1981: Mustapha Danso

On this date in 1981, Mustapha Danso was executed for an attempted coup in Gambia.

Gambia (or “The Gambia”: we’re going to dispense with the article here) is a sliver of a country hugging the Gambia River, entirely surrounded (save the coast) by Senegal.

It became independent of Great Britain in 1970 under the leadership of Dawda Jawara, who held the Gambian presidency democratically from that time until 1994. Mustapha Danso, our date’s principal, was one of a coterie of disaffected Gambian junior officers who were scheming a coup against Jawara as the 1980s got underway.

In October 1980, Danso walked up to the deputy commander of the Gambia Field Force, Eku Mahoney, and coolly shot him dead. “Although the first speculations blamed the constable’s action on possible illicit drug influence,” notes a book about Gambia’s subsequent, and successful, 1994 junior officers’ coup, “Mustapha Danso’s unresentful attitude after the incident convinced many people that there was more to it than what met the eye.” Mahoney may have been killed because he was viewed by the prospective coupists as an obstacle.

Danso caught a death sentence, but since Gambia never actually executed anyone, it was essentially symbolic.

That is, until July 1981, when Jawara was in London to attend the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Danso’s former comrades in the Field Force seized the opportunity to join a coup mounted by leftist politician Kukoi Samba Sanyang against the “corrupt, tribalistic, and despotic” Jawara in favor of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

From London, Jawara summoned Senegalese aid: Gambia’s neighbor and sometime rival dispatched troops who successfully crushed the rebellion within a week. Some 500 people lost their lives during the turmoil, and its leaders fled abroad. (Kukoi Sanyang died a few months ago as of this writing, but his version of the “people’s revolution under my able leadership” can be perused here.)

While the coup itself was suppressed, Jawara went pretty easy (as these things go) on his actual or perceived enemies. Danso was the only party to the plot who was executed, and Jawara went out of his way to declare normalcy instead of using a national security emergency to smash up everything.

“In the aftermath of this threat to our internal security some have asked whether it would be appropriate at the time to consolidate both the power of the State and the power of the executive. Let me state categorically and unequivocally that the system of democracy that has always existed will prevail. There will be no dictatorship in The Gambia — neither by the President, nor by the Government, nor by the proletariat.” (Source)

Danso was the first and, for 30 years the only, person executed in Gambia; the country has retained the death penalty in law, but was long considered de facto abolitionist. That changed suddenly in August 2012 when current president Yahya Jammeh unexpectedly ordered nine condemned prisoners put to death on a single day.