Former Gambia Marine Unit – now Gambia Navy – Commander Mahmoud. B. Sarr was the officer chosen from the Gambia Armed Forces and sent to the USA in April 1994 to join the USS Lamour County battleship. He was to guide Captain Bookhart to navigate the jumbo vessel into Gambian waters and ensure her safe arrival at the Banjul Port. Captain Sarr did a good job in fulfilling his mission and was evidently present at the Banjul Port with all of us on that Thursday evening when we received the visiting Americans.
Friday morning July 22nd 1994 was supposed to be a very busy day for me. I was to start at the Banjul Port with the American Ambassador, Mr Winters, his political adviser, Mr Knight and the US military attaché, Major McClain. (All these folks are alive and can be contacted for fact-checking). The State House was the first place to visit while the last event in the programme was the special dinner hosted by the US ambassador for the guests and invited diplomats and Gambians.
Since I had had an invitation, my wife was all ready for the evening programme, getting a new evening dress, a new pair of shoes and hairstyle, eager for the jolly night.
However, just before I drove out of the house she asked me whether I had heard about the widely rumoured coup plot by the Gambia national Army (GNA) in town. She had heard it from a relative, the wife of the then governor of the Gambia Central Bank who wanted to know what I knew about it. Knowing what I knew about it then, I quickly dismissed it as false and drove away from the Mile 7 quarters toward Banjul.
That was the second time of hearing about the rumoured coup; the first time was on Sunday, July 17, 1994. I had gone to the residence of the Nigerian acting army commander, Colonel Alsana Akoji, to discuss among other things the final details about the visiting Americans, their programme of activities jointly prepared by the U.S Embassy and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the press release to notify the public about the Friday military exercise.
I was there for about an hour or less; then just before leaving the colonel casually ask me whether I was aware of the suspected coup plot at Yundum Barracks. The colonel had a sense of the dramatic, making it difficult at times to figure out when he was serious or jovial. His countenance and actions showed me nothing to make me feel that he was serious about the suspected coup plot.
He probably as well misinterpreted my speechless wariness as an expression of indifference. For he quickly snapped with a vague smile, “I don’t even know why I am telling you about this Captain Sarr when it is very possible that you already may know about it and even could be part of them”.
For the colonel to suspect me of planning a coup convinced me that he was somehow joking. I nevertheless left his house determined to find out the facts the next day, Monday, July 18.
As planned I went to work on Monday and first informed the Permanent Secretary (PS) Ministry of Defense (MOD) what Colonel Akoji told me. After the Vice President who was also the Minister of Defence, the (PS) was the boss of the ministry.
He was a man of few words and to my surprise he confirmed his knowledge of the rumour but told me that they were investigating it. Investigating it with whom? He didn’t bother to elaborate. Apparently, he didn’t just want to discuss the matter any further.
I normally start work at the State House by 8:00 am, but before midday I had called every officer and NCO reachable at Yundum Barracks to find out more about the rumoured coup plot with everyone contacted vehemently denying any knowledge of it. All those contacted have their names written in my book. There was in fact an officer who was even upset with me for calling to ask about “such an absurd allegation”.
I decided to leave it at that and focus on the preparations for the GNA/USA troops exercise.
I didn’t know until later that something rather unusual transpired at Yundum International Airport when President Jawara arrived from his London vacation the day before which had to do with GNA soldiers on Guard of Honour subjected to a humiliating search for suspected possession of concealed live rounds.
That morning, instead of driving to my office as usual, I drove straight to the Banjul Port via Bond Road where I met the American Ambassador and his officials.
One may wonder why there were no Nigerians present to welcome the ship’s crew the previous day, Thursday, July 21, or on that Friday, July 22 to accompany the visitors to the State House to meet the Vice President.
Well, the Americans didn’t get along with the Nigerians at all especially in the later part of their stay in the country before the coup. At the time of their arrival in 1992, the Americans were in full support of the GNA, offering the army special training opportunities for officers to different military schools in the USA. They also provided us with material assistance in the form of non-lethal paraphernalia including uniforms, field gears and tools. Plus, the US government was for years assisting the Gambia government with grants in excess of $1million per annum and had that year completed a well built, fully equipped new patrol boat (Bolong Kanta) brought for delivery as gift to the Gambia Marine Unit on July 22, 1994.
The American assistance bundle continued smoothly until 1993 when General Abacha seized power from Chief Moshood Abiola (RIP) a democratically elected civilian to take over the presidency of Nigeria and constituted a detestable autocracy never experienced in the history of military rule in Nigeria. Hanging Ken Saro-Wiwa a popular Nigerian writer and civil rights activist turned Abacha into the most loathed African military dictator since the advent of Idi Amin (RIP) of Uganda and Mengistu Mariam of Ethiopia.
Soon, the American Embassy started putting special caveat to every correspondence they sent to the (MOD) concerning GNA training opportunities to the USA. Stating that the scholarships were exclusively for Gambian soldiers only and shouldn’t include Nigerians at all.
There was nothing to suggest that the Nigerians were interested in utilizing such scholarships for their officers but by cautioning the MOD to be mindful about them, the Americans really angered General Dada and his team. The commander in turn adopted a policy of retribution aimed at sabotaging any American offer or proposal for the GNA.
