By Mathew K Jallow, Madison, Wisconsin
The term Founding Father conjures up images of the American Revolution, and applying it to Sir Dawda K. Jawara, has always felt like a stretch for me. Yet, the realism and enigma of Sir Dawda is articulated in the pioneering spirit with which he so ably led The Gambia into the age of political independence. Sir Dawda Jawara was moulded in a cast, which almost defied definition. The embodiment of a conglomeration of three cultures wrapped into one person, Sir Dawda, out of social expediency developed a redeeming neutral identity that combined his Wollof cultural upbringing by a detribalized Fula family and set him on a journey to adolescent identity crisis. Sir Dawda’s character and personality are the products of the refine and sophistication of the Aku (i.e. Creole) culture into which he married, his omnipresent Mandinka heritage, which loomed large in his background and the Wollofnized Fula upbringing that shaped his early years. And growing up in Bathurst (now Banjul) where his sense of tribal identity was diffused by homogenizing forces more powerful than the divisive tribal identity, Sir Dawda, became the product of the environment and circumstances that profoundly impacted his early life. With the pull of the different cultures and the draw of conflicting identities, Sir Dawda learnt to rise above the narrow limitations of tribal identity and to escape to a neutral safe-haven, and away from the demons of his inner cultural identity conflict.
Even when politics necessitated a response to the self-interests that consumed the antagonistic tribal forces in his government, he seemed to quietly retreat into the familiar neutral. And nearly two decades after his fall from political grace, Sir Dawda’s story is still being written by the inadvertent paradoxes of history, as contrasts with Yahya Jammeh’s murderous regime becomes the true testament of the genius of Sir Dawda’s leadership. There is no a doubt that the verdict of history will cast President Dawda Jawara in good light; notwithstanding the economic failures that supposedly led to his political downfall. Throughout his public life, Sir Dawda remained neutral to a fault; for when faced with competing tribal forces, he show-cased neutrality that often bordered on detachment from the nitty-gritty of the nation’s daily political life. Sir Dawda K Jawara was never given to drama, and even when the nation’s resources were plundered right before his eyes, he seemed almost unable to provoke a sense of accountability and discipline in response to the exigencies of the moment. And despite his abundant gift of wisdom, Sir Dawda Jawara easily fell victim to his popularity, but more important than that, he never learnt to hold the feet of his subordinates to the fire. It was this lackadaisical approach to governance that became his undoing. For, even as he drew sharp criticism for the country’s descent into the depths of corruption and tribal infighting, he seemed to bury his head into the sand.
Yet, despite his failures as our leader, Gambians today would rather relive the worst of the Sir Dawda K. Jawara era, than to remain prisoners in a state of suspended animation that challenges our national conscience and degrades our humanity. The last two decades of Yahya Jammeh’s ignorant dramatics are radically different from the tempered era of Sir Dawda; an era characterized by the paradoxes of insidious tribal conflict and manifest political harmony. As President, Sir Dawda was without a doubt a man of vision both by nature and circumstance, yet he lacked the strength and the force of will to rein in the run-away corruption, looting and the pervasive plunder of our nation’s resources. Today, that corruption remains embedded in the body politics of our country; only elevated to a level of corruption bordering a crisis situation. In spite of this, Sir Dawda remains the picture perfect embodiment of nobility and grace; a rare breed of politician who exudes an angelic serenity; a man who seems more focused on his unique qualities as a compassionate statesman and whose superior morals preclude greed for material wealth. In that regard alone, Sir Dawda has become the true definition of honour. During his thirty-year long presidency, Sir Dawda provided opportunity for Gambians, yet somehow, the cloud of ethical degradation that hung over his successive governments, failed to alert his good judgment for reason that to this day leaves many Gambians perplexed. As President, Sir Dawda Jawara was unlike most African leaders of his generation; leaders who took advantage of their positions to enrich themselves with the wealth of their people. If there is one negative about the era of Sir Dawda on which there is universal consensus, it is that he overstayed as president, even when the signs for his departure were written on the wall for all to see.
But, since we cannot undo the past, we must find solace in the remarkable achievements of Sir Dawda Jawara’s long, peaceful reign. Today, only a few other African countries have had the success of ingraining the values of democracy and the rule of law in their citizens as The Gambia under Sir Dawda. Ours is not merely the romanticized notion of democracy, judging from the plethora of angry voices shouting freedom, not only from behind the ominous dark shadows of the confining walls of the deadly prisons, but also from the unforgiving distances that separate Gambians from their beloved homeland. Today, Gambians on all continents are forming a critical mass in their opposition to Yahya Jammeh’s murderous regime, and this is possible only because Sir Dawda Jawara gave us a taste of what it was like to live as free people. But, today, the narcissism, brutality and greed of Yahya Jammeh stand in sharp contrast to the humility and frugality of Sir Dawda, whose humane predisposition is the product of highly enlightened personality. Sir Dawda may not acknowledge the failings of his successive governments, but he has given us much more than material rewards; he allowed us to retain our inalienable rights as free people, and this is more than Gambians could ever ask for. Truth be told, there is no greater gift Sir Dawda could have given us than the gift of liberty. Now, as age takes its inevitable toll and Sir Dawda continues his graceful march towards the lonely and melancholic sunset, his legacy will remain etched in our hearts, our souls, all across our land. Sir Dawda has carved out a name for himself in our hearts; as a leader, a humanitarian and a statesman. Happy Birthday, Sir Dawda K Jawara.