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The taxi drivers’ coup of 1981– where I was and how I lived it

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The day was Thursday July 30, 1981, and I remember very well where I was on this day. School had closed for the summer holiday and we had long left Panchang (Upper Saloum) to our family home in Kuntaur, my uncle being a teacher.

Our compound borders with two compounds, one that of a former Chief of Niani and the other, a sitting Chief in the person of the famous Jalamang Keita. And so I was well positioned to receive news of happenings in the district and very used to the comings and goings into Keita Kunda. On preceding nights of religious holidays, I would spend the best part of the night at Keita Kunda where, as an established tradition, the xylophone player from Wassu, in the person of one Mr. Nfakaba Kanuteh or Kuyateh (my memory is hazy), would treat us to melodies of Manding and Jalamang the Chief, was never found wanting in his attire donned with amulets all over his body. He sat in regalia while a bunch of ushers stood ready to serve him.

Little kids like me would be nodding in tandem to the tapping of the feet of the grownups and Jalamang, once in a while, exercised virtue with his generous gifts to his trusted Jali. And as if the heavens opened up and a Manna had fallen, the Jali too in return, took Jalamang on a terrestrial tour of Manding of his ancestors where the Keita ruled the vast expanse of the Empire that produced sons of great feat and celebrated to this day.

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May be it was here I developed interest in Manding culture. Wondering how great men achieved so much and sometimes I felt I was a young Sundiata hoping that one day, I will also have my own Jali taking me down history lane to massage my ego. Children are quick study and so years later at school when we were asked what we wanted to be and in my response, I had two choices: to become an astronaut to discover outer space and perhaps be able to land on the stars and connect with the ancestors that I heard mentioned at Keita Kunda. At that age, my understanding was that the dead were all resident in space and the sky was where God lived and so if I heard that someone had died, for me it was certainly to the realms of outer space.

My second choice was to become a Commissioner. I was not fascinated by the title but by the Gambian flag fixed on the hood of his car escorted by a Police Officer. That scene reminded me of Manding Kaaba, which the Jali described in their repertoire and a Commissioner was the closest to that reality in my neck of the woods. Certainly the presidency was too far a reality and I am not sure if i knew what a President was and his position in the scheme of public administration discourse. I guess I was being modest. Modesty has a tendency of realizing ambitions and avoiding the feeling of disappointment later on in life.

And so, on the evening of July 30, 1981, I was sitting under the veranda trying to tune to Radio Syd, the only private station if I recall and also because Radio Gambia was barely available unless you had the popular Philips radio, which for some reason, had a better reception than many of the other brands. Philips radio was a symbol of status in the community and although by this time I had never travelled beyond Panchang on the north bank and Bansang on the south bank, Radio Syd was known to me. Later on DJs like Pape Saine, Joe Barry, Hydara, Ebrima Jarju and Bombastic would fill the void in supplying music that radio Gambia could not.

We improvised our own antenna by creating a ball shaped spiral of electrical wires fixed at the top of a long bamboo stick and raised it  above our house and from it a cable ran to the antenna of the radio which magically improved reception.

This time, my favorite DJ was not heard and it appeared that there was chaos at my favourite station. The talk of a coup was all there was. Honestly, I had no idea what was the meaning of a coup then. I checked my dictionary but it was too basic and the word was not to be found. I remembered a friend nearby, Ebou Manjang and asked if he knew what a coup meant but he was of no help. But by this time, the goings and comings to Jalamang’s compound had diminished and the cries of women coming from the rice fields were all I heard. I knew then that there was trouble in the land of the ancestors and because my favorite Jali from Wassu was ever present, made me look at the Jali very differently since then. I saw honor and integrity in the Jali standing by his patron despite the dangers.

 It was also on this day, I was exposed to an office called President. It appeared that with the removal of one person from office had such a rippling effect to far flung areas of the country away from Banjul. I then realized that whatever it was about, the President must be more important than a Commissioner.

That excitement made me think maybe I should not be a Commissioner anymore but a President. He must have had true power before which all men and women are subservient. I was not a teenager by this time and am sure you will excuse my rationale as my brain had not formed well enough to be critical. I was a kid, and kids must not be bothered with correctness.

The women coming from the fields came with news that the soldiers were coming from Banjul to arrest Jalamang. You would have to understand that at this time in my life, the Chieftaincy was all I saw as power and authority. The central power in Banjul was so remote that I never felt their presence and also I was too young to understand the relationships in governance.

