Kairaba Jawara, Sir Dawda 1924—
Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara 1924—
Former Gambian statesman
It was author Alex Haley who drew the world’s attention to Gambian president Dawda Jawara and his struggle to achieve independence for his small, democratic government in 1965. Prior to Haley’s 1977 visit in search of his ancestral roots, Gambia was only a remote and unknown dot on the West African map. But after the noted author spurred interest in the country, that changed. Maps attached to newspaper articles chronicling Jawara’s career would delineate a country divided in two: the riverbanks, dotted with tribal communities and small towns, which bear the collective name the Protectorate, and the capital city of Banjul-known as Bathurst until 1973.
A modest, retiring man, Jawara expected to spend his life after college in his chosen field of veterinary science. “There’s not a cow in the Gambia that doesn’t know me personally,” he once said in a comment that soon became part of local folklore. Jawara was not destined to spend his life ministering to animals, however. Convinced that Gambia must follow the example of nearby Ghana and become independent of British rule, he abandoned his profession in 1960 to enter politics. Jawara adopted the name Dawda in 1965 and embraced the Islam heritage shared by most Gambians. As a Muslim politician, he maintained staunch ties to the international Arab community while vehemently opposing radical or violent political action.
Jawara was born May 16, 1924, In the small town of Barajally. . His father, a prosperous Mandin-ka farmer, selected him from among his six sons as best fitted for education and sent him to the local Islamic primary school. In 1945, after graduating from the Methodist Boys’ High School in the capital city of Bathurst, Jawara went to Ghana and studied science at Achimota College for two years before departing for Scotland and the University of Glasgow to gain a degree in veterinary surgery. In 1954 the young man came home to take an appointment as the government’s animal physician. He spent most of his working hours in the rural areas of the Protectorate where agricultural disease control programs were sorely needed.
Jawara’s leisure time was spent in Bathurst. Deeply interested in politics, he joined the newly-established
At a Glance…
Born David Kairaba Jawara, May 16, 1924, in Bara jal ly, Gambia; son of Almamy (a farmer) and Mama Jawara; married Augusta Mahoney, 19S5 (divorced, 1967), remarried; children: (first marriage) three boys and two girls. Education: Achimota College, B.5., 1949; Glasgow University, graduated as a veterinary surgeon, 1954, Religion: Islam.
Veterinary surgeon, Protectorate Area, Gambia, 1954–60; Gambian government, Protectorate Area, Minister of Education, 1962-64, Prime Minister, 1962–70, then President, 1970—.
Protectorate People’s Society (PPS), an association popular with his civil service colleagues. The PPS had a mission Jawara fully endorsed: improving the lot of rural black Gambians who endured a primitive lifestyle that city-dwellers would never have tolerated. Mud roads and inadequate medical facilities were just two of the many inconveniences with which country-dwellers were forced to live. Perhaps more limiting was the extreme poverty of the rural educational system and the resultant high rate of illiteracy.
Social services were desperately needed in Gambia’s Protectorate area, but the PPS was unable to inspire either the governor or the legislative council with their own sense of urgency. In 1958, when a multi-party conference was held to discuss ways in which Gambia might break away from Britain and achieve self-government, the PPS decided it was time to voice its concerns. The fledgling party outlined a plan of action for addressing the country’s main concerns and chose Jawara as its represeentative for the conference.
Unfazed by the occasion’s importance, Jawara made his political debut at the meeting. He outlined the PPS’s findings about rural Gambian life while stressing his own belief that only indigenous Gambian legislators would care enough about improvement to plan specific projects and carry them through. His conclusion was simple—it was time to form a political party.
The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was organized in time to contest the 1960 elections. It set out to attract Protectorate supporters by allocating a separate party branch to each ward or village, and heading each unit with an executive committee elected from the local population. At 35, Jawara was one of Gambia’s most highly-educated citizens and was knowledgeable about the inner workings of democracy. He had many friends among the influential civil servants who ran the country. Furthermore, as the chief planner of cattle-disease control programs, Jawara’s presence was reassuringly familiar to the rural people who were the party’s targeted supporters. With such credentials, it came as no surprise that Jawara was the unanimous choice as party leader.
Because the rival political parties-the Gambia Muslim Congress and the Democratic Party-had been in existence since 1945, and the popular United Party had been around since 1951, the PPP hardly expected to sweep the boards in its first election. Nevertheless the fledgling political party captured eight of 12 seats in the Protectorate, and one of seven in the Colony area around Bathurst. Two years later, even this triumph was topped when the PPP captured 19 of the 33 available seats.
