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Monday, June 14, 2021

The Gambia-China diplomatic ties: 46 years ago, President Jawara visited China and met Chairman Mao

Exactly 46 years ago this week, our founding president His Excellency Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, GCMRG, made the first visit to Peking, China, by a Gambian head of state and met the great Chinese leader Chairman Mao. This visit was indeed one of the most memorable, and most important diplomatic outings by any Gambian leader since 1965. Through the state visit to China, President Jawara was able to sign the Technical Cooperation Agreements which continued to define Chinese support to Gambian development efforts in sports, agriculture, health and infrastructure for the next 20 years to 1995, when diplomatic ties were ruptured unceremoniously by the AFPRC junta.

Jawara’s visit to China from 10-18 June 1975, came only seven months after the establishment of diplomatic ties between Peking and Banjul in November 1974. In a previous article published in April, I had given the context for Banjul severing ties with Formosa (Taiwan) in favour of Peking as a shrewd and pragmatic diplomatic move by the PPP government.

Soon after Banjul-Peking diplomatic ties were established in late 1974, the Chinese Foreign Ministry showed much goodwill and earnestness by sending  one of their experienced diplomats Mr Chen Shi-Pei, as charge d’affaires to Banjul and he took up post late in December 1974, barely six weeks after ties were established. The Gambian Ministry of External Affairs was also quite in earnest; as early as January 1975, Mr Alhaji AB Njie, the Gambian Minister of External Affairs led a high power delegation to Peking on a ‘special mission’. In diplomacy, ‘special missions’ are missions sent abroad to conduct diplomacy with a limited purpose and usually for a limited time.

The limited purpose for this special mission, which included the powerful Gambian secretary general and head of civil service Mr Eric Christensen, was to prepare the way for Jawara’s visit to Peking. Other members of the Gambian delegation were Ambassador Ousman Sallah, Director of Agriculture Dr LJ Marenah, and the Inspector General of Police Fred Lloyd-Evans. The Gambian delegation was in Peking from 28 January to 4 February 1975. On 3 February 1975, Minister Njie signed the protocols for the Technical Cooperation Agreements with his Chinese counterpart, Huan Hua (died 2010). The visit indeed set the ground for President Jawara’s summer visit to China.

Jawara and his delegation arrived in Peking on 10 June 1975. The president was accompanied by Ministers SM Dibba; AB Njie and LK Jabang; civil servants MB Wadda; Dr JA Langley and Swaebou Conateh. For the first time in a foreign visit, Jawara took along a whole press corps to Peking including film cameraman Ebrima Sagnia and reporter Ebrima Cole. This signified the importance that Jawara attached to this visit.

The government owned Gambia News Bulletin had a banner headline: ‘President Leaves for PRC.’ In another issue dated 12 June 1975, the same newspaper had another front page lead: ‘President Jawara Given Rousing Welcome in Peking’. Jawara was received at Peking Airport by a posse of high ranking Chinese leaders including Vice Premier Lii Sien-Nien and Wang Chen and the Foreign Minister Hua. ‘A grand welcome ceremony was held for the Gambian leader at Peking Airport where he also reviewed a guard of honour mounted by the People’s Liberation Army corps’, said a story in Xinhua, the China news agency.

A further testimony for the importance that the Chinese authorities attached to this visit was the fact that Jawara was given the opportunity to visit Chou En Lai (died 1976), the famous premier and diplomat of China, who at the time was sick. Jawara went to see him at his hospital bed, and according to Xinhua, the two leaders spoke for 30 minutes, and were both satisfied with the talks.

At a big banquet held for The Gambian delegation at the Great Hall of the People in Peking, Jawara took a toast for the health of Chairman Mao, the Chinese leader, who at this time was also out of sorts. Speaking at this banquet before dozens of foreign diplomats and the Chinese Communist Party functionaries, Jawara said these famous and prophetic words which continue to define China-Gambia special ties:

“China-Gambia relations have been developing by leaps and bounds since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. China is a member of the Third World; and we the rest of the Developing Countries are happy to have China as a partner for development as there is a lot we could learn from her development techniques, especially for us in The Gambia, agric expansion schemes, infrastructure and light industries”. –  The Gambia News Bulletin, 17 June 1975.

Later the next day in Peking, Jawara signed agreements for the construction of a sports stadium, which became known as the Independence Stadium and Friendship Hostel, and two hospitals, which were later rewired as six health centres at Fajikunda, Kaur, Yorobawol, Kuntaur and other places. Jawara heeded advice from his health experts that at this time what The Gambia needed were not huge hospitals notorious for their specialisation, but small health centres able to respond to the immediate health needs of the people of our republic! It was thanks to these Chinese built major health centres that the primary health care became a Gambian success story. Jawara also signed an agreement to increase the number of China rice experts in the country from 32 to 45 to help increase rice acreage in the country.

Jawara visited Nanking, Shanghai and Yangchow cities to see China’s Great Leap Forward projects. In fact, so impressed was the Gambian leader with China that he told reporters that “China is one giant construction site”. He and delegation also visited The Great Wall, and the rice schemes along the Yangtze River: “President Jawara Impressed by Chinese Agric Schemes’ read a headline in a Banjul paper.

Jawara was hugely impressed by Chairman Mao, the leader of the China. After a closed-door meeting with the ailing revolutionary, Jawara spoke highly of Chairman Mao: “The force of his personality is still evident. On meeting him, you are in no doubt whatsoever, that this is the man who has played such a tremendous role in bringing about a great revolution in the lives of 800,000,000 people of China -a country that had for long suffered considerably at the hands of  invaders, colonialists and imperialists and has suffered all sorts of tribulations, from famine to repression until their great revolution under the leadership Chairman Mao have thrown away the yoke of feudalism and imperialism and famine. Chairman Mao is a great unifier; who has been able to make his words and thoughts the words and thoughts of the many millions in China. China is a great nation to be reckoned with in every way in the future”, The Gambia News Bulletin, 28 June 1975.

Jawara’s visit to Peking in the summer of 1975 was a watershed moment in Gambian diplomatic history. Jawara and delegation had their eyes wide open to see the Chinese strides to transform their country from a backwater to the world superpower, self-sufficient in food, for example, within 25 years from 1949. Through this summer visit, the foundation blocks for China-Gambia mutual relations were laid, and as the ties continue to thrive today, we need to reflect on this famous trip by Jawara to Peking. China inspired Jawara as a country committed to raising the lives of her people from hardship and protecting her sovereignty from invaders. When he returned, Jawara reinvigorated his famous and very useful Tesito or self-help philosophy through which Gambians were mobilised into patriotic action to develop schools, causeways and roads in their communities in search for autarchy. The Gambia will continue to inspire China for her peace and stability and goodwill.

Hassoum Ceesay, a noted historian and author is an alumni of the 2018 Seminar on Think-Tanks for English-Speaking African Countries at the Zhejiang Normal University,  Zhejiang Province, China.

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