By Alagie Manneh
As The Gambia clocks 50 years of republicanhood today, historian and museum curator Hassoum Ceesay said the country remains “solid, sound and stable”.
On 24 April 1970, Gambian voters went to the polls in a second Republican Referendum in less than five years to decide if the country, independent from Britain five years earlier, should be republic within the British Commonwealth or not.
“On April 24 1970, about 84,968 Gambians voted ‘Yes’ to Republic, while 35,813 voted ‘No’. This was indeed a resounding victory. In 1965, much fewer people voted yes which was why The Gambia did not become a republic in 1965,” Mr Ceesay explained.
He added that soon after the votes were declared over Radio Gambia on 25 April, preparations started to swear in Jawara as first president but it was prompt so not many foreign guests came to attend the historic swearing.
“Sir Phillip Bridges, Chief justice at the time, swore in Sir Dawda as president on 26 April 1970. Then Sir Alieu Sulayman Jack, who was acting governor general, handed over the instruments of Republic to Sir Dawda”.
Asked why Sir Alieu became acting governor general, Mr Ceesay replied: “In late 1969, when the PPP top brass wanted to have another try at republic, they suspected Sir Farimang Singhateh, who was governor general did not want the idea. But the PPP had no evidence. They were suspicious. Of course, he did not want to lose his job. So, the PPP decided to send him on indefinite leave in Las Palmas with his family. So that Sir Farimang cannot interfere with the PPP campaign for YES vote.
The PPP moved, may be wisely by removing Sir Farimang from The Gambia to the faraway island. He only returned in May 1970, many weeks after The Gambia had become a full Republic.”Asked what Republic means for Gambians, Mr Ceesay said: “Well, independence means freedom. But the freedom had certain missing links. Like Jawara who was elected leader as Prime Minister in 1962 and 1966 had to consult Queen Elizabeth II through the Governor General Sir Farimang for certain decisions like cabinet reshuffles. Sir Farimang was always cooperative with Jawara. But the PPP wanted full and total control, to be able to realise the development agenda they had.”
People such as JC Faye and PS Njie had opposed The Gambia becoming a full Republic in 1970 but Mr Ceesay said they were nevertheless patriots.
“They feared that Jawara will become a dictator if given presidential powers. They saw what Sekou Touré was doing in Guinea, killing Guineans, and so they thought Jawara will do the same.
“Luckily for us, Jawara built a Republic of Rights and not a Republic of Terror,” said Mr Ceesay. “In addition, Jawara Gambianised the economy by promoting Gambian business people like Modou Musa Njie, MS Tambadou, Malick Lowe and others after the European companies like UAC, Maurel & Prom, which used to import basic commodities left after 1970.”
Mr Ceesay said as a historian looking into the future, he has reason for optimism.
“Our republic has survived coups, droughts, economic recession and the impasse. Our republic remains solid and strong and stable. Gambians are taking up the national call seriously and are getting more community-spirited. Moreover, we are enjoying our rights to expression and assembly. The talents in arts and culture are impressive. This is great news and deserves our pride as Gambians 50 years since our Republic was built”, the historian said.