the sub-lieutenant and ostensibly the spokesman went right back to the same FM radio station to make the following announcement:

“Fellow Gambians, this country has been taken over by the Gambia Armed Forces.The previous PPP political regime has been completely toppled and former head of state Alhaji Sir Dawda Jawara has fled the nation. Some of the former ministers and officials have also been captured and are in safe hands. An Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) has been set up.

“The council is hereby advising the general public to maintain civil order. So far there have been no killings, no looting and no reports of vandalism. However, it has been brought to the council’s notice that the international media has misinterpreted our actions and is broadcasting false information. The ruling council would also like to assure the general public that it is solely working towards the public interest. All social workers are urged to report to their place of duty, particularly the medical personnel, GPTC personnel and MSG staff. Meanwhile the public is free to carry on their normal daily activities while still abiding by the curfew order, thank you”.

The officer, by reminding the public to abide by the curfew order, showed his endorsement of a part of the speech delivered earlier by the MT and B Company commanders. Did he discuss the speech with the two officers and endorsed it before its delivery and when he realised that the MP commander and his colleagues were not accepting such a treachery, he turned around and threw the MT commander under the bus by publicly exposing him for being their first leader who betrayed them? That was a possibility; but in that same disposition to further appease the MT lieutenant he used to call “Nna Kebba” (meaning my elder in the Mandinka language) he also cast a doubt over the leadership entitlement of the MP commander by trivialising his role in that he was not at all part of the original planners of the coup, the pivotal barometre to measure one’s level of entitlement.

In fact, the same officer was accused of lending clandestine support to the MT commander when he started recruiting officers for the November 11th, 1994 abortive counter-coup and again, when he realised that it would fail, he turned into the notorious psychopath he naturally was but insulated by his genial countenance and even fired the shot from his AK47 rifle that killed the lieutenant just to silence him. However, no matter what others may have claim at the TRRC in particular, it was obvious in his speech that he coined the name AFPRC for the junta when none of them had held any position yet. The audio of the speech is trending on social media.

But the most critical part of the sub-lieutenant’s speech that evening was in the statement that decried that “the international media has misinterpreted our actions and broadcasting false information”. Behind that statement was an underlying problem that if Captain Chambers and I had not been there for its settlement, the chances of the whole coup failing that night of July 22nd, 1994 was 99.99% on my prophecy scale.

I came back to the State House from my residence around 9pm finding the soldiers and officers agitated and hopeless. Word was everywhere that the Senegalese Armed Forces were amassing their troops on our common borders waiting for their last orders to intervene and foil the coup.

The three sub-lieutenants named as council members made futile attempts to meet Mr Kebé, the Senegalese ambassador at his Bakau Cape Point residence to discuss the matter but were refused entry to the compound by the gendarmerie guards on duty.
Captain Chambers and I hopped in an SUV and drove to the diplomat’s house.

The armed gendarmerie officer guarding the main gate was in the beginning very reluctant to even talk to us until when we identified ourselves as military captains on an urgent mission to meet the ambassador. He still insisted that Mr Kebé had already gone to bed.
We seriously warned him of the consequence of being held accountable if he denied us our request aimed at averting the dreadful conflict looming to happen between our two countries.

Realising that we were uncompromisingly serious, he asked us to excuse him for a moment to see whether the ambassador’s wife could wake him up.
Mr Kebé welcomed us in the verandah of his house, comfortably furnished with sofas and loveseats. He was very honest with us. The only reason he answered our call was because his guard told him that two army captains, Chambers and Sarr were outsider requesting to speak to him desperately.

We went straight to the point, raising our concerns about the Senegalese military forces reported to be on the verge of invading the country to fight us.
“Yes, it was true,”he admitted.

Theinformation he was given about the coup and transmitted to Dakar characterised the event as a mutiny by the ordinary GNA soldiers who were on the rampage, looting and destroying public and private properties; that they even had no intention of forming a successor government. He nonetheless expressed his surprise when he was told about captains of our rank being among the officers who actually overthrew the government.
We confirmed our membership among the officers who did the coup, talking to him with all the maturity expected from our seniority.

He was impressed. But for more evidence to strengthen his report to Dakar, we suggested taking a ride in our vehicle with anyone of his free guards for a quick tour of the city and the surrounding vicinity of the Kombos.

