JULY 22 ANNIVERSARY: THE PARADOX OF A
BLOODLESS COUP D’ETAT AND A BLOODY 19-YEAR RULE
Dear President Jammeh,
Today July 22nd 2013 marks 19 years of your coming into power – the day that you wrested power from a democratically elected government and imposed an undemocratic illegal franchise which lasted for two years.
Today, you are the ‘legitimate’ head of state of The Gambia. After coming in illegally, by overthrowing the Government of President Dawda Kairaba Jawara you became legal by taking off your uniform to contest for elections in 1996. An election you won and have continued to win in four subsequent Presidential elections.
It is paradoxical that you have been rewarded and continue to reward yourself for carrying out a coup d’état yet you punish with the utmost severity people who are alleged to be coup plotters. What is it that makes a coup d’état legitimate or illegitimate? Is it the successful outcome that makes it legitimate and the unsuccessful outcome that makes it illegitimate? Coupists like yourself who stage a successful coup d’état go on to ensconce themselves in power and show no inclination of leaving. You organize sham elections and, as elected Presidents enjoy all the trappings that go with the Office. You sit with your democratically elected peers in the same spaces, institutions that have protocols on democracy and good governance such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN). This is an indicator of weakness on the part of our regional and international institutions – to hold their members accountable to commitments to democratization of their countries.
Going back to my question of what makes a coup d’état illegal or otherwise it seems that success is the measure of legality and failure the indicator of illegality. Success results in reward and failure in punishment. When an attempted coup fails or is foiled then it is seen as an illegal activity for which the coup plotters whether real or framed are condemned and tried on charges that have dire punishment including death. The Gambia is an outstanding example of this anomaly and provides an interesting case study for political analysts – the rewards and punishments of coup d’états.
Mr. President, I know that you hate being addressed in this manner. Why? I am still to comprehend. However, if you so much dislike to be addressed as Mr. President then why do you want the position so much? You bridle anytime you hear this greeting and several journalists have paid the prize for using it. In December 2004, Deyda Hydara paid the ultimate prize for his Good Morning Mr. President. State sponsored gunmen, apparently authorized by you, have confessed to his murder, yet you do not blink? In 2009, The Gambia Press Union paid dearly for the letter I wrote to you about the disparaging statements you made about Deyda Hydara, the assassinated Proprietor and Editor of The Point newspaper. The saga of the GPU six is well chronicled as men and a woman of the press were imprisoned and fined for committing no crime but simply to publish a letter I wrote to you Mr. President in my capacity as President of the GPU reminding you of your responsibilities towards ensuring the safety of all of your citizens – a message you did not take kindly to. The greeting Mr. President goes with the position and is not meant to be derogatory.
Mr. President, Deyda’s assassination is one in a long list of unexplained and uninvestigated murder cases during your nineteen (19) year tenure of office. Your assertion and that of your supporters that your coup d’état was bloodless can no longer hold true for your tenure of office has turned out to be the bloodiest episode in the history of The Gambia. While the events and circumstances of each episode are different the spilling of the blood of thousands of Gambians is a real tragedy that mars the peace and tranquility of a nation that was once the envy of the sub-region and provided a safe haven for thousands of refugees that were fleeing their countries –Sierra Leone, Liberia and Senegal (Casamance) in search of peace, security and safety. They found it in our small and peaceful country. That was The Gambia of yester year. In The Gambia of today the persons and properties of Gambians and non-Gambians alike are unsafe and at risk from state sponsored terror and killings.
The arguments of under-development prior to your taking over go on unabated as justification for your military takeover. This letter to you Mr. President is not about growth and development or under-development but about peace and security. The peace and security you promised Gambians with “your soldiers with a difference” statement. This has not materialized however and the opposite holds true. Prior to July 22, 1994 Gambians did not know about death squads, unexplained putsches, abductions, rape, killings and executions. After Independence, the only execution that ever took place in The Gambia was that of Mustapha Danso, in 1981.
