Our tiny Gambia turned 56 last week. We started off as an “improbable nation” in the words of one astute foreign wordsmith. Many Gambians misconstrue his assessment as typical racial or racist Western condescension towards Africa and Africans. But in my view, he was just being frank given what our pioneers had to work with: We are a country of under 12,000sq miles in real estate, no known natural mineral wealth in respectable commercial quantity except for a river that runs through the middle of our country, and 35 miles of Atlantic beach. Worse, we didn’t even have enough educated professionals to run our government. In our maiden government at Independence, only Prime Minister DK Jawara and Michael Baldeh had a university education. Everyone else was either a High School certificate, locally-trained Teacher’s Certificate holder, or low-level clerical officer in the Colonial government. 50 British colonial officers were retained and paid by the UN to help us pursue our daunting cause for 5 years. One, Sir Phillip Bridges remained our Chief Justice until the mid-80s. Our entire GDP was approx. 6 million Pounds, so paltry and deficient that the British government had to fund half of our budget for years. We had less than 100 miles of tarred road in the whole country. Even residential native areas of tiny Banjul weren’t tarred. That, despite being saddled with a population of nearly 400 thousand. (Noteworthy is the fact that the ONLY area that Gambia NEVER falls behind in is population growth. Except for our high mortality rate which is about half our birth rate, our Net population growth would be unsustainable.) See why the foreigner we scuff at wasn’t off the mark in his assessment?
Yet DK Jawara and his team persevered because despite some spectacular failures, there were many remarkable achievements. Most will agree that it’s nothing short of a miracle that we survived at all.
DK Jawara, like many politicians was a man of contradictions. He played golf -the ultimate White man’s sport often, and dressed formally in a debonair fashion, but his behavior towards subordinates, and earnest disposition expose his loyalty to his modest Country “Santonko” roots; he guarded his personal integrity fiercely, but tolerated many corrupt and unsavory characters both within his cabinets and in the high echelon of the public service; he was selected mainly because his native ethnic group generally complained about being ostracized and discriminated against in the then Colony, yet he told subordinates for decades later that Gambia has no tribes or ethnicities but “New Comers” and “Old Gambians” (indigenes of the precolonial Gambian States); he genuinely encouraged plural democracy and open expression of views, but never allowed his opponents the same access his PPP had to public media; he vowed to champion the cause of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged Protectorate majority in the areas of job and scholarship opportunities, but to the very end, did little to stop the pervasive bias against that region; he embraced Western education and life style, but insisted on raising and correcting misbehavior by his own children the same way he was raised in Barajally– with a cane. (He saw the deadly 1981 amateur Kukoi Sanyang insurrection as an entirely Discipline-deficiency problem and pulled back to let the Senegalese army crack the whip on the “malcontents”. The problem was, the Senegalese went overboard and needlessly killed an untold number of youths with mini tanks and machine guns.)
Anyhow, the genesis of DK’s failures which culminated in the ascent and enthronement of the corrupt and despotic Yaya Jakut offer us clear clues as to why we continue to falter as a nation. Except so many Gambians still simply don’t seem to get it. It saddens me in a cringing way to listen to, or read Gambians blaming ethnicity or tribalism for being the bane of our underdevelopment. Even lack of material resources, education, training, or capacity feature lower as factors cited for holding us back.
Ethnicity and tribe both still matter in Gambia and are no doubt contributors to our problems, but our key problem for 56 years, has been and remains DISHONESTY. We have a chronic epidemy of dishonesty! I’ll explain.