By Samsudeen Sarr
My July 22nd, 1994 day started as a normal sunny Friday morning with no indicator that Yundum Barracks, the main Gambia National Army (GNA) camp was engulfed in a rebellion. I didn’t know soldiers had broken into the armoury and seized the weapons there including the most sophisticated models to overthrow the government of The Gambia.
The organisation at Yundum Barracks created by the army commander, General Abubakar Dada since his assumption of duties in 1992 put a Nigerian lieutenant colonel in command of the 1st Battalion there, deputised by a Gambian major while the two main companies of the battalion, Companies B and C had two Gambian captains commanding them. Support units such as the Logistic Supplies, Engineering, Military Police, Motor and Transport, Musical Band and heavy-weapons remained under the command of Gambian captains or lieutenants all answerable to the Nigerian battalion commander.
Driving at 7am to my office in Banjul from my official residence at the Mile 7 officers quarters there was nothing unusual on the Banjul bound highway. After passing a rather quiet Denton Bridge, instead of going straight to Banjul, I branched off at Bond Road towards the Banjul sea port.
For three months the GNA had been preparing to hold a military exercise with a mechanised American Marines company that had docked at the Banjul port the evening before in a US navy battleship called USS Lamoure County. As the GNA staff officer at the Ministry of Defence responsible for among other things the coordination of their reception, I was at the port with the American ambassador in The Gambia and his political adviser to welcome them. As a matter of fact, the Marines that evening spectacularly demonstrated for us the versatility of two of their amphibious tanks in the Banjul seas brought along for the exercise, tanks designed with both sea and land fighting capabilities. It was the first time I saw such rugged war machines.
The American ambassador and his assistant were already at the port when I arrived on that Friday morning. Accordingly, the Defence ministry and what was left of the GNA command in disarray had prepared a program of civil functions for the guests.
The army headquarters exclusively took care of the operational component of the military exercise. The programme was to start with the ship’s captain and some of his principal assistants paying a courtesy call on the vice president who happened to be the minister of defence as well.
They came along with a musical band that was to perform for the Banjul public at the MacCarthy Square that afternoon. From the vice president’s office the team was to meet the mayor of Banjul and then end the day’s activities with a visit to The Gambia Marine Unit headquarters where a newly manufactured patrol boat, Bolong Kanta, and two 50-calibre machine guns were to be formally donated by the Americans to the PPP government.
Occupying three vehicles including that of the US ambassador’s and mine, we left the port at 7:30am with the ship’s captain and the US Marines company commander in order to make the 8am appointment at the State House.
President Sir Dawda Jawara had also arrived the previous evening from his month-long vacation and was scheduled that morning to preside over the ceremony of the new Chinese ambassador’s presentation of his letter of credence. The first images therefore to catch my attention when we drove into the complex was the squad of State Guards in their beautiful red ceremonial uniforms formed up for the usual quarter guard in honour of the new Chinese diplomat.
But right before our guests entered the building, the GNA military officer posted to the statehouse, the aide-de-camp (ADC) to President Jawara alerted me of an emergency report from Yundum Barracks of an army mutiny. It was devastating to say the least but not a total surprise.
Five days ago on Sunday, July 17th, 1994 I had visited the residence of the senior Nigerian military officer, the de facto army commander to finalise the arrangements and programme of activities for the expected Americans. Before leaving his house he casually asked me whether I was aware of the coup plot by soldiers at Yundum Barrack. He was one Nigerian senior officer acclaimed for being the smartest among the NATAG who, by me, was also at times the most jovial among them. I smiled at the thought that he was simply pulling my legs and looked at him straight in the eyes expecting him to retract his statement for a better digestible account.
Instead, sounding still a bit jovial he dismissed me, expressing his regret for even asking the question, adding that I could possibly be part of the conspirators. I left honestly troubled by the acting commander’s revelation.
Monday, the 18th, I reported to work with a resolution to get to the bottom of what I thought and hoped was only a cynical belief. Meeting the permanent secretary first in his office that morning he definitely surprised me by confirming his awareness of the issue but advised me not to be bothered because he was on top of the matter with the Nigerians and members of the state National Security Service (NSS) agency. He didn’t want to discuss the issue any further.
