Sir Dawda Jawara

The Gambia’s first President Alhaji Sir Dawda K. Jawara has turned 95. A memoir —- a gift to our nation and an inflection point in our national memory —- now behind him, Jawara is looking forward to the end. Ever gracious, Jawara is already at peace with himself. His twilight years haven’t gone in vain —- we’ve noticed.

In describing his personality, the words charm and offensive go hand in pocket. Those who are lucky to step into his orbit say he is genuinely affable; you couldn’t meet up with him and not feel his warmth, his unpretentiousness, his clubbability, his even-keeled temperament.

A democratic temperament. Jawara was a real democrat who believed in the power of moral suasion, in consensus-building, in multiparty politics and in elections. The politics of personal destruction wasn’t his thing.

He wasn’t corrupt. He didn’t amass wealth. He lived within his means. Andrew J Winter, the US Ambassador in The Gambia at the time of the military coup that brought then-Army Captain Yahya Jammeh to power in 1994 and who sailed with Jawara on the La Moury County US military boat off to Dakar during the moments of the military coup, said there wasn’t a single corrupt bone in Jawara’s body.

Wherever I go, I get asked about Jawara: where is he now? A US Marine I chanced upon in the Michigan city of Madison Heights many moons ago and who said he was among the marines on the boat that took Jawara to the safety of Dakar’s shores, fondly remembered Jawara’s poise, his calm-naturedness. Jawara hasn’t receded from international memory because of who he was as president —- a humble, peaceful leader, who was just trying his hand at this thing called leadership, running this small parcel of land that nobody gave any chance of surviving on its own. But succeed he did, in lifting us out of colonial obscurity (Gambian affairs were too often micromanaged from distant shores, and interestingly enough, from Sierra Leone, one of our fellow British West African distant neighbors.)

We live in an imperfect world, and imperfections run rampant in our daily lives, and more so, when we are tasked with the onerous task of running the affairs of a state. In running The Gambia, Jawara made a cornucopia of mistakes. But what leader doesn’t? There are no perfect leaders. It’s either a citizenry is dealing with a Pol Pot or a Mandela or someone in between.

Jawara was closer to Mandela.

Postscript: The Gambia, please put that man on your bank notes. Learn to recognize and honor your leaders. For once, allow me to be a public advocate.

By Cherno Baba Jallow

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