In March 1973, the peaceful paradise of Gambia was chocked out of its serene slumber by the roaring clatter of machine-gun fire. This was fire not from the ancient guns of the Abdoul-helmeted ceremonial soldiery shot into the wild blue skies. Nor was it machine-gun fire from the modern assault rifles of the Field Force in war with pestering bush pigs of Gambia’s wild savannah. No! The first generation of independent Gambia’s paramilitary Field Forces were having their baptism of fire, the first battle of man-to-man exchange of fire, in which human (not bush-pig) life could be (and in fact) was lost. Along Pipe Line Road in the growing bourgeois suburb of Fajara, scores of heavily armed police and Field Force troops had surrounded a building trying to shoot down one man. That man was a Gambian by the name of Matarr Sarr.
Matarr was a young, dynamic and relatively independent-minded Gambian businessman who became a pain in the back of the Gambian neo-political set-up. As a smart young man he joined the colonial police service to become its second senior Gambian official but resigned to join the Gambian staff of one of the most prominent Lebano-Syrian business houses, the Madi’s.
Matarr worked at Madi’s to become their most trusted and senior Gambian employee. The company had more than forty years of operational experience in Gambia.
Way back in the 1940s, its founder Sarkis Madi, had bought himself favours from the colonial administration and some members of the Gambian nobility. He became the most outstanding member of the foreign dominated Bathurst merchant community. Sarkis was for 17 years a member of the colonial Legislative Council that made Gambian laws. He was for 23 years the chairman of the powerful Chamber of Commerce and wielded tremendous power and influence over the affairs of the colony. By the time of independence, Madi’s had become an economic institution that had a hand in every single sector of the country’s economy. It had affairs in import and export of all major goods and services, river transport, groundnut trading, insurance, shipping, light-scale industries, usury, landlordism, retail trade in both consumer and durable goods and many more. Almost all the senior members of the Gambian government were one way or the other indebted to the company. Top politicians, senior civil servants and police officials, businessmen, in short all the ”somebodies” in Gambia had credit accounts with the Madi’s and could buy, on payment by installment, cars, electric cookers, refrigerators, air conditioners, jewelleries and other important luxuries.
The company, simply, had the bulk of the Gambian big brass by the throat. Matarr knew this very well as he was the one in charge of the company’s book. Therefore, when in the fall of the 1971 he decided to quit the company he was considered terribly dangerous not only by the Madi’s but by the sum of all the Gambian big shots.
Bravely, very bravely Matarr Sarr went to establish his own company. The first really independent Gambian business house after the country’s independence came thus. It started with a small fleet of river vessels, an insurance agency and an international shipping agency. Helped by his extensive international contacts, his energetic resourcefulness and his dynamic sense of innovation Matarr’s business ventures soon proved very successful.
On top being a threat to the Madi’s and the ruling class he posed a threatening competition to the Northern Assurance and the Elder Dempster Lines. With the blessing of their friends in government positions (most especially the Attorney General and Inspector of Police), the Madi’s decided to cook up some weird charges against him so as to cripple him. Matarr Sarr was taken to court charged with ”stealing by clerk” alleged to have been done some eight years before. True to form, he fired back instantly. Matarr leaked on to the press (Mr RS Allen’s Gambia Onward) that the Chief Justice Sam George who had signed the court warrant was in the corrupt pay of the Madi’s and had been bribed with a new Peugeot 404 familieres.
The proud and defiant Matarr was showing his enemies a little of what he had in store for them if they continued with their plans of wrecking him.
Unfortunately, Matarr could not understand the full meaning of the kind of conflict he himself was involved in. He did not know the dangerous nature of the path he was trending on. As a petty bourgeois individual aspiring to become a fully-fledged capitalist, he saw things in a purely individualist and therefore deformed viewpoint. He was unable to grasp hold of things in their proper perspective and lacked the insight into their social inter-relationship.
What he did not know was that he was not only up against individuals, groups of individuals or companies but against a whole system of exploitation and oppression that sided with foreign capitalist against domestic capitalists, with the rich against the poor and with the strong against the weak.
I remember once listening to Matarr speaking at a symposium organised by the Kent Street Vous at the Wesley Hall, Dobson Street, sometime around January 1972. Replying to progressive student leader Alhassan Ben Sarr’s question, Matarr claimed that there was no oppression in Gambia. ”Tell me your suffocations and I will help to ease them,” he pride fully boasted.
