Analysis: the July 30, 1981 Gambian Coup
August 1st, 2011
** The attempted Gambian coup d'etat of 30 July 1981
A 1991 Paper
By Arnold Hughes
The Protagonists: l-r, ex-president Dawda Jawara, Kukoie Samba Sanyang, ex-Senegalese president Abdou Diouf
Three decades have passed since the abortive coup d'etat in The Gambia, yet, surprisingly, little has been written about this momentous as well as tragic event in its history. The abortive coup was not merely a singular occurence in Gambian politics; it was also unusual in the annals of coup-making in Africa in that it was plotted and in part executed by civilians rather than soldiers. Yet, contemporary accounts and subsequent commentary on the coup, such as they are, are incomplete and often inaccurate. Neither the Gambian nor the Senegalese Governments published any account of the coup, apart from press releases and interview statements given during or in the immediate wake of the insurrection; while the accounts of those extremist groups which fought the Government, when not attacking each other over their alleged role in the uprising, are also sparse and given to mythologising the coup rather than establishing the truth.
Most accounts of the coup are little more than short, frequently sensationalist and inaccurate news reports written while the fighting was taking place or soon after the insurrection was put down. Gamble (1982) has done an admirable job of tracking them down. Though themselves written within a few months of the uprising, the short accounts by Hughes (1981a,b) and Wiseman (1981, 1982) attempt a more reflective approach. However, their accuracy and detail are constrained by the reliability and extent of the information available in the autumn of 1981. A pro-government account of the rebellion is that of Swaebou Conateh (1982), Director of Broadcasting and Information Services. Despite his position, Conateh attempts a scholarly presentation of the subject, unlike S.A. Bakarr (1981), whose approach is unrepentently propagandist. However, notwithstanding his pro-Government stance and idiosyncratic English, Bakarr did all serious scholars of the coup a great service in collecting and transcribing radio broadcast material tape-recorded at the time. Neither should we forget Nana Humasi's (1987) fictional account of what life was like for ordinary Gambians during the insurrection.
Radical opponents of the Gambian Government have yet to produce anything more than highly-slanted interviews or brief discussions of the uprising as part of more general polemics against the government or each other. Typical are the interviews in West Africa given by 'Koro' Sallah (22 and 29 March 1982); and by Kukoi Samba Sanyang (28 March 1988) and the correspondence in subsequent issues of the journal. Adams' (1987) discussion of the coup is disappointing, being very brief, derivative and often inaccurate.
Essential to a reconstruction of events in The Gambia in 1981 are the records of the two key trials of those accused of taking part in the coup (Gambia Court of Appeal, Criminal Appeal No. 5-11/81 and Criminal Appeal No. 29/82). Though the testimony needs to be interpreted cautiously, it does provide new and revealing information both on the planning of the coup and its execution. Additional information was obtained from numerous interviews with Gambians of all walks of life, including several senior officals who must remain anonymous. It is against this unsatisfactory background that the present reconstruction is attempted.
Radical Politics in The Gambia
The first point to establish is that the attempted coup of 1981 was not the first manifestation of radical politics in The Gambia. There has always been an undercurrent of dissident (if not always ideologically coherent) political expression in The Gambia. Perhaps impressed by the persistence of stable and uncommonly democratic multi-party government in the country, academic writers have tended to ignore or neglect this rival radical tendency, although in fairness to scholars, Gambian militants, compared to mainstream politicians, are rather suspicious of visiting academics and reluctant to speak freely to them.
It does seem to be the case that youthful elements in Africa in general, particularly in urban areas, are frequently drawn to revolutionary rhetoric with its promise of simplistic answers to the complex problems of under-development, and the prospect of enhanced opportunities for personal advancement in a collectivist Marxist state. Latent xenophobia also lurks behind familiar attacks on Western capitalism and its allies among moderate African regimes.
This belief in the desirability of violent and direct forms of political action may also be detected among Gambian youth, and can be traced back to the late colonial period. Indeed, the ruling People's Progressive Party (PPP) successfully exploited the anger and resentment of provincial youth against the colonial state and the prospect of power being transferred to urban elites in the late 1950s to create a national movement. Earlier, Banjul-based organisations such as the Muslim Congress Party and United Party (UP) drew support from such bodies as the Bathurst Young Muslim Society and all parties established youth wings to provide a role for (and a measure of control over) youthful supporters.
