a brief look at life well spent in office by the late Gambian President Sir
Dawda Kairaba Jawara. In this interview with Hassoum Ceesay, a researcher,
historian and also the acting director general of National Centre for Arts and
Culture, he talked about the late president’s life in office, his appointments,
the effect of the 1981 and 1994 coup d’états as well as the legacy Sir Dawda
The Point: For clarity’s sake, can you briefly remind people on important information about late Sir Dawda Jawara’s years of service in office as a civil servant?
Hassoum: The late President Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara spent 24 years as a President, 18 months as Premier and 3 and half years as Prime Minister. So in total it was 32 years he spent in power in The Gambia; that’s from May 1962 to July 22nd 1994. But really his political career started in 1959, it was that year the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was established and he was invited to lead the party.
The Point: Who was he at that time?
Hassoum: At that time he was already a senior government official and one of the two Gambian directors. Calling him to come and lead the party made him resigned from civil service job. When he resigned the following year less than twelve months - May 1960 at the first general election his party contested and won some seats although he did not win majority seat. So, there was a (sort of) coalition government among the PPP, United Party, Congress Party and the Independent. Then he was appointed as Minister of Education that was 1960 and resigned from coalition and that position in March 1961. His resignation was due to the fact that British Governor Windy wanted to appoint the leader of United Party - Pierre Njie as Prime Minister and the PPP against his decision. From March 1961 to June 1962 he was the leader of the opposition. In 1962 election his party won big majority and that marked the peak of his political career.
The Point: Let’s digress a little bit, looking at the PPP of 1962 and of recent time what could have been the reason for inadequate consensus among them and the decline among their member hence they are now one of the minority parties in the country?
Hassoum: The decline in their membership has to do with the 1994 coup d’état. After the coup – first, the party was banned; secondly, some of the members which included Sir Dawda, former vice president, ministers some of the MPs at that time were all banned; some for five years and some ten years. Thirdly, from that period until around 2007 elections the PPP was unable to converge or operate as a party because the party was banned, too, by the AFPRC junta. These are the reasons that led to decline in the membership of the party. And also according to information as they were banned, their properties were seized while some of the party files were seized and destroyed. The coup had very negative impact on the party.
The Point: Late Sir Dawda served as a Prime Minister under a head of state, Queen Elizabeth, who was overseeing the country from independent till the attainment of Republic in 1970 what was the strength of his power and as well achievements?
Hassoum: Before he become PM he was in June 1962 appointed premier and was told and confirmed to be the most Senior Minister but there are certain areas that he cannot or been restricted from handling. These included the British Governor, Foreign Affairs, Security, Defence because he was a Premier. In October 1963 he was promoted to Prime Minister because the British were very happy with his performance. That was the time the Governor allowed him to share the cabinet and remained like an adviser. As parts of his achievements as Prime Minister in the following year he led the political leaders to England to discuss about the Independence of the country and there in July 1964 they fixed a date – 18th February, 1965 for the country’s Independent. At the Independence Day, 18th February, 1965 he was still a Prime Minister. In November 1965 he tried for the first time for the country to become Republic but the Referendum failed he continued as Prime Minister until 24th April 1970 when the second Referendum took place and succeeded for the Gambia to become a Republic. So, from 1962 to 1970 the Queen was still the Head of State and in control even if late Jawara wanted to change a Minister he has to inform the Queen for approval but all that ended in April 1970 as he become the Executive President.
The Point: Late President Jawara achieved a lot during his tenure in office, in brief can you reflect on his achievements as regards to peace, economy, and security?
