Gambian chiefs in colonial rule (1894-1965)

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By Hassoum Ceesay


Chapter 3: Chiefs in Gambian Politics (1947-1965)



Chiefs’ involvement in Gambian nationalist politics started only in 1947, following the enlargement of the Legislative Council, which was an advisory and law-making body chaired by the Governor. Prior to 1947, the Protectorate was completely left out of politics; Bathurst people filled the two seats in the Legislative Council set aside for Gambians. Apparently, chiefs were more concerned with cementing their traditional power bases in the Protectorate than meddling in Colony politics, which a few of them could aspire to be involved in due to their limited knowledge of English and limited constitutional development. Another reason for their late involvement in politics was that the Bathurst political elite and press were vociferously opposed to extending the franchise to the Protectorate. Moreover, the colony-protectorate divide created by the colonialists meant that while the Colony had evolved a tiny, educated elite who could aspire to political office, the Protectorate was virtually cut off from the socio-economic development needed to produce candidates suitable for political office. Yet, chiefs were neither oblivious of nor ill-informed about the political strides that had begun to gel in the Colony from 1942 because the key political players such as EF Small, W.D Carrol, Sheikh Omar Faye, JC Faye and PS Njie were linked to the Protectorate by professional and business ties. Some of them gave distressed chiefs legal advice, assistance to pen petitions to the Colonial Office, or were business partners in the lucrative protectorate groundnut trade. Within a decade after 1947, chiefs had become the dominant force in nationalist politics, even becoming kingmakers in the period after the 1950 elections. Their spectacular rise to political prominence terrified the Bathurst political elite, who now had to lobby for chiefs’ support if they were to remain relevant in the political field.

Chiefs in the legislature: 1947-1964

The 1947 constitution introduced the principle of an unofficial majority and enlarged both the legislative Council and the Executive Council to include elected Gambian officials and three chiefs’ representatives. Matarr Ceesay and Mama Tamba Jammeh were among the chiefs’ representatives on the two councils. In the 1994 constitution, which introduced a legislature of 16 members and a Speaker, “chiefs’ representation in the Legislative Council was increased to seven”, and Omar Mbacke, chief of Sami, was given a ministerial portfolio in October 1954. He led other chiefs to lobby for additional seats in the legislature. Thus, in the 1960 constitution that brought universal adult suffrage to The Gambia, chiefs were given 8 out of the 34 seats in the legislature, and Omar Mbacke remained in the cabinet as Minister of Works. This was the apogee of chiefs’ political clout in pre-independence Gambia. The 1952 constitution reduced chiefs’ representation in the legislature to four, but they continued to hold a seat in the cabinet until Omar Mbacke was removed in 1964.

Chiefs and nationalist political parties; l954-1964

The 1954 elections were the first to be fought under a party system with the United Party of PS Njie, Democratic Party of JC Faye, Muslim Congress of Garba Jahumpa, and National Party of St. Claire Joof contesting for the three elected seats for Bathurst and Kombo. Although the elections and the parties were Colony based, some chiefs personally supported the Bathurst politicians. For example, JC Faye had support from chiefs in the Upper River Region because of his missionary work at Kantora in the 1940s; Garba Jahumpa was well known up-river for his work while serving as the first minister of Agriculture.

The Chiefs had great influence in the formation and running of the PPP and the UP. Indeed, from 1960 to 1964, Gambian chiefs were evenly divided between the two parties: older chiefs like Jweru Krubally, Sila Ba Dibba, and Omar Mbacke were sympathetic to the UP while younger chiefs such as Abu Khan, Ture Sanyang and Omar Ceesay supported the PPP.

Chiefs played a leading role in forming the PPP, which represented Protectorate interests. Indeed, the party was formed by certain chiefs at the side-lines of the 1958 Chiefs’ Conference in Brikama, in consultation with the then Veterinary Director Dawda Jawara, who was to emerge as party leader. It wasn’t until he got the consent and full support of the majority of the Chiefs that he went ahead to launch the party in February l959. This is a clear indication of the chiefs’ political influence during this time.

PS Njie’s UP also had strong Njie’s support. His law practice had given legal aid to many chiefs who were in dispute with Syrian traders over debts. This gave him many friends among the chiefs who rallied to his party. Indeed, UP had larger support among the chiefs than the PPP at least after the 1960 elections; this is why in 1961, when chiefs favoured the appointment of PS Njie as Chief Minister over the PPP leader, Governor Windley went ahead to appoint Njie as head of government in March 1961. Chiefs were represented and played a key role at the 1961 and 1964 constitutional talks in London to chart The Gambia’s course towards independence.

