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Jawara and the ‘hand of destiny’

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Fortunately or unfortunately – depending on where one stands on Jawara’s and Pierre Sarr Njie’s diametric realities – no man, as true to the proverb, is acquainted with tomorrow.

Although old Almami from Barajally may have foreseen that his son’s fidelity to his Muslim Mandingo ways was at risk with Western education, it was beyond any stretch of his imagination that Kairaba would marry Augusta Mahoney, a Christian Krio woman and for whose sake, he would abandon his Islamic faith and convert to Christianity. 

“I met Augusta at Mohammedan High School,” he explained his book, Kairaba. “We were neighbours but become acquainted in school. Although the school had separate boys and girls quarters, we occasionally come together. I became friendly to her and got close to her family. I also helped her with math too.”

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But they were soon to be separated, pursuing different career paths abroad. However, love, like a compass with the rotating hand coming back to its destination, brought them together. That fateful reunion took place at the unlikeliest of places: Basse. Kairaba was 29, Augusta a year younger. After the initial flush of dating, they desired to take their relationship to the next level which would start with introductions to each other’s family. But there was a hitch: Religion. For Jawara, however, if Jack, as in the true-life story encapsulated in Titanic, could sacrifice his life for Rose’s love, religion would not be an obstacle to his love for Augustus.      

“Religion would not stand in my way [to marrying Augustus],” he confessed. 

Born in 1924 in Barajally Tenda village, some 150 miles from the capital Banjul, Dawda Kairaba Jawara, was the sixth son of a well-to-do local businessman, Almami Jawara, and the last son of his mother, Mama Fatty. 

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From that humble background, he became the man to lead the improbable West African country, The Gambia, to independence from the British colonial rule in 1965, the 37th in Africa. Through the consent of the sovereign Gambians, he ruled The Gambia for more than thirty years. He was toppled in 1994 by a group of junior soldiers led by Lt Yahya Jammeh, the current president of The Gambia. 

From an early age, Jawara attended local Arabic schools to learn the Qur’an, a rite of passage for many a Gambian child. Needless to say, at the time, there were no primary schools in Barajally Tenda; the nearest was in Georgetown, the provincial capital. However, the boarding school there was reserved for the sons of chiefs. 

But as fate would have it, in 1933, Ebrima Youma Jallow, a trader friend of young Jawara’s father whose trading post was across the street from Alammi’s in Wally-Kunda, succeeded in convincing Almami to send young Jawara to a Western school, though Almami initially rejected the idea. That was how young Jawara came to Bathurst under the care of Pa Youma. He was enrolled at Mohammedan Primary School. After graduation from Mohammedan, Jawara won a scholarship to Methodist Boys High School.

But before he was enrolled at high school, he visited his family after six years of separation. It was a happy reunion, especially with his beloved mother, as he described it in Kairaba. Having been away for that long, Jawara observed that he had not only physically grown tougher than most of his contemporaries, but he had also put on an unrivalled intellectual weight, a feature his father was quick to notice in him. 

As young as he was, he took care of the figures of his father’s business during his brief visit, ‘in a more efficient manner than the semi-lettered people’ his father had employed to do it. Almami saw no need for his son to return to Bathurst. Dawda could read and write and do the sums. What more education could he want? 

But thanks, again, to Pa Youma and some of his brothers, young Dawda’s father allowed him to return to Banjul. “If Mr Jallow had not pressed hard for me to return to Banjul, I would possibly have gone to ‘dara’ [to acquire Qur’anic/Islamic education],” Jawara said in 2011, in a rare interview with him I participated in. 

This was the occasion when The Gambia News & Report Magazine made him Man of the Year, and it was the first time he granted an interview to a private press since his return to the country almost a decade ago. 

He added: “Things could have turned a different way. It was a hand of destiny.” 

Having already attained scholarship upon graduation at Mohammedan, Jawara enrolled at Methodist Boys High School, where he showed the greatest aptitude in science and math. His enrollment coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War, which continued throughout his term at the school. And, according to him, the war did not only negatively impacted on the socio-economic and political life of the country, but his academic life as well. However, the provincial boy who pointedly ignored the attractions of city life was also determined not to be as well derailed by the war. Upon matriculation in 1945, he worked as a nurse until 1947 at the Victoria Hospital in colonial Bathurst before going to Ghana and UK, respectively, to study veterinary medicine. 

“Really, I had wanted to study human medicine,” he acknowledged. But, the proverbial beggar that he was, he had no better choice than to accept the hand that was stretched out to him. 

“I was supposed to be in Ghana for two years,” he explains in his book. “But after a year, I won a scholarship to study veterinary medicine in Scotland’s Glasgow University Study. I was to proceed from Ghana to Scotland, but insisted on coming back to The Gambia to see my people, especially my mother.”


He returned home after completing his studies in Scotland in 1955. Asked what motivated him to return home after completion of his studies, for there could be greener opportunities, Dawda Jawara replied: “Throughout my studies, my ambition was to return home. In Barajally, we were very close to cattle owners. It had been my intention to come back and help them.”

Under the colonial government, Jawara became the principal veterinary officer. As head of the veterinary department, he traveled the length and breadth of The Gambia and established valuable social contacts and relationships with the people, who would in later years, together with the district chiefs and village heads form the bulk of his political support.