Hassoum: His number one legacy is peace and stability. He was able to bring Gambians together as one people and unite them peacefully. He used many tactics to achieve this. Among the tactics were in the early 60s his party has solid base among the Mandikas but when he won the election he brought other groups into government. His party did not dominate the government. Secondly, his approach to some of the traditional institutions like chiefs, he respected them and placed so much emphasis on them. Thirdly he used dialogues to maintain peace. Even some of his worst critics in government come to serve the country with him because they left their parties to be with him and he accepted them. Fourthly, he was opened politically which enabled him to work with everyone so with his political openness he was able to maintain peace. More so, he cultivated respect for human dignity and rights of Gambians and people were protected. Even in those days you cannot hear about political prisoner, execution, mass strike; Gambia was not known for that because it never happened. This has won him, in many occasions, international recognition and awards for upholding the peace of The Gambia. In addition, his achievements have to do with the issue of multiparty elections, from 1962 until 1994 The Gambia under him held regular multiparty democratic elections every five years - 1962, 66, 72, 77, 82, 87, and 1992 which was also rare in some parts of Africa. The economy as we have to remember that at the independence nobody believe that the country can survive because no tourism, no mineral resources, no diamond but only groundnut and some years the rain would fail farmers but with all these he was able to put the country on a firm footing. He did it through one - what we called frugality, in terms of diplomacy he opened only two embassies in Senegal and London but later expanded to Arab world and other countries, no private jet, there was a control on expenditure. Even the car he was driving in those days was the cheapest as some of his colleagues that visited the country make fun of it. He was able to attract a lot of foreign aids from England, France, Arab countries which among was Saudi Development Fund, Kuwait. He was able to translate the respect he commands into economic development through partnerships and donors. Even culture, he created the Museum, national library, and national troupe in 1974, the oral history archive. He was having good relationship with Senegal which led to the Senegambia Confederation and before that there was Senegalo Gambia Secretariat. He also started a philosophy called ‘tesito’ (self help) whereby he encouraged the villagers to start some important projects for themselves (like schools) to enable government to give aid. The ‘tesito’ philosophy worked very well in the 70s until politics took new trend and destabilized things.
The Point: When late Jawara was the president there were two unforgettable coups that happened one was the Kukoi coup in 1981, which was like a yellow card to his government and the red card one was the second coup led by ex President Yahya Jammeh in 1994 which finally removed him from power. What was the immediate aftermath of these two coups to country and late Jawara especially?
Hassoum: The Kukoi’s coup was a sad chapter, it happened in 30th July 1981 and many people died. The chamber of commerce estimated that 42 million dalasis in those days was lost to looters, as rebels and criminals were just looting everywhere. It destroyed The Gambia but also brought about many changes particularly in security sector. This is due to the fact that before the coup there was no army, it was only the field force – paramilitary but after 1981 when Sir Dawda was touring the country two weeks after the coup to assure civilians that everything was back to normal, it was then they started talking about army, and that was how the idea of establishing national army started. The first set of soldiers was enlisted in 1984 and ten years later Yahya Jammeh’s coup came. Another thing is that before the 1981 coup, people used to see Sir Dawda in supermarket with one policeman just like other citizens. Then the gate at the State House was opened as vehicle used to pass there while President Jawara will be standing by his window responding to greetings by waving hand to the passerby. But after the 81 coup security measure was put in place as Senegalese soldiers came to the country to form part of his body guards. The NIA known as NSS (National Security Service) was created but before then all intelligence were handled by a special branch of the police. So 1981 led to some fundamental changes particularly in security sector but economically it was a disaster, definitely.
The Point: How did the country able to survive or recover from this, taking into consideration the Chamber of Commerce’s report which stated that about 42 million dalasis were looted?
Hassoum: Good, that’s because the whole world come to The Gambia’s aid, check at the archive, then Japan was bringing us vehicles because the rebels looted all government cars, France was bringing us medicine. Even the president of Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny was sending money to The Gambia, Cameroun among other countries, too. Gambians themselves were contributing cattle, chickens, dalasis, goats anything they have to support the government. There was so much aid coming to The Gambia that a special office was created and called Commissioner for Foreign/External Aid it was headed by late ambassador Ebou Taal. The country survived it because of the Gambia’s friends; because The Gambia was friend with the whole world. Also the country was able to survive due to the way the late President Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara handled it. Sixteen days after the coup he was on ‘Meet the Farmers’ Tour preaching reconciliation and calm down Gambians and urged them to ‘let live together as one Gambia, one nation.’ But ten years later his government was torpedoed with coup in 1994 through the security sector he set up to secure and defend people and the country.