The earliest radical groups were formed among the urban young, often on the basis of neighbourhood associations, known as vous (said to be a shortened form of 'rendezvous'). Inspired by a mixture of racial and revolutionary ideologies and role models - Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure initially, then US black power activitists, Frantz Fanon (whose writings elevated violence against the oppressor to a condition of psychological liberation), Steve Biko and the nationalist-Marxist interpretations of Third World liberation movements in general - Gambian militants decried what they regarded as the accommodationist and unexciting policies of their newly-created government. Some of the names assumed by these small associations indicate their combative character or ideological leanings - Black Panthers, Black Brotherhood and the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Foundation. Given their limited membership and restricted political appeal, they presented little difficulty to the authorities. Occasionally, demonstrations got out of hand and clashes with the police took place followed by arrests, but the vast majority of citizens seemed securely attached to the mainstream political parties and constitutional activity.
Initially, the PPP was able to contain these youthful militants within its own party and youth wing structure, but over time the ruling party ossified in opportunities for youths to influence policy or share the benefits of power declined. Evidence of youthful discontent was clearly evident as early as 1971-72. Urban youth was alienated by PPP attempts to capture control of the Banjul-based Gambia National Youth Council (a loose grouping of local youth organisations) through its own youth wing branches in 1971. In the general elections held the following year many of the 19 independent candidates who stood against the ruling party were dissatisfied PPP youth leaders. (For details of the 1972 general elections, see West Africa 14, 21 and 28 April 1972.) The established opposition party had become too moribund to offer a base for radical critics of the government and in 1975 discontented elements left the PPP to join Sheriff Dibba's National Convention Party (NCP), in the belief that the expelled former Vice-President would pursue a more radical and youth-directed programme. Kukoi Samba Sanyang, leader of the abortive coup in 1981, was such an individual - standing unsuccessfully for the NCP in his home constituency, Foni East, in the 1977 general elections. (For details of the 1977 general elections and the background to them, see West Africa 4 and 18 April 1977.)
Another and more explicitly radical political movement was created in 1975, the National Liberation Party (NLP), founded by a self-styled revolutionary Banjul lawyer - Pap Cheyassin Ousman Secka. Secka's constitutionalist political career was also short-lived. He and his handful of candidates all lost their deposits in the 1977 general elections, and Secka himself suffered further humiliation when he lost his deposit once again in a subsequent by-election in Banjul Central. His name would also appear among those of the rebel leaders in 1981.
By the late 1970s, radical elements in The Gambia had become increasingly frustrated and turned to political forms far more threatening to the government. The failure of moderate political movements (the reformist NCP as well as the PPP) to adopt the kind of radical policies favoured by youthful militants, as well as specific objections to the graft and corruption which flourished under an essentially elitist patronage system of politics, and the inability of radicals to gain entry into the parliamentary system, either within or in competition with established parties (as demonstrated in the humiliation of Secka and his NLP and in Kukoi's defeat), encouraged the growth of more extremist dissent and an alienation from constitutionalist politics. (In view of the flawed character of many Gambian 'revolutionaries', one wonders whether the attacks on PPP corruption - itself never as extreme as elsewhere in West Africa - owed more to tactical considerations than to genuine moral outrage.)
Many dissatisfied young people were to be found in the greater Banjul area. (The population of Kanifing doubled in the 1970s, as an increasing number of provincial youth drifted there in search of employment or excitement). They spawned ideologies and organisations totally opposed to the multi-party constitutionalist tradition of Gambian politics. The political alienation of the young in Serekunda (part of the Kanifing Urban District authority) was identified by Wiseman (1985) in a perceptive enquiry conducted before the 1981 coup, though not published until some time afterwards.
New political organisations and new forms of direct action emerged by around 1979. The latter included the burning of two government vessels, a spate of political graffiti and the nocturnal circulation of a free underground newspaper, The Voice of the Future. The latter was thought to be financed from foreign sources, though its publishers were never caught; the chief suspects were tried after the coup but the prosecution dropped the case. It engaged in Marxist polemics against the 'neo-colonial' Gambian state and libellous, if not necessarily inaccurate, exposures of corruption in government and official circles. Two political organisations in particular emerged in 1979/80; there were other less important ones too, such as the intriguingly named Four World Terrorist Organisation.
The first was an offspring of a coastal movement, originally based in Liberia, called the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA). This organisation also adopted a Marxist/pan-Africanist critique of Gambian politics and economic policy and, initially at least, favoured a policy of raising the political consciousness of workers and farmers. In Liberia, the original MOJA had played an important part in the destablisation of the Tolbert regime and gave strong support to the Doe coup in March 1980, seeking to provide intellectual leadership and ideological direction to the semi-literate army leaders. However, there is no idication that MOJA-Gambia had achieved much success by October 1980, when it was banned as a subversive organisation. Tijan 'Koro' Sallah, reportedly a graduate of American and Russian universities and ex-secondary school teacher, was identified as the main spokesman of this grouplet, though its most articulate representative was a part-time journalist, Ousman Manjang (who continued to champion the MOJA cause in the columns of the weekly news magazine West Africa from time to time).
