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‘Birth of an improbable nation’; Gambia is 53 years old

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By Mustapha Kah

On the eve of February 1965, the Union Jack of the United Kingdom was brought down and in its place was the Red, White, Blue, White and Green of the Gambian flag. On that day, an unforgettable moment was etched into the annals of Gambian history forever. A new nation was born and that country would be The Gambia. The country unlike many others on the African continent such as Guinea Bissau did not have to travel the narrow path of war. It gained independence peacefully and on the eve of independence a new wave of optimism beckoned for the small country and her people.

The Gambia’s independence saw an unprecedented wind of change which blew across the African continent. Five years before the country gained independence, seventeen countries including fourteen former French countries were decolonized. Colonialism was finally ending and The Gambia would not be left in the winds of change blowing across Africa. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah had been an inspiration to the rest of Africa when he led the Gold Coast to Africa’s first country to win self-rule.
In the celebrations marking Ghana’s liberation, Nkrumah was clear that: “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked to the total liberation of the African continent.” That speech inspired the whole continent and here in The Gambia, we would not be left out in the struggle for self-rule. Like the rest of Africa, we would demand to be the masters of our own sovereignty.

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Emancipation Struggle
The road to independence for The Gambia was smooth in many ways. One man that stands out in the struggle for Gambian freedom is Edward Francis Small. Although he is mostly forgotten as the foremost architect of our demand for self-rule, Small pioneered a struggle that led to independence in 1965.
Small was born in Bathurst, the then capital of The Gambia in 1891. He completed his Secondary Education in 1891 in Methodist High School in neighbouring Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 1910, he got a job at the Post Office, but he would not stay long in the employment. He switched jobs for some time before finding his calling as a clergyman with the Methodist Mission.

In 1917, he was posted to Ballanghar Village. While there, he was appalled at the lack of empowerment of the ordinary people. He would soon be engaged in the struggle to ensure that elective representative is given to the Gambian people in the 1920’s. His idea was that power must emanate from the government based on the consent of the people. But the British colonialists were opposed to this and would soon clash with Small.
He was invited to Gold Coast, where he took to the podium to condemn British colonialism and demand the right of the people of West Africa to be independent. The meeting was conveyed by the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA).

With these efforts, he would soon be joined by President Jawara and Pierre S. Njie amongst others. The sturdy hands of fate however, would twist the destiny of our country. Despite his pioneering of the independence struggle, he would not be elected first prime minister of The Gambia. That feat would be accorded to Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara.

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Birth of an improbable nation
In 1965, The Gambia was granted nationhood. However, the viability of the country as an independent nation was questioned in many quarters. Most observers including the British colonialists gave the country a slim chance of survival. With a small land mass, slight population and no known natural resources, many thought it would be a miracle for The Gambia to exist as a nation.

The Gambia’s small size came from arrangements made by the British and French colonialists. Just like during the partitioning of Africa in the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, no Gambian voice was present. The Anglo-French Convention of 1889, which officially established the borders between the two colonies demarcated The Gambia to the British and Senegal to the French.

It was the small nature of The Gambia that inspired the American writer, Berkeley Rice to name his book on the country “Enter Gambia – The Birth of An Improbable Nation”, published in 1967. In the book, Rice explored the difficulties faced by the country due to its small size and poor fiscal pointers.
Rice also noted that as independence dawned, various propositions were made as to the way forward. Some international political players proposed that The Gambia should form a political union with Senegal. It was thought that this would give the country the opportunity to strengthen its political and economic viability. Another more extreme view was the one held by Britain that “The Gambia would amalgamate with Senegal.” These suggestions did not hold and the country marched into independence unhindered by the challenges ahead.


Jawara becomes President
Born in May 1924, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, had the honour to lead The Gambia as first Prime Minister of the independent Gambia. He served as leader from 1962 and through his reign, the country attained a Republic status in 1970. His 30-year rule lasted until 1994, when a young lieutenant by the name of Yahya Jammeh overthrew him in a coup.

Jawara had his work cut out for him even before he became leader of the country. He took over a weak economy with some of the worst indicators. From the beginning of colonial rule, the British were not very keen on capital investments and ensuring the political and economic development of the country.
Despite its poor economic conditions exacerbated by high levels of corruption in Government, Gambia enjoyed a long spell of peace until 1981. That year remains a negative dent in the minds of many Gambians as it saw our country face its first major test for survival. A band of socialist Marxists led by dissident Kukoi Samba Sanyang unsuccessfully tried to topple the Jawara regime killing about 500 hundred people and injuring many more.

