As Sir Dawda K Jawara, Gambia's first and former president due in Atlanta, Georgia, for his book signing, Mathew K Jallow revisits his archives for a fitting dedication to the man of the hour
The term "Founding Father" conjures up mental 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 mush-rooming age of political independence. Sir Dawda Jawara was molded 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 in a detribalized Fula family, and set him on a journey towards adolescent identity crisis.
Sir Dawda's character and personality are the products of the refined sophistication of the Aku culture into which he married, the omnipresent Mandinka heritage which loomed large in his background and the Wollofnied Fula upbringing that shaped his early years. And growing up in Bathurst, now Banjul, where his discriminating sense of tribal identity was diffused by homogenizing cultural forces more powerful than the confounding sense of tribe, Sir Dawda, became a product of the environmental circumstances that profoundly pervaded his early life. With the pull of different cultures and the draw of conflicting identities, Sir Dawda learnt to rise above the narrow limitations of tribal identity to escape to a neutral safe-haven and away from the demons of his inner conflict. Even when political demands 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 more than a decade and half after his fall from political grace, Sir Dawda's story is still being written by the inadvertent paradoxes of history; as the contrast 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 Jawara in good light; notwithstanding the economic failures that supposedly led to his political downfall. Throughout his public life, Sir Dawda had remained neutral to a fault, for when faced with competing and antagonistic tribal forces, he show-cased a balanced, if not a non-intrusive quality that often bordered on senile detachment from the natty gritty of the nation's daily political life. Sir Dawda was never given to drama, and even when the nation's capital resources were plundered and depleted right before his eyes, he seemed almost unable to provoke 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. And 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 unfathomable 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 choose to relive the worst of the Jawara era, than remain prisoners in a state of suspended animation that challenges our national conscience and degrades our humanity. The last fifteen years of Yahya Jammeh's brutal dramatics are radically different from the tempered era of Sir Dawda; an era characterized by a dichotomous irony 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, to elevate the level of corruption to a dangerous crisis situation. In spite of this, Sir Dawda has remained the picture perfect embodiment of nobility and grace, a rare breed of politician who exudes a celestial serenity; a man who seems fixated on his unique qualities as a compassion statesman; and a man whose superior morals precludes the need for greed and material wealth. In that regard alone, Sir Dawda has become the true definition of honor.
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 still leaves many Gambians perplexed and left in wonderment. As president, Sir Dawda Jawara was unlike most African leaders and politicians of his generation; leaders who took advantage of their positions to enrich themselves with the wealth of their people. If there was one negative about the era of Sir Dawda on which there is universal agreement among Gambians, it was 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 at least find solace in the remarkable achievements of Sir Dawda'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. For ours is not merely the romanticized notion of democracy, judging by the plethora of angry voices shouting freedom, not only from behind the ominous dark shadows of the confining walls of our prisons, but also from to the unforgiving distances that separate Gambians from their beloved homeland. Gambians on all continents are forming a critical mass in their opposition to Jammeh's murderous and dictatorial regime, and this is possible only because Sir Dawda gave us a taste of what it was like to live as free people. And today, the narcissism, brutality and greed of Yahya Jammeh stand in sharp contrast to the humility and frugality of Sir Dawda; a man whose humane predisposition is the product of highly cultured personality.
True, Sir Dawda may at some point admit to some of the failings of his successive governments, but he has given us much more than material rewards. He allowed us to retain our inalienable rights and freedoms, and this is more than Gambians could ever ask for. For if truth be told, there is no greater gift Sir Dawda could have given us than the gift of liberty. And now, as age takes its inevitable toll, and Sir Dawda continues his dignified march towards the lonely and melancholic sunset, his legacy will remain etched in our hearts, our souls and all across our land. Sir Dawda has carved out a name in our hearts for himself, as a leader, a humanitarian and a statesman. But no one can tell the story of Sir Dawda K Jawara our first president more than himself, and his book signing in Atlanta, Georgia, next week, will begin that storytelling, and perhaps, just perhaps, for many of us, ignite the nostalgia of a time past under the leadership of a statesman for the ages.