The demise of this illustrious son of Africa came to me as a shock as I recently saw him in a video three months ago looking radiant and ebullient, despite his advanced age.
When Mohandis Karamchan Gandhi, commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi (the great soul) was gunned down by a Hindu fanatic in 1948, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister in a glowing tribute to him said that A light has gone.
“Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. I do not know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that. Nevertheless, we will not see him again as we have seen him for these many years. We will not run to him for advice and seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not to me only, but to millions and millions in this country, and it is a little difficult to soften the blow by any other advise that I or anyone else can give you”.
This eulogy applies aptly to Baba Kairaba as he was fondly known. He was indeed a light in his own right, a trail blazer, a beacon of hope and a paragon of justice. He was a light that will never be extinguished, despite his physical disappearance.
At independence in1965, the Gambia’s GDP per capita was barely USD 100. (It is now about USD700. On account of this, the international community dismissed the country’s prospects for an independent nation. Like Botswana, it was not only resource-poor, it was also hopelessly lacking the requisite human capital required for a newly independent state. The UN commissioned a study to determine a viable and suitable political arrangement for the country. Several options were explored, including a loose federation with Senegal, a complete merger with Senegal or a completely independent state. The ensuing study concluded that the country was not politically and economically viable. This was exemplified by Berkeley Rice’s book entitled “Enter the Gambia, the birth of an improbable nation”. The study, however, concluded that there is considerable scope for community work and service on account of the close knit nature of the society, which eventually culminated in the establishment of the Department of Community Development. Masembeh in Kiang hosted a community development training center. Its first Director was a Dutch, Van der Plas, commonly known as “Boraba” (his beard was long and bushy) who was probably the first white man I saw. He frequented Dumbutu in his Land Rover quite often. As a small boy growing up in the village, I did not know his mission. As it were, community development has become a household name in the Gambia as an incidental outcome.
President Jawara stood firm and insisted on full independence for the Gambia. The country was granted internal self-government in 1963, followed by full independence in 1965, and finally culminating in a republic in 1970. Through hills and dales, he was able to shepherd the affairs of the country with distinction, albeit the scarce resources at the country’s disposal. Unlike countries such as Sierra Leone and the DRC, which cannot be compared with the Gambia by any stretch of imagination in terms of resources, salaries were never in arrears. He was able to maintain law and order, ensured security and created national unity.
Under his leadership, the Government implemented one of the most successful structural adjustment programs, dubbed the Economic Recovery Program, followed by the Program for Sustained Development and underpinned by a robust Administrative Reform Program, which served as a model for other African countries. The Gambia was poised to become the “Singapore” of the region. Alas, the military junta shamelessly and scandalously reversed its gains. Quite poignantly, the political pundits have been belied about the viability of the country’s independence.
One can accuse Jawara of anything but tribalism, one can accuse Jawara of anything but corruption, one can accuse Jawara of anything but religious bigotry. (Christians and Muslims live and continue to live in harmony. Muslims join Christians in celebrating Christmas while Christians join Muslims in celebrating EID. The distinction between the two denominations is blurred). One can accuse Jawara of anything but nepotism. (He never accorded any privileges to his relatives owing to his intrinsic belief in merit; he abhors political interference in all shapes and forms).
A descent man, harmless, guileless, forgiving, soft spoken and unassuming, he could not kill a fly. There were numerous instances where he pacified his political opponents who defected from the PPP. There were also numerous instances where he gave cabinet ministers, who were dismissed, a second chance. He believed in the fallibility of human beings. Through out his reign, there were no extra judicial executions, a rare feat and unique achievement in the Africa of his time.
He adopted an open mind in his administration. Some close associates have advised him to distance himself from civil servants who are linked or related to opposition elements. He turned a deaf hear to all such advice. He never equated opposition with enmity. On the contrary, he believed in dialogue and negotiation and in the inalienable rights and freedoms of citizens as enshrined in the UN Charter on Human Rights. He saw very little, if any distinction, between the government and the people. A far as he was concerned, the Government and the people are one and inseparable.
I had one personal encounter with him while serving as a Cadet Economist and Secretary to the Major Tender Board at the Ministry of Finance. I was part of an evaluation committee that recommended the award of a contract to a company which was not the lowest bidder. The tender was in respect of the supply of tractors to the Jahaly Pacharr project. One of the companies which lost the bid took it up with a cabinet Minister. The chairman of the evaluation committee was summoned to cabinet. For some strange reason, I was asked by the chairman to shed light on the matter. On arrival in cabinet, I was particularly impressed by Baba Jawara’s courtesy to a young professional like me. He never appeared in any way or manner as to prejudge, intimidate or harass me. He solicited reasons for not awarding the contract to three bidders whose contact sums were lower than the one the committee recommended. The reasons I proffered were as follows: The first one requested for a down payment of 30% as opposed to 10% as stipulated in the Financial Instructions. The second one indicated a delivery period which is much longer than the company the committee recommended and the third one’s bid was not responsive to the tender. He subsequently solicited questions from his Ministers some of whom believed that the answers I gave were not satisfactory. One cabinet Minister indicated that I could have called the bidder to reduce the down payment to 10%. Similarly, the other Minister wondered why I did not call the other bidder to reduce the delivery period. He did not entertain those queries, released and thanked me for my clarifications. Finally, Cabinet upheld the endorsed the recommendation of the evaluation committee. I went back triumphantly to the Ministry and briefed the Permanent Secretary.
The Gambia was the pride of Africa during his time. It is an opportune moment for Gambians to remind themselves that greatness is not only determined by the amount of resources an individual or nation possesses. It is also influenced by intrinsic values such as forgiveness, tolerance, solidarity, humility, compassion, empathy and respect for others with different views even if one feels that they are wrong. After all, differences can be a source of strength.
We can take comfort in the fact that there are thousands and indeed millions of people sympathizing with us at this great moment of grief and melancholy.
Unlike many of our leaders, history will be kind to him and his name will remain immortalized in the annals of Gambia’s history as father of the nation, as a consummate politician, as champion of human rights, as a unifier, as a Pan Africanist, as a pacifist, as a seasoned civil servant, as a technocrat, as an administrator, as a statesman and as a universal man. (I can go on ad infinitum). Suffice it to say that future generations should build on his insights and achievements. A Danish philosopher once said that when a tyrant dies, his rule ends while a hero’s death marks the beginning of his reign. Baba Kairaba’s reign is just beginning with his demise. I am sure that the Gambia Government and the family will receive a flurry of condolence messages from all over the world, including the international community. If Baba Jawara is to be remembered for anything, it is his unflinching commitment to democratic principles and respect for human rights. He imbued the country with democratic principles, which continued to thrive even after his ouster and helped depose the former dictator. As one can observe, the Gambia’s democracy is evolving into maturity, a trend that is irreversible.
May Allah SWT grant the family, loved ones and the entire nation the strength and rectitude to bear this irreparable loss. Additionally, may Allah SWT forgive him for any mistakes he might have committed and grant him the highest place in heaven.
Suwareh Darbo was born in Dumbutu, Kiang West in 1963. He began his professional career in the Ministry of Finance in 1988 where he served until 1995 before joining the United Nations Development Program in the Gambia as National Economist until 2004. He is currently the Principal Country Economist for Lesotho at the African Development Bank’s Regional Resource Center based in Pretoria, South Africa.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of the African Development Bank.