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Gambia: The road to independence and emergence of trade unions and political parties

Edward Francis Small

Edward Francis Small was born in Bathurst in January 1891. He completed his education at the Methodist Boys High School in Freetown and started work there in the Freetown post office in 1910. He then held a series of clerical jobs in both Freetown and Bathurst before finally becoming a teacher in Bathurst in 1915.

While a teacher, Small decided to become a clergyman in the Methodist Mission. In 1917, he was sent to Ballanghar to serve a probationary period as agent of the Methodist Mission, but within eighteen months he was dismissed from the mission employment. Small’s dismissal followed what has been referred to as the Ballanghar Incident. On New Year eve in 1918 Small ordered the bell on the mission chapel at Ballanghar to be tolled heralding the annual watch night service. The sound disturbed James Walker, a European trader living in town. An argument developed between Small and Walker and the two men came to blows. This “Ballanghar Incident” was to serve as the starting point for political career of Edward Francis Small.

The incident assumed a more serious dimension when Small first complained to the traveling commissioner, Mr JL McCallum and then after McCallum had held him responsible for the incident, denounced the commissioner’s conduct. The commissioner insisted on the removal of Small from Ballanghar. Under pressure from The Gambia Colonial Government, Rev PS Toys, the chairman of the Gambia District of the Wesleyan Methodist Church and withdrew Small to Sukuta. Small represented the treatment he received from the church and proceeded to criticise   Rev Toys openly and was consequently dismissed from mission employment.


The National of British West Africa (NCBWA)

In early 1917, Small together with other discontented members of the Aku community founded the Gambia Native Defensive Union (GNDU). Membership of GNDU included clerks and agents of trading firms who attacked what they called “blatant” flaws in the administration of the central government.

Meanwhile, in the other British West African colonies, preparations were being finalised for a conference of educated West Africans to take place in the then Gold Coast. Since the organisers of the conference wished all four British West African colonies to be represented, support was sought in The Gambia and Small was able to convert the GNDU into the conference’s fund raising committee in Bathurst. Enough money was raised for one Gambian delegate to attend and Small as the secretary of the fund raising committee was selected to represent The Gambia.

At the conference held in Accra in March 1920, Small who was one of the eleven principal speakers, delivered a paper on the right of West Africans to self-determination. The Accra conference resolves itself as the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA). Small arrived back in Bathurst in May 1920 and within a short time established The Gambia section of the NCBWA and became its secretary.

Edward Small was also a pioneer Gambian journalist in the 1920s and he published and edited The Gambia Outlook and Senegambia Reporter producing his first edition in Dakar. As a journalist, Small established a tradition of critical and independent political journalism in the country. He always took up issues of concern to the people of Bathurst in the pages of The Gambia Outlook and was also quite prepared to criticise government policy.


The Bathurst Trade Union (BTU)

In 1929, Edward Small founded the first Gambia trade union, the Bathurst Trade Union (BTU). Although the activities of the union did not extend beyond the colony area, it was strong enough to organise the first strike in Gambian history in 1929, making one of the most successful stikes in Africa before the Second World War.


The Rate Payers Association

By the early 1930s, Small was again in the thick of politics as the leader of Rate Payers Association (RPA), the first quasi-political party in The Gambia. The RPA was said to be founded by RS Rendall, a retired Aku civil servant in July 1932, but was led and controlled by Edward Small through an informal political organisation he had founded in 1931, the Committee of Citizens.

The RPA was designed to serve as a liaison between the people of the colony and the colonial government and to provide a pool of interest men to stand election for the Bathurst Urban District Council (BUDC) established in 1930. The BUDC was reconstituted as the Bathurst Advisory Town Council (BATC) in 1935. In the first BATC election in 1936, the RPA won all six seats open to Africans. This marked the beginning of the RPA’s dominance of Bathurst politics.

Even though the RPA became the leading political organisation in Bathurst in the mid-1930s, its influence even over municipal affairs was limited. This was mainly because BATC purely advisory role. Despite limited functions, the BATC served as the training ground for The Gambia’s first political leaders. The council gained one important achievement when it secured Small’s appointment to the Legislative Council in January 1942.

Edward Small went on to represent the Municipal Council in the legislative council between 1942 and 1947. When the elective principal was first introduced for the legislative council in 1947, Small became the first Gambian to win a popular vote. Sponsored by his labour union Small defeated Sheikh Omar Faye and IM Garba Jahumpa  and became the elected representative for Banjul and the Kombo areas in  the Legislative Council.

Edward Francis Small will be remembered as the founder of the Gambia branch of the National Congress of British West Africa, the first Gambian to be directly elected to the Legislative Council and the first to be appointed to the Executive Council. He was also the driving force behind the Bathurst Rate Payers Association which dominated the politics of Bathurst in the 1930s and 1940s. He founded the first Gambian trade union and created the modern Gambian press.

