Having finished reading A Week of Hell on 02 May, Kukoi Samba Sanyang (may the God of infinite mercy forgive his sins), would have had the opportunity to read my thoughts on the seminal events that indelibly etched his name in the national memory. More urgent matters intervened to place the actual review on ice. His untimely and sad passing has no bearing on my view of A Week of Hell, Papa Faal’s very limited recollection, and even narrower perspective, on the events that broke out on July 30 1981, but whose actual triggers were to be found in The Gambia’s post-independence governance of the decade prior. Astounding indeed was the day a civilian outmanoeuvred the collective state security system of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara’s (Sir Dawda) Gambia, and overthrew, if only briefly, his progressively decaying PPP government. Whatever training and support he got from “rogue” governors in distant African lands, Kukoi was the complete outsider whose pomp and ceremony, his presidential prize, if you like, was snatched by neighbouring Senegal after a clearly successful overthrow of the partying, thieving, and generally decadent PPP.
Just out of the Gambia High School Sixth Form, and working in the very temporary position of a temporary reporter with Radio Gambia under the tutelage of Lala Hydara, I overslept on Kukoi’s big day, and missed work, without punitive consequence. Perhaps the military-type music being played by the putschists acted as a lullaby and kept me in bed until about midday. Kukoi’s choice of music must have had a similar effect on the “little boy that speaks Toubab”, aka Saul Saidykhan. We both slept through part of an extraordinary morning. I finally woke to the pleasant news of the overthrow of the decadent PPP government. What disappointment then at Senegal’s quelling of Gambia’s first successful experiment with a forceful overthrow of a so-called democratically elected government! The point here is to simply underscore that having completed the highest stage of academic training then internally available in the country, I was old enough to remember the terrain then prevalent, and to form an independent view of its efficacy as far as the public good was concerned. It is regrettable that Papa Faal glorified that public life, almost completely dismissed its pervasive decadence, and in the process unjustifiably accentuates his misplaced central contention that Kukoi was just a common criminal.
In A Week of Hell, Papa Faal recounts Life in a Family (chapter 1), Day of the Coup D’etat, at Chapter 2, The Rumor. Chapter 3, Seeking Refuge, Chapter 4, Our Capture Part I, Chapter 5, Our Capture Part II: Maa and the others, Chapter 6, Our Capture Part III: Sheriffo Jawara, Chapter 7, Arrival in Kembujeh, Chapter 8, Terror in Kembujeh, Chapter 9, Terror at Depot and Radio Gambia, Chapter 10, Road to Nyanibereh, Chapter 11, The Rescue, Chapter 12, The Return to Normalcy, Chapter 13, The Round-up, Chapter 14, Returning Home, Chapter 15, and The Trial, Chapter 16.
In trenchant condemnation, Papa Faal confidently highlights Kukoi’s “incoherence”, and “irresponsibility”, and unequivocally depicts him and his fellow ‘revolutionaries’ as “illiterate, drunk and overambitious bandits” who were “devoid of humanity and humility”. To him they were “juvenile”, a “gang of thieves”, a “sorry and despicable” bunch of “lunatics” and “cowards”. Lamenting the “more than five hundred citizens murdered” in the breakdown of law and order occasioned by 30 July, Papa Faal laments the attendant human and material destruction, and calls them “… the consequences of an irresponsible criminal like Kukoi” (p335).
On the deeply American concept of patriotism, Papa Faal quotes George William Curtis for the proposition that “A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle, and patriotism is loyalty to that principle” (p 80). Fighting to overthrow Sir Dawda’s PPP government must never be equated with Kukoi’s lack of patriotism. In the eyes of numerous Gambians, many in leadership positions in that government were themselves not patriotic in light of their heedless looting of the national treasury, thereby creating the perfect conditions for a Kukoi to emerge. In any case, the George William Curtis quotation originated with Cicero, that sage of ancient Rome, and the contention was for an expanded franchise, not about patriotism, as that concept is understood by the flag-waving citizen propounding the mantra ‘my country right or wrong’.