I couldn’t insist either because earlier that year when I wrote to the vice president’s and the president’s offices in my capacity as the staff officer warning them of the mistake made by the Nigerians in over-arming the GNA with sophisticated heavy weapons giving them disproportional edge in strength and competence over the police-armed-Tactical-Support-Group (TSG) that used to successfully resist the soldiers when they misbehaved, I got a rude awakening from a permanent secretary at the president’s office admonishing me not to ever advice them on what they should or shouldn’t know about the country’s national security. That there were Nigerian generals and colonels purposely in the country to give them such advice when needed. I left the office of the PS flabbergasted by the perception of such an important security information being concealed from me, the principal staff officer at the ministry.
I went down to my office and started making telephone calls to Yundum Barracks, reaching out to the few men I thought should know but won’t support a coup.
The first two officers whose office lines I tried were not in the camp. I later found out one was among the leaders, but I got the third officer, the adjutant general, a Gambian lieutenant who when asked responded with consternation over how I could have possibly come up with such a preposterous idea. To him a coup conspiracy in his barracks was all inconceivable.
The NCO in charge of the heavy weapons platoon sounded more collaborative but was believable in stating his incognisance of the planned rebellion but assured me of coming back to me as soon as he found anything substantial. He was for two years my platoon sergeant in the Senegambia Confederal Army at Kartong village from 1987 to 1989. He never came back leaving me with the impression that nothing serious was going on after all.
Regrettably, he would be killed on November 11th, 1994. It is a story in my itinerary.
Invariably, my wife was also contacted by a close family member the evening before, asking about the same imminent coup, widely rumoured around the country which I obviously disputed.
Whereas I was not totally surprised by the ADC’s report of the situation at Yundum, the shock I felt was nevertheless very distressing. I was a witness to the catastrophic abortive coup in The Gambia in 1981 and had been following the bloody ramifications of coups particularly in West Africa, from Ghana to Nigeria, Burkina Faso to Sierra Leone and lately in Southern Africa, in that deplorable Rwandan genocide, all attributable to man’s tenacious quest for political power. Frankly speaking, I was scared but could still think of doing something about the situation rather than standing around with dropped jaws like everybody at the statehouse.
The Gambia Marine unit in Banjul was armed with equally powerful weapons that I thought if dismounted from their patrol boats and mounted on open pick-up trucks could make formidable fighting vehicles to bargain with the belligerents or if they proved stubborn and started shooting their way into the city could be potent arsenals to defend Banjul until external help arrived, just like in 1981.
But those guns, I realised, as soon as I arrived at the unit, were undetachable from the mechanical and electrical components of the boats and therefore couldn’t be used in any other way from the craft. Estimated time now was about 9:30am.
From the Marine Unit I took the same Bond Road to go to Yundum, hoping to find out what was happening there. For the Banjul Highway to be that empty of all traffic at that hour of the morning except for my official Hyundai car speeding in the middle of the road, indicated that something very sinister was ahead.
At the Denton Bridge, the armed wing of the police force with few of their senior commanders were dug in with relatively lighter weapons but well determined to stop the soldiers on the other side from crossing over to Banjul. They were adamant in shutting down the bridge to any outgoing or incoming traffic; but we knew each other very well and after analysing the gravity of the unsustainable stalemate they agreed to let me try talking to the soldiers at the other end.
I had had no idea about the composition or strength of the combative soldiers.
Anticipating the same group of other ranks as they were in 1991 and 1992 when the soldiers from Liberia demonstrated over the payment of their delayed wages without any officers joining them, I got a big shock when I crossed over and saw the three officers leading the march. The GNA captain commanding B Company my class mate, a lieutenant commanding the army military police platoon and the sub-lieutenant, I tried to call on Monday but was not in his office, commanding a platoon in C Company were in the forefront of a heavily armed fighting force, the size of a platoon or more, roughly 50 men.
The only thing they were willing to discuss was their demand for a free passage over the bridge to go to Banjul and overthrow the PPP government. Amazingly, my confederal platoon sergeant in charge of the heavy weapons platoon whom I spoke to on Monday was on top of an army truck in control of an anti-aircraft gun locked and loaded with belt-fed ammunitions. I could see the guilt in his eyes but he said nothing other than maintaining a calm comportment, fingers on the trigger ready to shoot if obliged.
