The Virtuous Leadership Of Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara: An Exploratory Note



Since he was ushered onto The Gambia’s political scene in the tense and waning days of the interregnum between the colonial administration and self-rule the notion that Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, the founding father of the Gambia, was a leader with exceptional qualities has been universally present in the conscious or subconscious minds of all senior adult Gambians who witnessed his extraordinary rise to power and the deliberate and measured manner in which he exercised that power for decades. It would not be unrealistic to assume that even younger Gambians born just before and immediately after Sir Dawda’s democratic rule ended in 1994 must have learned from their parents or grandparents that he was a good, able and amiable leader. On the 27th of August 2019, Sir Dawda passed away at the age of 95. At the state- sponsored funeral service in the National Assembly in Banjul on the 29th of August several prominent Gambians including President Adama Barrow, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Mrs. Mariam Jack Denton, the Chief Justice, Mr. Hassan B. Jallow, Mr. Omar Jallow (OJ), former Agriculture Minister under Sir Dawda and Mr. Sidia Jatta, National Assembly Member gave moving tributes extolling the virtues of Sir Dawda’s leadership and his remarkable accomplishments as the first President of The Gambia. Similar glowing eulogies were given through various media outlets by other Gambians at home and abroad while prayers were offered in various religious gatherings. At private homes, work places and places of social rendezvous throughout the country Sir Dawda’s life and legacy drew lavish praise from Gambians from all walks of life for many weeks following his passing.

I was abroad when Sir Dawda died in August. On my return I listened to the tapes of the various tributes paid to the late President at the state funeral service as noted above. In this brief Note some of the salient points made by the individual speakers at the state funeral relating to Sir Dawda’s unique character and style of leadership will be highlighted and discussed in the broad context of some Islamic virtues and the cardinal virtues associated with great leaders since ancient times, and on the basis of my own experience as a senior officer, speech-writer and Technical Adviser on the Senegambia Confederation under the direction of the Secretary General in the Office of the President during the second half of the 1980s.

According to the Virtuous Leadership Institute, leadership involves inter alia the practice of human virtues (What Is Virtuous Leadership? — Virtuous Leadership Institute

What Is Virtuous Leadership? — Virtuous Leadership Institute

As virtue essentially constitutes moral habits of behavior, people of high moral standing, like Sir Dawda, tend to act in accordance with values and principles, rather than by whims and caprices. They tend to be honest and just, respectful, thoughtful and courageous. These virtues are all related to the four cardinal virtues of ancient philosophy, namely prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance or moderation as well as the Islamic virtues of humility, patience, forgiveness, courtesy and discipline. Leadership in general is a complex subject and it has been conceived and analyzed in various ways by various researchers. For example, according to the Machiavellian “school”, a leader (the Prince) who wants to maintain his power ought to know that he is not always obliged to do good. He should be both ‘a fox and a lion’ – a power seeker with a spirit that changes along with the wind of fortune (cited in J.T. Wren et al eds., Traditional Classics on Leadership, Northampton, MA, 2004). Others see leadership as a function of the acceptance of followers- the leader-led relationship concept. In recent times, some social scientists have turned their attention to issues relating to identifying the sources of leadership: To what extent does the social and political system elevate certain individuals to prominence? Are leaders representative of the larger society, in other words, from what segments of society do leaders come from? What are the avenues or channels of their ascent to power? It is not the intention here to examine these questions and other theories of leadership such as the transactional and transformational leadership theories. For the purpose of this Note, we focus on the notion that leaders emerge as a result of the tensions or demands of a particular time ( Lester G. Seligman, “The Study of Political Leadership”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Dec., 1950), pp. 904-915) ; in other words, a great leader is often the product of great historical moments and one who has a clear understanding of the significance and demands of those moments. Jawara emerged to preeminence in1959 at a critical time in Gambian history. It was a time of great anticipation for self- rule and independence in the Gambia and throughout the European colonies in Africa and a time of intense rivalry within the small elite of Gambian politicians for recognition and leadership. The country was effectively dichotomized between the colony, a comparatively small colonial settlement around the capital Bathurst and the rest of the country, the protectorate which was largely neglected during much of the colonial period. This clear division created by the colonial administration and deliberately maintained because of administrative convenience but largely because of the longstanding reticence of the British to invest in the colony and its related hinterlands. The result of this colonial disposition was major structural imbalances and economic, political and social inequities that the post colonial independent government had to address as a priority. When Jawara accepted the invitation by prominent Gambians of protectorate origin to head their newly formed political party, the Protectorate People’s Party, he had a clear perception of the pressing needs and challenges of the time. At the time of this invitation Jawara was a senior civil servant and head of a department but never an emergent career politician. He was thus inducted to head the new party, but he willingly accepted the challenge, because he realized that he was at the beck and call of a historic moment and of the Gambian people. As noted in the Talmud, “It can be proved by the Law, The prophets and The Writings that a man is led along the road he wishes to follow” (cited in Alfred D. Steinberg, “On Immortality”, Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences V 71 N 3 September 1981 (pp147-151). Jawara thus arrived at the helm of the new party fully formed and ready to carry the heavy burden of the hopes and aspirations of an incipient nation whose immediate prospects for self-rule were perceived in some quarters (particularly among the departing colonial administrators and their superiors in the Colonial Office) with apprehension, and whose long term survivability as an independent sovereign state was associated with trials, tribulations and improbability. Jawara’s first order of business was to convince his enlisters to remove any semblance of territoriality in the new party’s nominal identity. With its acronym intact, the Protectorate People’s Party became the People’s Progressive Party implying a more broad-based and inclusive organization not only in name but also in composition and practice, as it became apparent subsequently.