Mr. President, true there was pain and suffering during and following the abortive coup d’état of 1981 but in the true nature of Gambians they reverted back into the rhythm of complacency, maslaha and peacefulness – leaving everything in the hands of God the Almighty. It is this attribute of Gambians that you have exploited and continue to exploit for you know too well that Gambians are fatalistic people who believe that all events are predetermined by fate and are therefore unalterable. We are a people who also believe that khen du heh ngurr and a people who believe that peace should be maintained at any price.
This belies the true spirit of democracy. Power flows from the people to the leaders of government, who hold power only temporarily. The people are free to criticize their elected leaders and representatives, and to observe how they conduct the business of government. Yet you, Mr. President, broker no criticism from your own party members or from the opposition. On the contrary Mr. President you have monopolized the democratic space. Yours is the only voice that predominates obliterating all others as you erroneously believe that you know it all and that you have the answer to all societal needs and interests.
Over time you have alienated many including your own friends, supporters, ministers and military forces, the media, opposition political parties, religious leaders and civil society many of whom are angry and frustrated. Everyone who is willing to participate peacefully has been alienated except those who sing to your tune and dance to your music. When they finish dancing and singing to a particular tune they get pushed aside for the next set of dancers. Their actions are now anathema and no longer sources of the utmost satisfaction. You abhor and reject them and end up by dismissing, imprisoning and even killing them. You squash with brute force any dissenting or divergent voices.
This letter Mr. President is to remind you that even though you claim that you “did not kill a chicken” when you took over you have since then turned the tide by the numerous state sponsored killings that have taken place in a bid to silence the opposition and to quell any perceived move that will remove you from office legally or illegally. Some concrete evidence of your repressive actions is listed below to remind you of your heavy handed actions against the people that you are obliged to listen to, take their criticisms into consideration, where possible act on them and where this is not possible give cogent reasons.
Mr. President, the first demonstration of your desire to entrench yourself and to wield absolute power was the night of 11th November 1994. A day that is still vivid in my mind as your violent and surprise attack of Fajara Barracks ended in a personal tragedy for my family. The rude awakening of residents of Fajara and Bakau by the booming of gunshots and artillery resulted in my grandmother going into shock. She suffered a brain haemorrhage and went into a coma and stayed comatose until she passed away a year later on the 19th October 1995. She was an indirect victim of the shootings at Fajara Barracks when blast explosions caused a wave of change in atmospheric pressure and adversely affected my grandmother even though she did not come into direct contact with the shrapnel.
As serious as our own family tragedy was it was nothing compared to the massive loss of lives that resulted from the gunfight at Fajara Barracks. The exact toll will never be known as those who know have been neutralized or permanently silenced in a cyclical spate of violence in which anyone who is deemed to have information is systematically annihilated. While some names standout such as Lieutenants Basiru Barrow, Alieu Ceesay, Abdoulie Faal, Bakary Manneh, Buba Jammeh, Basiru Camara, Momodou Darboe and Gibril Saye, Sergeant Fafa Nyang and Lieut. Alieu Ceesay, others have disappeared into oblivion. After nineteen years their families have kept quiet and not asked for an explanation about the mysterious disappearances of their loved ones – a Gambian trait that I have already alluded to displayed by a people who can endure pain, grief and long suffering in silence.
The probability of this happening elsewhere than in The Gambia is rare. After nineteen long years of not knowing where their loved ones – son, brother, husband, fiancée, relative, and friend – people in other countries would have demanded for a public explanation. In the aftermath of the event, some made enquiries about their relations and were told that they had gone on a mission. While this was plausible then it no longer holds water. Even then it was a flimsy excuse but people were willing to hold on to some shred of hope. Hope that their loved ones were not among those massacred on that fateful night. Some are still in denial as they hope against hope that their loved one somehow escaped. Nineteen years is a long time to keep quiet and make no contact. If an emergency warranted their prompt departure they would have made contact with their families on arrival at the country of mission or if they escaped from their pursuers they would have tried to make contact after some time. The indicators are that they are no longer alive.
