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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Story of Gambia’s Independence

Culled from Kairaba, the autobiography of The Gambia’s first president On 23 July 1964, representatives of government, political parties, chiefs and members of civil society assembled at Marlborough House, London, for the Gambia’s Independence Conference. I sat across the table from Secretary of State for the Colonies – The Right Honourable Duncan Sandys and negotiated the terms and conditions of independence for my country. In his address of welcome, Sandys harped on the country’s need for financial assistance, in which the crucial support of Britain was envisaged. He, to my satisfaction, said that we all realised that independence was not all about money, it was also a question of hard work, careful planning and the development of a sense of unity and common purpose in our country. That, he said, was the special challenge faced not only by our government but also by all our people. I had to remind him of few salient points about his country creating the difficult geography that now reduced our capacity to function anywhere beyond the north and south riverbanks, with no land for serious agriculture and no land either for serious grazing of our cattle and other ruminants. Small and close herding hurt animals and lowered their resistance to disease. The lack of land was one direct result of the bad choices the British negotiated with French in setting the borders of The Gambia. I argue that as things had turned out, the peculiar position of our boundaries had impeded the natural flow of trade and prevented the full use of our one great natural asset – the River Gambia. Our small size and the narrow basis of our agriculture, based as it was entirely on one cash crop – groundnuts – severely limited our ability to become self-supporting at a reasonable level of services. I made it clear that there was going to be no dumping of our country, not after three hundred years and a shape that left no choice but to work with partners and friends all over the world if we must survive. We were ready to take our governance in our own hands and we were ready to do so within the Commonwealth. There was no giving in to a surreptitious merger with Senegal, without our proper exercise of self-determination. I assured the British government of our readiness to face with confidence the challenges the secretary of state had outlined. I underlined that with hard work and the help of those nations which believed in the right of people to self-determination and independence, we would make our independence a reality. While insinuating pessimism saying he hoped independence would not interrupt the Gambian way of life, PS Njie requested a referendum before independence was granted. I emphasised that The Gambia’s reputation as a peaceful, friendly and law-abiding country was well known and that I was proud of the political stability the country enjoyed. I promised our continuance of the practice of democratic principles that Britain had bequeathed to us and that had made the country a shining example of democracy. In the end, the opposition had its say and the government had its way. I represented the government and was accompanied by Sheriff Sekouba Sisay, Sheriff Mustapha Dibba, Alieu Badara Njie, Amang Kanyi, Seyfo Omar Mbakeh, Kalilu Singhateh, Famara Wassa Touray and Paul L Baldeh. PS Njie led the opposition side 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, KJW Lane and the Rev JC Faye whom our government had already posted to London as our liaison officer. Governor Paul was also in attendance. The working sessions 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 Pettitt. 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 that were laid on the table. Eventually, we reached important agreements among which were the Gambia Independence Constitution, the structure of the civil service, appointments 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 a 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 arrangements but said he wished to make a last-minute observation that whatever happened between then and the next general elections, 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 the 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 Representatives, 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 announced Her Majesty’s 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 but 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 not 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 assistance 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 the land, 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 measure, to the devotion to 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 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 for our education system. I paid tribute to 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 goal, not only with determination, but also with patience, tolerance and misunderstanding. At a solemn ceremony in MacCarthy Square, in the early hours of a 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 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 guest, HRH the Duke of Kent and his graceful consort, HRH the Duchess of Kent, the government and a cross section of the Gambia 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 liked to think that the orderly nature of our 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 the world’s peaceful forces, particularly with our friends in Senegal, and to contribute, in every way possible, to the establishment of peace among peoples. 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 in that determination that lay 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 a corps of senior civil servants made up of Gambians and those expatriates who decided they would stay on. We had the good fortune to have a dedicated person to assume the office of Governor General. From the 1960 to 1965, the country’s economy was running at the 30 perfect deficits between what we produced and what we needed to function as a government. Our total revenue of £9 million continued to need the support from British grants of some £5 million to meet our recurrent and development expenditure. As long as that relationship persisted, there were doubts about our ability to sustain our governance and meet the responsibilities of an independent nation. There were many sceptics, one of them Berkeley Rice, the American author of the book Enter Gambia: The Birth of an Improbable Nation, who doubted our chances of surviving as an independent nation. On the contrary, convinced that we could improve markedly on the status quo, we concentrated our energies on areas that would show signs of our growth with agriculture on the top of our priorities. The increase in food and cash crops was an underpinning factor in the welfare of the people. Only a strong, healthy and well-fed people could find the energy and the will to contribute to nation-building. A way forward was the development of policies and the wherewithal to diversify the economy away from the groundnuts and thus increase our export potential. The commercial and industrial sectors also came into focus; and prime among them was the tourism industry, potentially a major foreign exchange earner. Along with that, we listed river transport, roads, wharves and ports, the narrowing of the income differential between rural and urban workers and ensuring that we kept prices within the reach of the ordinary citizen. Everything we did or would do in the future therefore have to be directed at reducing our independence on grants-in-aid. We could not forget that that was the single factor everyone pointed to as the determinant of our independence. But at same time we kept our focus on the fact that independence was not all about money. The expansion of social services to improve on the basic conditions of the people was crucial to our mission. In the background to all these measures we strove for the fullest indigenisation of our administrative machinery in order to ensure loyalty and patriotism that would also reduce our dependence on expatriate capacity. Only then would independence have any real meaning. Kairaba is available at Timbooktoo Bookshop along Garba Jahumpa Road.]]>

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