By Tabora Bojang
As the nation continues to mourn the passing away of Sir Dawda Jawara, The Gambia’s first president, The Standard’s Tabora Bojang sat down with Bakary Bunja Dabo, who served as a vice president under Jawara for a decade and asked him first, how he made the acquaintance of Sir Dawda?
BB Dabo: Well the first time I got near the person of Sir Dawda was in Dumbuto when he was the director of veterinary service.
Then I was too young to understand much.
What I remembered was that my family did cattle rearing as one of our activities.
The tradition of the family was that male members of the family start their contribution to the family work by attending to the cattle, even before going into farming.
So it was early, may be around six or seven years when I started.
There was always an elder brother or a shepherd but I would go along with them.
I recall the first time I set my eyes on Sir Dawda was when there was a major outbreak of a cattle disease.
He visited Kiang Dumbuto and I recall him arriving on a very hot afternoon in a Kit car with some junior staff.
He went to the alkalo and my family was contacted to bring some cattle for him to examine.
We took a few cattle and he inspected them and attended to them.
I never heard of his name until when I heard some elders including my brother say he was from the provinces and was the son of Almamy Jawara. I
t struck me that this provincial fellow must have had good education, which was a rare opportunity at that time.
It was well before 1958 because I went to Banjul in 1958.
You went to Banjul, one thing led to another and eventually you joined the PPP. Please explain.
From then on, I kept on hearing his [Jawara’s] name but did not have the opportunity to be near him until when I went to stay with Uncle Sanjally Bojang who was my guardian [in Banjul].
It was during that time that the PPP was formed as a political party with Pa Sanjally Bojang as not only the party national president but also the chief financier and the real power behind the PPP.
His face was better known than even Jawara at the time. Jawara and the members of the party will usually meet on Sundays and hold meetings in his house.
For me and some of his children at the time, our role was fetching water for the visitors and running little errands.
Apart from their weekly meetings, there were occasions during weekdays when upon closing from work he would come to the house to consult with Pa Sanjally on party matters.
I remember more than one occasion those visits would coincide with the end of term and Pa Sanjally would take pride in asking me and some of his sons to show our school reports to Jawara to read.
At the time Western education was still a rare thing. He would read my report and comment, “well done”.
Up until I finished school, that was the extent of contacts.
I was at Sanjally’s house during the independence struggle, so naturally I very much involved in following developments of the PPP but I did not get into close contact with him [Jawara] until 1967.
When I completed my undergraduate course at university and I returned and joined the government as an administrative officer and was sent to Basse as an assistant commissioner, during my ten months there, Jawara came for an official visit two times and during those occasions, I would meet him officially as his host being the assistant to the commissioner.
Ten months later, I was recalled from Basse and posted as an assistant secretary to the Prime Minister’s Office where Jawara was in charge.
Under the structure, there was a permanent secretary to the prime minister; under the PS, you have the principal assistant secretary who had about four or five of us as assistant secretaries dealing with different works.
That brought me physically close to Sir Dawda because we were working in the same office. From there my next posting was the Foreign Ministry where my work entailed supporting meetings between The Gambia and foreign officials.
In 1970, I was sent back to Kerewan as commissioner where I hosted him several times. From Kerewan I was brought back to the ministry and from there I went to the bank and occasionally he would call for me on some matters concerning the bank.
In 1979 I was recalled to the Foreign Ministry and he personally received me and said to me “we decided to deploy you as an ambassador to Senegal”.
Now, it is in the role of ambassador that I had a closer personal contact with him on a sustained basis. I took my first PPP membership card in 1979 just shortly after I was appointed ambassador.
From the time the party was created around 1958 to 1959 I was kind of a sympathiser because if you are raised in Sanjally’s house you have the PPP in your blood but I did not take out formal membership. Before 1979, a party congress was coming and there was a drive to make some people join the party and so I took out a membership card.
I was in Dakar for two-and-a-half years and I was recalled and nominated as a member of parliament and appointed minister. As a member of parliament and minister, I automatically became an ex-officio member of the central committee of the party consisting of all members of parliament from the party.