As adapted in Imperium, by Robert Harris, Cicero “denounced as nonsense the logic which said that a man who lived on one side of a stretch of water was a Roman and that his cousin on the other side was a barbarian, even though they both spoke Latin”. In the famous words of Cicero:
Rome is not merely a matter of geography. Rome is not defined by rivers, or
mountains, or even seas. Rome is not a question of blood, or race, or religion;
Rome is an idea. Rome is the highest embodiment of liberty and law that mankind
has yet achieved in the ten thousand years since our ancestors came down from
those mountains and learned how to live as communities under the rule of law”
Against the overall tapestry of public life then extant, and on which an informed verdict must be reached, was Kukoi properly branded a common criminal?
On the evidence, the answer is an emphatic no! It appears that Papa Faal’s concept of democracy, and the rule of law, is rooted in the mere organising of periodic elections that were then overwhelmingly won by a do-nothing and utterly corrupt government like Sir Dawda’s PPP. This is an abuse of the notion and principle of “a democratically elected government” (see generally pp 55-59 on the curse of coups in Africa). Only a few days ago, the US President, Barack Obama, and poignantly, on African soil, repeated his refrain that periodic elections do not equal democracy. In circumstances where the instruments of public coercion are monopolised by the state through its police power, the perverse doctrine of so-called legitimate change as achievable only through a non-existent “democratic” route must be rejected.
No matter the argument against coups, or other forceful changes of government, the critical task for the anti-coup camp must of necessity address the central question of how to remove coup-producing conditions from a nation’s public life. In The Gambia pre-Kukoi, those coup-producing conditions were, anomalously, an integral part of the daily fabric of public life. Anomalous because Sir Dawda was himself quite a restrained leader with no serious track record of unearned flamboyance, either by him, or his adult children. A few years in exile, and he was practically broke! But there was no question he allowed rampant corruption to define his government, and as the man responsible for the public purse, with the ultimate mandate to steer the ship of state from dangerous waters, his abject failure to rein in the “rapacious mafia” that practiced economic malfeasance on an industrial scale in such a small country meant that his culpability was sealed.
According to Papa Faal, the internal causes of coups in Africa relate to “authoritarian rule and corruption, tribalism, nepotism, poor governance, weak institutions, and political instability which are themselves mostly external causes” (pp 60-61). Rather extraordinarily, he posits that the causes of “the Gambia’s 1981 coup d’etat has not been well documented” (p. 61). In his view, “the opposition parties had levelled unfounded charges of corruption against the Peoples Progressive Party … right after the country became a republic” (p. 61). Subsumable in “corruption”, and, or, “poor governance”, are the existential national threats of “tribalism”, “nepotism”, and “weak institutions”. In any polity where these predominate, the system self-undermines. Rampant corruption was the single issue that ultimately sunk the PPP, but Papa Faal may be excused for not recognising this blatant reality at his tender age in 1981, and may be his antecedents as a member of the extended Jawara family. Over time though, he deprives himself of any excuse for failing to recognise the overwhelming evidence of runaway corruption in Sir Dawda’s PPP government.
