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Death of Gambia’s Founding President Sparks Reflection

Founding Gambian President Dawda Jawara died late last month at the age of 95 in his home on the outskirts of Banjul, Gambia. His death came amid ongoing truth and reconciliation hearings intended to reveal human rights abuses alleged to have been committed under former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, the man who ousted Jawara from power in 1994.

For Gambian economist and political commentator Sidi Moro Sanneh, both occasions have allowed for reflection on Jawara’s legacy as a proponent of democracy, and what he described as the Gambia’s descent into authoritarian rule under Jammeh.

Sanneh, a former Jawara and Jammeh administration official, has firsthand experience of this change: he and his family fled to the United States 12 years ago out of fear for their safety. Since then, Sanneh has lived in the D.C. metropolitan area, where he weighs in on Gambian politics on the blogosphere.

“Now that [current Gambian President] Adama Barrow is at the helm, Gambians are appreciating more the rights and freedoms they enjoyed under Jawara, after 22 years of dictatorship under Yahya Jammeh,” Sanneh said.

“Gambians took for granted the freedom they enjoyed under Jawara who presided over a multi-party state when across the border, his counterpart was governing a one-party state. [With Jammeh out of power], they are trying to make sure that type of [dictatorial] leadership doesn’t resurface in the Gambia.”

By 1994, when the military coup forced Jawara into exile, he had been in office for 24 years. Jawara, a veterinarian, became his country’s founding president in 1970, five years after negotiating Gambia’s independence from British rule. He gained a reputation as a unifier, maintaining power in one of Africa’s few multi-party, multi-ethnic political systems.

As president, Jawara encouraged agricultural diversification and fiscal discipline, all without the use of military force. However, a significant portion of the electorate grew frustrated with slow economic growth. A 1981 coup attempt led to the launch of economic expansion programs to little avail.

Following his 1994 ouster, Jawara would not return to his home country until the early 2000s. Though barred from participating in national politics, he made his impact regionally via the Economic Community of West African States.

Last year, Gambia ranked seventh among African countries for quality of life and opportunities on the Kochenov Quality of Nationality Index by Henley& Partners. By that time, Barrow, who defeated Jammeh electorally, had gotten settled into office.

Jammeh’s 22 years as president had been marred by death of political dissidents, instances of which mercenaries recounted last month during truth and reconciliation hearings aired on Gambian television. Up until his failed reelection bid and emigration from Gambia in 2017, Jammeh allegedly ordered the murders of journalists, West African migrants, and other opponents.

The “junglers” who participated in the massacres have yet to be charged, much to the chagrin of some Gambians.

Even so, some people in the diasporic political space, including Melvin Foote, contend that the Gambia and other African governments are on the cusp of change. He said that Jammeh’s rule highlighted the perils of absolute power, and that any mechanism to limit that type of presidency should receive support.

“Africans are starting to agree that governments need to work for the people,” said Foote, president of Constituency for Africa, an advocacy organization critical in shaping U.S.-Africa foreign policy.

Shortly after Jawara’s death, Foote took to social media to recount his meeting with Gambia’s founding president after the 1994 coup.

Though he spoke highly of Jawara, Foote said the coup, like similar events that occurred across the African continent at the time, signified public anxiety about heads of state who held onto power for a long time. The course of events since then have inspired conversation, and some action on the part of African elected officials.

“There is a growing agreement about term limits,” Foote said. “Some of the presidents are doing the right things. People are thinking about it right now. At least there’s some government in place. It’s not a cut-and-dry process, [but] when you don’t have democracy in place, a lot can end badly.”

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