What Is Virtuous Leadership? — Virtuous Leadership Institute

Upon assuming the leadership of the PPP, Jawara showed a single minded focus on mobilizing the population for the attainment of independence without delay. This was made explicit in the party’s Independence Manifesto calling for internal self-government in 1961 and full independence in 1962. Meanwhile, Jawara‘s key rival P.S. Njie, Chief Minister and leader of the United Party was busy with his “Gambia is in no hurry” (for independence) slogan stressing their belief in “evolution and not revolution” as his patty’s rallying cry during the campaign for the 1962 elections. At a campaign rally in Bathurst he had some strong words for the opposition PPP: “The more I look at the People’s Progressive Party the more I discover what is foul and filthy in this organization. Their intention is to leave the West and join Ghana and Russia,” (Raya Dunayeskaya, “In The Gambia during elections”, Africa Today v9 n6 1962, p.14). Although the PPP failed to meet its targets for internal self-government and independence, according to their manifesto, the party continued to forge ahead, generating significant momentum which resulted in their victory in the 1962 elections thus becoming the majority party in the House of Representatives. Full internal self-government was attained in 1963 and independence followed two years later with Jawara as Prime Minister.

As mentioned earlier, some remarks were made in the various tributes delivered at the state funeral service which revealed a number of essential attributes of the late president’s personality and leadership style. What follows is a brief discussion of selected remarks by the various speakers as they relate to the purpose of this Note.

