Editorial Reflection: the 1981 Gambian Coup, Deciphered
August 1st, 2011
The Coup, Deciphered
By the Editors
Exactly 30 years ago yesterday, Gambians awoke to the news that the then-president Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara and his PPP administration had been toppled from power. Kukoie Samba Sanyang, the mastermind of the 1981 civilian putsch, declared himself president. He lobbed charges of corruption and malfeasance against Jawara and his colleagues. On national radio, and in oratorical flourishes subsumed in Marxist psychobabble, Kukoie vowed to change a political system that he believed had ran roughshod over the little man in the streets. Of course, he would be chased out of The Gambia by an intervening Senegalese force and Jawara would return to the presidency. And thereupon began a long, arduous process of national re-awakening.
Three decades since, the 1981 incident continues to stay right there --- in the deep recesses of our nation's memory. It will never go away because it is fated for perpetuity. It is part of our nation's DNA. The Gambia's history and especially its dealings with matters of power and governance will and can never be discussed in full without some inference from Kukoie's forceful grab of the machinery of government. It is tempting to dismiss Kukoie's action as the foolhardy, parochial adventurism of one man. (And it was to a large extent.) But it could be argued that the rebellion sprang up from a wellspring of economic malaise, and of apathy towards a democratic system that had come to be identified with the monopoly of power, with the dull stasis of a state machinery ran by the same people time after time. By 1981, Jawara had been in power for 19 years starting from 1962 when he became Prime Minister.
Still, the bad economic times and a spurious democracy were far from compelling for an overthrow of a popularly-elected government. The 1981 take-over cast a dark shadow over civil society. In the greater Banjul area, where much of the activity took place, it was a climate of fear and uncertainty: food shortages, looting and killings. Hundreds of people died. In the countryside, people agonized over the events in Banjul. News barely filtered through to the provinces. Basse lost one of its sons Kikala Baldeh, a police commander, in the mutiny. He was among the early casualties of the rebellion. Also, the headmaster of Basse Koba Kunda Primary School Abdou Jallow, a native of Bakau, died during the senseless bloodletting. In Basse, a contingent of Senegalese soldiers was seen passing through town, heading to the capital. Their mission was to end the bloodshed and crush the rebellion. Gambians felt besieged. The national mood registered a downward trajectory.
The 1981 incident didn't destroy The Gambia, but it forced a Hobbesian reality on a hepless citizenry. Government was in shambles, absent. Power and authority were now operating in a dangerous vacuum or through erratic speeches on radio or through armed patrols in the streets. Kukoie and his men (some of whom were taxi drivers), perhaps operating from Lenin's dictum that "even a cook can run the state," were keen to establish their stranglehood on the Gambian state. But their reformist credentials were suspect; and their actions were devoid of moral clarity and endemic to national unity. One shudders to think what kind of a government (policies and institutions), Kukoie and his rag-tag group would have given The Gambia. Had the Senegalese not intervened, the prospects for more bloodletting could have done the Gambian nation in. The whole thing could have gone down under.
But it didn't. The Gambian nation, through the will of its leaders and people, was able to rise above the smoldering wreckage of July 31 and steer itself to a new normal. By the next year, 1982, the nation had returned to its democratic temperament with fresh elections. The five-year election cycle (last elections, 1977) had not broken. People were picking up the pieces of their individual lives broken by the nightmares of the times and by the agonizing contemplations over how close their nation had gotten close to the brink of total collapse.
There is a lot to be derived from the 1981 coup in terms of its lasting impact on our society. If anything, the government maximized its size and reach through, say, the formation of the Gambia National Army --- and it appropriated itself new powers that had the potential to handicap participatory democracy and to curb human rights and liberties. The coup also showed us what the inordinate political ambition, especially when combined with the force of arms, of one man, could do to the peace and unity of a county. 30 years later, these issues are still relevant to the national discourse.