Ambassador Bun Jack’s TRRC testimony didn’t paint the whole picture

When I heard that Ambassador Sulayman Alieu Jack commonly known as Bun Jack was testifying at the TRRC on March 25, 2019, I expected hearing a sobering testimony from one of the most powerful technocrats of the PPP government who would finally shed light on Gambia’s defence matters that were purely secretive to the few but most powerful technocrats in the country then.

Mr. Jack was the permanent secretary at the Office of Gambia’s Vice President and Minister of Defence from 1992 to 1994 the period I served there as the GNA liaison or staff officer. Although there were no definitive guidelines on the responsibilities of the military liaison officer, the job I did generally entailed the handling of unclassified procedural materials such as attending to correspondences channelled through the ministry for action from or to the GNA headquarters. In the absence of specific guidelines however, I had on few occasions ventured into stepping beyond my limits by recommending critical defence ideas to my superiors including Mr. Jack but was more often than not rebuked or warned for crossing a redline. 

From that vantage point very close to the national power hub, it was clear to me who the key technocrats directly responsible for the Gambia’s national security were.

Mr. Sarra Janha, Secretary General office of the President and Head of the Civil Service occupied the pinnacle of the technocratic pyramid supported by Mr. Ahmed Bensouda Permanent Secretary Office of the President, Mr. Sulayman Alieu Jack Permanent Secretary office of the Vice President and Ministry of Defence and the late Mr. Kebba Ceesay (RIP), Director General of the National Security Service (NSS).

There was also one Mr. Solomon a reticent Nigerian nestled in a corner office behind Mr. Bensouda’s office. He was the Gambia’s national security adviser. I can’t tell whether Mr. Solomon was appointed within the same period when the Nigerian Army Training and Assistance Group (NATAG) assumed command and control of the army in 1992, but when I arrived at the Ministry of Defence that same year, I found him in active business with the government. When it came to defence policies, decisions and contracts, these men were the principal skilled elite doing it for the PPP government.

I was therefore very disappointed with Mr. Jack at the TRRC for acting as if their undertakings were subordinated to a higher echelon of custodians blameable for the security shortcomings of the nation.

In defence of one of their implausible decision questioned Counsel Essa Faal over the rationale behind an exhibited letter from the Gambia Ministry of Foreign Affairs dated February 25, 1992, urgently requesting the Nigerian government to send 41 Nigerian military officers to come and take over the command of the GNA when only one commander was signed for in the MOU, Mr. Jack quickly attributed the flawed judgment to officers at the GNA Headquarters. Not you too Ambassador Bun Jack!

The GNA never had any headquarters as such before the arrival of those 41 Nigerian officers and their commander, requested in that letter in question.  

By then, we only had a three-room-office building at the Yundum Barracks for the then acting commander Major Maba Jobe, his adjutant Captain Pa Modou Ann and the British Army Training Team (BATT) commander Colonel Jim Shaw.

Remember that Major Maba Jobe was appointed acting commander after the first demonstration of the soldiers from Liberia in 1990 after the removal of Colonel Ndow Njie in the wake of that crisis.  

If that was the army headquarters in his reference, the officers in charge-Major Maba Jobe and Colonel Jim Shaw- could not have in any stretch of an imagination requested for 41 Nigerian military officers and a commander to come and take over the command and control from them. These commander’s opposition of the Nigerians’ presence in the Gambia was an opened secret to every serving GNA officer and other rank. 

Mr. Jack further echoing his preference of the BATT over the NATAG also caught me by surprise. The deficiency and inefficiency attributed to the failure of the GNA command to prevent the soldiers from demonstrating in 1990 precipitating the removal of Colonel Ndow Njie and also cast the first major doubt over the competence of the BATT and particularly its commander at the time Colonel Jim Shaw.

Colonel Shaw started the shooting at Yundum Barracks that caused the riotous reaction of the soldiers who were merely seeking audience with Col. Ndow Njie, commander of the GNA to find out why their overdue allowances were not paid.

