Remembering Gambia's soft-spoken founding leader

APA-Banjul (The Gambia)

As The Gambia prepare for Thursday's state funeral for its founding president Sir Dawda Jawara, tributes have been pouring in for the elder statesman who died at the age of 95 on Tuesday. .

"The impression he gave in this life was of a man who was kind, forgiving, honest and soft-spoken, a humble leader who could not hurt a fly" said a Gambian who had joined hundreds of mourners lined up to pay their last respects at Jawara's residence in Fajara, 14km south of the capital Banjul on Wednesday.

"His name is liberally juxtaposed with democracy, human rights and the rule of law" said another mourner, wiping tears from his sad face.

Declaring a week of national mourning current President Adama Barrow has ordered that all flags in the country be flown at half mast.

The late statesman will lie in state at the National Assembly before his burial on its grounds later on Thursday.

In the meantime, tributes have been flooding in for a man who was variously described as a benevolent democrat, a shrewd politician, a patriotic Gambian and a staunch human rights defender coupled with his sterling record as a peace broker in conflict situations around the world.

Gambians will remember him as a champion of democratic pluralism and a proponent of human rights and good governance during his thirty-two year leadership.

The Glasgow-trained veterinarian negotiated and took The Gambia to independence in 1965 at a time when much of the world saw Africa’s smallest country as an improbable nation with no viability to last any length of time.

Realizing that as a small nation with practically no known mineral resource to shore up its groundnut economy Jawara looked outside his country for answers, signing a series of collaborative treaties with neighbouring Senegal and cultivated close affinities with former colonial power Britain and world superpower the United States.

These relations were to stand the Gambia in good stead well after he lost power in a military coup in 1994.

Up till then he had ruled The Gambia for 32 years, winning eight elections and cementing his reputation as a democrat of world repute.

He became prime minister in 1962, three years after entering politics under the Protectorate People’s Party which he would later change to the Progressive People’s Party to reflect its nationwide aspirations.

Jawara was born to a modest family in Barrajally, 226km east of the Gambian capital Banjul in 1924 and first went to school at the age of 13.

He would later proceed to Achimota College in Ghana before earning a degree in Veterinary Science from Glasgow University in Scotland.

His work as a vet had taken him to the length and breadth of The Gambia, and as erudite historian Hassoum Ceesay says this would prove decisive when Jawara entered politics in 1959.

By then he was no longer a stranger to the electorate in both urban and rural Gambia, where he was already a household name, Ceesay tells the African Press Agency in an interview.

Over the years his reputation as a statesman transcended Gambia’s borders and positively affected the West Africa sub-region and beyond.

“In the 1970s Jawara singlehandedly negotiated peace between Leopold Sedar Senghore of Senegal and Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea who were even poised to go to war” Ceesay explains.

 He was also appointed by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to broker a definitive end to the Iran-Iraq war which had raged for eight years.

The guns of that war finally fell silent in 1988.

At the height of the cold war, although Jawara was amenable to the West thanks to their shared ideologies of democratic tolerance and good governance against the steely, poker-faced authoritarianism of communism, he identified his small country with the non-aligned movement.         

Under the movement he was assigned on several occasions to be a harbinger of peace anytime the world’s two superpowers moved closer to the brink of military confrontation.

Although he was admired on the world stage, discontent has been simmering in The Gambia since biting economic hardship set in following the droughts of the late 1970s.

 Kukoi Samba Sanyang, a Marxist-Leninist attempted to harness this discontent and turned it into an insurrection in 1981 which for days threatened to end Jawara’s rule.

However, with the aid of troops from neighbouring Senegal with whom he had had a defense pact since 1965, the bloody disturbance was quelled.

Although his critics had latched onto this and accused Jawara of acting with a heavy hand in the aftermath of the insurrection, historian Ceesay believes nothing could be furthest from the truth.

“Although some 2000 people were detained following the coup, all of them were eventually released by the courts” he points out.

After surviving this scare to his rule, relations with Senegal entered a new phase which culminated in the Senegambia confederation which was to last from 1982 to 1989 when it was dissolved.

From Jawara’s perspective, it was no longer tenable hanging on to a loose political union when the confederal presidency was not rotational.   

As relations with Dakar degenerated to an all-time low, he turned his attention to regional heavyweight Nigeria, a country which would play a big-brother role to Banjul for the next couple of years.

One of his indelible legacies was his role as chief champion of a peacekeeping force for Liberia where a bloody civil war raged in 1990 and threatened member states particularly its neighbours.

However, on the home front his political hegemony did not survive another coup in 1994 when then lieutenant Yahya Jammeh led a successful putsch that put paid to his time at State House.

A decisive factor in the success of that coup was the decision by Senegal (still smarting from the failed confederation) not to intervene on his behalf like in 1981 when they came to his rescue.

He would be forced into exile in Dakar and eventually London where according to an account by his wife Chilel Jawara they had struggled to survive.

Seven years later Jawara and some members of his family would return to The Gambia where he would lead a quiet retirement life without any involvement in politics despite the fact that his PPP had been revived after Jammeh lifted a ban on politicians of the First Republic.

In 2007 he was chosen to lead an Ecowas mission to Nigeria to assess that country's level of preparedness to hold presidential election that year.

Just like the way it was while he was in office, in retirement, Jawara enjoyed popularity, drawing large crowds whenever he made public appearances which were few and far between or went on walkabouts in the Fajara neighbourhood or along the beach near his home.

And as a tearful mourner said, although Jawara is gone, the impact of his life will remain as long as there is a country called The Gambia.



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