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The Gambia and China: a history note on diplomatic ties between a Small State and a Super Power

From 1968 to 1974, The Gambia maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan. When the UN made its historic move admitting China in 1971, after a democratic vote by the UN General Assembly, and following President Nixon’s visit to Peking in 1972, The Gambia made a pragmatic diplomatic move by recognizing China.

The Gambian diplomats knew that China could no longer remain a minion in the world order; that it was a country, although then in the throes of birth pains like the Cultural Revolution, destined for world power status. ‘The Communist Chinese (China) have dealt with the more radical states of Africa, such as the Casablanca Group, while maintaining informal and covert relations with factions in other nations. Nationalist (Taiwan) ties are with the more moderate states’, wrote John K. Wang.  This was the case as The Gambia was seen as a moderate state at Independence and this explains why in 1968 Jawara chose Taiwan instead of China. The Gambia established diplomatic relations with China in December 1974.

In 1975, President Sir Dawda Jawara made a high-profile visit to Peking. He and Gambian officials met with various Chinese leaders such as Chairman Mao. This was the highest profile meeting that Jawara had with a Chinese leader. In fact, Jawara was one of the few African leaders to have had the chance to meet with Chairman Mao on two occasions-a measure of how seriously China regarded The Gambia as a dependable partner. In 1987, Jawara made his last visit to China and signed a Cultural Cooperation Agreement.

Indeed, in 1976, Jawara again visited China and met with Chairman Mao, who was then sick but had the strength to meet The Gambian leader. Jawara went to Peking with a big delegation of more than 12 people including high profile Ministers like Sheriff Dibba, Minister of Economic Planning; Foreign Minister A.B Njie and Finance Minister I.M Garba Jahumpa. Jawara’s visits to Peking were captured in film by The Gambia Film Unit of the Department of Information Services. Ebrima Sagnia(1942-2021),  Ebrima Cole and Suwaibou Conateh were the journalists who covered Jawara’s historic visit to Peking. Footages of these historic diplomatic forays were shown round the country, and at the film room of the Unit

At the 1975 and 1976 summits between Jawara and Chairman Mao, various bilateral agreements, including a Trade Agreement, and projects were signed to promote Chinese participation in our development aspirations. The projects signed included the construction of the Independence Stadium and Friendship Hostel in Bakau in 1983, six major health centres at places like Kaur, Kuntaur, Yerobawol, Fagikunda and rice projects in the then Maccarthy Island Division. With Chinese support, The Gambia, in the 1970s and 1980s, was on the cusp of achieving food security.

China also sent medical personnel to The Gambia, especially for Bansang hospital. Dr. B. Sillah(2007) writes that in the two decades from 1976 when The Gambia-China Protocol on Medical Personnel was signed to 1995, over 200 Chinese doctors did long and, or short term stints in Gambian medical facilities. By the time of the 1994 army coup in The Gambia, there were moves to establish defence agreements between Peking and Banjul with the visit of a four-star General of the Chinese army in 1991.

In 1984/1985 academic year, Gambian students got scholarships to study in Chinese universities. The sad events of Tiananmen Square 1989 led to the removal of Gambians students from China. China also assisted in the establishment of The Gambia News Agency, and supported development projects in North Bank region of the country. In 1994, China assisted The Gambia in her petroleum prospecting ventures with an aerial survey of Kanifing and other parts of the country.

In July 1994, the Chinese ambassador to The Gambia became the first diplomat to present his credentials to the new military junta led by Yahya Jammeh, only 4 days after it seized power.

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