Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara (1924-2019), FRCVS: the Scientist-President

Sep 10, 2020, 1:23 PM | Article By: Hassoum Ceesay, The Gambia National Museum, Banjul


One year since his demise, Gambians continue to pay homage to our elected Founding Father, as a democrat and champion of human rights and Gambians’ physical dignity. In the past 26 years, I have worked in the archives and has seen and read a lot about Jawara’s political career as Founder of the PPP(1959); Education Minister(1960-1961); Leader of the Opposition(1961-1962); Premier(1962-1963); Prime Minister(1963-1970) and President of The Republic of The Gambia(1970-1994). This illustrious route has helped to put Jawara at the centre of Gambian political history. Future generations will surely remember him for this long record of selfless service to his people. I have been interviewed, and have written on this well known aspect of Jawara’s life.

In this article, however, I want to focus on a little known trajectory of Jawara’s life which we must no longer ignore or relegate to the endnotes, if we wish to really know why Jawara was a successful political leader: his scientific life. I want to dedicate the next 1000 words on this little discussed side of Jawara.

Jawara, FRCVS

Jawara’s scientific life began at the prestigious Methodist Boys High School in Bathurst, where he gained his Cambridge Certificate in 1942 in the Sciences, and worked as a Dresser at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Bathurst. This was meant to prepare him for a career in the Sciences. In 1945, he proceeded to Achimota College, another prestigious institution in Gold Coast to do his premed courses. In 1948, he matriculated into the prestigious Glasgow University School of Veterinary Medicine as the First African student. This institution was founded in 1862, and has always ranked as the best veterinary college in the UK.

At Glasgow, Jawara had to pass compulsory courses in biochemistry, physics, chemistry, math for him to proceed into his second year. He passed with flying colours in these basic scientific subjects.

In 1953, Jawara attained his BVSC degree in high mention and returned home to begin his career as a veterinary surgeon or cow doctor. He arrived in the midst of a rinderpest pandemic which threatened to wipe out the entire Gambian cattle population. In parts of the Maccarthy Island Division, 78 per cent of cattle perished. Jawara, with assistants like Kaikai Sanyang, toured the country in 1953 and 1954 to put down the pandemic. They succeeded in stifling the rinderpest, and saved multitudes of Gambian herds. Mr. Sanyang who died in Brikama last year told me in an interview in 2014 how they managed to keep the vaccines in good order despite lack of ice block. ‘Now there is not a cow that does not know me personally in The Gambia’, Jawara happily told a friend after that successful anti-pandemic campaign.

In 1955, Jawara went to do his post graduate course in Tropical Veterinary Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He returned home in 1957, and was promoted Principal Veterinary Officer, the first Gambian to attain this rank. He was more qualified than his British boss, but because of colonial racism, he must have a lesser qualified dude as boss. In late 1959, Jawara completed his resignation formalities from The Gambia Civil Service to join politics.

In 1967, Jawara became a founding member, and later Patron, of the Commonwealth Veterinary Association. For many years, he served also as President of the Association.  He also served in the Scientific Committee of the Association. His task included peer reviewing scientific articles submitted for publications into the Association’s highly respected and cited Journal called JVCA.

In 1969, as Prime Minister, another rinderpest outbreak hit The Gambia. Jawara again put on his veterinarian’s coat and toured the country inoculating cows. There is a famous photo of him driving a needle into the nape of a cow at Jokadu to kick start the inoculation campaign.

In 1988, in recognition of his services to veterinary science and medicine, Jawara was inducted as a Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (FRCVS) in July 1988. The FRCVS was founded in 1844 as the Regulatory organ of veterinary work in the UK. Being a Fellow is the apotheosis of scientific recognition among veterinarians.

Over decades, Jawara had declined an Honorary Fellow or Associate  of  the Royal College. He insisted on his membership be adjudged on its merit of scientific publications, engagements and community service. In a front page banner headline, The Gambia Onward newspaper of 11 July 1988 stated: ‘Sir Dawda Now A Fellow’. The story went on to say that Jawara’s ascension to a FRCVS ‘is the highest honour in the veterinary profession… and is a major achievement in the interest of the veterinary profession and livestock industry’.

