Gambia: Tiny sliver of a country still shaking after coup attempt

On Wellington Street in the heart of the shopping district of Banjul, the capital of Gambia, the Maurel and Prom department store stands in ruins. Part of a French chain that had been in Gambia for more than 150 years, the store is completely gutted inside. What had been the roof of the two-story building is now a layer of debris covering the store from one end to the other.

The destruction of Maurel and Prom was just part of what was estimated to be 'millions of dollars" of damage caused by looting, one of the unprogrammed offshoots of an aborted coup d'etat that plunged this tiny West African country into 10 days of chaos beginning at dawn July 30.

Although questions remain about the causes of recent events -- which took foreign diplomats as well as Gambian officials by surprise -- there is less doubt about their consequences.

"The economy was depressed to begin with," said one diplomat based in Banjul. "Now the country is absolutely devastated."

Even before these events, four years of poor or poorly timed rains had rocked the Gambian economy, as well as the economies of neighboring countries, which depend largely on peanut harvests.

"Economic activity in Gambia suffered a severe setback for the second consecutive year in 1980-81 and slumped to its lowest level in 30 years," said Finance and Trade Minister Saihou Sabally in late June.

Now, while looters having destroyed nearly every major store in downtown Banjul and rebels having shot up the radio station and dozens of vehicles, the Gambian disaster is compounded.

Moreover, the prospects for a reconstruction effort are not bright. "After building up a business for 20 years, I doubt many many people will want to start again," said one British business in Banjul who did not want to be identified.

In recent years, Swedes, Germans, British, and -- since Alex Haley discovered his ancestors in Gambia -- Americans have become frequent visitors to this country on the African coast. Aside from about 50 miles of beach on the Atlantic Ocean and a pleasant subtropical climate, political stability has perhaps been Gambia's greatest tourist attraction in this country of 600,000 people. Sir Dawda K. Jawara, President of Gambia, is a Scottish-trained veterinarian who has ruled since independence in 1965, compiling a record of control and democracy all too rare in West Africa.

With Gambian stability shattered, the tourist industry, already depressed by a downturn in the world economy, may be dead, leaving Gambia even more dependent on the fickle rains that feed its peanut crop, observers in Banjul report.

Politically, observers wonder whether one casualty of the missed coup will not be the climate of democracy and tolerance that has prevailed in Gambia. In press conferences President Jawara has assured reporters he is committed to democracy. Still, he does not hesitate to say that his top priority for the immediate future will be the practical concerns of security. "We have to do everything possible to assure security. This is a very fragile thing," he said recently.

The fragility of Gambian security became abundantly clear when the coup was launched at first light July 30. The forces proved to be either inept or rebellious. Almost half of the approximately 1,000-man security forces may have initially sympathized with the rebel forces, according to officials. If Senegalese troops had not been sent in under a mutual defense accord, the coup probably would have succeeded.

Officials have claimed that a foreign power aided the rebels. But in the absence of concrete proof -- and none has been shown to reporters nor, according to sources, to diplomats -- the coup appears to have all the markings of a badly organized do-it-yourself revolution that got out of hand.

Recovery of Soviet weapons from the rebels did not necessarily indicate Soviet support, since the Gambian armory, which they captured, contained Soviet weapons. Similarly, Russian cars had been available from ordinary dealers in Banjul for some weeks, and so the rebel use of such cars did not indicate clandestine Soviet support.

Rebel leader Kukoi Samba Sanyang, who ran around during the first days of the coup trying to locate the phone number of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi, offered as a program nothing but puerile Marxist cliches. Rebel colleagues of Sanyang, who is still at large, fought among themselves and at least six were killed by other rebels. Looting erupted spontaneously, and though the rebels opposed it, they could not stop it. Once the rebels opened the prison and armed about 340 criminals, revolutionary fervor appeared to degenerate into a settling of old scores.

Given the ease with which the haphazard rebels were able to push the population to violence, observers say the government may find it more expedient to talk about security than democracy, at least for the time being. Already, under the state of emergency declared by President Jawara, the relatively free Gambian press has been prohibited from publishing.

At the same time, however, the disturbances underscored social tensions that will have to be addressed, observers. For if the coup plot was limited to a small band, as the government claims, the generalized trouble that followed fed off social tensions.

"There was a lot of urban discontent. They were grasping at any straw that might offer a change," said Larry G. Piper, US ambassador in Banjul.

Discontent was apparently exacerbated by the general perception that in the midst of hard times corrupt officials are stuffing their pockets. "All the ministers steal. The population was with the rebels at the beginning," said J. J. Cates, a popular restaurant and hotel owner in downtown Banjul.

Part of the grumbling was fed by the fact that President Jawara was vacationing in London while the Gambian House of Representatives was passing an austerity budget last month. "He travels too much," said Mr. Cates.

What no one seemed to realized was how easy it would be to push the discontented to violence. About 500 Gambians were killed -- 1 percent of Banjul's population.

"This has mentally tortured the people. It will take months, if not years, to repair the damage," said opposition leader Sherif Mustapha Dibba, who was suspected at one point of having collaborated with the rebels.

Another effect of recent events may be rapprochement of Gambia and the country that surrounds it on three sides, Senegal.

Jawara has begun to talk about the "integration" of Gambia's security forces with Senegal's Army. With Gambian forces -- including police and paramilitary field forces -- of dubious loyalty, there is little doubt that some of the 1,500 Senegalese troops now in the Gambia will continue to look after Jawara's personal safety as well as that of a population that has shown a staggering capacity for violence.

Like Tanzanian troops in Uganda, "Senegalese troops will be here for some time to come," said one Banjul-based diplomat.

From the beginning, it was clear that Senegalese President Abdou Diouf, commander of an Army of more than 10,000 men, considered problems in the Gambia to be matters of internal security for Senegal.

Senegal has long dreamed of a consolidated "SeneGambia." In compensation for what is likely to be an expensive military venture -- and one financially pressed Senegal can ill afford -- flames of nationalism may well be stoked in Senegal.

During the 100 years before independence, the British, who colonized Gambia, and the French, who colonized Senegal, oftne talked of uniting the two colonies. Ironically, an aborted coup may accomplish, in effect if not in law, what years of colonial talks could not realize.

It is difficult to imagine that with one Army -- the Army of Senegal -- guaranteeing the security of both countries, Gambia can offer any serious objections to Senegalese proposals in future bilateral talks.

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