The Gambian government has thwarted a coup attempt, a presidential communique said on Wednesday, but it is business as usual in the capital Banjul.
“Security forces yesterday discovered that a group of army officers led by Colonel Ndure Cham, former chief of defence staff, were at an advanced stage in their plot to overthrow the constitutional government of The Gambia,” said the statement from the office of the president.
“All those involved are presently in custody and helping the security forces in their investigation, except the leader who is still at large,” it added. An un-named military source told IRIN at least 12 people had been arrested.
On news of the trouble, President Yahya Jammeh cut short a trip to nearby Mauritania, returning to Banjul under cover of darkness some time Tuesday night or Wednesday morning with an escort of Mauritanian military commandoes, another military source said.
The government meanwhile called for calm. “The general public is hereby assured that there is no cause for alarm and the situation is firmly under control,” the statement said.
But most residents of Banjul were unaware of the overnight trouble and shops, schools and businesses were open as usual on Wednesday.
President Jammeh seized power of Gambia, a tiny sliver of land on Africa’s western coast surrounded entirely on its land borders by Senegal, in a bloodless coup in 1994 when he was just 29 years old. Since then, he has won two elections and the most recent in 2001 earned a thumbs-up from international monitors.
Presidential elections are due to take place this year with parliamentary elections to follow in 2007. Jammeh has already said that he will be running for a third consecutive term in office.
Some observers doubt Wednesday’s coup claims and suspect that Jammeh is trying to purge his government of foes ahead of the upcoming poll. Splits are appearing in his ruling party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), and last month the APRC mayor of The Gambia’s largest municipality, Abdoulie Conteh, was unceremoniously sacked.
In November 2005 three members of a newly formed opposition coalition were arrested for what authorities called “subversive activities”, without providing further detail. The arrests followed by-elections in which the opposition bloc took three out of the four seats up for grabs.
In its communique on Wednesday the government also named a new head of the armed forces, Lieutenant Colonel Lang Tombong Tamba, previously the military’s number two. Tamba, 39, and Jammeh were in the military together and come from the same ethnic group, as do many of the president’s closest aides.
A new head of the national intelligence agency was also named, though the incumbent intelligence chief had been accompanying Jammeh in Mauritania.