The Point: Is there any justification for this 1994 coup taking into consideration the testimony of witnesses who had appeared before the ongoing Truth Reparation Reconciliation Commission?
Hassoum: Well, I think the 1994 coup was just like any other coups, unjustifiable. It was a seizure of power, and nothing than for sake of being in power, greedy for power and control of power, because you don’t create an institution and think of it to match up with those that have been existing for ten years or over. Ten years is too small for a new institution like army to have a footprint because it takes times to arrive in higher height. The excuses given for them to stage a coup was referring to as fake excuses by some audience. Because Jawara government created army as a national institution to defend the sovereignty of this country and national institutions do not mature in five or ten years even not in fifteen years. That’s why I said the coup came just because they wanted to seize power and for the sake of being in power. This is obvious through the setup commissions by the present government where witnesses testified. Less than three months in office after the coup, they were sharing money while ‘junglers’ were doing everything to suppress Gambians to enable them continue to stay in power. The creation of the army by late Jawara was an excellent intention for young Gambians to be given the chance to defend their own country and army is meant to be a national institution which will grow and evolve and develop over decades.
The Point: In succinct, Jawara was overthrown and he went on exile how his life in exile was and when he comes back to the country till he died?
Hassoum: In brief, according to his autobiography it was not easy for him when he was in exile, the humiliation as a former president particularly a champion of democracy of human right, he didn’t deserve it, definitely. In his autobiography there is a chapter he wrote that he spent 32 years not knowing how to push a trolley at the airport, sadly when he was coming from America he had to push his trolley himself. Those are type of his difficult period and as a Statesman being in exile in the west is not easy. But Gambians and Yahya Jammeh and Jammeh in particular knew that he was stood to lose a lot of goodwill and support if Jawara continued to remain in exile that was why in 2002 Jawara was allowed to return to the country while his seized assets were return to him. He did it to redeem his image. After his arrival in the country you will see them together in the national occasion but Jammeh continued his verbal harassment even sometimes the Late Jawara would be sited why he (Jammeh) would be lambasting the PPP and castigating his (Jawara) government which resulted to him avoiding or seize going to any national occasion despite extending invitation to him.
The Point: What lesson has Jawara’s life time and demised taught the people of the Gambia?
Hassoum: Sir Dawda’s leadership style has many lessons for this present and future generation; among the key lessons to learn from him are dialogue to solve our problems be it political, economical and social. Sir Dawda didn’t teach us to protest, demonstrate, destroy or burn things. All issues we are facing as a country even the struggle for independence came through dialogue as political parties met to discuss them, so dialogue should be the center. Another key lesson is to maintain peace, stability and the rule of law. Peace means ethnic and religious harmonies internal stability particularly maintaining good relationship with Senegal is important. The rule of law means allowing justice to take its cause no matter who is involved or what is involved because when the rule of law is promoted everybody will have faith in government, in the country because we are assured of justice. If the rule of law extends to freedom of speech, expression, like it was under Sir Dawda, where journalists operated in this country freely. So these are few among the abiding lessons which we can learn from him.
The Point: He was given a state burial at the National Assembly – a place that becomes his last home any comment on this?
Hassoum: He deserved the honour; even to take him round the whole country before his burial. He was buried to rest in a place that befits him being a champion of democracy and multiparty rule, it is an appropriate place for him to lie in eternal life because the National Assembly is a symbol of The Gambia democracy. More to that, the place will be turned to a mausoleum and also into a visitor center like a museum/library where generation and future generations can come and pay homage to his remains and also see some of the artifacts materials which he had worked with such as his books, clothes, his papers among others. It is for people to learn about what he represented when he was alive in terms of stability, peace, rule of law and respect for human rights; the virtue which he stood for. Therefore the place is going to be more than a resting place but a place of inspiration for generation of Gambians and non-Gambians and those to visit the Gambia in future because it is a site of attraction, education and knowledge.