1981 Coup: Tragedy that befalls The Gambia

It is an old saying that peace is cheaper; war is costly sustained. If that is anything to go by, 1981 coup d’état was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of our motherland, The Gambia.

Still now, no one knows the amount of people who dies, officially, five hundred people, but others said about 800 people were killed during the coup. The relative stability of the Jawara era was first shattered by the coup, which followed a weakening of the economy and allegations of corruption against leading politicians. The incident does not only claim lives but the loss of property, looting, vandalism and revenge.

Before the 30th July 1981 The Gambia was a country of happiness; nobody interfered in the affairs of anyone else. Since, after independence, it was only in The Gambia that the president of the Republic can move about, from one far off place to another, without any security officer or officers. Yes, The Gambia was a blissful country, full of hospitality and a welcome haven to strangers.

The root cause of the coup basically could be linked to late 1970s, when there was upsurge in youth led anti-government agitation from 1978-1979. A severe drought in the 1970s resulted in mass migration. The country suffered from unemployment, poverty and inflation. And in 1971, a currency reform replaced the West African Pound by the Dalasi. A few years into independence, the political terrain in The Gambia had become interesting, but it was also unhealthy. During that period there was something called Movement for Justice in Africa Gambia Chapter (MOJA-G), who were fed with Marxist Lenient ideas and Gaddafi’s Libya also was busy recruiting agents trying to establish network of machinery, who had that ideology.

Economy also contributed to the coup, the economic conditions of Gambians was not merry, almost twenty years after independence. Expectations were high; employment was another factor. With all that Gambians were not happy with what happened on 30th July. It was the use of arms, there was deaths above all. The Gambia, known for peace, lost part of its image at the time. For almost three–four days there was no law and order; everything was marauding, people were armed to teeth, looting, killing, government disappeared for a while in the nutshell Gambians were taking by surprise.

Who was behind the coup?

The coup attempt occurred while President Jawara was visiting London. It was carried out by the leftist, headed by Kukoi Samba Sanyang’s Socialist and Revolutionary Labour Party (SRLP) and elements of the “Field Force” (a paramilitary force that constituted the bulk of the country’s armed forces), among many other school dropouts and taxi drivers.

Kukoi, the chairman of Supermen Council of the Revaluation, was at that time not known by many people, although, people knew that he stood for elections, under National Reconciliation Party banner in 1977 general elections in Eastern Foni constituency, where he polled 708 votes against 4,532 of the PPP candidate Ismaila Jammeh.

After failing woefully in the elections Kukoi re-surfaced, supported by some prominent people in the Field Force. The Coup started 30th July and by 3rd August, Sir Dawda Jawara had returned with the intervention of Senegalese army.

About Kukoi

What is better known of him was that he was a man of words and not of deeds (like a garden full of weeds). It could be said that he always had the will but not the way. The date about the coup was brought forward two days earlier because, according to sources, thieves fell apart over the choice of leadership which appeared the life of an innocent and upright man D. K Jawara.

As the saying goes, things done in haste are never done well. That was why, he, Kukoi Sanyang, celebrated the occasion by inviting irresponsible youth to help in deposing of the dissident factors. The nation heard, when he said he was fearless of death, because he had nothing to lose.

What was their mission?

Kukoi, a failed teacher, a failed seminarian, an unsuccessful politician and now a coup plotter, directly answerable for the deaths of hundreds of people between 30th July- 4th August 1981, invaded Radio Gambia, took microphone and announced he was chairman of the Supreme Council of the Revaluation. Reliable sources asserted, the coup was not only meant to seize power from Jawara, but to assassinate him on the day he returned from the UK and then proclaim a Marxist Leninist republic of The Gambia.

The leftist NRC accused Jawara’s government of being “corrupt, tribalistic, and despotic”. They also announced the suspension of the country’s constitution and proclaimed their intention to establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The disgruntled rebels backed by some civilians broke in to the armory at the Field Force Depot in Bakau, seizing a good quantity of arms and ammunition. They opened the prison gates of the State Central Prison (Mile II) and armed any prisoner wishing to join them to strengthening their numbers.

Where was Jawara at the time?

The misfortune happened at a time when Sir Dawda Jawara, and Njaimeh began a well-earned rest at his home in Birchen Lane, Haywards Heath in England. Britain was in a gripe of a royal wedding fever; Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and Lady Diana Spencer, were to be married.