Another and if not ideologically identical movement was the Gambia Revolutionary Socialist Party, founded by 'Dr.' Gibril ('Pengu') George, an unsuccessful small-time businessman with a grudge against the Inspector-General of Police, and a purchased doctorate to gain him intellectual credibility. Kukoi Samba Sanyang, leader of the 1981 coup, joined this organisation perhaps sometime in 1980, on his return from his travels around Europe, where he had embraced Marxism. Little is known about the coup leader; it has been necessary to rely on information obtained orally in The Gambia after the coup. He was born around 1953 to a Roman Catholic Jola family and called Dominique Paul Sanyang. He is reported to have obtained only one school certificate pass, in French, and to have left a Catholic seminary in the Casamance region of Senegal after two years, thus emulating the careers of two earlier revolutionaries - Josef Stalin and Kwame Nkrumah. His political career may have commenced with the general elections of 1972, when this author met him acting as a spokesman for his brother, who unsuccessfully stood as an independent candidate in the Foni East constituency. As noted above, Kukoi himself stood unsuccessfully in the same constituency in 1977, after which he disappeared from public view until 1981.
Of the two, MOJA was regarded as the more intellectually credible and popular among discontented youths, helped perhaps by 'Koro' Sallah's reputation as an amateur sportsman. Indeed, George's group, whose members plotted the coup, was seen as faintly ludicrous. (See George's interview with S.A. Bakarr, The Sun 29 July 1980.)
As suggested, membership of the extreme left in The Gambia was principally confined to discontented, mainly youthful elements in the Banjul-Kanifing area and the townships of the Kombos. Disaffected minor intellectuals, such as teachers, junior civil servants and students at the Yundum Teacher Training College (where there was a well-established tradition of rebelliousness), secondary school pupils and elements of the semi-literate unemployed provided the bulk of its recruits. In contrast, there was only limited support among trade unionists and the one self-styled Marxist labour organisation, the Gambia Labour Union, kept its distance.
Where it did have support, and this would be crucial for its attempt to challenge state authority through violent means, was among the ranks of the para-military police - the 500 strong Field Force. One should not exaggerate the degree of disaffection among the Field Force though; a list allegedly drawn up by the coup plotters included only 36 Field Force personnel and a further 10 civilians (see evidence of Simon T. Sanneh, Criminal Appeal No 5-11/81, 106-115). It is doubtful that mutinous policemen understood, let alone shared, the ideological views of civilian malcontents, as there seem to have been purely internal grievances affecting their loyalty to the Jawara government. For instance, the murder of Commander 'Eku' Mahoney, Deputy Commander of the Field Force at their Depot (barracks) in Bakau on 27 October 1980, by a Field Force constable, Mustapha Danso, was initially regarded as nothing other than an act of violent insubordination by a drug-intoxicated sentry.
That there was more to it was indicated by the Government's rapid action in calling in a force of 150 Senegalese soldiers to stiffen the morale and counter possible wider disaffection within the Field Force. These troops, ostensibly engaged in joint exercises (Operation Today Kabba I'), remained for a week until the crisis had been resolved. Both MOJA and GSRP were banned and the somewhat large and politically-suspect Libyan embassy in Banjul shut down. The government was not only concerned about possible communist backing for what appeared to be Marxist-inspired dissident groups; it also believed Tripoli to be secretly supporting them and to be funding the Voice of the Future . Up to this time Libya had enjoyed good relations with the Gambian government and was regarded as an important source of development funds.
Additionally, the Government forcibly retired an Assistant Commander in the Field Force, Ousman Bojang, whose resentment against the police leadership is thought to have led him to join the civilian plotters the following year. There is no indication that Bojang was inspired by radical beliefs, but it is quite possible that he was part of a mutinous cabal already existing within the Field Force, resentful of what was claimed to be an urban-Wolof/Aku (both Banjul rather than provincial communal groups) domination of the security forces, and prepared to combine with the radical dissidents to overthrow the government. Bojang's resentment certainly assumed seditious form in July 1981 and he died in the fighting.
The events of October 1980 revealed two things. Firstly, there was the beginning of a dangerous convergence of disaffected elements within the security forces and civilian society; but, secondly, government intelligence gathering and counter measures were effective. In 1981 the shortcomings of the latter would allow this fused extremist opposition nearly to overthrow the Government.