The ones who died outside the Barracks on the 11/12th November 1994 far outnumber those who died inside. The surprise attack by your operators left many of the defenseless and helpless soldiers dead as they tried to get away. The rest were rounded up and put into trucks and taken away in broad daylight to the firing range in Brikama and other places in the Kombos. Stories of their sad demise came when some of the killers on sobering up after the macabre massacres gave anecdotal evidence of what had transpired. One of the stories was of the young soldier who turned to his assailant and pleaded to be given the opportunity to pray two rakats. His cruel response was ya ko tall. In religion it is the intention that matters and for the deceased young man his prayer was answered. For his killer it is now between him and his God for the young man is no more and is not in a position to forgive his killer or otherwise.
Gibril Saye was not even at the barracks. Arrested on his way to work the next morning and brutally killed he was named among the persons who had been killed at Fajara Barracks in spite of his father’s protestations that he saw his son that morning before he left for work. The late Captain Sadibou Hydara called his father a “stupid old man who did not know what he was talking about.” By a strange quirk of fate and in retributive justice the man who heartlessly rubbished the calls of a grieving father for justice of his slaughtered son lost his life in March 1995 just five months after the 11/12th November 1994 incident. He died in Mile 2 Central Prisons where he was incarcerated with the then Vice Chairman Captain Sana Sabally for attempting to “kill you” Mr. President – the very allegation that was leveled against the soldiers who were accused of waging war against you and your government.
Mr President, even though the exact number of deaths from this gruesome night is unknown there are unmarked mass graves which will bear testimony to the atrocities that took place on that night. Recently (2009) as you toured security bases, you tried to apportion blame for the presence of human remains in Fajara Barracks to the 1981 Coup D’état. In your usual diatribe you said the Barracks was full of human bodies – remains of persons who had died in 1981. As you spoke you forgot that DNA and Forensics can tell how a person died and when. A day will come when forensic experts will help the people of The Gambia to know the truth about the different historical periods and the horrifying deaths that some people endured. If you were so sure Mr. President that these “bones” as you described them, belonged to “persons that were tortured and killed in 1981” why did you not call in the experts to investigate and bring the true culprits to justice.
Mr. President, What crime had these young men committed? None, all they did was to express their dissatisfaction about their living and work conditions. Given assurance that these would be addressed the response they got that night was to be killed in cold blood when their defenses were down and they least expected it. Rumours of a counter coup had spread round the city and the Kombos that morning. Later on through the grapevine the story was also told that the top leadership of the AFPRC consisting of Sana Sabally, Saibou Hydara, Edward Singhateh and Yankuba Touray had met with ‘the boys’ to ask them their grievances. The young men listed these not knowing that it was a trap to identify the leaders in the military who were capable of putting up a resistance. Having given them false assurances but armed with the identity of the leaders your men came back that night and brutally eliminated any form of resistance that could have grown in the army. The announcement the next morning was that they had waged war on your government.
Mr. President, how could unarmed men who were asleep have waged war on your government?
Mr. President, almost one year after coming into power, just a month before the anniversary of the 22nd July takeover, on the 23rd June 1995 the young and dynamic Minister of Finance Ousman Koro Ceesay lost his life in mysterious circumstances at a culvert between Jambur and Jambanjelly in the Kombo South District. The charred remains of the dashing and debonair 33 year old gentleman was found early the next morning beyond recognition and identified only by his car. You had travelled out of the country but the story is told that as soon as you arrived at your destination you turned to the people in your entourage and made the statement “Koro is dead.” How you knew that your Minister of Finance had died is the million dollar question.
On your return you went to sympathize with his family. You wept profusely as you extended your condolences to the grieving family – a classic case of doma leka la doma jaleh la. The crowd outside murmured angrily against this show of sympathy. They did not have the evidence but their hearts told them that the death of their son, brother, nephew, cousin, friend, neighbor and colleague was state sponsored, Seni Sise, Koro’s father and his mother Fatou Sagnia Sise maintained their composure as they accepted your condolences. Both of them highly disciplined educationists knew how to comport themselves even in the most trying of circumstances. The family’s departure and decision to live in the USA speaks volumes of what they really believed. They no longer felt safe in living in the country where their loved one was so brutally taken away from them.