That said, following the signature of the MOU by the two governments to appoint a Nigerian commander to take over from Major Maba Jobe, succeeding arrangements to urgently bring Commander Dada over, slowed down in the months ahead. Acting commander Major Maba Jobe with the full support of Colonel Jim Shaw and his most trusted Adjutant, Captain Pa Modou Ann, started showing promising signs of effectively mitigating the volatile situation in the barracks. Then in late 1991 or early 1992 with confidence in the command to hold ground almost restored the second batch of the Liberian contingent rioted again scaring the whole country again. 

The PPP government or the gang of technocrats listed above speedily contacted Nigeria in that urgent letter dated February 27, 1994 asking for the immediate posting of the 41 Nigerian military officers to come and “tame” the GNA, ASAP. The government had had enough with failed GNA commanders and didn’t care about how BATT felt whoever was coming to do a better job for them. After seven years of a job well done, it was obvious that the BATT had outlived their effectiveness in taking the GNA to the next level or for disciplining the troops enough. 

Mr. Jack couldn’t have forgotten that to now question why the government got the Nigerians when BATT was doing very well.

By the way, I  have a point of rectification in Abdoulie Bah’s testimony at the TRRC. I was not at the Ministry of Defence in 1991 when the soldiers rioted the second time. Captain Momodou Bojang was the staff officer then who went to the Denton Bridge and convinced the mutineers to return to Yundum Barracks. Few family members glad to hear something positive said about me at the commission called to express their solidarity but felt disappointed for hearing the truth.

Certainly, the previous BATT commanders and their assistants did a formidable job in establishing the GNA in 1984 and building it to its battalion straight; but in the tenure of Colonel Jim Shaw, some of us noticed a commander displaying clinical symptoms of a wacko from what I eventually understood to have possibly been caused by Post-Traumatic-Syndrome Disorder (PTSD) after years of fighting as a mercenary in the Rhodesian Liberation war against the independence-freedom fighters of Zimbabwe.

Did the government know that about him or even cared about the profile or mental state of foreign military experts contracted and entrusted with the security lifelines of our nation? I doubt it! No one was responsible for that including our mighty technocrats.

Under normal circumstances, a competent government would meticulously investigate the rationality behind Gen. Abacha’s unilateral decision of replacing General Dada, a celebrated coup buster in the Nigerian Army, with Colonel Gwadebeh, an infamous coup plotter and maker.

Accordingly, June 3, 1994 was the employment date of Colonel Gwadebeh as GNA commander by the Gambia government illustrated in his appointment letter; but that was two or three months after a Nigerian local newspaper published the colonel’s appointment by Gen. Abacha to the position in the Gambia. 

I was at the ministry in April 1994 when General Dada walked in angrily huffing and puffing over the Gambia Point Newspaper’s publication of the story of his replacement that he said was false news. He demanded that the authorities took necessary legal actions against the Point’s editor. In the end, however, they cajoled him out of the drastic measure, assuring him that the Gambia government was not aware of the appointment and was not necessarily going to approve it. The Point merely republished the story lifted from a local Nigerian paper in the city of Lagos. 

Then in May 1994, Colonel Gwadebe showed up with his appointment letter from Nigeria, ready to take over from General Dada who wouldn’t as required hand over the command to his successor without a stiff resistance. That started the main crisis leading to the July 1994 takeover. The appointment letter by the Gambia government to Col. Gwadebe, written on June 3, 1994 was simply an effort to let General Dada know that it was official for him to go and let his successor take the command over.

I was dumbfounded to see Mr. Jack, sworn under oath and claimed with a straight face to have no prior knowledge of the coup plot before July 22, 1994. Those who have been following my writing in the past twenty-five years could bear me witness on the number of times I have mentioned what happened on the special day of Sunday July 17 1994, five days before the coup . 