Following the rebellion, Senegal intervened to ensure peace in The Gambia. The upheaval led the leaders of Gambia and Senegal to form a brief political union called the SeneGambia confederation. The merger did not last long. In 1989, the confederation collapsed with the unilateral withdrawal of Senegalese forces.
Jawara had many shortcomings as a leader, but his most cherished legacy was the protection of human rights. He maintained the country as a beacon of peace, stability, democracy and human rights. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Gambia was just one of three multi-party democracies. The others were Senegal and Botswana. Unfortunately, this legacy would soon be tarnished by a young soldier.

Reign of terror
Five years after the breakdown of the SeneGambia political union and the withdrawal of Senegalese forces from Gambian territory, President Jawara was removed from power by Lt. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh. With his overthrow, Jawara went into exile with Jammeh criticizing the Jawara regime for excessive corruption, ineptitude and lack of development. He promised a new period of change for The Gambia.
Within the first few years, Jammeh rolled out a number of infrastructural projects. In 1999, he established the University of The Gambia, a national television station and a new airport. The UTG became the first university for the country.

Sadly, his legacy was tainted by human rights abuses. Jammeh made his disdain for freedoms known by killing, torturing and maiming many critics. Under his watch, Gambia permanently featured amongst the worst human rights violators. He also cut ties with major international partners and withdrew the country from the Commonwealth and International Criminal Court
In December 2016, he surprised many by conceding defeat to opposition leader Adama Barrow. Barrow was appointed as flag bearer by a coalition of eight parties. His concession won him international acclaim. But a week later, he changed his mind and called for fresh elections. A wave of both national and international condemnation followed suit. He left power after the West African regional group ECOWAS threatened to send troops to oust him.


Are we still an improbable nation?
With Jammeh’s departure to Equatorial Guinea, Barrow was sworn in as President on 18 February 2017 at the Independence Stadium in Bakau. Thousands thronged the stadium to witness history. But with Barrow’s ascension to power came new hopes and aspirations. Everyone expected miracles to be performed by Barrow and his team within a short time. So far no tangible successes have been registered. Last week, Barrow launched a blueprint to spell out his development objectives for the country in the years ahead.
Perhaps as we celebrate another independence anniversary on Sunday 18 February 2018, we need to seriously reflect on our journey so far. The truth is that most of the issues that led to the view that we are an improbable nation have not changed much. Poverty is more pervasive today that it was during the eve of our nationhood.

In her book, Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian economist of international repute criticized international aid for thwarting African development by perpetuating a cycle of dependence, corruption and nepotism. This fate may have afflicted The Gambia. Since 1965, The Gambia has been indebted to the tune of more than a billion dollars. The foreign aid received by the country has not been utilized for the benefit of our people. In addition, instead of aid helping us to be self-sufficient, it has made us a more aid dependent.
Ironically, some of the countries that we today look up like Singapore were worse than The Gambia in 1965. The country gained independence in the same year as Singapore, but the Asian country has advanced far ahead of us and is today a first world country. Why has this happened? Many factors are responsible for this. The primary reason for Singapore’s advancement is that they had a leadership at independence that understood the people’s social needs and provided the vision to achieve it.
Even without much mineral resources, the Singapore leaders’ built a country that is able to provide for the needs of its present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Our leaders must ensure that our people do not continue to wallow in wanton poverty. We must invest in our people and build a society that works for all regardless of ethnic group, religious affiliation, social class and gender.
Maudo Jallow suggest that to move the country forward, there is need for us to explore and use The Gambia’s strategic location to become a logistics, transportation and re-exportation hub for West Africa. This requires long term investments in our roads, airports, ports, ferries and bridges.

Secondly, he advised that we must intelligently work to attract the right kind of investment in sectors that are key for structural transformation – agriculture, manufacturing, health, education and infrastructure. In order to do this, the government must invest in building an educated, healthy and disciplined workforce, create a favorable macroeconomic environment, secure modern technology, and implement a beneficial tax system and business-friendly legal structure.

The development economist further suggested that “the social and behavioral aspect of development cannot be ignored. We must work, as a nation, to discourage and punish misbehavior – just because we have democracy does not mean we should be reckless or unruly. It is imperative that our mindsets and attitudes, especially towards work, are drastically transformed.”
Finally, he maintained that civil service reform should be a top priority of the current government – most of the people in key positions lack the integrity, skills and vision to implement development. In addition to this, many of the technocrats “were never empowered to challenge decisions, analyze alternative policy options, or refuse to take instructions from former President Yahya Jammeh.” We need new, dynamic and critical minds in the government.


Mustapha is a social and current affairs commentator from The Gambia

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