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Monday, September 21, 2020

Hassoum Ceesay A prominent Gambian historian and writer

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We have to understand that we got our independence from Great Britain on 18 February 1965, but the struggle began long before that. So, we have to pay tribute to the people we call the proto-nationalist; these were the people who have first raised their hands against colonial rule. I am talking about Foday Kabba, who resisted the colonial rule in the Fonis, and Foday Sillah who resisted colonial rule in the Kombos. These are the earliest resistance leaders who have decided, at a very early stage, to oppose colonial rule. Another example is Kay Luntang Camara, the king of Niani. He defeated the British at the battle of Nunku Seeh, in 1834. So, these are the people who prepared the stage for the future nationalists, who would salvage the country from colonial bondage.

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During colonial rule, there was never a time when the colonial masters were able to sleep because they knew that they were imposing their wills on people who used to be free. So, that is why the second characteristic of colonial rule is repression through the laws. The colonialists had, for example, instituted laws they called ordinances and one of those laws had been imposed to prevent Gambians from owning river boats. River boats were so important at the time because river transport was the only means of transport. This was back in the 1920s. So, colonial repression was in the form of both repressive laws and repressive security apparatus. There were security men who were not answerable to anybody. They called these security men The Gambia Regiment. Another nature of colonial rule was arrogance because the system itself was based on arrogance. The colonialists thought that they know all that the people wanted and that they know the best for the people, which was why there was never a need for any consultation. That is what brought to surface this term call colonial arrogance. They made the laws in England and imposed them on the people here. 

No matter the circumstances or the context, these laws were enforced to the latter. Discrimination is the fourth characteristic because the colonial rule was by nature discriminatory. For example, the people in Bathurst now called Banjul were colonial subjects and they were protected by the British law. At the same time, the people in Barra just across the river, are called the colonial protected people. They are not subjects or citizens, but colonial protected people. This means that the people in the protectorate are subjected to what they called customary law. They can only go to the chiefs and the village heads if they have any disputes.

Is this the divide-and-rule system?

Yes, that is the right term. And, the funny thing is that they were also paying taxes. The protectorates paid taxes just like the people in Bathurst, but they are subjected to different laws. That is why I said that the very nature of colonial rule itself made it vulnerable to dissent. So, because of all the four of these characteristics I have named and a lot more, as time went on, some of the educated elites decided to set up revolt. They argued that colonialism is a system which is not to our interest, but rather to the interest of the colonial masters. We paid taxes yet our rights were violated, we are under-represented and we cannot attain good education in our country. Because in those days, for you to reach high school, you will have to go to Sierra Leone and you can imagine the fewer number of people who could afford that at that time. In fact, the whole idea of education was left to the Anglican and Methodist missions.

Some of the elites, like Edward Francis Small, who was a journalist and a trade unionist, decided that we have to start opposing the colonial system. He decided to use the newspaper. That is why I think the role of the newspaper in liberating The Gambia from colonial rule should be highlighted because the press played a very important part of the struggle for independence. Small edited a paper called The Gambia Outlook and Senegambia Reporter. This was a very anti-colonial paper, though very few people read it due to the high level of illiteracy in the country. But the few readerships made a huge impact. They have exposed how exploitative the system was.

So the journalists were instrumental in liberating The Gambia?

That is why I said their role should be reassessed and maybe, you journalists should do more research on the important role that the media played in the battle for independence. I am talking about newspapers like The Gambia Echo, The Gambia Outlook, Senegambia Reporter, The Vanguard, The Gambia Public Opinion et cetera. These were all newspapers published in Bathurst by Gambians and they helped to mobilised public opinion against colonial rule. It is unfortunate that when we talk about anti-colonial movements in The Gambia, we only talk about politicians like PS Njie, Garba Jahumpa, Kairaba Jawara, Reverend JC Faye, Kebba Wally Foon, St Clare Joof and so on. These politicians played a significant, role but we must not also forget the role that other groups of people have played. Women were also very much part of the struggle. Women like Hanna Forster, who was a millionaire spent huge amount of her money on anti-colonial parties in the country at the time, like the Gambia Democratic Party. 

