July 22, 1994: The scramble for power by key officers

by Samsudeen Sarr

I ended my last paper explaining the arrival of the Gambian religious leaders mainly from the urban area to the Banjul Statehouse honoring their invitation to the meeting organized by the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC). That was a little after 5:00 pm on Saturday, July 23 1994 after the departure of the predominantly intransigent foreign diplomats. The second day of the coup.
The Imam Ratib of Banjul in particular was present together with imams from the Kombos. I can’t recall any christian priest in attendance but the Imams were much easier to speak to than the diplomats. After the usual pleasantries and the introduction of everybody in the room by name and position followed by a quick rundown of the mainspring of the coup, the whole meeting turned into succession of accolades from every invited speaker on the “orderliness of the ‘Friday’ takeover”. They prayed for us and the members of the armed forces commending the participants for the discipline manifested in exercising the obligation, miraculously causing no disruption to the afternoon Friday prayers at their various mosques and even attributing it to a preordained phenomenon.
The Imam Ratib of Banjul, closed the meeting with special words of advice to the council members saying, “the almighty Allah will support the existence of every type of government leadership, even the leader who doesn’t believe in praying to him or known for breaking his commandments in the scripture; but will promptly destroy the kingdom of leaders who betray their associates.
“I therefore wish to urge you all to remain united and loyal to each other and the Gambian people now relying on your mercy”. A final recitation of verses from the Quran closed the session.
The pivotal maiden speech was all ready soon after the Imams departed. A structured government was still not yet formed; notwithstanding, the MP commander currently identified as the bonafide-council leader started asserting his authority, deciding to deliver the speech himself and nobody else.
He definitely edited the original content of the speech to his preference, registering his dominance over the situation and everybody else. I am not quite sure but I believe he was accompanied to the Radio Gambia studio by Captain Chambers and another officer in a Statehouse vehicle driven by a GNA driver.
However, in order to grasp the initial jockeying for power among the officers in that embryonic- fluid state, twenty-four hours after the coup, any diligent observer should be able to recognize that from the three speeches delivered sequentially below by three important stakeholders. The first was by the MT commander, the second by the crafty sub-lieutenant, “B” company platoon commander and the third by the MP commander.
The MT commander delivered his speech in English around 5:30 pm, July 22, 1994 translated by the “B” Company commander in a sloppy Wolof language at the FM Radio station then owned by the late George Christensen (RIP). They never bothered to identify their names, ranks or positions but still portrayed themselves as the leaders in absolute control of the takeover. The lieutenant read:
“Fellow Gambians, fellow countrymen, the patriotic armed forces of the Gambia are in full control of the destiny of this great nation and there has not been any bloodshed. You are to remain in your houses and I hereby announced that a curfew will be in place from 7:00 pm to 7:00 am till further notice.
The PPP regime is hereby dissolved. All former ministers are to report to the nearest police stations for their own protection. The constitution is suspended, all political parties are banned. The airport, seaport and land borders are closed for entry and exit.
These actions are not directed against any foreign government and all foreign nationals in the Gambia are advised to remain at home for their own safety.
An Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (APRC) is hereby instituted and its members will be announced later. This supreme sacrifice was initiated because of rampant corruption and the subversive nature under the PPP regime for the past three decades. Henceforth, a new dawn of freedom, progress and accountability will be the order of government.
Any malicious attempt to counter this patriotic move of the Gambia Armed Forces will be mercilessly crushed.
Long live the republic of the Gambia”.
It was this speech that I later learnt to have infuriated the MP commander that evening at the controversial but aborted meeting of the army and police officers at the Statehouse. The MP commander, sensing a scheme of treachery, had exploded in a generalized-spiteful language seemingly directed to everyone culminating into an unnecessary altercation between the two of us. Then unexpectedly, the crafty sub-lieutenant partnering the MP commander all along interjected, denouncing the MT commander, not for the radio announcement he made without their permission but for betraying their trust as their foundational leader. Saying that five of them, all sub-lieutenants, had planned the coup and put all their trust in him, the MT commander to lead them, but at the last minute, he and two other sub-lieutenants double-crossed them.
Appearing as if he was speaking in solidarity with the MP commander, the sub-lieutenant instead went further to diminish his eminence by adding that the betrayal of the MT commander was the overriding factor behind the remaining two of them to reach out and ask the MP commander to join them, emphasizing that he was never part of the original planners either. In the end most of us were left bewildered over who was actually in charge. The other two sub-lieutenants companion of the two council members were still in town conducting imbecilic vehicle checkpoints and harassing innocent drivers for no good reason.
Then around 8:00 pm, the same evening of Friday, July 22, 1994 the crafty sub-lieutenant went back to the same FM radio station to make the following statement:
“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 Sir Alagie 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.