I had gone to meet Colonel Akoji at his residence. He was the most senior Nigerian officer acting as commander in the absence of Colonel Gwadebe, Colonel Owonobi and General Dada. I had to discuss the final arrangements on the expected American battleship due to arrive in Banjul on Thursday, July 21, 1994. 

And just when I was about to leave, the colonel asked me in a rather sarcastic tone as to whether I was aware of the coup conspiracy being hatched at Yundum Barracks. I said no, and he added a remark insinuating that I could be part of them although in a tone that I felt was rather jovial than serious.

The following day Monday, July 18, soon after reporting to work at the state house, at around 9:00 a.m. I started making calls at Yundum Barracks but couldn’t get any confirmation of the rumour from the soldiers and officers I spoke to. I then went to the office of Mr. Bun Jack  to discuss among other things the strange coup information I had received from Colonel Akoji.  To my surprise, he dismissively acknowledged the rumour, adding that they were taking care of it. Whom he meant by “they”, he wouldn’t elaborate. But he now denied before the TRRC his foreknowledge of the plot.  

Mr. Jack furthermore explained an inaccurate incident when he accused Vice President Sahou Sabally of giving me a list of the names of civilian youth from his constituency to facilitate their recruitment in the army. An effort that he said was rejected by Lt. Yahya Jammeh, the then Military Police (MP) commander who had happened to be on the recruiting ground that day. 

The MPs were never involved in GNA recruitment exercises. That was a responsibility exclusively handled by the GNA training school. What a perfect way of tossing his former boss under the bus.

Commissioners of the TRRC have no idea about these things, leaving me ever more convinced that at least one Gambian military officer familiar with the GNA system should have been part of them. The overwhelming majority of the witnesses are either soldiers or people testifying on military-related issues. The intellectually dishonest will certainly exploit this handicap to change the true narrative.

Another one was his erroneous assertion that the GNA took all the heavy weapons from the Gendarmerie and left them powerless to challenge the army even if they wanted to.  The truth is that the Nigerians simply took the army to a higher and better combat level by fully arming it with sophisticated conventional weapons that the BATT never wanted to introduced to us. 

General Dada further ensured that the army could operate the weapons technically and tactically. The Gendarmerie on the other hand were ignore by the government that left inferior and stagnant in knowledge and strength. 

Some of us including police AIG Ibrahim Chongan and ADC Captain Momdou Lamin Gassama raised the alarm to the mighty technocrats about the threat posed by the disproportionality of the strength of the two forces, but were ignored or treated like juveniles trying to lecture professors in their own discipline.   

In this regard, I had even crossed the red line by taking the initiative to write a paper advising the “technocrats” about the threat of the GNA for being too powerful without a war to fight. I had had no doubt that if they made an attempt of seizing power, it will succeed. 

Few days after delivering the letter I got an informal call from Mr. Ahmed Bensouda, permanent secretary at the President’s Office to meet him at his office. Someone warned me to be careful with him because he was a nephew of Sir Dawda Jawara. I could see that in him the moment I walked into his office. Of course, I was careful.

In a very condescending voice he warned me strictly not to ever write to them about anything concerning the Gambia’s national security. That they had contracted Nigerian generals and colonels to be advising them when they needed one; so my ideas as an ordinary captain didn’t mean anything to them. Was that clear to me? YES!

That was barely a month before the coup. 

Once again, let me emphatically repeat this. That Colonel Gwadebe was appointed by Abacha to take over from General Dada without the knowledge of any Gambian politician, technocrat or military officer. Sir Dawda Jawara and General Sani Abacha never got along, period; no wonder Mr.Jack and Vice President Sabally simply wasted time and tax-payers’ money in their flight to Nigeria to seek extension of General Dada’s contract from the Nigerian head of state. If that had happened at all. 

Simple bilateral agreements like that are easily negotiable between two friendly heads of state having mutual trust and respect for each other. Abacha and Jawara had irreconcilable difference.