All this happened in the first year of your coming into power. Even though you announced the return to multi-party elections you would not brook any opposition that stood in the way of entrenching yourself in power. Following the launching of the United Democratic Party (UDP) in Banjul September 1996 you diverted your attention to the new party who became the target for your attacks. Things did not always go according to plan. When APRC supporters attacked the UDP campaign convoy on its return from Basse in the Upper River Region it was unfortunately one of your people Alieu Njie who died in the fracas – another indirect victim of your violence.
It is nothing short of a miracle that more deaths were not recorded at Westfield junction and Denton Bridge when the jubilant convoy and supporters of the UDP were viciously attacked on their return journey after what was perceived to be a successful campaign up country. However the death of Sedia Sagnia (1997) administrator of the party is directly attributable to the beatings that he received from the thugs in uniform.
Mr. President not only your perceived foes but your own people – family members, party militants, loyalists and friends are all at risk. They are killed, imprisoned or abducted when you fear that they are becoming too popular or too powerful and may serve as challengers. They are also eliminated when they witness scenes that they should not have. Some are killed when your witch doctors associate them with the health or lack of it of your children.
Baba K. Jobe, former majority leader of the National Assembly, a man who had done so much financially to elevate the APRC and ensured that he vigorously fought any opposition to you was imprisoned for 9 years in 2004 for economic crimes – a charge that you use to get rid of all threats to your presidency. Baba died under questionable circumstances at the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital on the 29th October 2011, shortly before being released from custody at Mile 2 Central prison. His wife Tida, suffered a stroke and his mother died of shock when his release date was commuted – another indirect victim of your machinations.
Lieutenant Almamo Manneh – one off your closest henchmen was killed in January 2000 accused of conspiracy to topple the regime. Why did you not take him to court instead of eliminating him?
Corporal Dumbuya was shot in broad day light two days after at the Albert market as the women and market sellers fled in panic from the murder scene. His body was dragged away and no one knows what happened to his remains.
Daba Marena, former National Intelligence Agency (NIA) Director General and four others -Lt. Ebou Lowe, Lt. Alieu Ceesay, Warrant Officer Alpha Bah and Staff Sgt. Manlafi Corr were officially reported to have escaped while en-route to Janjangbureh Prisons on Tuesday April 4th, 2006 . It is now public knowledge that these people have been exterminated. They were also accused of being coup plotters. The ministers of state at the time, who vigorously defended this version of the state are now either exiled or have fallen victim of one of your many accusations.
Superintendent Manlafi Sanyang, the former head of Gambia Government vehicle control unit at State House another close ally died while in custody on the 20th August, 2008.
Colonel Vincent Jatta, was poisoned and told his family that he knew he would die as a result of the poisoning.
Journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh was picked up from his place of work on July 7, 2006. Until recently, had I not met with Bai Lowe, who later repeated what he told me on online Gambian media outlets, I would have continued to believe and to wish that Chief was holed up in one of your many detention centres around the country. During my stint as GPU president, I met his father on many occasions and even did a short film with him to be used on a campaign against Impunity in The Gambia. His ailing father had hoped that you, Mr. President would respect the ECOWAS Court Decision instructing your government to release the young man. Little did we know then that by July 2012 I would meet one of your hit men, Bai Lowe, who’d confirm to me that Chief was indeed killed, murdered by men who work directly under you and who are answerable to none other than you.
Mr. President, the confessions of the murder, maiming and torture of hundreds of Gambians, the 48 Ghanaian youth and acts of banditry, coming from Jugglers, Black Black, Republican Guard, Border Patrol Team or whatever name you choose to give them to make them look official and pay them from our state coffers is not only mind boggling but defies logical thinking. It is however further testimony that the period after your “bloodless” coup d’état has turned out to be the bloodiest in the history of The Gambia.
