By Baba Galleh Jallow
It was not only chiefs and colonial officials who made strange statements during African independence ceremonies. Taking a cue from their party leadership, ruling party stalwarts and newspapers loudly exhorted their countrymen to put all their political differences aside and join the ruling party. The practice has not entirely disappeared from Africa to this day. In Ghana, the Accra Evening News was particularly vocal in its uncompromising insistence that all Ghanaians join the CPP or else. When Nkrumah proclaimed that “the CPP is Ghana and Ghana is the CPP”, party loyalists tried to make this a reality through every possible platform.
In Bathurst, The New Gambia, mouthpiece of the PPP declared that “all politicians of all tendencies should rally round the Government of the masses, the PPP, so that the country’s concerted efforts will bear golden fruits. We must not allow factions to undermine the real issues of the day” (Rice, 331). The PPP was indeed the government of the masses; but more significantly, it was the government of the Gambian nation, which was larger than its supporters, defined here as the masses. In effect, the real issues of the day were parochialized and defined in absolute, narrow terms by the emergent African leadership and its supporters. Paradoxically, the emergent African nation was seen at once as a monolith, a single entity encompassing everyone, as well as a fractured entity composed of the government and its supporters on one hand, and everyone else on the other. In many African countries, the latter remain sadly marginalized in their national politics to this day, over half a century after independence.
After independence, African nationalists performed an ideological about-face that was astounding and profoundly damaging of the new nations’ political, and by extension socio-economic and cultural wellbeing. Having served their purpose of helping end colonial rule, the universal and inalienable rights and freedoms of expression and association deployed by the nationalists were now relegated to the outskirts of independence. This was perhaps because many African anti-colonial nationalists either did not understand or did not believe in all the hype they made about their people being equally deserving of independence – understood as freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law and other lofty humane ideals. As soon as independence was granted, it was sought to impose a uniformity of views and opinions on all matters political that reflected only the views and opinions of those in power. It was quickly forgotten that had the colonial state insisted upon and was able to enforce such uniformity of views and opinions, independence would not have come as easy as it did in some cases.
Nationalists understood that the colonial state collapsed precisely because it tolerated the colonized people’s rights and freedoms of expression, association and self-determination, all of which were promptly branded enemies of Africa after independence. Nationalists understood the power of a free mind expressed in political dissent and organization. They recognized the power of a free press and proceeded to systematically curb it for their own reasons. They saw what it 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, Guinea and elsewhere in Africa. The idea of power belonging to the people was only useful as a rhetorical weapon against colonial rule. Like the international rights instruments the nationalist drew from in their UN, Commonwealth and other speeches against colonialism, the African people had also served their purpose and could conveniently be relegated to the dusty outskirts of independence and national politics.
While actively participating in the majestic ceremonies and openly basking in the pomp and glory of the imperial spectacle, Africa’s incoming government officials often made bold to reaffirm their unflinching loyalty to the imperial power and to declare their expectations of independence from both within and without the former colony. Independence was often understood as empire weaning babies who were welcome to continue suckling at the imperial breast for the foreseeable future. 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 political expediency. Witness the sad fates of 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. Instead, 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 “uncivilized” in its politics (see Gambia since 1994 for a contemporary example of “uncivilized” politics).
Independence was also understood to mean that the new African government was entitled to the material support of ostensibly private commercial entities existing within its 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 he said, “We do not want just a saucer with De Gaulle’s photograph.” For the Lebanese firm of S. Madi Ltd., owners of the Atlantic Hotel, Gambia Construction Company, the larger of the two peanut oil mills and many other local enterprises, (the MP) also had a word of advice: “I know the Lebanese – they are broad-minded people. Let their gift be one that will be remembered by generations of Gambians yet unborn”’ (Rice, 30). How unborn generations could remember what happened since they were not there is everybody’s guess.
More interesting speeches followed: The Member from Lower Baddibu “lamented what he took to be the fact that 300 Englishmen had been invited to the Independence State Ball and only 35 Gambians.” “It is Gambia’s Independence!” yelled another MP who became a household name in Gambian politics. “Gambians should have priority. All these expatriates are invited to all these functions. This should not be. It is Gambians who should be at the center of things. We have been so long under colonialism that these things are now insults” (Rice, 31). An MP from Bakau tried to quote something Jesus said but forgot what it was; but his idea of independence were captured in a letter he had written to an American official who had visited Bathurst. The portion of the letter reproduced by Rice reads as follows, unedited: “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 needs to be said that Jawara’s utterances during Gambia’s independence ceremonies and on Independence Day itself suggest that he understood better than most the implications of what was happening. When the MPs above complained about white invitations, Jawara pointed out that in fact, all Gambians were (symbolically) present at the ball, even though 300, 000 Gambians could not physically attend. “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, 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). It appears that Pierre Njie’s warning proved prophetic. Jawara and his government were not outright dictators of the sort we had in Guinea or Mali, or in today’s Gambia; however, the master-servant relations between government and governed that characterized colonial Gambia characterized – if only in a benign form – the thirty years the PPP government was in power. Yes, Gambia “the improbable nation” became a nation under the PPP, and a respected one at that. Sadly, like many of his counterparts across the continent, Jawara assumed too much about the democratic nature of his de facto one party, and one-man rule, which eventually gave us a ruler who could pound his chest and proclaim to the world that he is a dictator. The good news is that if Gambians were not ready for the challenges of independence when it happened, they are now.
[i] All quotations in this article are from Berkeley Rice, Enter Gambia: The Birth of an Improbable Nation. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967