With raw hostility, the captain tried to force me into joining them but I made it clear to all of them that I wasn’t going to be a party to an operation that I had no role in its planning or approval. They knew that I meant what I said. But I further cautioned them in a stern language to be mindful of not hurting the Americans in town preparing to join them in what they thought was the exercise that brought them in The Gambia. Certainly, I emphasised the US Marines’ capabilities, better armed with amphibious tanks that if provoked into a self-defense action could alter or impede their objective.
They gave a quick thought of my disclosure and momentarily expressed their willingness to control their fire, but stressed their resolve to get the police blockade lifted or else would soon start unleashing barrage of lethal shots at their positions if they failed to yield in minutes; they also said it loud and clear that if the Americans tried to stop them they would fight to the last soldier, but the PPP government must go that day.
“Fighting the Americans will not be a wise idea,” I warned them, “they only needed to be advised to leave the city to avoid any incidental or accidental clash with them.”
When asked how, I suggested going back to the national radio station about three miles away and make an announcement to that effect; to them going back was not an option, crossing the bridge was. We negotiated with the police until they relented with almost all of them joining the mutineers before heading to Banjul.
No matter how the story was sliced and diced at the TRRC, the fact remained that I played a significant part in the negotiation between the soldiers and police until there was a breakthrough.
That was the time they gave me a section of armed soldiers as escort to Radio Gambia to make the warning announcement to the Americans. I was not certain of what exactly to announce but I was going to make a statement anyway.
Up to that time, I knew that most Gambians seeing the armed soldiers in the streets thought they were in the military exercise publicly announced at the national radio in the past two days that effectively kept the country safe from spontaneous looting and vandalising of public and private properties, reminiscent of the abortive coup in 1981.
Thank God again, the radio station was not operational because if I had made that announcement, no matter how well-intended it was, the chances for the population to panic into riotous activities was rather likely.
The managing director of the radio informed us that the officer responsible for fueling the transmissions daily at Bonto power station was stuck in Banjul with obviously no transport available. With no fuel the radio wouldn’t work.
The manager, a very calm and collected lady, allowed me to use her office phone to call the State House and update them about what was going on and even gave them the names of the three officers leading the soldiers towards Banjul.
President Jawara and his family members were still in the compound although by the time I finished calling the other units in Farafenni and Kudang urging them to mobilise their troops and come over to help because of the potentiality of the situation degenerating into an armed conflict, they had left for safety to the American vessel together with some senior members of the PPP government. The presidential guard commander and the Inspector General of Police had also left the city and joined the US vessel.
Two of the soldiers who escorted me to the studio rushed into the manager’s office to inform me with excitement that defenders of the Fajara Barracks, home of the TSG had surrendered to the GNA forces led by two lieutenants who attacked the camp that morning. There were no casualties and the police there had since joined the rebellion. That was around 1pm.
When I later called back and spoke to the deputy State Guard commander, he had already made up his mind on what to do. He had made an intelligent assessment of the situation and took the wise decision of negotiating rather than fighting the soldiers and ultimately surrounding the State House to avoid unnecessary bloodbath. He was commendable. I looked at my wrist watch, it was just after 2pm. I couldn’t believe that everything had ended peacefully with no casualties or losses of property. Felt like a huge burden lifted off my shoulders.
Interestingly, I saw the corporal in charge of my escort at the radio station in 1994 testifying at the TRRC in 2019, but was not pressed for a reason, as I expected, to elaborate when he mentioned going to Radio Gambia that morning from Denton Bridge and never continued the march with his colleagues from Yundum Barracks to the statehouse. A simple question asking “why” would have shed an important light on what I just narrated above.
A lance corporal driving a white pick-up truck with private number plates suddenly arrived at the studio on no specific mission. He had commandeered the vehicle from a civilian that morning and was willing to drive me to Yundum where I wanted to go and have a better understanding of what happened and who else was involved. So far I could account for four officers: a captain, a lieutenant and two sub-lieutenants. Come and read what happened at Yundum Barracks!
To be continued.