President Barrow
In his tribute President Barrow described Sir Dawda as a distinguished statesman, a compassionate leader and a unifying force. A statesman is a political figure who is widely recognized and respected for his wise and skilled management of public and international affairs. To be a distinguished statement is to be conspicuously eminent in managing both domestic and international affairs, with patience, compassion, respect, magnanimity and fortitude as Sir Dawda had done throughout his political career. A compassionate leader is a sympathetic and empathetic leader, like Sir Dawda. These and allied virtues also made him a unifying force, as the president stated. The efforts he made to refocus the PPP as an all- encompassing umbrella political organization rather than a parochial or provincial organization was the first major indication that he was endowed with a significant repertoire of leadership skills. As a force for unity and integrated nation-building, Jawara’s unflinching determination to maintaining an open political space for wider and greater participation in the democratic process- pluralism, through which citizens could perceive a stake in national affairs was one key way of ensuring unity among Gambians and promoting social and economic development. During the celebrations marking the 11th anniversary of The Gambia’s independence and following the attainment of Republican status, a journalist representing the Senegalese magazine, “Griot du Cayor” (No.16,1976) noted that through Jawara’s “open-mindedness and “selflessness” he had maintained a multi-party system in the Gambia and wanted to know if that could lead to difficulties in the government’s ability to maintain stability and promote “socio-political evolution of the masses”. The president’s response was simple but emphatic: “On the contrary, liberty can’t exist in a country where the sense of liberty and the feeling of liberty are absent. Liberty of meeting the freedom of the press and freedom of speech…All these can exist but in a pluralism of political parties. In a state where there is but one single party these liberties are restricted…the existence of several parties makes it possible for the creation of a national unity…”(p.7).

The journalist further asked Jawara to respond to accusations that there were only Wollofs in his government. “The accusation is groundless,” he answered;“…there are Fulas, Sarakoles and mandingos…the wollofs are a minority in my government…” (pp. 9-10). In fact, generally, Sir Dawda tried to ensure that the composition of his cabinet always reflected, as much as possible, the ethnic contours of the country. It was largely because of his open-mindedness, recurrent electoral successes and constant calls for national unity that led to a spate of defections from the leading opposition parties, and all new comers to his party were received with open arms and in many cases given prominent appointments in government. By the sheer force of his personality and his vision for the country and his commitment to a united and prosperous nation, he was able to hold together the social edifice of the nation seen around the world as a stable and peaceful country. By the 1972 elections the country came under a single dominant party not by coercion or policy but by default, arising largely from the steady decline in the popularity of other political parties including the UP. By and large, the country became unified under Sir Dawda’s leadership in spite of the formation of a new political party in 1975 under the leadership of Sheriff Mustapha Dibba, a former PPP bigwig.

Speaker of the National Assembly
The Speaker of the National Assembly made two critical remarks that drew attention to Sir Dawda’s unique leadership style and his achievements during his tenure. She stated that the late president led with decency, dignity and sound judgment and that he “developed the country from scratch”.

Sir Dawda’s reputation for common sense, decency and grit was always apparent in his staunch adherence to recognized standards of righteous, honest and proper behavior. His calm and dignified style of leadership enabled him to confront complex and heavy-duty issues with circumspection, perspicacity and prudence, and to make decisions based on reason and studious assessment of the facts before him, uninfluenced by emotion or personal prejudice. His virtuous leadership style was clearly ennobled by his pleasant and sublime personality, typified by an unmistakable trained intellect and sobriety of thought, speech, and action. In all his written speeches, for example, he made sure that they contained no strong language of any kind (the virtue of good speech, Al-Quraan 22:24). I recall a case of one draft speech prepared for him for delivery as Secretary General of the PPP at one of the party’s congresses in the 198os. In that draft, he deleted all references to “Comrades!” as a salutation to party members. The word comrade could simply mean, friend, companion or an associate in a political party; but because it historically referred to a member of the Communist Party or someone with strongly leftist views, he would not use it. Sir Dawda was essentially a third way politician with no pronounced inclination toward either left or right. He was a straight, judicious and humble centrist but constantly and fiercely focused on the task of advancing the interest of the Gambia and supporting all efforts aimed at safeguarding human rights everywhere.

Upon the attainment of political independence the new government of Prime Minister Jawara was faced with enormous tasks of nationhood. First and foremost was the widespread apprehension about the Gambia’s viability as a nation-state; such apprehension was fed largely by perceptions of the country’s small and peculiar size and location and the fact that it was and still remains ill-endowed with natural resources, safe for its resilient and resourceful people. In addition, the country inherited numerous and monumental challenges including vastly underdeveloped infrastructure, poor, inadequate and fragmented social services as well as weak economic and administrative institutions. As the Colonial Annual Reports for the years 1952-1955 showed, developments in all sectors including agriculture, forestry, fisheries and the social sectors were essentially rudimentary. To address these pressing inadequacies and problems, the new government quickly embarked on fostering and strengthening a common sense of citizenship and national identity among Gambians, imbued with self-confidence and a desire for self -reliance following the negative effects of colonial domination such as economic and social distortions and retardation.

