Remembering President Jawara

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By Dr Amos Sawyer,
former Interim President, Liberia

Sadness fell upon me late August when I heard of the death of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, former President of The Gambia.

The Daily Observer’s article breaking the news in Liberia and narrating the recollections of Kenneth Y Best refreshed my memory of this soft-spoken man who made invaluable contributions to the peace process in Liberia and whose standard of decency and sense of humanity earned for The Gambia the privilege of becoming the home of the African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

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I first met President Jawara in Banjul in 1990 when he was Chairman of the Authority of Heads of State and Government (HoSG) of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). I had just been selected to be President of the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) by a conference of leaders of Liberian political parties and civil society organisations meeting in Banjul under the auspices of Ecowas.

The Banjul Conference was part of a larger Peace Plan, the initial draft of which had been proposed by the Inter-Faith Mediation Committee of Liberia.

The Plan called for the insertion of a peace keeping force known as the Ecowas Monitoring Group (Ecomog) to separate the armed groups and protect the population, and for the formation of a broad-based Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) in which all armed groups, political parties and civil society organisations would participate. It also called for the holding of elections six months after the insertion of Ecomog and the installation of IGNU.

We must recall that it was Ecowas that first intervened in Liberia to stop the carnage and protect the population.

The United Nations which is charged with the responsibility to ensure global peace and security was said to be busy trying to end a war that had flared up in the Persian Gulf in 1990 between the United States and its allied forces on one hand and Iraq on the other.

The United States, long considered Liberia’s traditional friend, did not get deeply involved in ending the mayhem and destruction that was taking place in Liberia. So it was left to Ecowas to take the lead in ending the violent conflict that was consuming Liberia.

Let us also recall that Ecowas was founded in 1975 with the objective of strengthening economic cooperation among West African countries. Ecowas was not established to be a conflict management and resolution body—except for issues connected to economic cooperation among West African states.

But Ecowas had to become seized of the violent crisis in Liberia since neither the United Nations nor the United States would take the lead. So as murder and mayhem reigned in Liberia and fearful citizens could not find safety anywhere, Ecowas, West Africa’s economic cooperation organization, had to intervene to stop the carnage.

President Jawara had just become Chairman of the Ecowas Authority when the Liberian crisis picked up intensity.

It was he who sounded the alarm that Liberia had become a “slaughter house” and Ecowas, could not stand idly by and watch the carnage. After considerable consultations, he convened the conference of the armed groups, political parties and civil society organisations of Liberia in Banjul to work out a plan for managing and ending the conflict.

By intervening in Liberia in the absence of any global entity, Ecowas had, of necessity, shifted the principle of engagement among West African states from the principle of non-interference in the affairs of member-states to the principle of non-indifference to member-states that posed a danger to themselves and their neighbors.

Although different in circumstances, Tanzania, a little over a decade earlier, had intervened to stop Idi Amin’s bloodbath in Uganda and its spillover to Tanzania and other parts of East Africa.

Thankfully, the African Union, the successor to the Organisation of African Unity, discarded the principle of non-interference in favor of the principle of non-indifference.

Lessons from Liberia and other violent crises in Africa had imposed new imperatives on African countries.
I was accompanied by a few Liberian leaders and officials of Ecowas when I met President Jawara. He had a welcoming smile.

He was a modest and dignified man.

He looked like someone who was wholly comfortable in his own skin and at peace with himself. His words to us were all about ending the sufferings of the Liberian people, about peace and compassion.

Not about politics and power. He emphasised the need for patience and perseverance on the hard road ahead to peace. He assured us of The Gambia’s strong commitment to peace in Liberia and that, as Chairman and thereafter as an ordinary member of Ecowas, The Gambia would remain committed to ending the sufferings of the Liberian people.

Sir Dawda’s words were soothing. They lowered my anxieties about this uncharted path upon which we had embarked. I told him how thankful we, Liberians, were for his leadership of Ecowas and for the sacrifices The Gambia was making in supporting the peace process in Liberia.

The Gambia had not only played host to the conference; it was also temporarily hosting the organisational secretariat that was coordinating the way forward. I asked him to bear with me and my team as we would always seek his wise counsel and advice.

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