Moreover, there were many youth organisations, like the Tunya Movement that were fighting to end colonialism in the country. So, the independent struggle was not a one man show, it was a struggle by people from different sectors of life. Really, it was a complete movement – the press was there, the political class, the youth groups, the women organisations and so on. 

Opposition to colonial rule in the country was not violent. It was peaceful and led by these groups of people. That is why even during the colonial rule, King George VI and Queen Victoria used to call The Gambia “the most loyal colony”. For, even after forcing themselves on us, our people had tried to make the best out of a very difficult situation and they were able to achieve independence without violence, as had happened in Kenya, Congo and others.

Could EF Small be called the father of The Gambia? 

I think Small himself will not like to be called father of The Gambia. Small saw himself, first and foremost, as a servant. I don’t want to give Small an appellation like that; like I said, he did it for The Gambia and not himself. He did suffer terribly. Wherever he sat down, even in his bed, there were not fewer than three or four secret service agents from a special branch of the police monitoring him. Even when he travelled to Senegal to print his paper, which he used to do when his printing press in The Gambia broke down, a secret service agent would travel with him to monitor him. So, Small was under surveillance. He was being harassed left right and centre, but he was not deterred because he did all these for The Gambia. So we should not even try to start giving him such appellations. However, I welcomed the move by the government to name the Royal Victoria Hospital after him. That is one modest way of remembering his contribution to the independence struggle of this country. Knowing him through writing about him will make him happy, instead of giving him grandiose appellations.

How would you rate the work of Small in The Gambia’s independence struggle?

If you go through the archives, you will realise that Small has sided with the poor people during his time. That is why when the colonial government, through the Gambia Seed Marketing Board, later called the GPMB, was exploiting the farmers by paying them poor prices for their groundnuts, Small wanted to establish a farmer syndicate in the North Bank to bring farmers together. He told them to come together and have a syndicate; to go and borrow money from the Bank of West Africa, now called the Standard Bank, so that they could buy their groundnuts without any middlemen and then export it by themselves so that they can have maximum profit. But the colonial government refused to register the syndicate. This was a good example of him as a modest man. Even his legacy in the media is equally important. Small sat down to establish a newspaper in the country, after over 20 years of total non-existence of press in the country. In 1922, he used all his savings to open a newspaper. He bought a printing press and transported it from England and was printing his newspaper. The Gambia Outlook was hitting the newsstands until 1980s, long after Small died. This was because Small said that “we can only defeat colonial rule if we have ways and means to articulate our grievances through the newspaper.”

In trade unionism, he left a similar legacy. In 1929, when he saw how the colonial government was colluding with the European companies, like UAC and Vasia, to exploit the duck workers, he set up the Gambia Labour Union and organised the first strike in The Gambia, in 1929. This strike was so successful that even Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator, sent people to come and learn how Small was able to organise workers to resist the exploitation of the colonial government. Small, in my opinion, loved The Gambia more than he loved himself. Because in 1947, for example, when he was convinced that now the Whiteman is beginning to see sense and give the people their rights, he accepted a job with the colonial government, after he was nominated into the Legislative Council which was then the parliament. Some people thought that he was going to refuse the job, but he was pragmatic and said that “I saw a brighter future for my country in this Legislative Council.”

He saw his role as complementary. You have to know, however, all of the rest of our freedom fighters passed through him. Garba Jahumpa, ME Jallow the great trade unionists and even Reverend JC Faye, passed through him.

So Small was the leader of the nationalist movement?

Yes, he was. They used to go to him for lessons and he trained them, but I don’t know if Sir Dawda Jawara was going there too. This continued even after he retired. You have to also know that it was Small who even encouraged the women to participate in decision making processes. Cecilia Moore and Mrs. Hannah Mahoney, were elected in the Bathurst City Council in 1935 thanks to him. These people were among the first women to hold elective office in this country and it was Small who used his newspaper to promote them and convinced the people that women also can do it. This was in 1930s, long before people started shouting women’s rights.  

