by Samsudeen Sarr
Friday July 22, 1994, 2:30 pm could be chronicled as the official time the Gambia National Army (GNA) successfully accomplished its operational objective of overthrowing the three-decade-plus-old People’s Progressive Party (PPP) government of the Gambia. The operation that started at 7:30 am from the Yundum main army barracks ended within 7 hours at the Statehouse in Banjul without a single gun shot fired. President Sir Dawda Jawara, his family members and key elements of his government left by sea averting a shootout between his guards and the approaching army combatants.
As surreal as the phenomenon was, I took a moment at the Radio-Gambia studio to orientate my mind into figuring out where my life and career as an officer of the GNA exactly fitted in this unorthodox revolution.
So far, all I had to work with was the recognition of five officers, a company commander of a captain’s rank, the military police commander of a lieutenant’s rank and three platoon commanders of sub-lieutenant’s ranks leading the army rebellion to its successful end.
It is however important to underscore the hierarchy of the ten-year old GNA with only three officers promoted to the rank of majors making them the most senior officers followed by few captains, before going down to the lieutenants echelon and finally the sub-lieutenants at the bottom of the pecking order.
So my principal concern now was to know who else, especially among the officer corp was involved, who the members of the standby government were, if there were any, how many of us would be excluded and what will become of our fate in the whole new dispensation. I was pretty much certain that the three officers I encountered at the Denton Bridge that morning and the two reported to have taken over the police-Tactical-Support-Group (TSG) Bakau Barracks would constitute part of the executive members. For better answers I thought going to Yundum Barracks was necessary.
The lance corporal with the white pick-up truck agreed to drive me to Yundum Barracks. But before leaving I telephoned my wife to see how she was doing with the children. She was still at work, the kids were fine; she was relieved to hear my voice after being very worried throughout about messages from family members and acquaintances suggesting my involvement in an ongoing military coup where I was being accused of seizing Radio Gambia, the national radio station with a group of soldiers.
I admitted the coup aspect that just ended peacefully but assured her that my seizure of the radio station was far from the truth of which I was going to explain the details later.
She was actually not the only one provided with such an inaccurate report. A TSG captain I later ran into went as far as telling me to exalt my luck for the success of the coup because if it had failed I would have very likely been prosecuted for what many had believed was my direct complicity in it by my “illegal seizure of Radio Gambia”.
The driver taking me to Yundum Barracks needed fuel for his vehicle and wanted us to pass by Fajara Barracks to fill up his tank on reserve. There, I recognized a good number of soldiers from Yundum Barracks consolidating their control of the police camp. A zealous sergeant once in my platoon couldn’t hide his anxiety, happily congratulating me for taking over the national radio station and for supporting the coup. The situation didn’t warrant disputing or confirming anything to the sergeant about what transpired.
The group of soldiers who escorted me that morning from the bridge to the radio station were all left to guard the place under their section commander, the corporal.
To say that I was surprised and very excited at the TSG camp by the sudden appearance of the captain who was among the officers leading the troops that morning at the Denton Bridge would be an understatement. Yes, there he was, the captain who tried and failed to force me into joining the march to Statehouse looking rather discombobulated. For a moment I thought he would furnish me with all details needed to understand the coup, its members and what to expect next; but he only behaved with uncertainty rather concerned with hitching a hike to Yundum Barracks in the same pick-up truck.
From Fajara Barracks, we drove through Atlantic Road to Kairaba Avenue via the West-field junction and to the Brikama highway. Civilians congregating on both sides of the Serekunda road in gossiping clusters cheered upon recognizing that we were soldiers.
Yundum Barracks was virtually deserted except for a handful of officers, NCO’s and other ranks, performing essential duties mainly at the guardroom.
The Nigerian colonel commanding the battalion was nowhere around, although his residence was a stone’s throw from the barracks. The Gambian major deputizing him was in the cells together with two lieutenants and the adjutant who the previous Monday, July 18, had questioned my clearheadedness for calling from my office and asking for the authenticity of rumors about soldiers in his barracks suspected of planning a coup. I briefly spoke to him through the narrow cell window reinforced with thick steel rods. He gave me a quick synopsis of how he was manhandled and arrested that morning blaming one particular sub-lieutenant for his ordeal. I thought it was all over and tried to see how to secure their release from the other captains moving freely around in the camp.
In the absence of the battalion commander and his deputy, the most senior officers in the barracks were the two captains commanding B & C Companies whose men literally formed the forces that overthrew the government that afternoon. Obviously the captain of “B” Company commander had no control over anything, contrary to whet I believed earlier whereas the other captain, “C” Company commander was ostensibly busy working with the lieutenant in charge of the Motor & Transport (MT) Unit. I soon realized that none of them could order the release of the detained officers and couldn’t tell me who could.