Under two hours, we were able to satisfactorily tour the main roads from Bakau to Kanifing to Banjul and back to the ambassador’s residence with one of his trusted agents, a male middle-aged Senegalese in mufti said to be an intelligence officer at their Banjul mission.
The man gave a favourable report to Mr Kebé who in turn assured us that he had already called Dakar and the army was advised to stand down. Before leaving, we extended a verbal invitation to him for our meeting with the diplomats at the State House. He promised to attend but will also arrange for a telephone conversation between the Senegalese president and the leader of the military government.We drove back to the State House in a very festive mood feeling as if we had just dodged a bullet.

Captain Chambers, the MP commander and his close partner the spokesman and I all slept in the annex room adjacent the hall we held the chaotic meeting that evening. It was a wide red-carpeted television room decorated with a huge television set and very cozy brown leather sofas and seats.

We got up in the morning feeling that the gods were working in our favour when for the first time the urban area registered its seasonal thundershower since the beginning of The Gambia’s rain season. It started heavily in the early hours of the morning but tapered down to steady drizzles before finally stopping. Captain Chambers and his assistants went around inviting as many foreign diplomats and religious leaders as time allowed for the planned meetings that day.

The brilliant veteran journalist was contacted and offered to be co-opted as acting secretary general of the new government to help in every way possible especially in writing us a globally accepted speech but he declined. Nonetheless he was kind enough to provide us with excellent pointers that started me well in drafting the right speech. The original copy was however edited with certain significant declarations removed particularly the one guaranteeing the Gambians a new constitution that maximises the term of the presidency in office to ten years.

Just before the arrival of the invited diplomats, another sub-lieutenant, platoon commander, posted at Farafenni Barracks arrived together with his company commander. They had spent the night at Barra trying to cross over to Banjul but the ferry had stopped working earlier that day. The company commander was ordered to return to Farafenni while the sub-lieutenant got co-opted into what later became a five-man military ruling council.
All the invited diplomats arrived at the State House just before midday.

Notable among them were the American ambassador and his political adviser who had been closely working with me over the visiting US battleship. The European Union representative was present and a representative from the British High Commission. The Sierra Leone ambassador sounding very supportive came as well. The Senegalese ambassador was also in the house.Absent was definitely the Nigerian high commissioner.

The management of the Atlantic Hotel at their own discretion sent us cans of non-alcoholic beverage and snacks, along with waiters and wide long tables neatly covered with white tablecloth.

The MP commander and the spokesman did all the talking, expounding on why the “corrupt and politically incompetent” PPP governmentwas overthrown and how a transitional government was created by the military aimed at rapidly rectifying the chronic political problems in the country before handing over to a democratically elected civilian government.

The American, British and European representatives in response condemned the coup on solid principles; that their governments will never support a regime that had seized power from a democratically elected one, no matter what the excuse. The coup to them was therefore illegal and failure to allow the PPP government to return to power as soon as possible will translate into immediate economic and political sanction of The Gambia.
Most of the other diplomats either remained quiet or nodded their approval of the sentiments expressed by the Western envoys.

Only the Sierra Leonean ambassador came out vocally in support of the coup. Captain Valentine Strasser, the youngest head of state in the world at the time had seized power in 1992 at the age of 25 and was passionately adored by the sub-lieutenant spokesman. He in fact derived the name of their transitional government, Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) straight from that of Captain Strasser’s same nomenclature, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC).

The Senegalese ambassador before leaving handed us over a telephone number of President Abdou Diouf’s officer and later give us a time, the next day July 24th, to call him. It was a welcomed development.

After dispersing, the American ambassador returned suggesting that Sir Dawda be allowed to come back alone as a ceremonial president while the council formed a six-month transitional government composed of their choice of ministers and technocrats. The ambassador wanted us to emulate what happened in Mali in1991 where Lt Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré seized power and in less than a year conducted a free and fair election, returning the country to civilian rule.

The US ambassador assured us that with President Jawara allowed back as he suggested, he will report to Washington that the PPP government was still in power to avoid any sanctions while the new government will still be recognised by the Americans.
For a while, the idea sounded appealing but after 24 hours of toying with it, the young officers rejected it as a ploy to undermine their victory.

The final statement warning Sir Dawda Jawara to accept defeat and acknowledge the end of his regime in The Gambia was relayed to him by the sub-lieutenant spokesman in a telephone conversation arranged by the US ambassador on July 24th, 1994 before the battleship set sail to Dakar with what was left of the toppled PPP government.
The next meeting with the religious leaders started just after 5pm.
Read my next article to end the series.

Samsudeen Sarr who is on a sojourn in New York City, was a former commander of the Gambia National Army.