Six or eight months later, the country was to go to parliamentary elections and I decided that I would ask the party to sponsor me as candidate for Western Kiang because the people of that constituency had been after me from 1968 when the sitting MP Hamang Kanyi died suddenly.
To replace him, there was to be a by-election and a big delegation from Kiang came after me wanting me to offer myself as candidate but I could not because I was not even registered as a voter then.
That was one year after I came from studies and I did not register.
In 1972, there was to be parliamentary elections and again they came after me and I resisted because following Hamang Kanyi’s death when I could not apply they had selected somebody as his replacement and I did not think it was proper to say to him step down because that would cause a lot of instability, so I did not go.
For the 1977 elections, they came and I did not go but by 1982, without even their involvement, Sir Dawda had nominated me to become a member of parliament and minister.
While serving as ambassador in Senegal, what role did you play in getting Senegal to intervene to quash Kukoi’s 1981 coup?
As ambassador, you are both a diplomat and a representative. In diplomacy, you can be asked to undertake missions that will improve the relations of your country with the country to which you are sent as an ambassador.
As a representative you speak for your country on a given issue and facilitate contacts.
For this unfortunate incident, I saw myself as playing my role of ambassador representing The Gambia.
The incident was a serious national crisis, and what I did was a representational work of an ambassador, and it was necessary for me to represent my country with Senegal in handling that crisis.
Firstly, because Sir Dawda was in the UK when the incident took place and secondly, it was unusual… nothing like that ever happened. During those days even a telephone contact was very difficult.
The first thing that threw me in was the need to help in establishing contact between him in the UK and the government in Banjul.
I first heard the news over the radio and heard Kukoi ranting a lot of crazy things and suddenly I realised there was trouble for my country.
I contacted the foreign minister and the vice president to know what directives they wanted to give me but I could not get them.
While I was desperately trying to call them, Sir Dawda called me from London and said he heard the news but his main problem was that he could not reach the vice president in Banjul and asked me to try to call him by another route.
I told him that I had also tried to call him [the vice
president] but could not get through, and he told me they were at the Banjul Police Station.
I called the station and talked to the vice president and told him that Sir Dawda was keenly trying to call him but could not get to him, he told me he did speak to Sir Dawda and things were under control and they are going to have to ask Senegal to help under the defence agreement.
He told me to stand by and they will keep me informed.
I called Sir Dawda back and he told me they have agreed to invoke the defence agreement so that Senegal can come and help and a letter was being prepared to be handed over to the Senegalese Ambassador in Banjul who will then communicate it to his government. Sir Dawda asked me to be involved and shortly after, I contacted the Foreign Minister of Senegal and he said, “Oh, we have been looking for you.
Where are you Bakary?” I told him I was in my office. By then the Senegalese ambassador had told him to tell the President of Senegal that The Gambia was preparing a written request for the defence agreement to be invoked but since time was of the essence, I was called to be there with the Defence Minister and the general staff to speak on the radio with their ambassador in Banjul so that the ambassador could tell them what is the atmosphere like on the streets of Banjul and to find out from him and me what is the terrain like because they did not understand the country.
The ambassador was talking over the radio and we could all hear him saying the situation was very bad that he was in his office but when he stepped out he saw dead bodies and young boys who appeared drunken carrying guns.
I explained the locations and distances of the Fajara and the Yundum Barracks to Banjul and other information relevant for the military to come in because they had no idea of what they were going into.
They drew out an intervention plan which was approved by the president.
I was called to report to the presidency and was informed by the president that they have received the request and have accepted to intervene.
He made it very clear to me that they are quite convinced there is a case for Senegal to intervene and that they will intervene with determination so that I can assure Sir Dawda that they have accepted.
I went to my office and called Sir Dawda in London and conveyed the message to him. I called Banjul and told the same thing to the vice president.