However, one has to read President Jawara’s book Kairaba to understand how he was not aware of all these problems in the latter days of his government.

He didn’t even know that there was a problem between the two NATAG commanders that could have been settled before his departure to England. All that General Dada was asking for was to meet Sir Dawda and get his blessing to leave or stay. The technocrats didn’t want to see anything like that happening. Sir Dawda would have discussed the issue in his book. By omitting it with all its importance showed that the old man was left in the dark. 

When Sir Dawda departed without seeing him, General Dada decided to wait at his residence for his return and would not formally handover the command to Colonel Gwadebe. 

Frustrated by the stalemate and restricted by rules and regulations not to start work without a formal handing over from General Dada, Colonel Gwadebe left the country accompanied by Colonel Owonobi, the NATAG operation commander to report the problem at their defence headquarters in Abuja. That left the GNA without an effective commander. Colonel Akoji couldn’t handle the crisis and with my understanding now from the MOU proscribing NATAG from interfering in any internal conflict in the country without approval from the Nigerian government, acting differently from the way they did was unlikely. 

It is shocking to know all these things now. By accepting that restricted kind of MOU, why then should any Gambian blame the Americans who turned down their request for military help during the coup on their same argument of not having an approval from Washington? Let’s be realistic guys.

That was in the past Gambia. But do we now know what is in the MOU with ECOMIG and Senegalese forces in the Gambia? The foreign troops seem to have confiscated all the sophisticated weapons of the GNA leaving them with their light AK 47 rifles. Or are we going to wait for another change of government for another TRRC to reveal those secrets to us with enablers pretending to have opposed everything ever done by the replaced government?

As for the word that Sir Dawda never wanted to be evacuated to the vessel, I think that story should now be cast away for its vapidity. He was never put in a zipped bag or shackled to the ship. Vice President Saihou Sabally’s orderly narrated at the TRRC how he easily collected Sir Dawda’s two suitcases from the house into one of the waiting cars outside while he was gently ushered to the US Ambassador’s car for a smooth ride with Ambassador Andrew Winters to the Banjul seaport. Somebody who didn’t want to leave would have been noticed kicking and jabbing all the way to the deck.

Sir Dawda is in his advanced age and using his name to garner cheap credit at the TRRC while attempting to assassinate the characters of one’s former colleagues, superiors or subordinates wouldn’t help us find the truth or reconcile our differences.

I cannot forget what Captain Momodou Lamin Gassama once told me about how all these folks in England were calling Sir Dawda a traitor for abandoning them in exile and reconciling his difference with President Jammeh and coming back home to live a more dignified life far better than the one that had almost rendered him bankrupt and homeless. His return home translated into a positive stable life of an elderly statesman that provided him the ideal condition to even complete and published his biography which is a powerful reference material for scholars in search of his true legacy.

Fancy how the story of Sir Dawda would have played out today at the TRRC if he had died homeless in England by dogmatically remaining loyal to people whose ineptitude or dishonesty contributed to the downfall of his government. 

Nothing said by Mr. Jack painted a rosy picture about the PPP government’s policies especially on national security matters or general corruption that ultimately helped in disintegrating the system. 

His closing remarks about the soldiers destroying  the “pure” democracy enjoyed in the Gambia for decades was in my view inconsistent with his decision to report to work on Monday, July 24, 1994 ready to serve the junta government with absolute loyalty. Mr. Jack went right back as the permanent secretary at the same Ministry of Defence and had probably felt nothing about the violation of our human rights when some of us were rounded up and incarcerated at Mile Two Prisons without trial. 

Up to the time Mr. Jack was fired in October 1994, nothing in his actions indicated his disloyalty to the military government that destroyed his cherished democratic government or anything to suggest his guilt for retaining his powerful technocratic position.

Give us a break folks!        

By Samsudeen Sarr

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