Papa Faal’s perspective notwithstanding, the PPP era was inseparable from the widespread corruption that took such firm root in the country, and i the process popularised the philosophy that ill-gotten gain was something to flaunt, and celebrate, as normal. And this was the case even during the earlier years of the Republic. When the Special Criminal Court Bill was tabled in Parliament in 1979, two full years before Kukoi’s onslaught, then Attorney General M L Saho argued “It is not alarming to say that this country will be destroyed if this cancer is not arrested now. Me make no apologies for this Bill … No stone would be left unturned in the fight to protect the interest of the public from the rapacious mafia within our society” (see p. 298 of Journey for Justice, by Hassan B Jallow). This was a high level Cabinet Minister speaking, but Papa Faal contends there was no evidence of corruption. In 1980, still pre-Kukoi, “one Member of Parliament expressed the view that more stringent measures such as hand amputation ought to be introduced” to stem the tide of runaway corruption. “A Parliamentary Secretary, addressing Government accounting personnel, was reported by the Gambia News Bulletin of 10th July, 1980 to have suggested the firing squad for embezzlers” (p. 298 of Journey for Justice)
It was in this climate of mass disaffection with a do-nothing government that Kukoi emerged, and after which Fafa M’bai, then Attorney General, shepherded the Evaluation of Assets and Prevention of Corrupt Practices Bill which became an Act of Parliament in 1982. As if the PPP learnt nothing from the tremendous sympathy for Kukoi, it went back to business as usual and in the process created a new free zone for unbridled corruption. Fafa M’bai was hounded out of office and the PPP’s corruption empire remerged stronger than ever before. No surprise then that the meritless partying was abruptly ended in 1994.
Recalling 30 July 1981, the “little boy that speaks toubab”, aka Bakari, to his grandpa Lang Mariama, now a much older, sober, and reflective commentator on Gambian public affairs, contends:
… Since his re-emergence, I have observed Kukoi – his postings, his reaction to
questions, insults, condemnation, criticism, taunts, or non-reaction to them. Kukoi
will forever be one of the most controversial figures in Gambian history. In the eyes
of many, he is a criminal, a murderer, and a coward, and will always be one. My own
opinion of Kukoi is kinder.
First, I find it heartening that Kukoi has shunned Yaya Jammeh and his open ethnic
baiting politics. Anyone with eyes to see, or a heart to accept the truth knows the fastest
way to progress in Gambia today is to jump on to Yaya Jammeh’s anti-Mandinka
bandwagon. Countless people have been, and continue to be, rewarded handsomely
for no other reason than the fact that they’re playing that dirty game…. And If Kukoi
were your average Gambian, he’d be by Jammeh’s side now pounding his chest for
being “vindicated,” or “celebrating our time to enjoy,” as they “move the country
forward.” No matter what one thinks of him, this is commendable.
Also, I believe Kukoi, as misguided and naïve as he was (remember his appeal
to Libya, Cuba, and Guinea Bissau to send him help ON RADIO GAMBIA
when the Senegalese army started parachuting in,) had his heart in the right place.
He was a young man in too much of a hurry to right what was obviously wrong with
Jawara’s governance style. Like I stated before, Jawara is a very decent man –
intelligent, honest and upright at the personal level. But as government leader, he was
simply too ineffective, too square for our round hole, to put it mildly. Jawara did not
seem to understand that it wasn’t enough for him to merely do his own primary job,
which he did well to the letter. The problem was, it was also his job to watch his
underlings, and to bring down the hammer where they’re found errant. In this,
he failed miserably. Jawara simply couldn’t put his feet down to do what needs done
to stop the shameless plunder of our common weal by his appointees.
And truth be told, the anger and frustration that propelled Kukoi into taking up arms
was very widespread among the youth in 1981. So, Kukoi was not an exception.
In fact, it was those same sentiments that Yaya Jammeh was to tap into in 1994.
Kukoi had simply beat like-minded others to the punch… (July 30th, 1981, by Saul
Saidykhan, and published by Maaafanta in July 2012)
Without question, Saul Saidykhan is right. Former Attorney General M L Saho was right, and the Parliamentarian who called for “hand amputation” was also right about corruption. So too was the Parliamentary Secretary who called for the “firing squad” as a way of dealing with corruption by public officials in Sir Dawda’s Gambia!
As for the alleged trauma of Papa Faal’s immediate family, there is no compelling evidence to suggest anyone was particularly committed to harming them. The melodramatic narrative around the so-called refuge and capture at Busuranding sounds somewhat removed from reality considering the author’s tender age at the time, and his Hollywood-style recollection of events. Notwithstanding all that allegedly occurred, no one was hurt, and without credible explanation, the family were effectively placed in protective custody with Pa Sanjally Bojang at Kembujeh (see generally pp137- 151).