Sir Dawda arrived in Dakar a little less than 24 hours the next day and by the time he arrived the military had intervened, some entered through Giboro, Farafenni, Basse and some were dropped by the plane around Jamburr area. Sir Dawda then began to take control of the situation.
He had to go on the radio to reassure the people in the country that he was in Senegal and had found plans to deal with the situation and he knew what they were going through.
He expressed sympathy and advised family heads to keep their children out of trouble.
He also talked to Kukoi and his people that what they have done is very serious but assured them that if they stopped fighting and laid down their weapons he would see to it that they are not dealt with outside the law.
He told them to stop killing people after creating a lot of harm already.
That was the sense of his broadcast, which he did two more times. My role was to help him since he was only there [Dakar] with his wife and chief of protocol.
I was helping in writing the speeches and arranging the radios and the television to broadcast his speeches. In the mean time, actions continued on the ground and by the third day, we were able to flush out the rebels and they ended up in Fajara Barracks and neighbouring areas and Bakau and resorted to hostage taking including Sir Dawda’s wife and children.
That is what protracted it for another day but fortunately I was told that the British were going to help but what kind of help I did not know but it turned out to be the help of two special service men who quickly went into action and camouflaged as doctors of the MRC and when Sir Dawda’s children fell ill over night they brought them to MRC and these people managed to overcome the guards and freed Lady Chilel and the children.
My role was to do everything I could to represent my country and to facilitate contacts. Then from time they moved away, the operation changed in character.
For those of them who fled to Senegal, I was there as the ambassador to help the police identify them.
If they catch somebody, they would not know whether he is a Senegalese or a Gambian so I would be called to help identify them.
The way it worked was that the IGP in The Gambia would tell them that from intelligence, he understood Gambian so and so was in Dakar and he sometimes may have an idea where he was.
The military and the gendarmerie all had liaison officers working with me. Some key rebels ran away to the south [Casamance] but their suspected sympathisers such as [Ousman] Pap Cheyassin Secka was caught in Dakar.
In the general elections that followed, in 1982, you entered cabinet eventually becoming the vice president. Was this compensation for the role you played in the 1981?
I told you what I did there was my duty as ambassador and as an ambassador, you have a representational duty and so whether I performed it very well or not that is for others to say.
I do not want to beat my chest or blow my own trumpet. What happened was that the coup attempt was by the end of July and by September the president made a minor cabinet reshuffle and I was nominated member of parliament and appointed minister of information and tourism.
The tourism sector was dying because the coup attempt brought fear and uncertainty in the country. This was the tail end of 1982 so my role was to revive the sector and assure the operators that what happened was an accident and we have the situation well under control and I did succeed largely, a lot of tourists came back.
This is not a form of compensation, it is entirely the discretion of the president who he appoints but I would like to hope that when he appointed me vice president after the elections, it was because he thought I was suitable for the job not that he owed me anything. What I did was just my job.
I never had the idea that he owed me any particular obligation and I did not see it as a compensation at all.
I thought in his own judgement he had sat and thought and reflected that the position of vice president was one I could shoulder based on what he might have recognised as my skills, my competence, my education or whatever consideration… is entirely the discretion of the former president and he did not have to explain it to anybody and I did not ask him.
In December 1991, there was a PPP congress held in Mansakonko where Jawara announced his intention to step down. It was reported that you were one of the people who did not beg him to continue and some say that led to your demotion in cabinet. What was your position concerning his announced plan to step down?
It is true that at that congress which followed the standard programme, the president gave his report and it was considered. Being the party treasurer, I also gave my report on the financial situation of the party and they listened to it and said I had done well.
The last item on the agenda was to elect party officials whose mandates elapsed. The first officer we elected was the party leader and the secretary general Sir Dawda and this was unanimously accepted.
But before moving into other positions when they clapped for the president, he stood and said: “Thank you for your confidence, I am very much appreciative, since 1959 any time we have a congress you come forward and renew your confidence in me, thank you very much.”