From the fragmentary and admittedly disputed evidence available to us today, it is possible to provide some reconstruction of events in the Gambia between the morning of Thursday, 30 July, when insurgents seized the Field Force Depot and Friday 6th August, when the remnants of the rebels were mopped up by Senegalese troops and loyal Gambian forces. The trial evidence (Criminal Appeal No 5-11/81 and No. 29/82) is uncontested as far as the execution of the coup is concerned, though claims that a wider group of individuals and organisations was involved were vigorously denied. It was Gibril Pengu George's GSRP (its name changed to Gambia Underground Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party - GUSRWP, since its banning), which hatched the plot and it was Kukoi Sanyang who implemented it. The decision to launch a coup was taken some time in early 1981 though the choice of date was only made shortly before it occurred. (Kukoi was keen on a Wednesday and was reported as having consulted a marabout about the most propitious time.) It is not correct that the coup was timed for Jawara's return from London. (The plotters lacked the resources and organisation to attack the airport and rebels who turned state evidence make no mention of such a plan.) Neither is there any evidence to suggest that fears of exposure led to it being brought forward.
Kukoi relied on a small group of eleven persons, all fellow-Jola residents of Talinding-Kunjang, the Jola quarter of Serekunda, and most of whom were illiterate, to carry out the action. According to Appai Sonko's evidence (Criminal Appeal No 5-11/81, 28-42), these were Kukoi S. Sanyang, Appai Sonko, Jerreh Colley, Junkung Sawo, Dembo Jammeh, Ousman Jawo, Taffa Camara, Simon T. Sanneh, Mbemba Camara, Kantong Fatty and Kambani B. Badji. Apart from being Jola, they were largely illiterates, ex- Field Force or connected with the taxi trade.
This reliance on close Jola acquaintances fuelled speculation that the coup was a 'Jola' coup, intended to link what was perceived as the low status Jola community of The Gambia with its ethnic compatriots in what is referred to as the 'three Bs! - Banjul, Bignona (in Casamance) and (Guinea-) Bissau. However, the GUSRWP was not an exclusively Jola organisation -Gibril George was an Aku, and several other conspirators whose names were allegedly on the rebel list of those sworn to carry out the undertaking were Wolof or Mandinka (e.g., 'Koro' Sallah, Pap Secka and Ousman Bojang). Contradicting evidence was given at Secka's trial that Kukoi went to Guinea-Bissau to obtain arms (Criminal Appeal No. 29/82 and exhibit 'HH', statement of Saloum Jahateh, 127-2), but the conspirators were armed with five hunting guns acquired from villagers in the Fonis - the Jola region of the Gambia - and a revolver. They left Momodou Sanyang's house at 2.00 am and walked all the way to the barracks, a distance of about five miles. (As the coup was later described as the 'taxi driver's coup', because several of its organisers drove taxies for a living, it seems remarkable that they did not choose to travel in greater comfort!) They cut through the perimeter fence and overpowered the sleeping guards.
One of the conspirators, identified as Momodou Sonko, a disaffected Field Force man, was already in the Depot and helped arrange the taking of the armoury and the seizure of the remainder of the barracks. Commander Bojang was summoned by dawn and rebel elements, comprising sympathisers and others coerced into supporting the coup, stood guard over the Depot or fanned out to the airport, Radio Gambia and central Banjul to seize strategic objectives and arrest government ministers and senior police officers. Among their first victims was the Assistant Commander of Police, Kikala Baldeh, gunned-down at his front door.
Their first setback was their failure to take the Central Police Station in Banjul, where a dozen or more defenders led by the Inspector General of Police, A.S. M'Boob, created a defence zone which successfully resisted rebel attempts to storm it. Their numbers were increased by a detachment of loyal Field Force men from the up-river Pioneer Unit base at Farafenni, who made their way to the capital. Within this 'fortification unit' Vice President Assan Camara and other ministers found refuge and were able to claim to the outside world, as well as reassure the wavering President in London, that the Government still existed.
By mid-morning of 30 July, the insurgents were distributing self-loading rifles to their supporters and more generally to anyone producing a voter's card. However, as public order collapsed, so did that of the rebels, furthered by the general exodus of convicts from Mile Two prison outside Banjul, following the release of Mustapha Danso, gaoled after the October 1980 incidents. Lacking any but the most general plans for dealing with the consequences of their action, Kukoi and his fellow-conspirators lost control. Their coup degenerated into a series of localised initiatives, characterised by much confusion, and sparked-off widespread looting, robbery and killing. Divisions within the rebel ranks also appeared, for on 31 July Gibril George was shot dead at the Depot. Kukoi used the captured radio station to some effect during the first few days of the rebellion (Conateh 1982) to declare his revolutionary programme of a 'Marxist-Leninist state' under the control of his 'Supreme Council of the Revolution', and to persuade or coerce a large number of Gambians and some Senegalese to denounce the Jawara administration and later Senegalese military intervention (among them a wife and children of the President, a cabinet Minister and a leading Senegalese Muslim dignitary). Some 105 hostages were detained at the Depot, including Lady Chilel Jawara and eight of the President's children.
