On 22 July 1994, a non-aggressive military coup d’etat took place in The Gambia. The military ‘upheaval’ ended the democratic rule of President Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara and his People Progressive Party, which had been in power since independence in 1965.
At this time, The Gambia was one of Africa’s oldest democracies. It was internationally renowned for its tranquility at a time when the rest of the continent was mired in political instability. This was at a period, when many of the States in Africa, were turning to multi-party politics, thus, the coup abruptly ended the reign of the longest post-independence Government and head of state in Africa.
Previously, in the 1980s, the presence of the Senegalese Army in The Gambia under the arrangement of the Senegambia Confederation caused resentment within the security set-up in The Gambia.
After Senegal’s withdrawal from both the Senegambia Confederation and its army from The Gambia in 1989, the Jawara administration looked to Nigeria to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Senegalese military corporation. This prompted the Government of The Gambia to appoint several Nigerian officers at the head of The Gambia national army, primarily as a means of security upkeep and for the proper structuring of the newly established army.
How Did Jammeh Succeed in the Presence of Nigerian Commanders
Opposed to the presence of the Senegalese army in The Gambia in the 1980s, the much smaller presence of 69 Nigerian officers, combined with other factors caused several discontentments in the newly established Gambia National Army. The top Command of The Gambia Armed Force was principally in the hands of Nigerian Generals, but how did Jammeh succeed in taking over The Gambia!
At the time of the 1994 Coup, A Nigerian, Colonel Abubakar Dada (subsequently elevated to the rank of Brigadier General), was appointed Commander of the Gambian armed forces. According to some Gambian senior officers at that time, General Dada had a very close relationship with some of the junior officers who would later lead the coup. One of the young lieutenants, Edward Singhateh, a British-born Gambian is reported to be very close to some of the Nigerian officers. Singhateh recently told a commission of inquiry that he was the main architect of the coup and it was him who recruited Jammeh.
When events of a military takeover were widely rumored in The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh and co-were put under surveillance at the air terminal on the eve of the coup, July 21st 1994 for suspicion of an overthrow. Yahya Jammeh who would later become President had earlier planned to conduct the coup at the air terminal. The juntas wanted to arrest President Kairaba Jawara who was returning from a month-long vacation in The United Kingdom at the airport. However, Yahya and co got disarmed by the Nigerian commanders but they were neither arrested nor detained.
Then 29-year-old Lieutenant Jammeh would proceed the following day, on the early morning of 22nd of July, 1994 to carry on with the coup. Details revealed by witnesses who were personnel in the army, before the ongoing Truth Commission indicate that, when the Nigerian Commanders were notified about the planned overthrow, and even when the coup was executed, they responded that the issue of the coup was, “A Gambian Matter”. Brigadier General Abubakar Dada was reported to have said “let the Gambian army handle their own matter”, leaving the rebels at the time, to easily take over power from the defenseless Government of Jawara.
A further suggestion of the complicity of The Nigerian army forces points at the decision of General Abubakar Dada to move hefty military from the strategic units of the army, which left the Statehouse of The Gambia, and the army loyal to the State helpless, because the key arms were all in the possession of the military juntas.
This move by General Dada, analysts say, enabled Yahya Jammeh and co to easily take just a few hours to capture strategic locations, including the army depot, the national airport, the radio station, and the State House (the residence of President Jawara) without much resistance from the forces, then loyal to the State.
Even though it was evident that The Gambia’s Armed Forces was not professional enough, both by the training and comportment of its officers, coupled with lack of support and confidence in the Jawara’s regime, the coup is not exclusively understood to be the product of the architect of the Junior Officers of the army.
While lack of sufficient military experience was a trait of the Gambia’s National Army, the Officers from Nigeria have had numerous experience of military coups in their country before 1994. The Gambia-Nigeria military cooperation was signed during the presidency of General Babadinga; however, when General Abacha came to power, he made some changes in the Gambia’s military commandment.
According to Ebrima Chongan, a senior police officer at that time, Abacha did not like General Dada thus decided to replace him with another officer called Colonel Lawan Gwadabe. Dada who was not happy with the change, refused to hand over power and such has created some friction within the Nigerian ranks in The country. General Dada was persuading The Gambian government to lobby for his stay. In the meantime, The Gambia had no definite commander as Lawan was the designated commander but Dada had influence among the soldiers.
It is narrated that the Nigerian army was used to getting things done quickly but in The Gambia thing were slow, perhaps due to bureaucracy. So the Nigerians would tell the Gambian junior officers that “This can only happen here(Gambia) but in Nigerian we would do something”. According to him Chongan, this was a push by the Nigerian commanders for the young Gambian officers to take action.
Yahya Jammeh ruled Gambia from 1994 to 2016 but was voted out and forced into in exile in Equatorial Guinea. The other four young officers who planned the coup with him were not part of his government at the time he was forced to leave office by ECOWAS. Co-coupist Lieutenant Sanna Sabally was jailed for 10 years together with Hydara who died in Prison. While Lieutenant Yankuba Touray and second Lieutenant Edward Singhateh both served as ministers for years but were eventually sacked by Jammeh.