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Hungry young lions?

Initial African reaction to the coup in The Gambia was surprisingly sympathetic. Many saw it as a necessary intervention by a young and idealistic group of soldiers. But, as Anver Versi points out, recent pronouncements by the regime are disturbing signs that an autocracy is being set in place.

IT now appears that the July 22 coup in The Gambia, which at first sight appeared spontaneous (See AB September 1994), was in fact premeditated. The tiny west African country's new, and astonishingly young rulers have been gradually opening up to the media and displaying an equally surprising articulateness.

The Chairman of the Ruling Council, Lt Yaya Jammeh however, was still insisting that the plan to oust Sir Jawda Jawara who had ruled The Gambia for 29 years, had been hatched over 24 hours.

"When we returned from the airport where we had gone to welcome the President from his annual leave, we were humiliated publicly. We were accused of plotting to overthrow the government and our weapons were seized. That was the last straw," he said.

Evidence however suggests that the coup had been planned beforehand but that the young soldiers had waited for the former leader to return before springing. Sir Jawara returned from an extended European trip on the evening of Thursday, July 21. Early on Friday morning, the airport, the radio station and the main roads leading into the capital Banjul were already under army control.

Army units under four lieutenants (who later announced themselves leaders of the new Ruling Council) marched from the barracks towards the State House in Banjul. They encountered some resistance from commando units loyal to the former President but there were no reports of any casualties.

Later that same morning, Sir Jawara and his family, the former Vice-President, Mr Saihou Sabally, the former Finance Minister, Bakary Dabo and the Inspector-General of Police sought refuge aboard a US warship, the USS La Moure County before seeking asylum in Senegal. Mr Bakary Dabo was later invited to return and resume his position as Finance Minister in the new cabinet.

The new regime went to great lengths to explain that they had been forced to take action because of rampant corruption. "Although we hated coming to power, because we were not elected" said Lt Jammeh, "we had to make sure that the people had their choice".

He assured all the former politicians that they were free to return to The Gambia and live like ordinary citizens. "We are not here to kill anybody" he said, "and let nobody fear, we are not going to set up any military tribunal".

Elaborating further during a press conference, he added "We are not here to enrich ourselves and to live flamboyant lifestyles. We assure the public that we will not breathe down anybody's necks. We are here to accept ideas and criticism".

Initial reactions to the coup were mixed. Senegal, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ghana sent messages of goodwill to the new regime and even the former Leader of the Opposition in the Gambian Parliament, Mr Sheriff Dibba gave unqualified support to the junta: "I do not support military regimes in principle but in this case, the military had no choice", he said.

But Chief Emeka Anyaouku, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth was less convinced. "The military coup in The Gambia" he said in a statement, "flies in the face of the Commonwealth's fundamental commitment to democracy, the rule of law and constitutionality.

"The developments in The Gambia will therefore not only be condemned but also viewed throughout the Commonwealth as a reversal by the military in that country of the progress which the association has been supporting in its member countries".

War against immorality

Hardly two days had passed after the formal swearing in ceremony when two military officers who had been given cabinet portfolios were arrested and detained because "they had given information to the former President and had also supplied uniforms to renegade ex-soldiers turned looters".

Soon after, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) announced that it was waging war against immorality and warned prostitutes, both male and female, to stop plying their trade in the tourist sector or face severe penalties.

Tourism is the mainstay of The Gambian economy. The industry offers cheap package holidays to Europeans some of whom take advantage of the liberal attitudes in the country to indulge in sex romps with the locals. Reports suggest that Scandinavian women in particular are attracted by the ready availability of male prostitutes. The loose moral tone around tourist resorts, coupled with the glaring disparity between plush tourist areas and the general squalor of local habitation has enraged large sections of the population for a long time. Some 85% of the country's population are Muslims and they have often protested against what they term the general "prostitution" of the country to Western tourists.

Thus, while the AFPRC's statement alarmed the already panicky tourism industry, it drew considerable support from the largely poor populace.

However, over the past few weeks, the attitude of the military regime seems to have hardened. Two stringent new decrees have been causing widespread consternation and some fear.

Decree No 3: State Security (Detention of Armed and police Personnel) gives the Vice-Chairman, Lt S.B. Sabally sweeping powers to arrest and detain any member of the forces "in the interest of the security of The Gambia". No court would be allowed to hear any evidence nor would the accused be allowed any representation.

Decree No 4: Political Activities (Suspension) bans all political activity. "No person shall engage in any political propaganda by means of a newspaper, publication or in any other media form for spreading the ideas or ideology of any political party".

Start of autocracy?

This decree effectively bans not only political parties, it gags the press. So much for the regime's earlier promise to listen to public criticism. There is no doubt that the People's Progressive Party which, under Sir Dawda Jawara ruled The Gambia uninterrupted for almost 30 years had become complacent and vastly corrupt. There has been little real effort to improve the lot of the majority and, apart from the tourist zones, the infrastructure has been left to decay. A well-heeled elite has dominated the political field, both on the left and right and the majority has had no real participation in the democratic process.

Under these circumstances, the coup at first seemed the only method of breaking the cycle and reallocating resources to where they would be most beneficial to the majority. But the recent pronouncements of the military regime indicate that their main preoccupation, at least at present, is to entrench themselves in power. Initial good intentions, as we have seen in the case of Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries, can very quickly turn into tyrannical dictatorships.
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Title Annotation:coup in Gambia
Author:Versi, Anver
Publication:African Business
Date:Oct 1, 1994
Words:1135
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