Small continued to play an important role as a political activist, trade unionist and journalist for Gambian and non-Gambian movement until his death in January 1958.


The Gambia Workers Union

Trade unionism in The Gambia reached its high point with the formation of The Gambia Workers Union in 1959. The union was the handiwork of ME Jallow popularly knowns as “Jallow-Jallow”. Jallow’s union was to organise a strike in 1960 that was successful not only in the colony, but throughout the country making the most serious labour unrest in the country’s history.

Coming as it does just before the 1960 constitution crisis, to be discussed later, the 1960 strike contributed in the colonial government’s decision to grant the Gambia internal self-government. Indeed Jallow Jallow served as a delegate to the Banjul and London Constitutional Conferences in 1961 which led to the adoption of the 1962 constitution.


The birth of Labour Department

Much has been said about trade union activities and the employers in The Gambia since 1920s. It is of paramount importance at this point to give brief background to the institution and related machinery responsible for labour matters.

The Department of Labour existed in The Gambia in 1940s and it was headed by Mr David Baracks. 


The administrative arrangement of labour and social welfare

The issuance of labour cards and ILO matters (i.e conventions) were some of the primary functions of the department. Certainly, the historical perspective of this government agency would be incomplete if reference is not made to the contributions made by some of the pioneers in the developmet of labour administration in The Gambia, namely the late Sam Silva, ED Njie and subsequently Mr SO Koku.

It would be recalled that the labour union which was headed by Mr Francis Small was actually the most active then followed by the Gambia Workers Union founded in 1958 and headed by Mr ME Jallow.

1960 has been a historical landmark in terms of labour relations in The Gambia in that 1960 strike staged by the Gambia Workers Union under the leadership of the late Mr ME Jallow ushered in the famous Panda & Lewis Commission. 

The report of the commission investigated the basic terms and conditions of service of daily rated in The Gambia. These are the main features.

1. Industrial organisation

Government was the largest single employer of labour in The Gambia. However other employers include the Chamber of Commerce, the Gambia Oil Seeds Marketing Board, the Bathurst Town Council, and the Motor Transport Service Association. There has been no coordination between government departments with regard to terms and conditions of employment of established staff with the resultant effect that persons of the same skills are paid varying rates of pay within departments and also between departments.

2. It was felt that organisation should be based on industries rather than on individual employers or department. The commission noted that government who used to determined minimum terms and conditions of employment for workers can only be a party to the determination especially when a wage negotiating machinery is established.

3. Trade union organisation

The commission had received memoranda from two trade unions and two employers associations. They were:

a. Trade unions

I. The Gambia Labour Union registered in 1935, but in existence since 1929. This union was affiliated to the International Confederation of Free Trade Union (ICFTU).

II. The Gambia Workers Union registered in 1958.

b. Employers Association

I. The Chamber of Commerce

II. The Motor Transport Services Association


4. Joint consultation

In the absence of any joint consultation industry in The Gambia, the establishment of works committee was recommended.

5. Wage negotiation machinery

No wage boards existed. But upon agreement by both workers and employers on the needs for all matters relating to wage rates and conditions of employment to be settled by agreement between the parties, the setting up of joint industrial councils to cover the following  industries was therefore recommended:

I. Artisans and general workers

II. Transport industry

III. Commerce

IV. Port industry

In 1962, a Ministry of Labour was created and Honourable Yusupha Samba became the minister. The Labour Ordinance was eventually replaced with the Labour Act, Cap 100 of the Laws of The Gambia, and in 1990 the Labour Act was enacted and in 2007 the current Act was enacted.

1. On 10 August 1994, the president Rtd Colonel Alhaji Yaya AJJ Jammeh invited the unions in The Gambia following which he promised us to be a development partner and advised all unions to form one united Gambian labour movement, which will serve as a medium for communication between government and labour movement.

2. Secondly, Hon John P Bojang summoned a meeting with all unions in order to work along with us to establish one united Gambian labour movement. Unfortunately he was transferred and replaced by Hon Balla Garba Jahumpa who continued the course with us on the 19  April 1995 and the Gambia National Workers Unity Steering Committee was formed by nine unions.

3. On 1 of May, 1995 known as workers day, Hon Balla Garba Jahumpa and his staff celebrated along with the steering committee this great universal day and delivered an encouraging labour speech in promoting and protecting the dignity of the working man. In his budget speech of 1996 he also recognised the Gambian workers unity.


Alhaji Ebou C Faal was born in Banjul on 21 June 1934. He is a unionist and a politician. He is the president of the Gambia Commercial Transport Union and a member of the Labour Advisory Board was until recently a member of the Industrial Tribunal.


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