A similar incredulity surrounds the State House fire fight scene considering no member of Sir Dawda’s family was hurt despite the utter intensity of the gun fight that allegedly took place at “number one Marina Parade”. After an incredible gun fight lasting some twenty minutes, “… Kukoi and his rebels were sure they had killed everyone in the compound. They left reassured that their mission was accomplished….” (see generally pp 70-74). Similarly, the nature of the fight at “Sankung’s compound”, at Brikama, between the intervening Senegalese soldiers, and the rebels, is difficult to comprehend. “The Senegalese forces directed their unrelenting fury towards Sankung’s compound and almost turned the place into smithereens. The fighting was so intense and severe that bullets were riddling the house…” (p 122) And not a soul hurt?
Another aspect of the narrative that is somewhat baffling centres around the courtroom scene where it is suggested Alkalie was directly examined by state counsel. “Barrister Jones stood up and said, Your lordship, the state calls prisoner, Alkalie to the stand” (p 363, but see generally Chapter sixteen, The Trial). This is somewhat unconventional, and in Papa Faal’s adopted US, a criminal defendant may not be forced to give evidence in his own trial.
Viewed broadly, what Papa Faal, and his family ostensibly encountered was what families up and down the main theatre of operations – the Greater Banjul area – encountered in the tumultuous week commencing 30 July. The case is not made that he and his family endured “a week of hell”. None of them were harmed, either physically or emotionally and the talk of “post-traumatic stress disorder” is just exaggeration. In any case, Papa Faal remembers “A Week of Hell”, whereas other Gambians situated as myself remember teenage years of indelible misery from the corruption, nepotism, and general mis-governance of Sir Dawda’s PPP government. Waking up in Sukuta between 0500, and 0600, and taking three hours to be in Banjul for school, whereas some of our compatriots took under half an hour to arrive in Banjul in government vehicles, was an experience too difficult and humiliating to forget. Neither in 1981, nor in 1994, did I mourn the passing of a decadent government like the PPP.
Like Lang Mariama’s “Bakari”, I too have a “kinder” view of 1981. He should sleep well then, and maybe, just maybe, a more politically grown-up Gambia would one day reflect on, and appreciate Kukoi’s true legacy in the annals of our nation. Papa Faal is utterly mistaken about 1981. Kukoi stole nothing from the national purse, and he did not harm a single member of the Jawara family, although the opportunity was there in Sheriffo Jawara, Lady Chilel, and Sir Dawda’s own children. 1981 would have created a field day for a common criminal, but on any sensible analysis, that was not who Kukoi was. Although the deaths around 30 July were regrettable, this is the “collateral damage” incidental to executive vandalism. A democratic mandate can be vitiated by executive vandalism, and within a year of his election to the Egyptian presidency, Mohammed Morsi affirmed that contention in spectacular fashion. No surprise that Egyptians in their millions are celebrating his ouster!
Listening to Papa Faal’s online interviews with Gainako, and Kibaaro, I am not surprised at the many Americanisms in A Week of Hell. I recall phrases such as “game changer”, “collateral damage”, worried sick”, “for Christ sake”, “stepped on the gas”, “generous servings”, and words such as “grabbed”, “snitch”, “groceries”, etc. Even where he calls Sir Dawda his “great uncle”, Papa Faal refers to his mother’s father, the “self-made” Sheriffo Jawara, and Sir Dawda’s biological sibling, as his grandfather. A few consultations on this point suggest that in The Gambian context, Sir Dawda is also Papa Faal’s grandfather.
A future edition of A Week of Hell can do with further minor editing including at pages: 82; 130; 135; 239; 243; 248; 254; 258; 261; 265; 282; 285.
Among other outlets, A Week of Hell can be purchased from Amazon
Happy July 4th
Lamin J Darbo
04 July 2013