Then he said: “Know that we are in December and in three or four months down the line, we are going to have another presidential election, this time around I would not want to be nominated as a candidate for the party.” Jawara did not say he was stepping down but he said he would not want to be nominated as the party candidate for the presidency and gave a reasonable notice.
But then that part was what some people in the crowd reacted to “No”, “No!!” Some cried and clamoured, “Please don’t go! Don’t go!” Then he stood up again and said, “Well I think we should be reasonable, if it was the civil service I would have long retired so if I want to leave now you must understand that with age I should leave and secondly some of you are saying without me the country cannot go… no we are working as a team and even if I am away the team will continue.”
But still there was a lot of noise, a motion was moved to appeal to the president to rescind his plans which was seconded. Personally, I said nothing. My feeling was that if Sir Dawda changed his mind and wanted to go, I saw nothing wrong with it because it would offer an opportunity to our party to manage what they called a transition from one leader to another. That was an opportunity to us as leaders to challenge ourselves, look within ourselves, and select somebody.
I had strong views about the sincerity of most of us who were shouting, I don’t think they were concerned about the party or the country but themselves or may be some felt that if Sir Dawda was not there it would be X, Y or Z who should be there and I don’t like them. That is human nature for me.
What is important is that the party leader has a responsibility towards the party and the country. If they are confronted with a situation where the president says he is leaving, they should handle it courageously but they ran away from it.
So that is what I regret but for me I didn’t say anything and at the end of the day after weeks or so, the president said he would continue to stay. He has offered a chance to the party leadership to rise up to the challenge and manage the situation but we ran away.
Given my position as the vice president and in the thinking of some people, the person most likely to succeed him was I, so I knew that whatever I say might be misconstrued as if I am following my personal ambition so it was not proper for me to speak.
The vice president is the most senior assistant to the president and that does not guarantee that he is the heir apparent.
What did you learn from Jawara working under him?
Quite a lot because when I started working under him as an assistant secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office you learn a lot from a man like him. You are impressed by his sense of duty, his commitment to his work, the diligence with which he comported himself. He is not the type who would run away from work.
There were times with Yahya Jammeh he would stay in bed past 12 o’clock. Not with Jawara. Throughout, he would go to work latest 8.30 and he would work full day while already in his seventies.
He was very sincere and committed to his work and had a very keen sense of duty that was demonstrated by the way he dealt with matters.
I have never referred a matter to him however delicate and he dodged it. If he realised that this is a matter for him to decide he would decide easy or not.
I also learnt from him that he is a man who has a very keen sense of justice and fair play. He never looked out for persons close or related to him in public appointments.
He was at the same time very compassionate and took no interest in being cruel. Most importantly, what impressed me is that he had a very strong passion for helping the people of this county particularly the farmers and the poor.
He had serious abiding interest in their well-being.
Now you are on the verge of creating a new political party, would this not amount to be a betrayal of the PPP and Jawara’s legacy?
In the first place, what we have as a project is not to set up my own party but I am part of a project to set up a party.
It is a whole group of people whose thinking are similar and I am part of that, so it is not my party. I do agree that the media likes shortcuts.
There is no question of betraying the party I belong to which is the PPP.
What happens is that there is an internal dispute which happens in parties, except that this one is a major dispute and we could not resolve it through mediation because the matter is in court.
While it is going to court it is difficult for any of the two factions to be effective on the ground. Unfortunately, a court case is not in your hands and it can go on and on so we don’t know when it is going to end.
So some of us who felt that with politics you cannot wait for too long decided to form a new party, but there is a difference between the substance and the name of the party. You can have the name and have the substance which consists of the ideas the party stands for, its philosophy and people the name does not matter.
The people behind the formation of the party are broadly the substance of the PPP because we constitute the vast majority of the party.
So we can change the name. It does not matter.
The PPP itself changed its name from the Protectorate People’s Party to the People’s Progressive Party.
So it does not matter, the essence and the values are the same. So those who do not know may jump to facile conclusions like betrayal, what are you betraying? We are sticking to the values, and the principles and the convictions of the party [PPP].