Within twenty-four hours of the announcement of the coup, President Jawara, who initially seemed poised to give up power, determined to return to West Africa, and flew in a chartered aircraft to neighbouring Dakar, where he invoked once more the 1965 defence agreement with Senegal. After an unsuccessful appeal to the rebels to accept an amnesty, Senegalese forces were mobilised remarkably quickly and began to move against the Banjul area by the second day of the coup (reconnaissance flights were observed on the afternoon of the first day). 'Operation Foday Kabba II' had every appearance of advance planning, but the invading Senegalese encountered an initial reversal when the first wave of paratroops dropped on Yundum airport suffered heavy casualties. Anticipating a repeat of the paratroop drop on Yundum in October 1980, rebel forces were ready to intercept them.
Senegalese ground forces advancing to the airport from Casamance also faced resistance in the Fonis and around Brikama. Much would be made of these acts of defiance afterwards by rebel spokesmen in exile, but it was generally apparent that armed resistance was ineffective and limited to a few locations in the Banjul-Kanifing area and the Western Division. Sallah (West Africa 22 and 29 March 1982) claimed that 'the great majority of our people .. embraced it [the coup]' and that 'hundreds of thousands of Gambians came out to jubilate'. Equally questionable was his assertion that, 'Our population, armed and unarmed, stood up heroically against an overwhelming military machine'. His wildest claim was that Senegalese 'death squads' were active in The Gambia following the foiled plot of October 1980- A small mutiny was also reported among Field Force personnel at Farafenni, but there was no evidence of fighting elsewhere in the country, which seriously challenges rebel claims that the Senegalese had provoked a war of national resistance.
Radio Gambia was used not only to try and rally popular support for the coup and threaten hostages with death if the Senegalese did not withdraw, but also to appeal to 'socialist' countries to aid the insurrection. The USSR, Libya, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry were all appealed to, but without success; although Guinea-Bissau did condemn Senegalese intervention and later provided temporary sanctuary for Kukoi and nine companions who made their way there. Gambian claims of Guinea-Bissau complicity in the coup were never proven. It was popularly believed that Yafai Camara, Guinea-Bissau's Vice-Minister for the Armed Forces, came from Sukuta, a township in the Kombos, and provided backing for the rebels. Kukoi did call on the Guinea-Bissau mission in Fajara during the uprising, but with no apparent success. Lack of credibility in a Libyan link (Libyan/Cuban, as Adams (1987: 172) recently claimed, was reinforced by Kukoi's action in visiting the house of the NCP leader, Sheriff Dibba, to try and obtain Colonel Gadaffi's telephone number! (Dibba evidence. Criminal Appeal No 29/82, 31-33) Some 3,000 Senegalese troops were deployed (over one-third of their total military strength) by land, sea and air against the rebel positions. Abandoned by what were expected to be friendly countries and under increasing Senegalese military pressure on all sides, the insurgents pulled out of Banjul by Sunday morning, when President Jawara returned to his capital, and fell back on the Field Force barracks at Bakau.
Depite initial panic caused by more determined resistance than expected, the Senegalese forces acquitted themselves well, and casualties were surprisingly light given the urban terrain of much of the fighting. The Gambian Government claimed a total of some 500 deaths, but it is likely that the figure was rather higher, given the indiscriminate nature of the killings. Senegalese losses were officially listed as 30, though rebel spokesmen claimed they were much heavier. In this respect, it is significant that afterwards President Jawara presented $1 million to the Senegalese army in recognition of its services.
Kukoi and a number of his confederates had already left the country by sea from Kartong, some three days before the rebel positions were finally taken without the feared blood-bath of hostages. Fears for the latter's safety partly explains the decision of the British Government to send three SAS personnel to advise the Senegalese army; these were in evidence during the freeing of the hostages. The American Government, alarmed by the apparent Marxist/Libyan orientations of the insurgents, also considered sending in members of the Delta Force (anti-terrorist unit) (Adams 1987: 172-6). Presumably because of the speed of the Senegalese advance and the presence of the SAS men, they were never despatched.