There are so many other examples but these are enough to drive the point home that you do not build a democracy by annihilating your opponents whether real or imagined. The 14 students who were mercilessly gunned down on the 10th and 11th student demonstrations were not your enemy. They were simply exercising their democratic right to freedom of assembly and to hold the government accountable for their safety and to live their lives without fear. What did they get instead – death, abuse, imprisonment, maiming and exile? These young people have had their actions and names immortalized by the media. If their parents and families are afraid to speak out as the families of the soldiers killed on the 11/12th November 1994 attacks the media will continue to speak out for them to ensure that their names and actions are never forgotten and live on in the annals of Gambian history. Some of them were not even involved in the demonstrations but were indirect victims of the shootings from the military on innocent school children and students. As with the Ousman Koro Ceesay incident you were out of town but gave the order to “shoot the bastards” as you believed that they were children of the opposition who wanted to oust you from power.
Mr. President, two of the executed prisoners of the Mile 2 Central Prisons Alieu Bah and Malang Sonko were on death row on convictions of being involved in attempts to overthrow the government. Along with other inmates who were convicted on other crimes unconnected to state security they were executed on the 23rd August 2012. These were convicted on the basis of the involvement in the Kartong attacks, an attempted military takeover in 1997. Isn’t it instructive Mr. President that in your 19 years of rule there have been several attempts to get you out of office? Whether these attempts are true or fabricated means that there are important lessons to learn and corrective measures undertaken if The Gambia is not to explode into conflict.
I have not said anything that has not already been said before. Apart from the personal perspectives that I bring into the story several others have brought up these cases over and over again but it seems that you do not care nor do you want to know.
Mr President, The purpose of this piece is to illuminate to you that in a democracy you will have allies but you will also have opponents. The opponents are not “bedbugs and fleas” (as you described the alleged coup plotters in 2006) who deserve to be exterminated. If that were the case then you would not be the President of the country today. You would also have been in Mile 2 Central Prisons if people had put up a resistance to your take over.
Gambians gave you a chance in the name of wanting change. The price that we have paid for this change is enormous. We have paid with our blood. Gambian soil is soaked with the blood of innocent men and women who have been killed intentionally to perpetuate your rule. In this quest you have been aided and abetted by other Gambians. Many of whom including Baba Jobe, Daba Marenah, Tumbul Tamba and co. have along the way also paid the heavy price of their life; Many of whom like Bai Lowe and co are now exiled and running for their lives; Many of whom like Lang Tombong Tamba and cohorts are now on death row and could be executed depending on which side of the bed you wake on; Many of whom like Lamin Jobarteh, Pa Harry Jammeh and Ngoju Bah who until as recently as a few months ago were busy describing activists and journalists as troublemakers, enemies of the state and “unpatriotic” Gambians, bent on destabilizing The Gambia are now detained illegally. Today, you have declared them criminals and treat them the same way you would have treated “unpatriotic” people like us – journalists and activists.
Unfortunately, every time you push others off your bandwagon, you find others more eager to please, hob nob and go a step further to demonstrate to you, how weak your previous public servants were and how they can help you further nail your opponents, perceived and real, including bringing to ‘justice’ Gambian Diasporans and those living in exile, who, from our safe havens have exposed the blood thirsty nature of your regime through our advocacy and the relentless push of the Gambian online media.
Mr. President, it comes as no surprise to me that exactly 114 days after his appointment as Minister of Information and Communication, Nana Grey Johnson, introduced the Information and Communications Amendment Act 2013, an amendment passed into law by our rubber stamp National Assembly. Apart from once again, bringing global attention to The Gambia for all the wrong reasons, exposing the highhandedness of your regime in an attempt to quell any form of dissent and divergent view, the new law is practically impossible to implement.
Mr President, I need not remind you that The Gambia does not have any known extradition arrangements with any country and even if it did, it is unlikely any state would hand over a Gambian citizen for daring to caricature or express a view, different from that of President Jammeh. Any attempt to implement the external element of this new Act would not only mean that you would not get what you want but once again you’d be wasting the Gambian tax payers’ money.
Like their predecessors, your minister of Information land Communication, Nana Grey Johnson and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Aji Amie Joof, had to go through the baptism of fire. Let us see how they would now defend your other actions to kill and maim should you decide to lift the temporary moratorium on the death penalty; should you decide to continue to hold incommunicado, your former friends and their former colleagues in Government.
