The post-conflict history of Liberia will never be complete without mention of the name of Sir Dawda Alhaji Kairaba Jawara, now of sainted memory, for the pioneering role he played in restoring peace to war-torn Liberia. At the time in 1990, when the nation was in flames and Liberians were fleeing the land of their birth in search of safety and when the West, particularly the United States of America, Liberia’s oldest ally, with subsisting traditional and blood ties could do little or nothing to stop the crisis, it was the West African Community led by its then Chairman Jawara that rose to the occasion and took the initiative to restore peace to war torn Liberia.
It was under his auspices that a meeting of what was to become the West African Mediation Committee was organized and commenced forthwith, setting into motion a process whose outcome would determine the fate of thousands of starving and dying Liberians in 1990. As a first step in the process, a West African Mediation Committee was constituted to begin the search for peace in Liberia.
This Committee sent out invitations to all parties to the conflict to convene in Banjul in order to fashion out a peace agreement of some sort, stop the fighting as a matter of immediacy and work out a governing arrangement to guide the process of return to normalcy. President Jawara had meanwhile offered to play host, a request which was graciously accepted. It was in August 1990 that an all Liberian conference was convened in The Gambia where armed parties to the conflict were also invited.
Of the three warring groups, AFL, NPFL and INPFL, invited only the Charles Taylor-led NPFL was absent. At the end of the day, an interim government was formed comprising various stakeholders. Although the government was yet exiled in Banjul, it was a milestone achievement because it now paved the way for the military intervention of the West African Community (ECOWAS) to end the raging carnage and place the country on a path to peace.
But aside from underwriting the costs of the proceedings in Banjul and the temporary hosting of the new interim government, President Jawara, leader of a country with a population of less than one million at the time, contributed a contingent of troops from his country’s tiny armed forces to serve with the ECOMOG contingent in Liberia. By coincidence the military officer, Yahya Jammeh, who was to later overthrow him, was assigned to serve as part of his country’s contingent in the ECOMOG force.
Eventually peace and calm was restored to the country by ECOWAS but at a high cost in material and human resources, especially human lives. Their sacrifice brings to mind the words of the Lord Jesus Christ in the book of John 15:13: Greater love has no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends”. Also, in John 10:11 Christ says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep”.
But aside from his contributions to Liberia and West Africa, the late President Jawara also played a pioneering role in the politics of his country, which left such an imprint on The Gambia that even 22 years of fascist military rule could not erase. That imprint, “TOLERANCE,” was perhaps the fire that Gambians nurtured in their bosom as it kept hope alive and inspired their rejection – at the polls – of a highly intolerant leader and despot.
He can be rightly credited for expanding the democratic space in The Gambia by allowing room for free expression. His commitment to such democratic ideals found expression in his words of encouragement and unflinching support to Daily Observer publisher, Kenneth Y. Best, to open The Gambia’s first independent newspaper, which contributed in no small measure in enhancing popular access to accurate, objective, balanced and factual information to the broad spectrum of Gambians.
However, the Gambian Daily Observer was shutdown in 2017 by the current Gambian government on account of unpaid taxes incurred by military dictator Jammeh who had deported Mr. Best and taken possession of the newspaper.
But the late Jawara, like most of his African counterparts, had challenges stemming mainly from slow-paced efforts to meet growing expectations or the failure to tackle those challenges in an impactful way on their living conditions. His was compounded by the lack of natural resources and an economy highly dependent on the export of peanuts, which were subject to the vagaries of price instability on the world market, as well as by conditions imposed by IMF structural adjustment policies, which tended to drive people into poverty rather than lift them out of poverty.
The attempted coup of 1994 against his government led by Kukoi Samba Samyang, which was reversed by Senegalese troops, however, left a sour taste in the mouths of many Gambians who felt the presence of Senegalese troops in their country constituted an affront to the sovereign pride of Gambians.
But Jawara, unlike other African leaders, did not react to those developments with the kind of authoritarian, punitive and brutal backlash characteristic of most failed coups in Africa. Although hundreds of individuals were arrested in the aftermath of the failed coup and subsequently tried, with some receiving death sentences, Jawara commuted death sentences to life imprisonment and conducted speedy trials that saw the release of over 800 persons.
Serious offenders were tried by an impartial panel of judges drawn from Anglophone Commonwealth countries. This step was testamentary of Jawara’s sense of fair play and respect for human rights. In this regard, he was a pacesetter as a human rights campaigner. Perhaps this can explain why the AU Charter on Human and Peoples Rights is otherwise known as the Banjul Charter because it was drawn up in Banjul in 1986. The Africa Center for Democracy and Human Rights, which was established in The Gambia in 1989 and is headquartered in its capital, Banjul, is a befitting testimony to his role as a Human Rights campaigner. He has played well his part and has now exited the stage of life.
Farewell to a Great African Patriot! May the God of our Ancestors welcome you into his fold and entrust you to their company.