However, it was not fully a year before the brutal force of Gambian state oppression was let loose on him to cut him into tiny pieces. By January 1973, motor vehicles that had insurance policies from Matarr’s insurance office were being hunted and kept off the road by the traffic police. All his river vessels were also deregistered and ordered out of traffic, this at the busiest time of their use in the middle of the groundnut-buying season.He tried in vain to get some explanations that nobody in authority cared to give. When he finally met the then Inspector General of Police, Harry Evans, he was told that all the orders
He tried in vain to get some explanations that nobody in authority cared to give. When he finally met the then Inspector General of Police, Harry Evans, he was told that all the orders on his case came from the Attorney General’s Office and that he should seek explanations from that corner and nowhere else. The Attorney General, however, could not be met because Lamin Saho, who was also the Minister of Justice, was away on an official trip abroad. Matarr was made to understand that he had to wait until Saho returns.
Meanwhile all hell was turned loose on Matarr’s business activities. His disappointed clients were getting increasingly impatient. Motor vehicle owners kept pouring into his office demanding cancellation of their insurance policies and repayment. Groundnut buyers were threatening to sue him for breach of contract.Matarr could not even tell them a convincing explanation of what was happening. His suggestion that he might have been personally persecuted could not be taken seriously by a clientele that was too irritated to provide
Matarr could not even tell them a convincing explanation of what was happening. His suggestion that he might have been personally persecuted could not be taken seriously by a clientele that was too irritated to provide thoughtful audience.
It was not until after some six weeks that Attorney General Saho returned from his trip but even then Matarr could not get any appointment with him before some three weeks later. The appointed meeting was one between two persons with extreme hatred for each other but who must meet for official reasons… So as to be expected the mutually hostile meeting was short and sharp. The Attorney General called the police to bundle out, arrest and charge his visitor for “criminal trespass”. When Matarr faced the magistrate in court a few hours later his plight was further worsened when his defiant pride took the better part of him. He charged the Ceylonese-born magistrate of corrupt partiality and requested a change of judge.
He was charged with contempt of court and remanded in custody to wait for a court that was adjourned indefinitely. Mr Annanda, the magistrate, was clearly acting from personal grudge if not from corrupt partiality because the charges (criminal trespass and contempt of court) against Matarr certainly do not call for such severe measures according to Gambian legal practice.
After all attempts to bail him were refused, Matarr was kept behind bars in the Mile Two Central Prisons. He was wrongfully denied some of the rights he had as a detainee; he was frequently harassed and molested by guards who, very probably, acted under encouragement from higher authority. At night, hooded men would come in with batons to beat him up and he was kept in a cell specially set aside for inmates with tuberculosis and other contagious diseases. One night some inmates were mobilised to gang up against him in what was clearly an assassination attempt and he was only saved by other inmates who intervened on his side. Rumours filtered through to the outside that attempts were made on his life and the imam of Banjul had to plea for his release on bail. On All Fools Day April 1972, Matarr Sarr was released on bail.
By now, Matarr must have definitely agreed with Alhasan Ben Sarr’s claim that things were, to put it mildly, not all that well in The Gambia. From there and then, Matarr refused to voluntarily surrender himself to any Gambian court of law. Arms in hand he stubbornly fought off all attempts to be arrested. He tore open the body of the chief inspector Saul Samba. At the end, half the Gambian paramilitary Field Force had to come and wage war on him and his newly built building he used as bunker. It took them more than eight hours before they could drag out the shattered and bullet ridden body of Matarr Sarr.
News of the shoot-out seemed to have traumatised the population in Banjul, Kombo and the environments. The news jolted them out of their quiet, “locale” peaceful existence in a way they never could understand. Nobody seemed to know what to do with either body or mind. A collective numbness of the mind overtook the people. Everybody simply dropped whatever she or he was doing and gathered in small knots of crowds around the street corners to wail in confused despair.
But this was well before today’s violent and aggressive ”ndongos”, a permanently unemployed generation of youngsters who are bred in shasha-smoking, palm wine drinking, street-fighting and knife-jabbing, came to age to help make Gambia the tough and rough society it is today. It was before the coming in of the cruel age of rat race, of neo-colonialism in advanced degeneration, of a society in moral crises and overall dissolution. It was before socio-economic injustice, unavoidably leading to acute material greed, brought regular armed robberies and almost weekly death tolls. And it was nearly eight years before the wholesale bloodletting of July 1981.
Gambia was therefore like a maidenly Virgin of Peace that with Matarr Sarr lost her virginity. Just like an innocent young lady with an abrupt loss of her virginity would look at her bloody apparels, Gambians stared at the bloody bodies of Matarr Sarr and Saul Samba in utter bewilderment. The clatter of gunfire that day was like a signal for an end of an era and a beginning of a new one.