This ruling council consist of Lt Papa Janneh, Lt. B. S. Sillabar, Lt Saibo Hammed and Lt. E. Jabaiteh (not necessarily their real names).
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 is been brought to the council’s notice that the International media has misinterpreted our actions and broadcasting false information. The ruling council would also like to assure the general public that it is solely working towards 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 to the curfew order, thank you”.
Comparing and contrasting the above-two speeches illustrate an indisputable consultation that must have transpired between the lieutenant and the sub-lieutenant. The sub-lieutenant disregarded the seniority of the MP commander as the only full lieutenant among the council members, lumping all four of them together as lieutenants without necessarily identifying himself, although he named himself, Lt. E. Jabateh, as the fourth council member. Members of the army knew who were talking but not the ordinary citizenry.
It is certain that he did have some knowledge of the speech read by the MT commander and had obviously agreed with it, indeed mentioning in his speech of the curfew order announced by the lieutenant that was not at all part of his speech; they also both referred to the council as the “AFPRC”, a name commonly believed to have been coined by the sub-lieutenant, “Lt. E. Jaberteh”.
Next, was the Saturday maiden speech read by the MP commander, Lt. Papa Janneh who by now saw the need to impose his authority as the senior man, refusing to be marginalized by anybody. His speech at Radio Gambia, around 8:00 pm, July 23, 1994 read exactly like this:
“Fellow Gambians, members of the diplomatic mission, ladies and gentlemen, as the situation in the country is already known to everyone out there given the current security state of our country it is indeed very important at this moment to inform every individual within this country about what is happening and why.
A peaceful takeover from the PPP regime took place yesterday the 22nd of July 1994. The PPP government has been overthrown and an Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council headed by Lt. Papa F. A A. Janneh has been instituted.
The reasons for this takeover are basically that the PPP government was supposed to be democratic and accountable, but this was never the case and there has never been an independent electoral commission. There was rampant and outrageous corruption to a scale that the nation’s coffers were looted by these individuals who for the past three decades made sure that they remained at the top. Misuse of public funds and embezzlement of the state machinery for private end was the order of the day. The majority of Gambians are poorer today than they were in 1965 and only a few Gambians obviously at the top at all times live in flamboyant lifestyles and have everything at the detriment of the majority. This action is taken to rescue our dear motherland from a strangling grip of a corrupt and undemocratic system and not against any foreign country.
The Gambia will as from now on strengthen and honor her International obligations under the new regime and will actively participate in all international fora including United Nations, OAU, the Commonwealth of Nations and ECOWAS. This regime is only transitional and as soon as feasible a transition to a democratic and non-corruptible poll will be conducted. This regime will at all times maintain a liberal free economic system and will open the doors to international bonafide investment. To her sister republics in the subregion especially Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and others a new era of strong fraternity and cordial brotherly ties mutually beneficial to all will be maintained.
To our Gambian compatriots both at home and abroad, we assure you that you do not need to have any fears of reprisals, vengeance or witch-hunt for any reason whatsoever. The new government will institute measures to ensure public accountability, welfare, equal distribution of the national cake, state transparency and justice for all.
You are assured of your security both at your home and in the streets and of your general welfare.
You are however advised to go on your normal daily business peacefully.
All workers in essential services, medical facilities, electric power and water supplies in particular should report to duty immediately. All businesses should open for normal daily businesses.
Everybody is hereby warned that no malicious acts or looting will be tolerated and the police is hereby directed to ensure their normal general duties under their normal chain of command.
All ministers in the former PPP government are to report to the nearest police stations in their own interest.
All permanent secretaries and civil servants in all levels of government should report to work not later than Monday, the 25th of July 1994. The permanent secretaries are to take charge of their ministries till further notice.
All officers and men of the Gambia national Army, the Tactical Support Group and the police should report to work immediately. All Gambians are required to participate positively towards the development of our country.
Fellow countrymen thank you very much indeed for your cooperation and may the Almighty Allah bless you all, thank you”.
The MP commander never mentioned any of the other three members of the council but was also yet to identify himself as their chairman, appointments that were finalized on Sunday, July 24, 1994. Sunday was a very busy day; the chairman spoke to President Abdou Joof of Senegal; the American vessel finally left the shores of the Gambia to Senegal with President Jawara and what was left of the PPP government; the appointment of officers to ministerial positions took place including mine as the minister of Trade and industry and Captain Chambers, minister of information and broadcasting; identification of civilian ministers and several more interesting events happened. I will be discussing those details in my next paper and perhaps will be the last in this series.
Thanks for reading.

Samsudeen Sarr

New York City.

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