By Mathew K Jallow

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 to me. Yet, the realism and enigma of Sir Dawda is articulated in the pioneering spirit with which he so ably led Gambia into the 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 to adolescent identity crisis. Sir Dawda’s character and personality are the products of the refine and sophistication of the Aku 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 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, to escape to a neutral safe-haven, and far away from the demons of his inner cultural identity conflict.

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Late Alhagie Sir Dawda K Jawara with Queen Elizabeth 11 and Prince Philip far right

Even when politics necessitated a response to the self-interests that consumed the antagonistic tribal forces in his government, Sir Dawda 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 the contrasts with Yahya Jammeh’s murderous regime become 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, which led to his eventual political downfall. Throughout his public life, Sir Dawda remained neutral to a fault; for even when faced with competing tribal forces, he showcased neutrality that often bordered on detachment from the natty 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 Sir Dawda drew sharp criticism for the descent into the depths of corruption and tribal infighting, he seemed to bury his head into the sand.

Yet, despite his faults and failures, Gambians today would rather relive the worst of the Sir Dawda K Jawara era, than remain prisoners in a state of suspended animation that challenges our national conscience and degrades the humanity of Gambians. The last two decades of Yahya Jammeh’s political 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 and the pervasive plunder of our nation’s resources. And today, corruption remains embedded in Gambia’s body politics; only elevated to a level of gravity that borders on the cataclysmic. In spite of this, Sir Dawda remains the picture perfect embodiment of nobility and grace; a rare breed of politician who exudes serenity; a man who seems more focused on his unique qualities as a compassion statesman, and whose superior morality precludes greed for material wealth. In this 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 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.

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 in Gambia under Sir Dawda. Ours is not merely the romanticized notions of democracy, judging from the plethora of angry voices shouting freedom, not only from behind the ominous dark shadows of the confining walls the Gambia’s deadly prison complex, but also from the unforgiving distances that separate Gambians from their beloved homeland. As it is, 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. Military leader, Yahya Jammeh’s narcissism, brutality and greed stands in sharp contrast to the compassion, humility and frugality of Sir Dawda, whose humane predisposition is the product of a highly enlightened person. Sir Dawda Jawara may not acknowledge all the failures of his successive governments, but he has given us much more than material rewards; he allowed us to retain our inalienable rights as a free people, and this is more than Gambians could ever ask for. For, truth be told, there is no greater gift Sir Dawda Jawara could have given Gambians than the gift of living free. 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 this land. Sir Dawda has carved out a name for himself in our hearts, as a leader, a humanitarian and a true statesman. Rest in Perfect Peace, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara. You will be missed.