Having served briefly as Minister of Education, Jawara stepped into the prime minister’s post where he found the challenges immense. There were only 80 schools existed nationwide with a total of just 13,000 students; the agriculture-based economy reflected untapped opportunities for expansion into different crops; and the embryonic tourist industry catered to far too few sun worshippers. Each of these fields merited immediate development, but none were as urgent as the demands from the 316,000 Gambians impatient for the social services they expected to receive as soon as independence came. Patiently the prime minister registered the complaints and cautioned people not to expect miracles. “Independence is not a magic formula that will turn our ground nuts into diamonds,” he warned.
Britain was not surprised by the growing Gambian insistence on independence. Kenya, Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria had all chosen the same difficult path in the early 1960s, and logic decreed that other colonies would soon follow them. Besides, distinct financial advantages could be obtained by loosening the Gambian tie. With its meager agricultural output based mainly on ground nuts, the deficit of the little West African colony had long been a drain on the British treasury.
In 1889 the territory now encompassing Senegal and Gambia was divided between the French and British. During the next 70 years, the French imposed prohibitive tariffs on imports into Senegal while the British encouraged imports into Gambia by fixing low tariffs. Furthermore, the Senegalese government was compelled to obtain two-thirds of their imports from France in exchange for preferential prices on their peanut crop. These policies-plus the completely-enveloping Senegalese border-tempted many unscrupulous importers to smuggle goods across the Gambian border. Over the years the two countries thus became economic losers; Gambia’s coffers were never full and Senegal had one of the highest cost-of-living rates in Africa.
Both Jawara and President Leopold Senghor of Senegal wanted the economic healing that a closer alliance could bring. In early 1962 they sent a joint request to the United Nations (UN) asking for ways in which affiliation might be achieved. A four-person UN research team came up with three alternatives. Gambia could be fully incorporated into Senegal, each state could retain its own sovereignty while helping to form a central organization to deal with matters of interest to both, or each state could retain its sovereignty while drawing up treaties of friendship and cooperation in specific areas of interest.
Gambians examined their options and voiced their opinions for almost a year. Sentiments ranged from pride in British heritage to fear of being overlooked in the event of becoming part of the larger Senegalese population. Jawara reviewed the many factions and came to the conclusion that Gambians did not want to lose their autonomy, an opinion with which he agreed completely. Early in 1964 he went to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, for talks with President Senghor. Polite but inflexible, he refused to consider incorporating Gambia with Senegal and spoke against the formation of a central organization. In the end, he agreed to a Sene-gambian coalition for cooperation for defense, foreign affairs, and overseas representation as the change least likely to jeopardize Gambian autonomy.
On February 18, 1965, Gambia became Africa’s 36th independent state and its most financially troubled democracy. Though a change to republic status was proposed at this time, it was rejected by voters until 1970, when Jawara became the Republic of Gambia’s first president. In April of that year he shouldered his new position with few illusions about the economic and social problems awaiting him. However, he was surprised to meet another unexpected challenge—escalating friction with Senegal.
Though Senegal and Gambia cooperated on several fronts, they retained different domestic economic agendas. Many Senegalese farmers smuggled their crops into Gambia to capitalize on its cash markets in favor of Senegal’s government-issue promissory notes. As a result, the Senegalese government accused Gambia of “economic aggression.” Grassroots discontent in both countries bubbled to the surface in early 1971 after Gambia informed the UN that a Senegalese army patrol crossed the border, snatched a village headman and his son, and severely beat them. Senegal denied the allegation and, while the incident left an atmosphere of tension, the diplomatic friendship held. This proved fortunate, since the early 1980s found President Jawara in need of his neighbor’s staunch support.
After the murder of a Gambian field service officer in 1980 by one of his own men, investigators learned that Libya, a North African Arabic nation, had been recruiting young Gambian men and persuading them to go to Libya’s capital for training in guerilla tactics. At first the Gambian government found it hard to see Libya’s hand in either of these events. Tripoli had always been an ally, invested heavily in Gambia, and maintained a large staff at Banjul’s Libyan Embassy. All doubt vanished in December of that year, however, when 22 young Gambian men described the guerrilla training they had received. Jawara swiftly severed all diplomatic ties with the Libyans.
On July 30th, 1981, the Movement for Justice in Africa, a small Gambian radical group organized by Libyans, attempted a coup d’état in Banjul. At the peak of its violence, a mob rampaged through the streets, looting stores, liberating prisoners, and injuring bystanders. Jawara, who had been in London for Prince Charles’s wedding, flew to Dakar to invoke the 1967 Senegam-bian defense treaty and bring troops to Gambia’s aid.