Professor Vaughan, the President of the College in his Citation, stated that ‘during his long period of high office, Sir Dawda never lost touch with the veterinary field…. and has maintained keen interest and involvement with, the promotion of animal health and production’. Professor Vaughan also mentioned the creation of the ITC as another indication of Jawara’s continued interest in veterinary science.

Jawara created ITC

In 1982, Jawara helped to found the International Trypanotolerant Centre(ITC) at Bijilo in The Gambia as a tool for regional cooperation in livestock in West Africa. He wrote the scientific proposal before asking the Civil Servants to put the needed policy ideas into it. He then asked his old teacher at Edinburgh, Dr. Mortelsmann, to assist secure funding for the new institution. The ITC has helped to develop the Ndama cattle, resistant to sleeping sickness, a major success story in livestock development in Africa. Jawara delivered scientific papers at several ITC Conferences.

Jawara as Visiting Professor of Veterinary Science

In May 1989, Jawara’s scientific career was capped with a Poppensiek Visiting Professor in International Veterinary Medicine at the Ivy League Cornell University in USA. According to the Cornell Chronicle newspaper dated 4 May 1989, ‘this was an appointment rare in international diplomacy’. Jawara presented a scientific paper titled ‘Animal Diseases as a Factor in Limiting Economic Development in Africa’.

In this well argued paper, replete with citations and notes, Jawara argued that one of the causes for underdevelopment in Africa was the neglect of livestock sector and the rampant diseases which afflict the livestock populations on the continent. He argued that corruption, resources exploitation and bad leadership are bad for African development, but also are the many diseases that decimate the livestock population. After the presentation, he got a standing ovation from the assembled faculty. Jawara spent two days lecturing post graduate students at Cornell on topics like: Cattle: Bovine Nutrition; Cattle: Bovine Reproduction and Cattle: Mastitis and Lameness. His paper was published as a scientific paper in 1990 in a peer reviewed journal called Cornell Veterinarian, Issue Vol.80, pages 17-25.


Jawara therefore maintained a solid scientific career even as President of our great Republic; like Nkrumah and Nyerere and Senghor of Senegal who were able to be political leaders and yet maintained rigorous academic lives. As a historian, I want to draw three lessons how Jawara’s scientific life complemented his political life.

First, it brought rationality in his governance style. Civil Servants who worked with him for example, remember how he insisted on evidence on the table, irrefutable evidence I mean, before taking decisions. His high score on upholding the Rule of Law can be attributed to the scientist in him that put premium on tangible evidence as the core of any human action. I will illustrate this with one example.

At one of his regular news conferences with the Banjul Press in early 1980s, Mr. Dixon-Colley, the consistent editor of The Nation asked Jawara about corruption at The Gambia Cooperatives Union. ‘Well, whenever you come here, you ask me about corruption here and there. Bring me the evidence. I will send it to the Police and they will do their work. Because we see a Gambian building a house or riding a new car, we say corruption? Bring the evidence, we will act. That is how we run this country,’ Jawara retorted. Dixon-Colley persisted and reframed his question still talking about corruption. Now, Jawara was getting agitated. The newly appointed Press Officer at OP, J. Saidy cut in and asked Baboucarr Gaye of AP to ask the next question. (Aptly, Baboucarr’s question was on Jawara’s impending visit to Baghdad to meet with the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, and thence to Tehran to meet the Mullah of the Iranian Revolution Ayatollah Khomenei. Jawara was sent by the OIC to bring an end to the notorious Iran-Iraq war)

Second, Jawara legendary respect for human dignity can be linked to his professional calling ‘to protect animal health, relief suffering and promote public welfare’ as stated in the Oath of Veterinarians. Jawara respected the wholesomeness of the Gambian dignity and body just as his calling as a veterinarian required not to inflict pain and torture but to sooth.

Finally, Jawara’s work as a scientist also made him to be tolerant and democratic. Scientists, like all academics, feed on peer review, debate and healthy exchange of ideas in order to be able to publish research. Criticisms make academics/scientists grow. Tolerance of peers’ opinions, even if you do not agree, is a hallmark of a scientist.

All told, therefore, Jawara was a fine scientist who became a great political leader of our Republic. This is why I want to call him the Scientist-President.

Hassoum Ceesay, The Gambia National Museum, Banjul.