I found the permanent secretary (PS), ministry of defense and the director general of the National Security Service (NSS) seated in a sofa in the adjutant’s office, brought in that morning by the soldiers for detention. They were not keen to talk to me particularly the PS for perhaps still convinced that I was part of the organizers of the coup.
For the fate of the jailed officers and how to secure their released, I was directed to the “C” Company sergeant major whom I was told was somewhere in the camp.
Found at his company’s headquarters the sergeant major was respectful but told me categorically that the detainees couldn’t be released until he was ordered to do so by the lieutenants out in the field. Who those particular lieutenants were, he wouldn’t elaborate.
My Kartong platoon sergeant, the Anti-Aircraft gunner that morning also showed up confessing two things; that, one, when I called him on Monday the 18th, inquiring about the rumored coup, that he indeed told me the truth for not knowing anything about the conspiracy or the conspirators at the time; and, two, that he had initially opposed the coup that morning but after being arrested and thrown in the cells and later offered one more chance to comply and assemble the heavy weapons for the operation or faced the dire consequence, he capitulated. And being the expert in operating the AA gun he took up the responsibility to man the weapon himself. That was how he got involved. On his shoulders I could notice him wearing the rank of a full lieutenant. He was actually a sergeant major, an NCO.
Another Sgt. Major stationed in the barracks brought me an Ak-47 rifle and a full magazine of 30 rounds for personal protection. Almost all soldiers and officers carried their personal weapons.
I was now convinced beyond doubt that the captains or company commanders and the lieutenant commanding the MT Unit in the camp had no command or control over anything or anybody. It was my first wakeup call on the intricacies of a military coup by junior officers over their superiors.
We nevertheless held a quick meeting together in the battalion commander’s office where I referred to a manual I recently read spelling out the fundamental principles of coup-de-tat emphasizing among them the urgency of forming a successor government as soon as the old one is removed to avoid rogue elements with ulterior motives exploiting the fluidity of the situation to organize counter coups or avoidable protracted chaos.
Apparently, with the PPP government gone, enough time had already been wasted without announcing a replacement government. The leaders must let the Gambians know through the media or in whatever available avenue of communication the composition and objectives of the new government.
The MT unit commander asserting greater dominance over the captains ask me whether I could help in drafting a speech for immediate announcement to the country. We discussed the content and I scribbled few lines on a paper but couldn’t be completed without at least the names of the executive members and the hard of state.
In the meantime, we arranged to serve hot tea from the officers mess to the PS and the NSS director; and while doing that with the captain commanding “C” Company, I learnt that the captain, “B” Company commander again and the lieutenant MT Unit commander had left the camp to an undisclosed location.
The MT Unit commander for all I know was an officer who since being commissioned into the officer corp around 1991 had always campaigned for the need to overthrow the PPP government. He had dogmatically argued that the Jawara regime was very corrupt, incompetent and deserved nothing but to be ousted. I can’t recall how often he had reiterated that sentiment until he practically lost people’s attention in taking him seriously anymore. Yes, I was surprised that he was not among the leaders. He would be killed in November, 1994.
He had in the battalion commander’s office tried to impress me with the important role he had played in the operation that morning as the MT commander but never claimed any special leadership role in it per se.
Not long after the captain and the lieutenant departed we received a message from the guardroom that all officers, army and police were invited to a meeting at the statehouse ASAP.
Company “C” commander and I joined another commandeered bus driven by a familiar corporal for the meeting in Banjul. He had removed his corporal rank and replaced it with that of a 2nd lieutenant’s. It was later reported that several NCO’s were awarded officers’ ranks by the coup leaders to motivate them just before going into action that morning.
Observers had indicated that the decision, four months later, to take back those “field” ranks from some of the NCOs on the recommendation of the newly appointed army commander who had played no part in the planning or execution of the coup, triggered the mass dissent, culminating in the bloody November 11, 1994 counter coup. That the affected NCOs had considered it unfair and unjustifiable to confiscate their ranks when the members of the junta, then called the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) promoted themselves into captains for doing nothing more extraordinary than they did to overthrow the government.
Incidentally or coincidentally, the corporal-bus driver wearing the lieutenant’s rank was among the suspects in the November 11, 1994 counter coup but escaped the consequential slaughter to Senegal when they tried to capture him.
On the way to Banjul, our bus was stopped at a checkpoint, by the Jimpex junction, mounted by the two young officers who took over Fajara Barracks that morning.