As days went by, Kukoi, the rebel leader announced that all Chiefs to report to Banjul for a meeting. Jalamang as usual, passed by our house to inform my uncle that he would honor the invitation. If not for the quick intervention of my uncle, Jalamang would have made the journey to Banjul as he had a new blue Mazda truck which was provided to all chiefs. By this time Jalamang was well dressed and I can tell you that even Sundiata Keita would not have been able to compete; amulets everywhere and a by now famous trademark walking stick in his hand. No one messes with Jalamang and on court days, I was present to watch him hear cases. I loved the traditional attire of this council of elders as they each, one by one, took their seats at the court house. I learnt traditions and customs that my teachers never taught me in my social studies class. These sessions were raw and real.

Three speeches over the radio are still fresh in my mind.

The first was that of Kukoi Samba Sanyang, the Ring Leader of the coupists. Mr. Sanyang’s self-styled Marxist civilian organization, called the Gambia Underground Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (known as the Gambia Socialist Revolutionary Party and banned in October 1980), along with remnants of the Gambia Field Force spearheaded the revolution.

Mr. Sanyang who was actually called Dominique Samba Sanyang was said to have attended a Catholic seminary at Ngasobil, near Ziguinchor, Casamance but would abandon the dream of being a priest and transferred to St. Augustine’s School in Bathurst where he was radicalized by a militant group in the capital called the Black Scorpions. The Black Scorpions was almost going to be the name of our national football team had it not been for the quick intervention of President Jawara in 1985, when it emerged as the most popular name for the team because hitherto, it was simply Gambia Eleven. Black Scorpions was both a radical group in Banjul and Nigeria and to avert any diplomatic tensions, Jawara suggested that the team be called simply “The Scorpions”.

In one of his speeches, and responding in Wolof to Abdou Diouf, then President of Senegal, Kukoi Samba  Sanyang famously said: ABDOU JOOF, YOW MUNO MAA KHOKHOTAL (Abdou Diouf, you cannot scare me).

The second was from someone who must have been very influential in the country and who perhaps under duress, was also heard over the radio saying in Mandinka: JAWARA, HANI SESEWO TAY YEH JANG (Jawara, you don’t have even a chicken here) perhaps trying to let Jawara know that the people have abandoned him and rallied behind the coupists.

The third was that of an elderly Senegalese man who came to Gambia for medical treatment at the Royal Victoria Hospital and who too, it appeared was captured and used as a human seal and asked to talk over the radio supporting the coupists and perhaps as a secondary benefit, to delay the deployment of Senegalese troops or influence public opinion in Senegal against the invasion. The old man said: ABDOU DIOUF, MBIRR ME TANGANA. BO KHO KHAMAY, FALILAI HAMDU. BO KHO KHAMUTAY FALILAI HAMDU (Abdou Diouf, the situation is tense here. If you know about it that’s up to you. If you don’t know about it, it is up to you).

The names of the twelve amigos that commandeered the coup were Kukoi Samba Sanyang, Appai Sonko, F686 Jerreh Colley, Junkung Sawo, Dembo Jammeh, Ousman Jawo, Taffa Camara, F661 Simon Talibo Sanneh, Mbemba Camara, Kantong Fatty and Kambani B. Badji (Criminal Appeal No 5-11/81, 28-42). Most of them were residents of Tallinding and  many were taxi drivers although they would walk from there to Bakau Depot with five hunting rifles from Foni and a revolver killing Kikala Baldeh one of the first victims of the carnage. He was an Assistant Commander of Police. Sadly, it appears that to this day, no memorial exists for the fallen loyal forces. The mass grave for the general population called “neither here, nor there” is on neutral ground. They could not be buried at either the Christian or Muslim cemeteries. That is a sad way to treat our dead.

And so on one night during the coup, I went to bed with a stick by my side and an older man I shared a house with, had an axe incase robbers came in the night. We had no idea what a coup was. Wild explanations were abound and you just took what suited you best and planned accordingly. Some thought it was legalized robbery which was what was trickled to us as happening in Banjul. Looting of stores, shootings and dead bodies were all we heard from travelers some of whom spiced it up so much that during the night, and scared to death, I revised my future career choice. I did not want to be a Commissioner, or President or a Chief. I simply wanted to be an astronaut to escape to the far corners of space away from men and women who had turned beasts devouring each other on something I had no idea had any importance.

I then realized that whatever a presidency was, it was not without risks and it appeared the holder of the office wielded so much power that men were ready to die to control it.

Growing up, I appreciated the powers of the office of a president and realized that public policy failure can cause a nation to descend into chaos. Hope, it is said is a force multiplier and we must create hope so that everyone has reason and the space to be able to dip his/her hand in the pie and walk away with enough to keep his/her body and soul together. When men see no hope, they turn into loose cannons.

And so my prayer goes to all those who lost their lives on this day forty years ago today, some of whom victims of circumstance but others because the judicial system failed and men took arms to seek justice for wrongs meted on them, am told. May their souls be granted eternal abode in JANNAH. May the ghosts of July 30th 1981 be forever banished from our land so that I would not be an Astronaut.

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