By August 2, the uprising was over, but at a cost of more than 600 lives. Again firmly in control, Jawara launched the reconstruction of a shattered Banjul and instituted a prudent curfew. Aware that he could not have stayed in power without Senegal’s help, he toured Gambia to explain that more active and closer ties with their neighbors were vitally needed.
The Confederation of Senegambia came into official existence on February 1, 1982, with Senegal’s President Abdou Diouf at its head and Jawara as its vice-president. Formed specifically for collaboration in external, military, and economic affairs, its main concerns were simple: the integration of troops for mutual security, progress towards an economic unity that would curb smuggling and allow both countries to use the same currency, and coordination of foreign policies and communication services.
The most successfully handled items were transportation and communications. A private ferry boat and water transport company was soon set up in Gambia with support from Senegalese shareholders; roads were extended through both areas; and a common driver’s license served both countries. Otherwise, the Confederation’s path was a thorny one, with the military alliance the most difficult. Having disbanded its Field Service after the coup attempt, Gambia lacked an army. French-trained Senegalese troops were called in to train new Gambian soldiers, protect Jawara, and guard strategic buildings and military installations at Gambia’s ports. Initially this arrangement seemed ideal, but Gambians soon began to resent the strangers, fearing that their power could topple Jawara’s government. In 1986, heeding the voice of his people, Jawara requested that the defence agreement be amended so that troops could not be mobilized without orders from both presidents.
The most important reason for the Confederation’s failure was that neither government had organized a referendum to monitor the support of their citizens. Lacking democratic support, the new organization was regarded as a personal collaboration between two rulers rather than as a friendly alliance between two complete states. In August of 1989, President Diouf acknowledged the Confederation’s failure and proposed that it be frozen. At the same time, the 300 Senegalese soldiers serving in Gambia were suddenly withdrawn.
Despite this disappointment, by the 1990s, Jawara and his regime had reason to be proud of their achievements. They had received about $53 million in annual foreign aid throughout the 1980s, but sensible handling of the money-as well as loans from the World Bank, Africa Development Bank, and other Islamic financial institutions-ensured that almost 70 percent of younger children were enrolled in grammar schools across the country. Ten hospitals and more than 60 dispensaries provided health care nationwide. The domestic economy, too, had expanded, with more than 100,000 visitors arriving from Europe and North America during the 1989-90 season alone. In addition, the fishing industry was thriving and rice, cotton, millet, and other crops broadened the country’s agricultural output.After 30 years as Gambia’s leader, Jawara felt it was time for a change. In 1992, he suggested that his party start looking for a new candidate. Such panic greeted this proposition, however, that he consented to stand for election yet again. The question of his retirement continued to loom over Gambia’s political future, however, and dissention mounted.
Starting on July 22, 1994, a group of Gambian soldiers led by Yahal Jammeh stormed the capital city of Banjul. Compared with the previous attempt to overthrow Jawara, though, this coup was deemed “bloodless.” Even Jawara escaped unharmed: he was taken to Senegal by a U.S. warship that was conveniently in the area when the coup began. Jawara had hoped that his work as the country’s head politician would create an economically prosperous society based on his priorities--democracy, unity, and tolerance for personal differences. The new government, however, seemed to have different aspirations-or at least different means of achieving those goals. The self-appointed, five-man ruling council dissolved the constitution and established a nationwide curfew until democracy was reinstated. From his political asylum in Senegal, Jawara could only hope that they would uphold their promise of renewed democracy.
Africa Contemporary Record: Annual Survey and Documents, Africana Publishing, 1982–83, 1984, 1988–89, 1990.
Africa Today, second edition, Africa Books, 1991.
Gailey, Harvey A., Historical Dictionary of the Gambia, second edition, Scarecrow Press, 1967.
Rice, Berkeley, Enter Gambia: The Birth of an Improbable Nation, Houghton, 1967.
Africa Report, May 1972, p. 4; July/August 1984, p. 37; March/April 1991, p. 45; March/April 1992, p. 34.
Boston Globe, July 24, 1994, p. 5.
Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 22, 1985, p. H35; May 5, 1988, p. 7; July 19, 1990, p. 8.
Contemporary Review, Volume 254, May 1989, p.258; Volume 257 September 1990, p. 133.
Foroyya, Nov. 15, 1992, p. 14.
Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1994, p. A16.
New York Times, Feb. 18, 1965, p. 9; July 24, 1994,p. 9.
Wall Street Journal, July 25, 1994, p. Al.
West Africa, February 14, 1987, p. 292.
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