At the time of his return to The Gambia, politics in the colony was dominated by a group of urban elites from Bathurst and the Kombo Saint Mary’s area. Because of the colonial position he was handling, Jawara was not involved in party politics. However, he said he was entitled to attend meetings. And when approached to lead the Protectorate People’s Party (PPP) in 1960, he gave up the colonial position. In the first nationwide election, when the suffrage was extended to the provinces, the PPP won the largest number of seats in parliament. He was appointed education minister and then chief minister. He led The Gambia to independence in 1965 and became The Gambia’s first president when the country attained republican status in 1970. 

Self-government had its many challenges. Years of colonial neglect left The Gambia with two state-owned hospitals and high schools, poor infrastructure, small ill-equipped civil service, a mono-crop export sector and poor social services. With no natural resources to exploit, Dawda Jawara and his cabinet sought to build a nation and develop an economy to sustain both the predominant farming rural population and growing urban population. 

To a degree, his regime succeeded in lifting a nation that had been deemed improbable. Improved economic policies and envious political stability which were anchored on social justice and democracy are worthy of acknowledgement of his regime.

Although at independence Jawara had in very clear terms told Gambians that, “independence doesn’t mean our groundnuts would be transformed into diamonds,” many Gambians, like citizens of other newly independent countries, had hoped the political independence would rapidly change their economic status. Some had their high expectations broken down. In time, a measure of disappointment set in as the people quickly discovered that a mere independence cannot deliver them all what they aspired to have.

Perhaps, one of the main reasons The Gambia belatedly experienced the bitter taste of rebellion witnessed years earlier in many other countries in Africa was the level of freedom accorded to the people and tolerance exercised by the regime. Throughout Jawara’s 30-plus reign, the greatest shock came on July 30, 1981. Rebels and their civilian and para-military cohorts used sheer brute and violence to express their desire for change. They demanded an end to the hegemony of the ruling PPP. Corruption and growing social inequalities were additional reasons for the rebellion. The coup was aborted. Jawara survived it. Thirteen years later, in July 1994, his regime met its death. Jawara went into exile in the UK and in 2002, he was amnestied and returned home and retired from party politics with the portfolio of an elder statesman with a monthly income. Besides the  company of Crispy, pet cat, he takes pleasure in writing.  

According to him, the 1994 coup came as a surprise to him. But how surprised could he be? For, in his celebrated autobiography, he himself admitted noticing abnormalities upon his return from an overseas trip on the eve of the coup – Thursday 21st July 1994. 

“On our arrival at Banjul International Airport on 21 July 1994, I caught myself having to piece together a chain of strange events unfolding right before my eyes. To begin with, the vice president and minister of defense, Saihou Sabally, was not there to receive me. Instead, I was received at the foot of the aircraft by Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Assan Jallow.


“Under the shrill notes of the bugles Hassan walked me to the waiting guard of honour. In all my years of arrival and departure, I had never seen a more excited honour guard commander in action – Captain Sonko clearly appeared nervous. I learnt much later that there had been some tension at the airport before our flight landed. The Nigerian army officer had given instructions to disarm a group of junior officers of The Gambia National Army because it was unusual for them to be armed on official airport welcoming duties.

“Upon alighting from the vehicle at State House, I discovered that Hassan Jallow who had received me officially at the airport was not there. I learnt that he had broken off the motorcade and gone home. Tired as I was, the question that kept me awake for a while before I could sleep was the absence of the vice president and the failure of the attorney general to come for the debriefing at State House.”

According to him, on the following day, Friday 22 July 1994, National Security Service director Kebba Ceesay and the national security adviser arrived in his private quarters at 9:15 am to brief him about rumours of a coup. “At about 9:40am my aide-de-camp, Captain Kassama, burst in upstairs looking agitated. He urged me to leave for the US warship. It was the first time that I heard anything of a warship in our ports. Captain Kassama was beside himself and was insisting that there was a coup taking place and the soldiers were approaching Banjul.

The presidential guard was clearly outnumbered and outgunned by the attackers. “It would have been suicide not to surrender or relocate.” That was how Jawara was forced to leave the country. Alongside his family, and some cabinet ministers, he sailed to neighboring Senegal where he was offered asylum. And on August 27, 1994, he proceeded to England where he had a home in leafy little town.

Ever since his return home from exile in 2002, Jawara resigned from the PPP and has kept a low profile at his residence in Fajara.

When he granted an interview in 2011, he said that allegations of corruption was not enough a justification for the coup. “If you go back to your archives,” he said, “all the coups in the world, especially in Africa – whether military against civilian government or military against military government – are done because there was corruption. But when they come to power they become much more corrupt than the government they overthrow.

“To say my government hasn’t done any development is unfair. We did what we could under the circumstances. We were making  steady progress. [Critics] keep saying we could not even provide a television. Yes, we didn’t provide a TV, therefore, what! TV was not our priority at the time. It would come as others did. 

“We were not having independence, a national flag. We built the Central Bank, constructed roads, spread education and built hospitals across the country. We had our own currency which was viable while bigger countries could not have a national currency.”

According to him, national development is never complete at any stage and I think independent-minded people would judge him right.


By Saikou Jammeh


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