State Funeral Today for The Gambia’s Founding Father, Sir Dawda Jawara

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Sir Dawda Jawara outside Gambia House in West London in the 1960s. (Photo: PA)

Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who ruled The Gambia for more than 30 years as Prime Minister and then as its first President after independence from Great Britain, is to be given a state funeral today in Banjul, capital of The Gambia.

Sir Dawda, as he was popularly called throughout his leadership, died on Tuesday in Banjul. He was 95.

The office of Gambian President Adama Barrow confirmed the 95-year-old’s death in a statement, calling him “a champion of international peace, justice and human rights,” and the founding father of “one of Africa’s few successful parliamentary democracies.”

Sir Dawda with Queen Elizabeth, II and other foreign guests.

Born in The Gambia in 1924, Sir Dawda studied Veterinary Medicine at the University of Glasgow, before entering politics in his homeland in the late 1950s.

In 1960, he contested and won his first election with the ruling People’s Progressive Party, who made him Prime Minister and Head of government two years later.

Sir Dawda led his country to independence from Britain in 1965, and to full republic status in 1970, at which time he became the president.

He led the country until 1994, when deposed in a bloodless military coup led by Yahya Jammeh, who went on to rule for 22 years. Sir Dawda then lived in Britain until 2002, when he returned to his homeland and lived in quiet.

Sir Dawda can be considered the godfather of The Gambia’s first professional and first daily newspaper, the Daily Observer, founded in 1992 by Liberian journalist Kenneth Y. Best, his wife Mrs. Mae Gene Best and their family.

Kenneth and Mae Gene founded Liberia’s first independent daily newspaper in February 1981. They sought exile in The Gambia in 1990, where they arrived with their children on Wednesday, August 1, 1990 from Accra, Ghana, after spending their first two months in exile.

Exactly four days following their arrival in Banjul, Mr. Best was most fortunate to have been granted audience with President Jawara on Sunday, August 5, 1990.  This was just as the five members of the Mediation Committee of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were arriving in Banjul for a meeting to discuss the Liberian Civil War that was raging, turning terribly worse at the time.  President Samuel K. Doe and his cruel and murderous forces had just the week before, on July 29, 1990 massacred some 600 people in the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on Tubman Boulevard, Monrovia.  These unfortunate victims and many others had gathered in the sacred edifice seeking refuge from Doe’s marauding death squads.

It was following this tragic incident that President Jawara, as Chairman of the ECOWAS Mediation Committee, convened a meeting of the Committee on August 5 at the Kairaba, The Gambia’s first five-star hotel, which was given President Jawara’s middle name.

The Saturday evening prior to the meeting, Kenneth Y. Best was fortunate to have been visited by the British Ambassador, Alex Ibbot, who had served in Liberia a short while before.  Mr. Best was miraculously spotted by the British Ambassador while standing outside a telecommunication booth awaiting a call to Freetown the Thursday before.  The Ambssador reversed his vehicle and approached Mr. Best, saying, “This is Kenneth Best.”

“Ambassador Ibbot what are you doing here?” Kenneth asked.

“This is where the Queen sent me on leaving Liberia,” Ambassador Ibbot said.

“He immediately invited me to lunch at the embassy and gave me his card, on the back of which he placed his bedside number,” Mr. Best said.

The rest is history, which is unknown to most people.  For it was following the Lutheran Church massacre that Ken Best, now back in Accra, called Ambassador Ibbot on the Monday after the tragic event and asked him to gather his Western diplomatic colleagues to go and see President Jawara and tell him to say something and do something, because up to that point and the Monday night following the massacre, not a single African leader had said anything condemning the tragic incident.

Ambassador Ibbot replied that he would do just that.  The following Thursday, August 2, Mr. Best called the ambassador to inform him of his arrival in Banjul.  And this is what the Ambassador told Kenneth. “We did as you requested—all the Western Ambassadors, the French, German and I.  What you heard on the radio this morning, Thursday, August 2, 1990, is the result.  President Jawara immediately convened a meeting of the Mediation Committee for urgent discussions on Liberia.  Now, Kenneth, I just learned that the President of Sierra Leone, Mr. Momoh, is due to arrive on Saturday evening for the meeting.  If you wish, I can take you to the airport.  There you will be able to meet all the people who will be able to help you with your newspaper effort in The Gambia.”

Ambassador Ibbot also contacted Mr. Best on Saturday evening, saying that the Nigerian Head of State, President Ibrahim Babangida, was due to arrive at the airport in Banjul on Sunday morning.  “If you wish, I can take you there too,” Ambassador Ibbot said.

“It was at the airport the following Sunday morning that I met the Gambian Chief of Protocol, an affable and ever-smiling man named Ambassador Mohammed Bobb; and it was he who willingly arranged for me to meet President Jawara at the Kairaba that same Sunday afternoon,” Mr. Best said.

Mr. Best continued, “While seated with my brother, Canon Burgess Carr, former General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches, now working in New York as Africa Secretary of Protestant Episcopal Church, USA, who had shown up for the meeting, Ambassador Bobb tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘It will be three-thirty, and I will come and escort you to President Jawara.’”

“By the grace of God and through Ambassador Bobb’s generosity,” Mr. Best said, “I met President Jawara one-on-one in his suite at the Karaba.  I thanked him for everything, including his statement on Radio Gambia welcoming Liberian refugees and convening the Mediation Committee meeting.  I then told the Gambian leader of my intention to start an independent daily newspaper in The Gambia.

“President Jawara beamed a bright smile of approval and told me, looking me directly in the eye, ‘We need it; you go and do it.’

“I took that as a serious mandate, and immediately got to work.  The result is the Gambian Daily Observer, that ran from May 11, 1992 until around 2000, when the newspaper was taken over by President Yahya Jammeh shortly following my deportation from The Gambia,” Mr. Best said.

The Gambian Daily Observer ran successfully until few months following the ECOWAS removal of Yahya Jammeh as president, when the new Gambian government discovered that though he had made millions running the newspaper, he had paid NO taxes.  So the government closed down the paper until the taxes could be paid.

“One last thing: After the country lost its only daily, one of the Observer’s younger journalists, Sheriff Bojang, whose father had brought him to me and told me, ‘My son says he wants to be a journalist.  Please make him a journalist,”  is that same Sheriff Bojang who, following the sudden absence of the Gambian Daily Observer, has now started his own daily newspaper, The Standard, and has been running it successfully,” Mr. Best said.

To this, we say, Praise God!

President Jawara, thank you and R.I.P.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Tell this story to John H.T.Stewart of your staff, Sylvester G.Moses and many other Liberians who continuouly blamed one person of instigating the civil crises in Liberia on one person- ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF! Absolving Samuel Kanyon Doe of all wrong doing and painting he and few of his tribal zealots as “SAINTS”. Let us learnt our country political history. Thanks

  2. Gbada Harris, this narrative has given us new insights to the fateful role of Mr. Kenneth Best and tremendous efforts by a dearly departed statesman in driving ECOMOG’s intervention. It doesn’t purport to present us with the cause of the Civil War, or who started it, and you are too smart to pretend otherwise.

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