By: Baba Galleh Jallow
Almost immediately after independence, African nationalist leaders performed an ideological about-face that was profoundly damaging to the new nations’ political, socio-economic and cultural wellbeing: They now considered the universal and inalienable rights and freedoms of expression and association they deployed against colonialism enemies of independence. Where they rejected the colonial exceptionalism that Africans were incapable of ruling themselves in democratic fashion, they now claimed that yes, they were Africans and western forms of government were not suitable for their newly independent peoples.
The evidence suggests that Africa’s new leaders probably never believed in all the noise they made about Africans being equally deserving of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, or indeed the ideals of the European enlightenment, the Atlantic Charter or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights they earlier championed. As soon as independence was granted, the new African governments sought to impose a uniformity of views and opinions on all matters political. In perhaps its most damaging misconception, independence was taken to mean the incoming government’s right to assume a monopoly on all political truths, knowledge, decisions and policy directions and options for the new nation. Dissenting knowledge and opinion, however brilliant, was sacrificed on the altar of selfish political expediency. Witness the sad fates of brilliant people like Diallo Telli in Guinea, J. B. Danquah in Ghana, and Sheikh Anta Diop in Senegal. Their ideas represented a rich fund of intellectual wealth that could have wonderfully energized their nations. But instead of being rewarded and co-opted into the new national project, they were hated and violently struck down for daring to express their legitimate political opinions. To this day ideas – the building blocks of human civilization – have not found their rightful place in Africa. Hence, Africa remains utterly “backward” in its politics. Gambia since 1994 is a classic example of truly “backward” politics.
African nationalist leaders knew that the colonial state collapsed precisely because it tolerated the colonized people’s rights and freedoms of expression, association and self-determination. They understood the power of a free mind expressed in political dissent and organization, and they proceeded to systematically curb it for their own selfish interests. They saw what freedom of expression and dissent did to the mighty colonial state; and being too concerned about “losing” power, they made sure that political dissent was either effectively discredited or weakened, as happened in Gambia under Jawara, or totally criminalized and abolished as happened in Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea under Sekou Toure, and elsewhere in Africa. The idea of power belonging to the people was only useful as a rhetorical device against colonial rule. Like the international rights instruments the nationalists cited in their UN, Commonwealth and other speeches against colonialism, the African people had also served their purpose and could conveniently be relegated to the margins of national politics. So rather than opening up the political space and encouraging a free marketplace of ideas, the new African leaders squeezed and stifled their nations’ creative potential, and were content to borrow and mimic their former colonial masters, rather than let their people invent and build, like their western and Asian counterparts. Thus, Africa remains starved of any form of meaningful inventions to this day.
Independence was also understood to mean that the new African governments were entitled to the material support of private commercial entities operating within their territorial borders. In Enter Gambia, Berkeley Rice reports that three weeks before independence, the incoming PPP government called a special session of parliament to pass new immigration and naturalization laws and “to provide the administration and other Members of the House a public opportunity to voice their sentiments at this historic moment” (Rice, 29).[i] The first speaker of the evening, a former Minister of Agriculture, “had a word of ‘advice’ for the commercial firms in Bathurst which, he assumed, were planning to make independence gifts to the government. From the United Africa Company, whose local British manager sat across the hall (the MP) hoped for at least 50, 000 pounds in cash or kindness. Such a wealthy firm should set an example to others.” To the five French trading firms operating in Gambia the MP said, “We do not want just a saucer with De Gaulle’s photograph.” The MP also had a word of advice for the Lebanese firm S. Madi Ltd., owners of the Atlantic Hotel, Gambia Construction Company, a peanut oil mill and many other local assets: “I know the Lebanese – they are broad-minded people,” the MP said. “Let their gift be one that will be remembered by generations of Gambians yet unborn” (Rice, 30). Essentially, the Gambian MP was saying that in independent Gambia, private companies were expected to give money to the government – not in the form of taxes into state coffers, but in the form of “cash or kindness”. The practice continues to this day.
In that same session of Parliament, an MP from Bakau tried to quote something Jesus said but forgot what it was; but his idea of independence was captured in a letter he had written to an American official who had visited Bathurst. The unedited portion of the letter reproduced by Rice reads as follows: “As is known by the World news, our constitutional advance was successful by the attainment of Full internal self government. Gambia was backward but will be perhaps one of the most advance places in Africa for the good hope we have and determination of purpose. For its size and population many many thinks it is so forth. However, the inhabitants of the country are naturally unique by most human level. I do not bother into details but even the English whose rule the Gambia is perhaps do not fully well know this people. I can better conceive of something than what I should express in this letter” (Rice 31-32). It is safe to say that to this day (2023), we have members of parliament whose level of English proficiency is not much better than their 1965 peer from Bakau.
It needs to be said that Jawara’s utterances during Gambia’s 1965 independence ceremonies and on Independence Day itself suggest that he understood better than most the implications of what was happening. “Remember,” he said, “we will be judged not by the measure of our jubilation, but by the energy we bring to solving the problems of independence” (Rice, 31). In his closing speech for the evening, Jawara also expressed his understanding that “independence brought with it new complex problems which henceforth we shall have to resolve on our own” and “in time, Gambia will prove that a small country can stand on its own feet, and play its own part in world affairs providing an example of stability and progress and good sense” (Rice, 34 – 35). On Independence Day, February 18 1965, after receiving from the Duke the “Constitutional Instruments” formally granting Gambia independence, Jawara said among other things, that “we are very conscious that the task which lies before us is formidable and, this being so, we are the more determined to strive relentlessly to overcome the difficulties that make the task formidable” (Rice, 48).
Earlier at the special session of parliament, United Party leader P. S. Njie had welcomed independence but warned against “exchanging one set of masters for another” (Rice, 34). Pierre Njie’s warning proved prophetic. Jawara was not a tin pot dictator of the sort we had in Guinea (Sekou Toure, Lansana Conteh) or Mali (Modibo Keita, Musa Traore), or in Gambia (Yahya Jammeh); however, the master-servant relations between government and governed that characterized colonial Gambia characterized – if only in a benign form – the PPP’s years in power. Yes, Gambia “the improbable nation” became a nation under the PPP government, and a respected one at that. Sadly, Jawara exaggerated the democratic credentials of his de facto one party state, and one-man rule, which lasted thirty years and eventually gave us a president who could pound his chest and proclaim to the world that the country belonged to him and that he would rule Gambia for one billion years. He ruled for 22 years of brutality before his disgraceful fall and exit from power. He now lives in exile, a lonely fugitive from international law.
[i] All quotations in this article are from Berkeley Rice, Enter Gambia: The Birth of an Improbable Nation. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967