Within the first year of independence the country gained membership of the UN, OAU and the Commonwealth, and introduced ‘right hand drive’ throughout the country. By the end of the first ten years of independence, major improvements in social services in the provinces, particularly medical services to control the scourge of malaria, leprosy, sleeping sickness and other diseases as well as the expansion of educational provisions in many areas of the country were registered. Other landmark developments during this period included the commencement of critical infrastructural programs and projects including road construction and Banjul port reconstruction; establishment of the central bank as a symbol of national sovereignty, the Ministry of Economic Planning to guide medium and long term development initiatives; and the start of tourism promotion as part of the government’s economic diversification strategy. On foreign affairs, the government adopted a pragmatic and gradual approach to opening diplomatic missions abroad. Immediately after independence, the first two missions were opened in London and in Dakar, with the High Commissioners accredited to both their host countries as well as to neighboring countries in each of their respective regions. Over time more diplomatic ties were established in tandem with the country’s economic growth (The Gambia Information and Broadcasting Services, “The Gambia-Ten Years of Nationhood”, 1975). The drive for growth and development continued through the mid 1980s when the economy suffered major setbacks arising mainly from steep global recession following the second oil shock of 1979, persistent droughts, declining world market prices for the country’s domestic exports and increased public expenditures. Working in close partnership with the World Bank, the IMF and other donors the crisis was brought under control through comprehensive and rigorous adjustments and reforms backed by a strong political will on the part of the government. The reforms enabled the government to reconfigure its development strategy and focus more on improving productivity and stimulating growth on a sustainable basis.
Some observers have noted that while the great paladins or vanguards of the independence movement in Africa were effective in the decolonization process, they, however, fell awfully short in the process of nation-building (Ladipo Adamolekun, “Political Leadership in Sub-Saharan Africa: From Giants to Dwarfs”, International Political Science Review, April 1988, pp. 95-106). After independence a good number of African leaders were more engaged in national populism and the pursuit of ideological purity. Perhaps the stark record of leadership failures in the region confirms that. Sir Dawda, the figure head in the negotiations and driving force for The Gambia’s independence, was a clear and convincing exception. After the attainment of political independence in 1965, Sir Dawda immersed himself in the task of nation-building, economic planning and development management in general. From the early stages in the late 1960s through the turbulent period of economic reforms and stabilization in the mid1980s he constantly exhibited extensive and deep understanding of the complexities of the development process and kept abreast of program and project activities in all sectors. All those who worked with him within and outside cabinet must have realized how engaged he was and the prodigious and eidetic memory he possessed in readily recalling details of development plans and project implementation trends. He was a genuine “hands on” leader as he devoted his energies to the task of developing the country “from scratch”.

The Chief Justice
Having served Sir Dawda’s government as Justice Minister for a decade, current Chief Justice, Mr. Hassan Jallow, provided deep insights into the late president’s infrangible commitment to justice, the rule of law and human rights in his tribute statement. In that statement the Chief Justice highlighted some key attributes or virtues of Sir Dawda’s personality and style of governance: That he was a true humanist and a strong and scrupulous adherent to political pluralism, democracy and the rule of law; that he did not embrace these qualities for political expediency but that these qualities, and more were integral to his fine character.