So, as The Gambia clocks 50, whose life should we celebrate as we celebrate? Small should be top, shouldn’t he?

I think we have many other lives to celebrate. Like I said, Small’s names appeared because it is in the archives, but there are hundreds of other Gambians, some of whom were farmers, fishermen and businessmen, who have struggled a lot in the liberation of this country, but their names have not appeared in the archives. These are people we have forgotten, but they have all played an important role in the fight for The Gambia’s independence. You have to remember, at the time of independence, nobody gave us time to succeed. There were arguments that after months, the country will collapse, the communist will come in and Senegal will annex us. There were some saying also that we won’t survive because there was no economic base. 

There were fewer than ten university graduates, I think and these are coupled with other deficiencies, as well. We had a rough start, but look at after 50 years now. Gambians are able to have university education and are able to graduate hundreds of students a year at home. This was unthinkable 50 years ago.

So you think The Gambia has achieved a lot after independence?

For me, I think The Gambia has surprised the whole world to have come this far in terms of development. Like I said, nobody gave us a chance to survive just like South Sudan when they became independent three years ago. So I think The Gambia has achieved much more than anybody could imagine.

But there are people who argue that a country at 50 after independence should not be facing problems like water and electricity. What is your take on that?

I think The Gambia has achieved much more than anybody could imagined. Of course, you have to know that development is a process and that no people can become developed overnight. I think, we owe some applause to our two presidents, Jawara and Jammeh. One thing that even helped us more to move faster was political stability and good social cohesion and economic stability as well. We are taking these things for granted, but there are many countries in Africa and other parts of the world that do not have political and economic stability. We owe a big recognition to our leaders because where we have started and where we are far apart, if you look at it from a historical perspective. There were no tarmac roads and very limited electricity coverage in the country at independence. In fact, electricity was only confined to some parts of Banjul and Serekunda, but now that has progressed.

So, definitely we have seen progress in every aspect of our country’s development. But like I said, development is a process and we cannot do it in few years. 

In The Gambia, there are political arguments that the appropriate date for the celebration of the country’s independence should be 24th April 1970. Where do you stand on this?

(laughs) Independence is the foundation, legally and that was 18 February 1965. On the 18 of February, we ceased to be a colony of anybody. But of course, there was a referendum in November 1965 and it failed, which was followed by another referendum on 24th April 1970 and it succeeded. However, we have to really give respect to the date 18 February 1965 as the day of independence because that was the day when we were able to kick out the colonialists and we became a sovereign independent state. Maybe the people of the younger generation can take it for granted, but our elders who lived through colonial rule will tell you that it was a very bad experience. Now, we the younger generation will joke with it and even question what does 18 February 1965 means, but the elders won’t. Some don’t even appreciate the meaning of the date. Just imagine, it was like a form of slavery because our people, before independence, were ruled by outsiders. 

So you think The Gambia’s independence dreams have been fulfilled, don’t you?

It is a work in progress; a lot is being fulfilled. So a lot of our independence dream has been fulfilled and a lot more to be. We have to be fair to ourselves. We have resource constraints, both finance and human resources. Like I said, at independence, we had less than ten graduates. Another constraint to our development is living in an unstable sub-region, drought-prone Sahel Region. Throughout the ’90s, our neighbours were at war and we had to welcome refugees and we had to spend money on peacekeeping missions. 


How was it like when Jawara took the mantle of leadership in the country?”

In fact we were called an “improbable nation”. And when Jawara took over the leadership of this country, we were virtually dead. We were called an improbable nation; a nation which may not survive, but we are here with our own currency, which many independent nations could not have still now. We will not call names, but we know them. We have our own Central Bank which some independent nations could not have. We also have our own flag and national anthem. I tell my students that the Dalasi is a powerful symbol of The Gambia’s independence, but most of the young people take that for granted. So we have come a long way, but a lot more needs to be done in all sectors. 


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