So in mid-1993, the Americans in an effort to help The Gambia establish the foundation of the first military airbase in the country offered the GNA six vacancies for qualified officers to undergo combat helicopter training courses in the USA which the Nigerians rejected by telling the MOD to inform them that there were no qualified Gambians to do the course. Mr James Knight in particular couldn’t understand what the Nigerians meant when the selection criteria merely asked for young officers, between the ages 18 to 26 years with five GCE O’ level passes including English and Mathematics, the very criteria used to enlist officer cadets in the army.
They knew that there were officers in the army far more qualified for the five-year pilot training course.
2nd Lt. Edward Singhateh was very interested in the course and was totally devastated when he realised that the Nigerians scrapped the US proposal.
Then there was another advanced Military/Civilian course offered with the same caveat that Nigerians students or officers will not be accepted.
That special course sent for the first time and indeed very important to the US government was again turned down by the Nigerians citing the same non-qualification factor among the GNA officers. The US embassy wrote right back to sternly warn the MOD of the ramifications of rejecting the offer that could translate into permanently cancelling the new course and many more in the future or even affecting those currently being offered.
The (MOD) caught in a critical dilemma of whether to yield to the opposition of the Nigerians in charge of the county’s national security or accept the offer from the Americans to avoid the unthinkable possibility of losing training opportunities for the GNA, struck a balancing solution by nominating the Deputy Permanent Secretary at the (MOD) to attend; he was a civilian with no military background though accepted by the stipulated requirements.
As a matter of fact, the Nigerians made every attempt within their means to cancel the 1994 military exercise of which the (MOD) knowing what that would have meant to the USA & Gambia governments overall bilateral relationship strictly made it clear to the Nigerian Army Training & Assistance Group (NATAG) that cancelling the exercise was not an option. Although the Nigerians reluctantly accepted the decision of the (MOD) to go ahead with the exercise their behaviour towards the event reflected dampened enthusiasm.
They were not even invited to the dinner hosted by the American Ambassador that night. Beside, NATAG at that material time was embroiled in a nasty conflict among themselves over who should be the commander of the GNA, General Dada, chosen by the preceding head of state of Nigeria General Ibrahim Babangida or Colonel Gwadebe, chosen by his successor, strong man General Sani Abacha.
If that conflict didn’t degenerate into a stalemate that subsequently rendered the GNA, an army without a commander for weeks and up to the day of the coup, the chances of the mutiny succeeding would have been very slim. I can’t say much about Colonel Gwadebe who was a top aide of General Abacha and was reported to have played a critical role in the military operation that ultimately arrested Chief Abiola and handed over the government to Abcha; but as for General Dada, he was sent to The Gambia because of his legacy of having no tolerance for coup d’etat. He foiled the major coup d’ etat against President Babangida in 1990 soon after the Nigerian head of state left The Gambia as the chief guest of honour during our silver jubilee independence celebration.
The idea that the Nigerians encouraged the GNA soldiers to stage a coup while commanding or training the army was total fabrication from our “Doctor Witness” to the TRRC who was not even a member of the GNA.
From the Banjul Port that morning we accompanied the vessel’s commander, his personal assistants and the US Mechanized Marine Platoon Commander to the State House, arriving around 8:30 am for the 9:00 am meeting.
When we arrived, I noticed that the State House was unusually overcrowded with clusters of security personnel and civilian workers scattered all over the yard and talking among themselves. But with the president arriving the day before, after a long holiday trip coupled with the other activities on the ground I thought everything was after all normal.
The recently posted Chinese Ambassador to The Gambia was supposed to present his letter of credentials to President Jawara within the hour with the quarter guard to perform the ceremony already formed in place.
We alighted from our vehicles and were received by the (PS) of defence. Then just when we were about to climb the stairs to the vice president’s office on the second floor of the building I heard my name called by a distinct voice from one of the groups behind.
It was the Aide de Camp (ADC) to President Jawara, a GNA officer and a very close associate. He briskly walked towards us frantically gesticulating for me to stop and meet him. I tried to make him understand the importance of the guests I was escorting to the Vice President’s office but his urgent insistence to talk to me compelled me to walk back to him. The visitors continued upstairs escorted by the PS while I stopped to listen to the ADC.
“Did you hear that the GNA soldiers at Yundum Barracks broke into the armoury and are marching towards Banjul fully armed with the intention of overthrowing the government?”
For a brief moment I remained transfixed expecting the captain to just tell me that he was kidding. But, it soon dawned on to me that he was telling me the scariest truth ever imaginable in my whole military career.
I asked him to excuse me to go upstairs with the guests and would be right back. The adrenaline in my system shot to the roof. I ran up the stairs and found the (PS) just opening the Vice President’s office door for the visitors to enter.
I immediately asked him whether he heard about the problem but before finishing my question he nodded and cut his response very short as if he was avoiding the information to be heard by the visitors.
Mr Winters noticed our quick exchange of word and perhaps the expression of worries in our faces and turned to the Vice President and asked him what was going on and whether he could return to the battleship with the guests until the situation was sorted out.
“Oh no”, the Vice President continued. “We just received information that there is a small problem with our soldiers at Yundum Army Barracks, but you can all feel free to come in for we don’t know whether we may eventually need your help”.
The visitors took their seats and I dashed downstairs to meet the ADC.
To be continued.
By Samsudeen Sarr