Foreign intervention, it now seems, was largely in support of the Gambian Government rather than against it. The Senegalese role was crucial in limiting public support for the rebels, rather than in turning their illegal action into a national crusade, as rebel apologists would later claim. An examination of Gazetted notices of detention of over 1,000 detainees held after the coup reveals that over 91% of suspects came from Banjul/Kanifing and the Western Division; over half came from Kanifing. Over 800 of the detainees were later released without being charged, which further reduces the national impact of the insurrection. The NCP leader, Sheriff Dibba, was typical of many others, when he refused to broadcast in support of the coup and warned Kukoi of impending Senegalese military intervention.
Limited British and American backing has also been noted. Equally important was the diplomatic (and subsequent economic) support for Jawara offered by all African countries (save Libya) and many others. Some $30 million in relief aid was provided by the international community to help in national reconstruction. Even countries regarded as radical - Tanzania, Guinea-Conakry, Algeria and Cape Verde Republic - immediately backed the lawful government; Guinea-Bissau made swift moves to restore relations with its neighbours, sending a special envoy to Banjul in August and, though not prepared to return Kukoi and his fellow-conspiritors to The Gambia, expelled them to Cuba the following April.
The Coup In Retrospect
There is little support now for the initial claim by the Gambian and Senegalese governments that the coup had external sponsors. It is significant that Jawara played down this factor after his return, though in an interview at the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Gambian independence he re-iterated (but once again failed to elaborate) the claim of Libyan involvement. The President stated in an interview West Africa 12-18 February 1990) that Kukoi was a failed politician, 'being secretly cultivated and trained by an outside power, Libya, and prepared for staging this coup.' It is correct that, following the coup attempt, Kukoi did establish links with Libya, but no positive connection before July 1981 has been publicly established by either the Senegalese or Gambian governments.
The claim of outside interference may have been prompted by a shared feeling on the part of the two governments that Libya was generally pursuing an adventurist foreign policy in West Africa aimed at undermining pro-Western states. In part, it may have been a general error arising out of the confusion of the time. For example, a British newspaper erroneously claimed during the fighting that Russian kalashnikov rifles used by the rebels had been imported in a consignment of Lada cars, whereas in fact they had been stolen from the Field Force Depot. It may also have been calculated, in order to legitimise the Senegalese intervention. Ostensibly, the 1965 defence agreement was to be invoked when either country was subject to external threat, and its legitimacy in the event of suppressing internal unrest was to be challenged by opposition elements in Senegal and The Gambia.
Neither is there any support for the insurgents' claim that theirs was the commencement of a patriotic revolution, rather than the amateurish if murderous action of a few disgruntled Gambians from the Kombos and Fonis. Overt public support for the coup was limited both in extent and duration. Generalised dissatisfaction with the Jawara Government undoubtedly existed at this time, accentuated by economic problems arising from natural calamities as much as by poor government performance, but this should not be equated with active public support for a coup d'etat by a small body of unknown individuals. Neither should the rush to accept weapons from the rebels be interpreted as evidence of support for them, for among those armed were common criminals who used their weapons to rob and loot, as well as to settle private scores.
It was not only the personal obscurity and lack of any credentials to govern of those who claimed to speak for the masses which dissuaded the public from endorsing them. Conateh (1982) has shown how the rebels made clever use of the captured radio station, but at the same time the alternative programme outlined by Kukoi in his speeches baffled or alienated a largely illiterate and conservative Muslim society. Marxist jargon and revolutionary slogans concealed a poverty of concrete policies and realistic objectives. (Transcripts of tapes of rebel radio broadcasts made by the author and by Bakarr 1981: 10-18). While rebel criticism and condemnation of corruption in government and economic hardship reflected wider public feelings, its rhetoric was hardly likely to promote popular confidence. What were people to make of organisations such as the 'Supreme Council of the Revolution' and its 'National Liberation Army' (the name given to the Field Force mutineers); or such slogans as 'Death to neocolonialism, racism and fascism in The Gambia' and 'Victory for the Gambian revolutionary struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leadership of a marxist-leninist party'? Neither could the suspension of the constitution and the judiciary, the abolition of Parliament and political parties; the closure of all financial institutions and the creation of a body calling itself the 'National Revolutionary Redressing Committee' command public confidence. While claiming it had 'brilliant ideas' for the country's future, this body could provide no positive programme of redress.
Even supporters of the coup, such as MOJA, were later to denounce Kukoi as a naive adventurer (Sallah interview, West Africa 22 and 29 March 1982). Such celebrations as occurred were largely confined to Banjul and the townships of the Kombos; most Gambians preferred to adopt a 'wait-and-see' attitude. With general elections due in the spring of 1982, the overwhelming majority of the populace felt that a coup was both unnecessary and unlawful, and the excesses accompanying the seizure of power - the killings, robbery, dislocation of food supplies - led to a rapid and sharp decline in support for the rebels. Threatening hostages 'live' over the radio was also counter-productive, neither deviating Jawara from his purpose, nor winning converts to the rebel cause.
