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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Independence

By Dawda K Jawara

On 23 July 1964, representatives of government, political parties, chiefs and members of civil society assembled at Marlborough House, London, for The Gambia Independence Conference. I sat across the table from Secretary of State for Colonies – The Right Honourable Duncan Sandys and negotiated the terms and conditions of Independence for our country…

I represented the government and I was accompanied by Sheriff Sekouba Sisay, Sheriff Mustapha Dibba, Alieu Badara Njie, Amang Kanyi, Seyfo Omar Mbakeh, Kalilou Singhateh, Famara Wassa Touray and Paul L Baldeh. PS Njie led the opposition side the and with him were IAS Burang John, Kebba W Foon and IM Garba Jahumpa of the GMC. The Gambia government officials were Philip R Bridges, FDC Williams, KJ W Lane and Rev JC Faye whom our government had already posted to London as our Liaison Officer. Governor Paul was also the in attendance. The working session opened under the general chairmanship of the Marquess of Lansdowne with the rest of the UK representation of Sir John Martin, JM Kirsch, H Steel, and RG Pettit. With a professional secretariat provided by the UK government, the talks proceeded through ten sessions stretching until 30 July.

We heard all sides on all the issues were laid on the table. Eventually, we reached important agreements among which were The Gambia Independence Constitution, the structure of the civil service, appointment to senior positions and to the Public Service Commission, citizenship, constituency boundaries, the overseas aid scheme, the monarchy and membership of the Commonwealth and future relations with Senegal. Above all, we agreed on a date for independence.

On 30 July, we held the last session of the meeting to conclude business. The RT Hon Duncan Sandys was in the chair. He said he had an important announcement to make before the end of the conference. The United Kingdom was going to grant independence to The Gambia. It was however sad, as I recall, that on the side of the opposition, only IM Garba Jahumpa remained in session there to hear such a historic announcement. Where were the others? They had obviously betaken themselves to other pursuits around London. Our government team, the UK representatives and Governor Paul stayed the course to hear the Secretary of State for the Colonies confirm that the country would become independent on 18 February 1965. He also announced that The Gambia would, on attaining independence, seek membership of the Commonwealth and that Her Majesty the Queen would become Queen of The Gambia.

In my closing remarks I lauded our very long association with Britain and expressed the hope that the granting of independence to The Gambia would mark not only the end of phase of that association, but also the beginning of a new, close and friendly one in many fields. Jahumpa, in his closing statement, apologised for his late arrival at the conference. He praised the British government for the excellent arrangement but said he wished to make a last-minute observation that whatever happened between then and the next general election, no major step should be taken in connection with our association with Senegal without a referendum. He associated himself with my remarks of the conference being a historic event that marked the end of one and beginning of a new phase between Britain and The Gambia. That done, the four of us – the Rt Hon Duncan Sandys, Lord Lansdowne, Sheriff Sisay and I – proceeded to sign the document sealing the future of The Gambia.

Back home after the conference in London, Governor Paul, in his address to the House of Representative, made the official announcement of Her Majesty the Queen’s assent on 17 December 1964 to The Gambia independence Act 1964. The House received the announcement with tremendous approval. Governor Paul also announcement approval of my recommendation for him to serve as the first Governor General under the new constitution under which he would not in any way be responsible to Her Majesty or to any minister of her government to the government in Bathurst. Only a few years later, in 1970, a close reading of this rubric would have helped Sir Farimang Singhateh, our second Governor General, to avoid the acrimony and misunderstanding of where the authority of his office derived. It would have helped him and his closest advisers to better understand our quest for republicanism and probably would have publicly opposed it as he did, seeing it as a threat to his office.

The British government promised support to both our capital and recurrent needs while we were committed to continuing our efforts to decrease our dependence on assistances from Britain. The Queen’s statement emphasised our commitment to improving the economy and ensuring the government’s total subscription to the rule of law. In furtherance of the welfare of the people there was entrenched in the new constitution embodying the supreme law of law, the protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to personal liberty, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of movement and freedom from any form of discrimination.

I fully endorsed Queen Elizabeth’s sentiment that The Gambia’s ability to achieve independence by peaceful and constitutional means must be attributed, in no small measures, to the devotion of duty of the country’s civil servants, both overseas and Gambian, and, above all, to the good sense and restraint of all its people. This, she said, was a matter of profound satisfaction to Her Majesty’s Government.

During my broadcast to the nation on the eve of independence, a few hours before we entered what can be described as a new era in the constitutional history of The Gambia, I paid tribute to all who had had contributed to our country’s evolution and development – all those political leaders who had preceded us, some of whom were no longer with us. I did not forget the missionaries, who, over a century before, had laid down the foundation of our education system. I paid tribute to the public servants, both Gambian and overseas, who had given their best to lay down a sound foundation for our civil service and to those who had given unstintingly of their time and energy in voluntary service to their country and their fellows. The biggest tribute was however reserved for the Gambian people in all walks of life. Without them all the efforts would have been to no avail – if they had not recognised their birthright to freedom and independence and pursued their goals, not only with determination, but also with patience, tolerance and understanding.

At a solemn ceremony in McCarthy square, in early hours of chilly and dew-drenched morning, on 18 February 1965, the final curtain on the colonial era fell with the lowering of the British Union Jack for the last time. In its place was unfurled the red, blue, green and white colours of the Gambian flag. That momentous occasion was the final act closing more than three hundred years of our colonial experience. It was a moving moment, a moment I would cherish forever. The weeklong celebrations, which had begun three days before Independence Day, were fitting and were marked with fireworks, beautiful lantern parades, drumming, dancing and wrestling. I hosted our chief guests HRH the Duke of Kent and his graceful consort, HRH Duchess of Kent, the government and a cross section of the Gambian business and civic communities to a garden party on the Government House grounds.

I had already received the Constitutional Instruments from His Royal Highness and requested that he convey our gratefulness to Her Majesty the Queen. I reassured Her Majesty that we were a nation who like to think that the orderly nature of people could contribute something to the peace and stability of our continent. For that reason we intended not only to concern ourselves solely with our domestic affairs but also to align ourselves on the side of world’s peaceful forces, particularly with our friends in Senegal, and to contribute, in every way possible, to the establishment of peace among people.

During the march past of schoolchildren and voluntary and uniformed contingents, I reminded the country’s future leaders of their responsibility to build on the foundations that were being laid for them. I gave my constant word of caution, namely that in the process of building the country we envisaged we must understand that independence would not turn our groundnuts into diamonds. It required a great deal of hard work. It was that determination that lay the success of what we would make of our independence. I am proud to state that I had a cabinet of responsible and determined ministers assisted by corps of seniors civil servants made up of Gambians and those expatriates who had decided they would stay on. We had the good fortune to have a dedicated person to assume the office of Governor General.

Culled from Kairaba by Dawda K Jawara, self published 2009

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