One of them, exhibiting abnormal anxiety demanded to know where we were heading to before letting us proceed to the Statehouse.
Soon after moving we heard form the bus radio an announcements being made from a local FM station by the MT unit commander and the “B’ Company commander. Derived from what we discussed at the barracks, the MT commander in his own words, addressed the Gambian public in English about the Gambia Armed Forces seizing power from the “corrupt” PPP government, urging the citizenry to be patient with the army, respect the conditions laid temporarily until they returned to announce the composition of the new government and its aims. The “B” Company commander repeated the same message in a poorly-worded Wolof language that he even apologized for not speaking eloquently. The message further emphasized the need for the public to cooperate with the army, that the law must be obeyed, the sea, air and land borders closed. A dawn to dusk curfew in immediate effect and violators warned of facing severe penalties.
We arrived at the Statehouse reception hall finding quite a number of officers from both the army and the police already seated waiting for the meeting to start. By 5:30 pm all officers expected to attend had arrived including the captain and the lieutenant who made the radio announcement earlier.
The two GNA officers credited for the liberation of Fajara Barracks were yet to appear. No doubt, still busy mounting unnecessary check points, stopping drivers for no good reason and trying to scare anyone they could in the streets. They would eventually turn into maniacs arresting and detaining officers at Mile Two Central prisons and when no officers were left to arrest, they shifted into terrorizing the entire country, soldiers and civilians alike, until arrested and thrown in jailed for the sake of peace. They were the most vicious in the execution of the officers arrested in the November 11, 1994 abortive counter-coup.
The semicircular sitting arrangement in the meeting room placed the military police commander and the “C” Company platoon commander central to where they faced everybody. They were obviously in control. But things didn’t start well.
From what I later learnt to have been an angry protest directed to the two officers who unilaterally made the radio announcement earlier without consulting them, the MP commander lashed out at everybody, expressing his abhorrence over those attempting to surreptitiously hijack the victory from its rightful owners and even threatening to take drastic measures against such criminals.
He did not specify on the officers he was directing his wrath on, making everybody his potential target. As a relatively senior officer, I responded challenging his statement and attitude but was quickly cautioned by his colleague the sub-lieutenant asking to be allowed to explain the genesis of the coup. It was a well overdue clarification.
In a short statement he explained who the original five planners of the coup were, conceived at the failed exercise ground supervised by the Nigerians a month ago. They were all lieutenants and sub-lieutenants with the idea initiated by the MT commander and was in the end consensually elected their leader and chairman; but, he added that the lieutenant and two other sub-lieutenants betrayed them at the last minute.
That was how the Military police commander and one of the sub-lieutenants who attacked the police barracks were asked to join and they consented.
That the meeting about to be conducted shouldn’t proceed in the absence of those two sub-lieutenants (mounting senseless checkpoints in town). No one could therefore tell who in the first place invited the officers for a meeting at the statehouse
Few senior officers playing to the gallery spoke, bestowing all ownership of the victory to the junior officers asking the rest of us to allow them time and space to form their government and update us later.
The MT unit commander interpolated, denying his betrayal of the covenant, attributing his withdrawal from the initial plan to his discomfort with the timetable. That he had wanted coup done later and not sooner and solemnly apologized for being misunderstood. He closed his statement on a special recommendation for the two lieutenants to retain my presence and that of another senior captain from the army headquarters to help in forming a government. That they needed our wisdom based on our seniority and experience. Both of us will eventually be appointed cabinet ministers but arrested and imprisoned at Mile Two Central Prison by the twin looneys before being even sworn in.
The proposal by the MT commander was unanimously endorsed.
The other two sub-lieutenants soon arrived going ballistics, with one screaming out his lungs, threatening to start a gun fight if the officers at the statehouse didn’t stop the meeting and leave the premises right away.
Whoever had counseled him did a good job in bringing him back to his senses
Every officer finally vacated the presidential palace leaving the M P commander, the three sub-lieutenants, the other nominated captain and I to determine the next course of actions.
I was later informed that, like my Kartong platoon sergeant, the captain, ”B” Company commander was forced to join the attack that morning or risked being arrested and locked up in the cells. The looneys would very soon arrest and detain him at the central prisons, anyway.
We were now left on our own, everyone banking on our seniority and experience for guidance when none of us had any clue about what to do.
We decided to consult General Abubakar Dada, the renegade Nigerian army commander, still angry and in reclusion at his Fajara residence to see whether we can tap into his experience as a Nigerian military officer likely to know about coups better and even promised him the possibility of retaining his presence in the country as an adviser.
He broke down the basic imperatives of a coup’s success into two pointers:
Number one! Read my next article.
To be continued.
New York City