Was the coup limited to the GSRP? Trial evidence led to the conviction of Pap Cheyassin Secka as the eminence grise of the rebellion. Evidence was offered of meetings between Secka and other conspirators in Senegal and at Somita in the Fonis. A crucial letter recovered from the rebel 'headquarters' in Talinding Kunjang (Serekunda) convinced the trial judge (a Nigerian) that Secka was in league with Kukoi and had prepared the speech used by the latter to announce the 'revolution' (Secka to 'Samba' [Kukoi], Exhibit "W", Criminal Appeal No 29/82, 106). The authorship of rebel broadcasts remains to be determined. While their composition does not suggest a well-educated writer, such phrases as 'the iron law of oligarchy', as well as more familiar Marxist expressions indicate a level of political sophistication and literary expression greater than might be expected of the group that launched the coup from Talinding Kunjang. The actual draft speech was never recovered and Secka's plea of innocence was rejected. He was found guilty of taking part in the rebellion and sentenced to death (subsequently commuted to life imprisonment, but released in early 1991). Critics of the judgement claimed that he was sentenced because of his part in acting as MOJA's defence counsel during the trial of MOJA activists in November 1980.
More controversial was the testimony of captured rebels that ten civilians and 36 policemen swore an oath on the Koran at Gibril George's house to carry out the coup. Not only were Secka and Ousman Bojang's names on this alleged list (which was never produced in court) but also those of 'Koro' Sallah and Ousman Manjang. These MOJA leaders later claimed from exile that they joined the coup after witnessing security forces firing on 'innocent' civilians. Their explanation seems no more convincing than the prosecution's charge. It does not seem hard to accept, at the least, that MOJA militants acted opportunistically to spread revolution, mis-judging in the early hours of the coup, Jawara's determination to fight back and Senegal's willingness to back him. Sheriff Dibba, although detained for over a year and charged with supporting the rebellion, was rightly acquitted at his trial (one of the witnesses who helped to exonerate him being the Inspector-General). A constitutionalist politician, and fully expecting to win the 1982 elections, Dibba had no reason to plot treason with a band of obscure amateur revolutionaries, whose leader had broken with the NCP. It is telling that his name was not on the controversial list of plotters. That individual NCP militants joined the coup is not inconceivable, but widely-reported rebel wearing of white (the NCP colour) headbands was probably coincidental.
A retrospective analysis of the 1981 coup confirms the general conclusions of Hughes and Wiseman that it was a domestic affair, plotted by a politically obscure group of individuals, civilian and para-military, with mixed motives, but who, in their different ways, hoped to gain personally as much as ideologically from overthrowing the government. Others, radicals or non-politicals, opportunistically joined the fighting once it had begun, but these too were local people; no conclusive evidence of external involvement has yet been produced. If external inspiration, as opposed to material assistance, can be found, it was more likely to be the radical military coups led by Jerry Rawlings and Samuel Doe in Ghana and Liberia in 1979-80, rather than Qadaffi's Libya, let alone Cuba, though the ideological commitment of the Field Force is questionable. That the coup came close to success, despite its bungled nature, cannot be denied, and there is evidence of mass alienation from the government as well as of poor intelligence work on the part of the authorities. Public unwillingness to face armed insurgents and the demoralisation of most of the Field Force and police (far more ran away than joined the insurgents) testify to the general problem of generating loyalty to the state in post-colonial Africa, but do not amount to the mass enthusiasm for revolutionary change and violence, or to a national struggle against the Senegalese, as claimed by exiled rebels.
The defeat of extra-constitutional radicalism in The Gambia presented a fundamental crisis to the Gambian left'. Kukoi himself, remained quite unrepentant. He surfaced at a conference in Libya in March 1988, where he gave guarded answers to an interviewer (West Africa 29 March 1988). While admitting his tactical errors, he remained committed to a revolutionary and violent replacement of the Gambian Government. He now argued the necessity of working with like-minded elements in Senegal, given that the Treaty of Confederation permitted the Senegalese armed forces to under-write the security of the Gambian state. This statement was made before the break-up of the Confederation in October 1989.
MOJA activists remain discreet in The Gambia itself, but periodically launch propaganda attacks (including a grossly-distorted Swedish TV documentary) on the Jawara Government. Pro-MOJA graphiti may occasionally be seen on walls in Banjul. (One had to be hurriedly wiped off the polling station wall in Banjul North just before the President voted in the 1987 elections.) Being officially banned, MOJA seems to have lost the initiative within the Gambian left.