Chiefs shifted the centre of Gambian politics

In 1958, chiefs flexed their muscle and radically altered the face of Gambian politics by ending the decades long nomination of politics by Bathurst politicians. At their conference of that year, the chiefs led by Mama Tamba Jammeh called for the decentralisation of party politics to the Protectorate. They urged for the creation of political parties which would work for the development of the Protectorate. Mama Tamba’s forthright speech was prophetic and revolutionary and deserved an extensive quote: “We the chiefs did not say that there would be anger or hatred with Bathurst. We said at the election, our sons and young brothers who can read and write and are living in Bathurst, none of them was elected. For the next election, there are our sons and young brothers who can read and write and can travel. After the last election, those people who are ministers, none came to see our work… We want our literate men who can go into the mud and climb the hills… Even if we get ten ministers or one, that is what we want. There is no (quarrel) between the Bathurst people and us. There are also no Mandingos in the Bathurst parties”. This speech set the stage for the storming of Gambian politics by politicians of rural origins under the banner of the PPP. At the conference, chiefs suggested that six out of nine future ministers should hail from the provinces. They also opposed the franchise in the fear that Bathurst parties would gain foothold in the provinces.

They only agreed to it in 1959, following the formation of the PPP. The PPP identified with the needs and aspirations of the protectorate people. It promised to revolutionise farming through mechanisation, bring about better prices for ” produce, and provide better medical, educational, and cultural facilities. Although the Bathurst politicians had mentioned improving rural communities in their manifestoes, they did not have rural people in their parties, so the chiefs were more inclined towards the PPP.


Before we discuss the decline in ” political influence, we should pause briefly to assess the PPP – Chiefs political liaisons from 1959 to 1965. From 1959 when the PPP was formed to 1961, the party benefitted from the support of many chiefs largely because it professed the rural areas’ concerns and sought to widen the participation of provincial people in national politics. As chiefs were yet to see the composition and demeanour of the PPP leadership, they were prepared to give provisional support. However, in the 1960 elections, the PPP failed to give the ticket to many sons or relations of chiefs, and disappointment began to set in among chiefs like Jewru Krubally, who quickly transferred support to the UP. To be fair, the PPP tried to appease the chiefs because not less than five of its 12 candidates in the 1960 elections were sons of chiefs or came from chiefly families. But even this was not enough.

Another event which led some chiefs to disown the PPP was the areas’ radical Independence Manifesto published in 1960, which called for independence from the UK in the shortest possible time. Governor Windley interpreted this to the chiefs at their 1960 Conference to mean that the PPP was poised to abolish chieftaincy and sever all ties with the UK. This shocked and angered the older chiefs, who now saw the PPP as anti-chief and out to destroy their power and influence. Thus, in March 1961, when the coalition government fell, the chiefs supported Windley’s appointment of PS Njie as Chief Minister. Henceforth, the PPP could no longer trust the support of chiefs, and chiefs also became apprehensive of the intentions of the party, which they helped to form in 1959. From 1961 to 1965, many chiefs remained antagonistic to the PPP; however, they could not nullify the newfound support for the PPP among their people.

The death blow to chiefs’ political power landed on 15th March 1965, when the government of newly independent Gambia sacked or retired 13 chiefs to “make the authority of the new government respected and all obstacles to progress removed” (Gamble, 2007). The PPP Government further justified its drastic decision because the sacked chiefs were ‘tyrannical, heavy-handed, old and negligent of the interest of their people’. While many chiefs would be guilty of these accusations, it was easy to note that most of those removed, such as Omar Mbacke and Jewru Krubally, were supporters of the UP opposition. Therefore, the dismissals were politically motivated and had the lasting effect of frightening chiefs into submission to the ruling party. DP Gamble has rightly noted that the Colonial Government had treated them with respect as traditional chiefs; the new regime regarded them as civil servants who could be dismissed or retired at the whim of the ruling political party. The new politicians felt that chiefs should support their policies and were not showing the respect due to them.

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Hassoum Ceesay, a noted historian and museum Curator, is currently Director-General of the National Centre for Arts and Culture, Banjul. He has published widely on Gambian history in reputable journals like the Journal of Mande Studies (Indiana University Press); Journal of African Economic History (University of Wisconsin Press); African Studies Quarterly (University of Florida Press), among others. This is his fifth book on Gambian history.