The wedding took place on Wednesday, 29 July 1981.The next day 30th July Sir Dawda was playing round of golf at the Haywards Heath Golf club when Richard Luce (now Baron Luce), then minister of State for Foreign Affairs at the Foreign Commonwealth came with really bad news. Sir Dawda could not remember the exact words, but he must have said something like “Sorry to interrupt your game sir, but I regret to inform you that there is a coup in your country”.

Sir Dawda’s thoughts?

At that time Sir Dawda’s initial thoughts went to the safety of the people back home, particularly his family. Jawara said he was preparing for the day’s works ahead when he heard the shrill and agitated voice of a man on radio denouncing the regime and announcing the suspension of the constitution and dissolution of parliament and the arrest and detention of all government ministers. Sir Dawda admitted that indeed, the Gambia was not a country with milk and honey, and the economy had come through some severe times. The Gambia was said to be one of the oldest existing multi-party democracies in Africa. It had conducted elections every 5 years since independence.

Gambia-Senegal mutual defence agreement

The attorney general, Momodou Lamin Saho, advised the 1965 mutual defence agreement with Senegal to be invoked, to justify Senegal intervention. President Jawara immediately requested military aid from Senegal, which deployed 400 troops to The Gambia on 31 July.

Kukoi’s deceleration & Hostages

Kukoi however said he wanted Senegalese, outside world and Gambians to know that he could not be frightened and the whole country was with him. He made proclamations about his childlessness and reference to his possible death.

In his own words: “All of Jawara’s children are here,” Kukoi declared. “ His wife is here and I shall kill the whole lot and there after stand to fight against the Senegalese soldiers …Jawara has eight children. I have no sympathy for them if Jawara has no sympathy for his family. Kukoi: I am prepared to fight with the Senegalese and if I am killed, well that is that, I shall know that I died in the cause for The Gambia”.

Other hostages included Jawara’s elder brother Sherrifo, Sanjally Bojang, Jawara’s father-in-law Momodou Musa Njie, Momar Faal, one of the secretaries at the Senegalese High Commission, Saidou Nourou Ba, the executive secretary of the Senegalo-Gambians secretariat, his wife and children.

Jawara’s request to British government to resolve hostage crises

However, in London Jawara asked British government’s assistance to resolve the hostage crisis. Two British Special Air Service troopers were dispatched to Banjul via Senegal. Upon their arrival in Banjul Clive Lee, a former SAS major who was working in The Gambia at the time of the coup met them. The three SAS team with the help of loyal forces and Senegalese were able to free the hostages unharmed.

How was the coup foiled and by who?

At the request of President Jawara, the Senegalese army entered The Gambia and successfully put down the insurrection. On 31 July 1981, three hundred Senegalese air bone paratroops dropped over the village of Jambur and began combing through the bushes as they headed to Yundum Airport.

By 6 August, some 2,700 Senegalese troops had been deployed and they had defeated the rebel force. The Senegalese army intervenes with the support of some Field Forces who stood loyally by their country and government restored law and order. They encountered stiff resistance and a barrage of counter fire. After a while of heavy fighting, they destroyed rebel positions.

London Press Conference & safe return to The Gambia

Jawara convened a press conference before leaving London, making it clear that his government has not been removed and he was at that time concerned with foiling the attempt. Jawara later flew from London to Dakar, Senegal. When he landed in Dakar he was received by high commissioner Bakary Bunja Dabo and senior Senegalese government officials. Meanwhile, the Senegalese government immediately accorded him privilege to address Gambian people on Radio Senegal.

Nobody believed when the news went round town that Jawara had entered the country. The challenges to such thing happening was so demanding, so outrageous, considering the ardent appeals of his wife and children requesting him to come at the risk of their lives that few people, if at all considered it a possibility.

With such prevailing impeachability, with the lives of the non-hostages at stake, fervent prayers were offered to guide and direct him as to when and how he will come to rescue of thousands upon thousands of his loyal subject. Well, to implement the adage that seeing is believing (Kukoi himself didn’t believe that Jawara was in the country), the PPP organised a private meeting at its bureau which Jawara attended in person.

In spite of the Senegalese soldiers in the streets, in spite of the fact that to reach PPP Bureau everyone was subjected to personal searching, almost the whole people in the city went there to see and greet Sir Dawda. When he did arrive the volume of tumultuous welcome greeting was so great that it could be heard several kilometers away. With the assurance that he was here, the women sallied in to the streets, singing and dancing. Quote: ‘We do not know how serviceable our waists are until we get boils in them’.