Instead, a new and, significantly, constitutionalist Marxist opposition movement emerged in 1986. Called DOI (short for the People's Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism), it offers an unusually well-reasoned critique of rival leftist groups as well as a denunciation of the shortocmings of the PPP. (See the DOI newspaper Foroyaa for its political views and programmes.) Some of the DOI leaders were popularly thought to be the persons behind the clandestine Voice of the Future. The party was badly beaten in the 1987 general elections, all five candidates being defeated, and four losing their deposits. Even so, it remained surprisingly sanguine, considering its setback as part of the long process of winning public acceptance in the face of what it regarded as a hostile and dissembling government.
The Gambian Government has also had to rethink its position since the coup. In the wake of the insurrection, the creation of the Senegambian Confederation put the security of the country on a more stable footing in that the military protocols of the confederation permitted Senegal to station troops on Gambian soil. (For a summary of the military provisions of the Confederation, see Hughes and Lewis 1985.) While this guaranteed internal security for the rest of the decade, critics of the government gained a measure or public approval in attacking the arrangement as Senegalese 'occupation' of the country.
The security situation changed dramatically in August 1989. Following a steady deterioration in relations between the two states, and a need to face a military threat from Mauritania, the Senegalese government unilaterally and without prior notification withdrew its security forces from The Gambia. The latter's defence now relies solely on its reconstituted forces of over 2,000 men, deliberately divided between a Senegalese-organised gendarmerie and a British-trained army battalion. The loyalty of these forces to the government remains to be tested, but experience suggests that patronage political systems such as that of The Gambia find it difficult to generate more than conditional loyalty.
The persistence of corruption and mismanagement in government, advanced as reasons for the 1981 coup attempt, has not been resolved by Jawara, despite periodic dismissals of the worst offenders. Meanwhile, the economy has passed through another difficult period since the early-1980s, following the adoption of an IMF-inspired Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) in 1985. While the government and its overseas backers were claiming a measure of recovery by 1990, the means taken to restore the economy have meant particular hardships for public sector employees and the urban population, the natural recruiting ground of earlier radicals.
Despite some loss of support among the general public, the PPP not only won the general elections of 1982 (admittedly under unusually favourable circumstances given the state of emergency and public reaction to the failed coup), but also those of 1987, when it gained control of 31 of the 36 directly elected seats. In addition, Sir Dawda Jawara was safely returned in the presidential election, though it should be noted that the combined opposition forces polled 40% of the vote, but their strength was dissipated in three or four way splits at the polls. (Election details may be found in Hughes 1987.) Both in 1982 and 1987 the ruling party sought to introduce some much-needed new blood among the ranks of its parliamentarians and the government has followed a policy of leniency and reconciliation towards its revolutionary opponents. Only one death sentence was carried out, that of Danso, for a killing that took place in 1980, and detainees were either released without going to trial or freed later under variious amnesties. MOJA and GSRP are still banned and Kukoi Samba Sanyang and a number of other GSRP and MOJA militants are still on the wanted list, but the ban on revolutionary leftist organisations excludes DOI and its publications.
Have the horrors of 1981 permanently turned Gambians away from attempting to replace their government by force? Are President Jawara's post-coup reforms and reconstruction of his country's security forces sufficient to dissuade further plots against the state? Talks in late 1990 between the PPP and NCP with a view to merger or alliance may lead to a strengthening of the political centre, but at the same time it would allow DOI to draw to it a range of 'broad-left' discontented elements and possibly extend its support among a still disaffected younger generation in the urban areas. A constitutionalist and more politically successful DOI, though, would undermine the position of those radical groups, such as GSRP and MOJA, still pursuing violent policies for change.
But the position of the revolutionary left in Africa is uncertain at present in view of the erosion of its credibility in the wake of recent events in Eastern Europe. Even if DOI and other radical political groups were to abandon their militancy, there still remains the more familiar locus of coup-making - the security forces. The loyalty of the reconstituted but much expanded Gambian defence forces remains to be tested. Will they develop political or personal ambitions, familar elsewhere in the African continent, that will bridge their deliberate division into gendarmerie and army, particularly as the possibility of future Senegalese intervention seems uncertain following the ending of the treaty of confederation? Did the fledgling Gambian democracy narrowly overcome one danger only to expose itself to a future challenge from those very instruments created to counter that danger?
** Arnold Hughes, a renowned researcher of The Gambia, was until retirement, Emeritus Professor and Director of the Center of West African Studies at The University of Birmingham, UK.
Editor's Note: this article has been slightly edited to reflect some current realities.