Perhaps your new found friends have forgotten how recently, Ngoju Bah, prayed for you to continue to rule for the next 900 years. Today, he is held incommunicado, with his family using the same medium you and your henchman loathe so much – the online media, to express concern about his whereabouts and well-being.
Mr. President, like you, many Gambians continue to decry colonialism and slavery. As evil as these two phenomena were they were externally motivated whereas what is going on in The Gambia of today in the name of development is internally motivated. Led, orchestrated and masterminded by none other than you. You order killings, torture, disappearances, in-communicado detentions, unfair trials in the name of development and national security. Our ministers of state, members of parliament, heads of department, entire government departments and security structures, till your farms knowing fully well that you, Mr. President benefit financially from the proceeds of the sale of the produce; knowing fully well that you, Mr. President forcibly took the land from our poor farmers and rural communities. If this is not modern day slavery, then what is?
Mr. President, all Gambians know the rules that govern our inheritance in particular land and gifts related to landed property. For one who neither owned nor inherited land as at July 22, 1994, it is baffling that you now own more than a third of the arable land in The Gambia. You have not only “inherited” land from the Foni’s where you claim to originate but own swathes of land in the Kombos, Kiangs, Niumis and all other parts of the country.
Mr. President, when I hear the televised calls for help to cultivate the farms of your mother Asombi Bojang, I cannot but wonder how one who owned so much land could not even afford to educate her own son but had to let others, more affluent educate you.
Some of your farmland in the Fonis apparently is also home to the wells and pits of horror. The wells were jugglers acting on your orders dumped the bodies of the 48 dead Ghanaians and at least a “hundred other” Gambians including your real and perceived enemies some of whom are watchmen, rice distributors and even your own kith and kin Mercy Jammeh, Jassaka Kujabie to name but few of your relatives that are not spared.
Mr. President, when Macbeth got tired of killing he turned to Lady Macbeth and asked: “Will all the water in the ocean wash this blood from my hands? No, instead my hands will stain the seas scarlet, turning the green waters red”. (Macbeth, William Shakespeare). I want to tell you Mr. President that: “all the water in the Atlantic Ocean and the River Gambia will not wash your hands clean. Instead your hands will turn the waters of the ocean and the river red”.
Mr. President, redeeming yourself may seem practically impossible. You can however start by making some reparations? During this holy Month of Ramadan which coincides with your July 22nd takeover you could start by releasing all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in The Gambia. If you could release Yousef Ezziden, alias Rambo a Lebanese national, accused alongside Lieutenant General Lang Tombong Tamba, Brigadier General Omar Bun Mbye, Major General Lamin Bo Badjie, Lieutenant Colonel Kawsu Camara, alias Bombardier, Momodou Gaye, former Deputy Inspector General of Police, Gibril Ngorr Secka former ambassador to Guinea Bissau and businessman Abdoulie Joof, alias Lie Joof then you can release these men and all the others who were there before them. If you could release Dr. Amadou Scattred Janneh and Tamsir Jasseh then you can release navy officer M.B Sarr who has never been brought before a Court of law. If you could release the GPU Six in September 2009 because it was Ramadan then you can release all the political prisoners and prisoners of conscience who are in Mile 2, Jeshwang and Janjanbureh and other places. The dead cannot come back but the living can rejoin their families and try to rebuild their lives.
Mr. President, I do hope that you find it in your heart to let our people go. I also do hope that from now going forward, you would start reflecting on the same spirit of patriotism that led you to overthrow a legitimately elected government. The issues of corruption, abuse of office, and the lack of transparency, accountability and probity, which led you to intervene, holding a gun are more widely prevalent today and are the same reasons for which other patriotic Gambians have the right to question, probe, demand for improvements and encourage civil disobedience.
Mr. President, you need to respect the rights of others to have some say in the way the country is governed. This will result in a win-win situation and not one in which you want to control everything including the online media which are out of your reach and control.
Ndey Tapha Sosseh
Coalition for Change – The Gambia (CCG)
Civil Society Associations Gambia (CSAG)