Eyewitness account

As the saying goes there are two types of people: Those who make history and those who live to witness it. Daily Observer sat down with some eyewitnesses who directly bore the brunt of the coup and the trauma still echo in their minds.

‘The incident happened at the end of holy month of Ramadan, at a time when Muslims were busy preparing for the traditional feast. This time the feast was celebrated in a stressful mood, nobody was happy with the situation, something Gambians have never experienced in their lives’.

When the fighting broke out, people were running from helter–skelter, for safety of their lives and during the process some were caught up in the cross- fire, and eventually died. As a result, the coup was a double tragedy. Some civilians were conscripted and while other voluntarily joined who had no experience of guns and ended up taking their own lives.

The coup also robbed its generation of innocence; some die while trying to loot materials from shops, as well as, some enterprises were brought to bankruptcy. Other areas that also suffered most of the intense fight was the International Airport, Busumbala, Yundun and its surrounding had their bit of the cake. It was reported that the Senegalese military troops (Parachutes) who were trying to land were attacked by the rebels that caused heavy losses on both sides.

[ Who are the people interviewed? There is a quotation on top, whose words are those?]

Arrest and detention

The repercussion of the failed coup is arrest and detention of several people. The arrest and detention was based on their involvement through influential means or by physical participation. Among these people were Imams, politicians, Alkalolu, rebels, among others. These people were made to face the full force of the law and were sentenced accordingly. Others who fled as fugitives to the neighboring country Senegal never appeared before any law for their wrong doings. Many of those who fled are well known PPP politicians, civilians, women and children.

Bitter experience

People were sheltered in congested houses, with no proper sanitation. Scores crossed border to villages of neighboring Senegal, who received influx of refugees. Food and clean drinking water became a major problem for both the refugees and the inhabitants of the host villages, due to its demand. Promises were made by the Senegalese government through their local authorities to provide food and medications for the refugees, within days but this never happened. Meaning that the Gambian refugees had no other option but to cope with the situation until peace was finally restored.

International community response

Meanwhile, when the situation was contained peace and calm returned to the country, the international community response was favorable to The Gambia. There was so much assistance from foreign countries in cash and kind, and some Gambians themselves donated cattle, goats, sheep, rice due to the fact that every body was galvanized nationally and internationally to come to the aid of the country.

However, government took immediate steps to secure external support in the form of food and medical supplies to alleviate the suffering that result from the crises. External Aid Commission was set up to coordinate and administer all the assistance flowing in for the purpose, at that time. The government gave some 14,000 tonnes of cereals to cover three months of food relief for a target population of 300,000 in the main areas affected; namely the Western Division now (West Coast Region), Kombo St Mary and Banjul.

FAO pledged 2,481 tonnes amounting to US$862,000. It also offered additional 3,000 tonnes equal to US$ 734,000 for draught-related food aid. The World Food Programme made available 200 tonnes of sorghum, United Nations Disasters Relief Organization US$ 30,000, the WHO, medical supplies equivalent to US$ 25,000. The International Committee of the Red Cross gave US$12,000, in addition to funds made available to government for the procurement of food and fuel supplies.

The Catholic Relief Service gave 200 tonnes of rice, US$ 10,000 in cash, 90 tonnes of cooking oil and an undetermined amount of food stuffs. CRS also made arrangement for some US$750,000 for US State Department that went in to the purchase of vehicles and to cover their operational cost. The World Permanente International Meat Office (OPIC) and Italian Consortium of Industrial Slaughter House actively took up government request to consider the protein needs of people affected.

Friends of the Gambia at the bilateral level responded enthusiastically and generously: Saudi Arabia gave US$10 million; Germany offered 500 tonnes of cooking oil and 670 tonnes of flour; Sweden offered three tones of medical supplies, The People Republic of China pledged D128, 000 and Nigeria made available a large amount of medical supplies. The government received more than D30 million from local donors that went to the external Aid Fund.

The assistance pay dividend, it helpped to repair the physical damage but the physiological damage still echoed in the minds of Gambians, Said Hassoum Ceesay, historian.

The attempted coup ended on 5 August when Senegalese troops defeated the rebel forces. Sanyang took refuge in Libya, which had also given him some backing for the coup attempt.

Sources: Hassoum Ceesay historian/ Author and Director of Culture Heritage NCAC

The National Record Office / National Archive