No incident had so clearly and dramatically uncovered the deep divisions of the Gambian society as the funerals of Matarr and Saul. While the Establishment class and their ilk buried Saul as their dutiful servant amid official pomp and military parade in an officious state-funeral, the masses carried high the body of their hero to march him spiritedly to his last resting place. In a memorable speech that drew rousing applause in spite of the occasion, dissident Banjul Muslim leader, Alhagy Sulay said that ”They claim that Matarr committed suicide but I say no. Matarr was burdened with a load that he refused to carry.”
Now, we may be compelled to ask, what is so special about the murder of one single individual when people are every day being murdered in Gambia either directly (like Mustafa Danso and Pa Hally Jammeh) or indirectly (like those of the sick, victims of road accidents and the highly frequent death of babies because of official negligence and carelessness)? Why just Matarr who died decades ago? What is special is not Matarr Sarr as a person but the circumstances surrounding his murder. At times such petty personal and individual happenings can carry great historical lessons. They can help to show us very important things in a way that even millions of books, thousands of films, hundreds of meetings or scores of juju-men and fortune tellers cannot do. This is to say, that they can arm us with knowledge and experience to guard us against the stormy tides of the unpredictable future. They can help us to have a better understanding of the often hidden meanings of the things around us.
If we take the July 1981 Revolt as an example, we may be able to see how such individual cases can give us, beforehand, signals or warnings as how things may develop or turn out.
Matarr was part of the petty-bourgeoisie social group cooked up by the colonial school system. His original role, as a member of this group, was to serve colonial administrative (as a civil servant) or economic institution (as in the Madis or U.A.C). He was expected to serve these institutions but not to compete with them. But in serving these institutions Matarr and his type permanently run the risk of being contaminated with ambitions that they can only achieve by competing with their masters. But on the other hand the colonial set up was there to defend the foreign companies against such competition.
After independence the white Sir John Paul was replaced with the black Sir Dawda Jawara but nothing really changed. The foreign capitalists were still being defended from domestic competition especially from the types of Matarr. Herein lies the problem. To make matters worse, the number of people cooked- up through the colonial school system, like Matarr, with contaminated ambitions increased as the number of schools (with the same old colonial education) had increased.
So if one understands this as one of the major underlying causes of the Matarr Sarr case one will expect many July 31st -type revolts unless Sir Dawda stops acting like Sir John did. In other words, an end to the new form of colonialism.
The story of Gambia’s eight years between the murder of Matarr and the July Revolt is like a tale told by our ancient grandmothers rich with coincidences and dramatic irony. It is like in African story telling, the main characters are introduced in a minor episode that predetermines the course of the rest of the story before they appear in the major plot. Many of the personalities who figured out in the Matarr episode were to become more or less prominent in the July Revolt. Alhaji Sulay Sarr who officiated as imam in the funeral was to make speech over rebel-controlled radio calling for the withdrawal of Senegalese troops in July 1981. Dr Pin (“Pengu”) George, a close friend of Matarr who was said to have vowed to revenge the murder, led armed bands during the Revolt and died fighting. Another of Matarr’s close friends, Alieu Kah, was the first to be killed in the revolt. The man I saw at the head of Matarr’s funeral march in April 1973 was the same bugle-blowing Alieu Sallah I saw leading a large jubilating crowd eight years later in the morning of 31 July 1981. Mr Sallah who was sentenced to death for his alleged part in the revolt was in death row awaiting execution at Mile Two Central Prisons [and was only released after Yahya Jammeh’s 1994 coup].
All these go to show that much of the tragedies of our nation could have been avoided if the national leaders were interested enough to learn from the lessons of our collective experiences.
Also for us in Sweden and other overseas Gambians in other parts of the world: there are lessons we can learn from the Matarr Sarr case. Especially those of us who wish to go back home and start with some business. Tired and frustrated with the racism, discrimination and worsening economic situation abroad, many overseas Gambians from hustlers, immigrants, workers and students have been packing to try to ”make it” at home instead. Scores of small businesses, from cafe bars, restaurants, farming and taxi cabs and sales agencies were started. But most of them close down only after a few months. The forces working against Gambian business initiatives are just too many.
When for example Gambians started dealing in second-hand cars in the middle of the seventies, foreign car dealers felt they were losing customers and they forced government to increase the tax on the cars and finally even banned their importation. With a neo-colonial government that always sides with foreign capitalist interests against domestic business initiatives, the Gambian businessman has very little chance. Corruption, bribery and nepotism go to add with chaotic administrative mismanagement to worsen things. All these things make the ”doing my own thing” – attitude unworkable in The Gambia. Another of the lessons of the Matarr case is that one must ” do something” with the general situation before one can properly “do his thing”.
This article was first published in the 10/83 & 11/83 editions of The Gambia News-Letter, organ of the Stockholm branch of the Organisation of Gambians in Sweden.