Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, GCMG (born May 16, 1924) was the first leader of the Gambia, serving first as Prime Minister from 1962 to 1970 and then as President from 1970 to 1994.
He was initially trained as a veterinary surgeon at the Glasgow veterinary school he then moved to complete his training at Liverpool University. From 1962 until 1970, when the country was a Commonwealth realm with Elizabeth II as head of state, Jawara was Prime Minister and head of government; a 1970 referendum made the country a republic, and Jawara became the nation's first president on April 24 of that year.
Born Kairaba Jawara on May 16, 1924 at Barajally, MacCarthy Island Division (now Central River Division). His parents were Mamma Fatty and Almami Jawara, Sir Dawda was educated at the Methodist Boys’ High School in colonial Bathurst (now Banjul), then attended Achimota College in Ghana, he then finished his studies at the University of Glasgow.
Childhood and early education
Dawda Jawara was born in 1924 to Almammi Jawara and Mamma Fatty in the village of Barajally Tenda in the central region of the Gambia, approximately 150 miles from the capital, Banjul then called Bathurst. One of six sons, Dawda is the lastborn on his mother’s side and a younger brother to sister Na Ceesay and brothers Basaddi and Sheriffo Jawara. Their father Almammi, who had several wives, was a well-to-do trader who commuted from Barajally Tenda to his trading post in Wally Kunda. Dawda from an early age attended the local Arabic schools to memorize the Quran, a rite of passage for many Gambian children. There were no primary schools in Barajally Tenda; the nearest was in Georgetown, the provincial capital, but this boarding school was reserved for the sons of the chiefs.
Yet, as fate would have it, around 1933, young Jawara’s formal education was sponsored by a friend of his father’s, a trader named Ebrima Youma Jallow, whose trading post was across the street from Alammi’s in Wally-Kunda. Dawda was then enrolled at Mohammedan primary school. After graduation from Mohammedan, Jawara won a scholarship to an all Boys High School, where he enjoyed all his classes, but showed the greatest aptitude in science and mathematics. Upon matriculation in 1945, he worked as a nurse until 1947 at the Victoria Hospital in colonial Bathurst. The limited career and educational opportunities in colonial Gambia led to a year’s stint at Achimota College in Ghana, where he studied science. While at Achimota College, Jawara showed little interest in politics, even when Ghana and many colonies in Africa at the time were beginning to become restless for political independence or internal self-government. While he was happy to have met Ghana’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah, the impact did not prove significant at the time.
After attending Achimota College, Jawara won a scholarship to Scotland’s Glasgow University to study veterinary medicine. This was indeed a remarkable accomplishment for two reasons. First, it was noteworthy at the time because colonial education was intended to train Africans for the most menial of clerical tasks in the civil service. And secondly, it was rare for Gambians to be awarded scholarships in the sciences. It was at Glasgow University in the late 1940s, that Jawara’s interest in politics began. In 1948 he joined the African Students Association and was later elected secretary-general and president, respectively. Also, while at Glasgow, Jawara honed his political interests and skills by joining the Student Labour Party Organization, Forward Group, and became active in labor politics of the time. Though never a “leftist,” Jawara immersed himself in the Labour Party’s socialist politics and ideology. At Glasgow Jawara met Cheddi Jagan, later to become Premier of British Guiana, now Guyana, and classified this period in his life “as very interesting politically”. It was a moment of rising Pan-Africanist fervor and personal growth politically. Yet, still a political career was furthest from Jawara’s mind upon completing his studies in 1953.
Return to the Gambia
When Jawara returned home in 1953 after completing his studies as a veterinary surgeon, he served first as a veterinary officer. He became a Christian, and now, as “David,” in 1955 married Augusta Mahoney, daughter of Sir John Mahoney, a prominent Aku in Bathurst. The Aku, a small and educated group, are descendants of freed slaves who settled in the Gambia after manumission. Despite their relatively small size, they came to dominate both the social, political and economic life of the colony. It was this class that young David Jawara married into. Many opponents claim that it was a pragmatic, albeit an unusual, fulfillment of Jawara’s wish to marry a well-to-do Anglican woman.
As a veterinary officer, Jawara traveled the length and breadth of the Gambia for months vaccinating cattle. In the process, he established valuable social contacts and relationships with the relatively well-to-do cattle owners in the protectorate. Indeed, it is this group, together with the district chiefs and village heads, who in later years formed the bulk of his initial political support. As indicated
previously, British colonial policy at that time divided the Gambia into two sections; the colony and the protectorate. Adults in the colony area, which included Bathurst and the Kombo St. Mary sub-regions, were franchised, while their counterparts in the protectorate were not. What this meant in effect was that political activity and representation at the Legislative Council were limited to the Colony. At the time of his return to the Gambia, politics in the colony were dominated by a group of urban elites from Bathurst and the Kombo St. Mary’s areas. Needless to say, at a meeting in 1959 at Basse, a major commercial town almost at the end of the Gambia River, the leadership of the People’s Progressive Society decided on a name change, designed to challenge the urban-based parties and their leaders. Thus was born the Protectorate People’s Party.
In that same year, a delegation headed by Sanjally Bojang, a well-off patron and founding member of the new party, together with Bokarr Fofanah and Madiba Janneh, arrived at Abuko to inform Jawara of his nomination as secretary of the party. Jawara resigned his position
as chief veterinary officer in order to contest the 1960 election. In that same year, the Protectorate People’s Party was renamed the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). The name change could not be more timely and appropriate, for it, in principle if not in practice, made the party inclusive as opposed to the generally held perception of it being a Mandinka-based party. Over time, the PPP and Jawara would supersede the urban-based parties and their leaders. This change is what Arnold Hughes termed a “Green Revolution,” a political process in which a rural elite emerges to challenge and ultimately defeat an urban-based political petty-bourgeoisie. Jawara’s political ascendance to the head of the party was hardly contested. As one of the few university graduates from the protectorate, the only other possible alternative candidate was Dr. Lamin Marena from Kudang. In fact, some sources indicated that Marena was the first choice for the post of secretary general, which he declined. Jawara’s origin as a member of the cobbler caste was not looked upon favorably by some within the party and the electorate who claimed to, and in many cases actually did, come from royal background. In time, however, the issue of caste became less important, as the 1960 election results would demonstrate.
Self-government in the Gambia
In 1962, Jawara became Prime Minister, which laid the foundation for PPP and Jawara domination of the Gambia’s political landscape. With Jawara’s rise to power after the 1962 elections, the colonial administration began a gradual withdrawal from the Gambia, with self-government granted in 1963. Jawara was appointed Prime Minister in the same year, and independence came on February 18, 1965. This completed the Gambia’s peaceful transition from colonial rule. Yet, independence had its many challenges, as years of colonial neglect left the Gambia with only two government-owned hospitals and high schools, and a poor infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Gambia also faced limited natural resources, a mono-crop export sector and poor social services. At independence, almost all African countries had evolved economies that were extremely vulnerable and heavily dependent on colonial markets and former colonial powers. Thus, Jawara and his cabinet inherited serious problems that influenced the subsequent course of politics in the Gambia. With a small civil service, staffed mostly by the Aku and urban Wollofs, Jawara and the PPP sought to build a nation and develop an economy to sustain both farmers and urban dwellers. Many in the rural areas hoped that political independence would bring with it immediate improvement in their life circumstances. These high expectations, as in other newly independent ex-colonies, stemmed partly from the extravagant promises made by some political leaders. In time, however, a measure of disappointment set in as the people quickly discovered that their leaders could not deliver on all their promises.