To describe Sir Dawda as a humanist is wholly befitting. Humanists are motivated by compassion; they recognize the worth of every individual and each is treated with dignity and respect; they are strong advocates of democracy, multi-party politics, the rule of law and a rational approach to decision making. The Chief Justice pointed out that on every step of the way to independence, Sir Dawda proved his skeptics wrong, not least the departing colonial administrators who doubted the ability of the Gambia to manage its own affairs upon gaining independence. Among the leading colonial skeptic was Governor Sir Edward Henry Windley (1958-2962), who appointed P.S. Njie as Chief Minister. In an address to the House of Representatives at a session held on the 19th of April 1961, he said the Gambia’s economic and political future must be considered “against the background of what may be described as the accident of history which created the Gambia too small and too ill-endowed with natural resources to develop economically in isolation”(The Gambia Echo,1 May 1961). (In fact, it had been said that this Governor took it upon himself to explore the possibility of a union with Senegal). During the Independence Conference in 1964, the Colonial Secretary himself expressed “disappointment” about the financial position of the country, implying the need for the Gambia to forge ties with its neighbors. These and other remarks by the colonial administration led the Rev. J.C. Fye to oberve that “The aim of the British is to edge us toward Senegal, they do not want to see us independent.” Jawara’s reactions to such remarks reflected solid reasoning which effectively silenced many of the doubting Thomases. He argued that “before you establish ties with independent countries your own country should first be independent” to give you the authority and legitimacy to enter into international agreements. Furthermore, in direct response to the comment that given its small size and its lack of ‘rich resource’ The Gambia ‘dare not claim its freedom’, he said: “This argument is not valid as all peoples, rich or poor, are equally entitled to freedom”( Dunayeskaya 1962,p.14). In accordance with his firm and consistent position, the Prime Minister made direct contacts with Senegal immediately after independence, to build upon earlier informal consultations following the attainment of internal self-government.

It is important to recall that the colonial administrators’ skepticism about the Gambia’s future had deep historical roots. Ever since the British discovered that the settlement had little to offer by way of wealth for the Imperial government, they began to show little interest in the general security and welfare of the colony. In fact back in 1870 a member of the House of Lords described the Gambia as “an absolute burden without any redeeming characteristics” (quoted in H.A. Gailey, A History of the Gambia, London, 1964, p. 86). This in essence was the driving force behind the unsuccessful attempt to surrender the territory to France in exchange for a more profitable settlement elsewhere. Jawara, however, was able to overcome this lingering grim pessimism about the Gambia’s fortunes and turn it into a palpable and reassuring optimism in the run up to self-rule and independence.
President Jawara rarely quoted any notable authority on any subject. During his inaugural address on 11 may 1987 at the McCarthy Square in Banjul following his victory at the polls in 1987, however, he quoted the following words of a prominent American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr,(with the 1981 abortive coup in mind): “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination for injustice makes democracy necessary.” In addition, he reaffirmed his government’s continued commitment to the democratic process. “We in the Gambia decided long time ago on the necessity for a democratic way of life and today, I wish, on behalf of the Gambian people, to re-affirm our commitment to the democratic process and the rule of law, and the pursuit of nation- building within that framework.” The Gambia’s adoption of the parliamentary system of government under Sir Dawda’s leadership was clearly not accidental. His first major public indication of his commitment to democracy was given during the independence conference held in July 1964 at Marlboro House in London. In his response to the opening remarks of the British Colonial Secretary, Duncan Sandys , who spoke intently on the difficulties and challenges of nationhood particularly for a small poor country like the Gambia, the future Gambian Prime Minister and President made explicit his intentions for his country. He stressed that his delegation were fully aware that independence came with challenges, “challenges of hard work, sensible planning, patience and tolerance”, but that he and the Gambian people remained confident in facing those challenges. On the matter of democracy, Jawara added, “The Gambia’s reputation as a peaceful, friendly and law-abiding country is well known…We will continue to practice the democratic principles which you have bequeathed to us and make the Gambia a shining example of democracy and stability” (The Gambia News Bulletin, 23 July 1964).

In a similar vein, in his reply to the remarks of the Duke of Kent (representing the Queen) on the occasion of the first Opening of Parliament in 1965 in Bathurst, Jawara declared, again making reference to tolerance: “We are determined that the parliamentary democracy that has been bequeathed to us by our British friends shall be maintained by tolerance, goodwill and the common goal of the common good” (Sessional Paper No. 2 1965).


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