Dawda Jawara, Founding Father of Gambia, Dies at 95

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Dawda Jawara, a veterinarian-turned-politician who led Gambia to independence from the British and then presided over the country as it became one of Africa’s longest-running democracies, died on Aug. 27 at his home in Fajara, a coastal suburb of Banjul, the capital. He was 95.

Mr. Jawara was long hailed for promoting tolerance, human rights and the rule of law at a time when sub-Saharan Africa was dominated by authoritarianism and military regimes.

He was president of his small West African nation until 1994, when, in a bloodless coup, it fell into the hands of Yahya Jammeh, a young officer who embarked on a brutal 22-year rule.

Some of Mr. Jawara’s success came from the contacts he made before he became a politician, when he traveled the countryside vaccinating cattle in his 30s, an experience that connected him with broad swaths of his nation.

“There’s not a cow in the Gambia that doesn’t know me personally,” he liked to say.

Mr. Jawara, a bespectacled man of modest bearing, negotiated independence in 1965, part of a wave of liberation movements that reshaped the continent in the 1960s. He was elected Gambia’s first president in 1970.

His death comes at a particularly raw time for Gambia. Mr. Jammeh, his successor, recently lost a presidential election and fled the country. A new president, Adama Barrow, was democratically elected, and the nation is in the midst of truth and reconciliation hearings, which have laid bare the atrocities of Mr. Jammeh’s rule. Several of Mr. Jammeh’s lieutenants have recently admitted to murdering suspected dissidents.

The investigations and disclosures have left many feeling nostalgic for the Jawara era and deeply aware of the vulnerabilities of Gambia’s democracy.

Dawda Kaibara Jawara was born on May 16, 1924, in Barajally Tenda, a small town in the Gambian interior, while the nation was under British control. His mother, Mama Fatty, was a homemaker; his father, Almami Jawara, a merchant.

Mr. Jawara studied veterinary medicine at the University of Glasgow. On returning to Gambia, he converted from Islam to Christianity, took the name David and married a Christian woman, Augusta Mahoney.

He had worked as a veterinarian and was the country’s chief veterinary officer when he decided to enter politics, having grown convinced that Gambia had to follow in the footsteps of neighboring countries, including Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria, and become independent.

At the time, his schooling made him one of the most educated people in his country, and he was chosen by members of the new People’s Progressive Party, or PPP, to be its leader. The party generally favored capitalist development and liberal democracy, with a reliance on international donors for help.

From the outset, Mr. Jawara’s success was improbable. He inherited a system of poor social services, including a limited number of schools and hospitals, and an export economy based mostly on groundnuts.

But he encouraged agricultural diversification and mostly avoided extravagant spending, winning him praise.

He saw an opportunity to improve tourism with the publication of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” (1976), the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alex Haley that begins with the tale of one of his ancestors, Kunta Kinte, in the Gambian village of Juffure. Mr. Jawara declared the town a national monument as a way to encourage visitors.

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CreditGambia Presidency/via Reuters

“Gambia has no prestige projects, no grandiose spending projects, no political prisoners, no army and no defense budget,” The New York Times wrote in 1977. “Its elections are perhaps the cleanest on the continent: it has opposition parties and a free press, including several mimeographed broadsides that attack the Government in roundhouse punches.”

Some in Gambia, however, wanted more rapid improvement, and one of Mr. Jawara’s greatest challenges came in 1981, when a young Marxist named Kukoi Samba Sanyang led an attempted coup. At the time, Mr. Jawara was in London attending the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer (who became the princess of Wales). Without a military, Mr. Jawara had to rely on President Abdou Diouf of neighboring Senegal to send in troops to push out the rebels.

The coup failed, and Mr. Jawara returned to the capital. Officials put the Gambian death toll, including rebels and civilians, at 500; some put it higher.

Mr. Jawara maintained a competitive party system and held free and fair elections. After independence, his party won in every general election.

In a biographical essay on Mr. Jawara, the Gambian journalist Alagi Yorro Jallow attributed this success to Mr. Jawara’s skillful use of political patronage to persuade opponents to side with him.

He also wrote that with Gambia divided among many ethnic groups — including the Mandinka, the Fula, the Wolof, the Jola and the Serers, all of which speak different languages — Mr. Jawara had shown great skill in creating a broad demographic coalition, uniting an “educationally deprived rural populace” with an urban elite.

But Mr. Jallow wrote that many citizens eventually lost faith in a party that had so much power. Moreover, an ambitious economic recovery program opened the door to more and more corruption, further eroding trust in the government and Mr. Jawara’s party.

In 1994, soldiers led by Mr. Jammeh, then a 29-year-old lieutenant, stormed Banjul and took over the government. Mr. Jawara escaped aboard a United States Navy warship that happened to be anchored off the coast of Banjul. He lived in exile in London.

Mr. Jammeh ruled in ways Mr. Jawara had fought against. The new leader outlawed opposition parties, muzzled reporters and sent soldiers to attack political protests. Some compared political conditions in Gambia to those in North Korea.

Mr. Jawara returned to Gambia in 2002. Gambians voted Mr. Jammeh out in 2016, and Mr. Jawara lived just long enough to see his country return to democracy.

His marriage to Ms. Mahoney ended in divorce. He eventually returned to Islam, taking two wives in accordance with Muslim tradition. Survivors include his wives, Chilel Jawara and Njaimeh Jawara, and several children.

On Thursday, at a funeral held at the National Assembly in Banjul, Mr. Jawara’s coffin was draped in the Gambian flag. A large crowd of supporters gathered for the service, some dressed in white and black, local colors of mourning.

Critical voices accused Mr. Jawara of having tolerated corruption, making him vulnerable to the attempted coup in 1981 and Mr. Jammeh’s successful one in 1994.

But Mariam Jack-Denton, the speaker of the Gambian National Assembly, called him a “continental symbol” who had helped found the Organization of African Unity, an important economic and social development body now known as the African Union.

“Here lies a man who has fought for the independence of this country from colonialism and built it from scratch, despite pressures from colonial masters,” Ms. Jack-Denton said, addressing the crowd.

She added, “With sound judgment, dignity and leadership, President Jawara proved all critics wrong by guiding our nation to unprecedented development.”


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