Biography of Da Wda Kairaba Jawara of Gambia

Jawara has been the dominant figure in Gambian politics since independence, and he has been instrumental in preserving a democratic and largely stable political system. Born in Barajally in 1924, he was known as David before converting to Islam. The son of a Mandinka farmer, he was educated locally and in Ghana before going to the University of Glasgow, Scotland, where he graduated in veterinary medicine in 1953. He was the first person from the up-river rural areas of The Gambia to hold a university degree. Returning home, he worked as a veterinary officer in the colonial administration. In 1959 he was one of the founders of the Protectorate People’s Party (PPP, later the People’s Progressive Pany), which was formed to defend the interests of rural people, who had hitherto been neglected. With the extension of the franchise to the whole of the population the PPP won the 1962 election, and Jawara became prime minister in the pre-independence government. He retained this position after independence in 1965, and was knighted by the British in 1966. Shortly after independence he held a referendum on a proposal to change the country to a republic, but it was narrowly defeated. A second referendum on the subject was held in 1970, and this time it received majority support. This meant that Jawara became president of the new republic, and the British monarch ceased to be the formal head of state. The Gambia has retained a multi-party liberal-democratic political system throughout the post-independence period, but in spite of the existence of lively opposition parties, the PPP under Jawara’s leadership has won a majority of seats in each election. The president has exhibited a strong personal commitment to democracy and has strongly resisted any suggestion that The Gambia should become a one-party state. Although his initial success was based on the support of up-river rural people, once in power he worked to develop a truly national base for the PPP. This led to accusations that he was neglecting the interests of his own Mandinka ethnic group, the largest in the population, but he refused to be drawn into policies of ethnic favoritism. He has shown enormous skill in balancing the interests of the various ethnic, regional and religious groups within the country. In July 1981, the political tranquillity of The Gambia was temporarily shattered by an attempted coup mounted by members of the paramilitary section of the police and discontented urban youths. Jawara was in Britain attending a royal wedding when the coup took place, but several members of his family were taken hostage by the rebels.

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To help put down the revolt, the president arranged for assistance from the army of neighboring Senegal under a mutual defense pact. In the event the rebels were defeated and the hostages released, but many people died in the fighting. In the ensuing trials due process of law was strictly followed, and judges were brought in from other Commonwealth countries to help in hearing the cases. The attempted coup appears to have been an isolated and atypical incident, and by the following year general elections were held in the usual manner. During the elections Jawara narrowly escaped death in a helicopter crash which killed some of his travelling companions. One outcome of Jawara strategy in reversing the attempted coup of 1981 was the creation of a new confederal structure linking The Gambia and Senegal. This proved difficult to implement, because of Gambian fears of domination by the larger and more powerful Senegalese state. After several years of very slow progress, marked by disagreement and tension, the confederation finally broke down in 1989. Although The Gambia is one of Africa’s smallest and poorest states Jawara record over the long period he has been in power is impressive. An intelligent, skillful and modest man, he will be a hard act to follow.

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