Dawda Jawara, a veterinarian-turned-politician who led Gambia to independence from the British and then presided over the country as it became one of Africa’s longest-running democracies, died Aug. 27 at his home in Fajara, a coastal suburb of Banjul, the capital. He was 95.
Mr. Jawara was long hailed for promoting tolerance, human rights, and the rule of law at a time when sub-Saharan Africa was dominated by authoritarianism and military regimes.
He was president of his small West African nation until 1994, when, in a bloodless coup, it fell into the hands of Yahya Jammeh, a young officer who embarked on a brutal 22-year rule.
Some of Mr. Jawara’s success came from the contacts he made before he became a politician, when he traveled the countryside vaccinating cattle in his 30s, an experience that connected him with broad swaths of his nation.
“There’s not a cow in the Gambia that doesn’t know me personally,” he liked to say.
Mr. Jawara, a bespectacled man of modest bearing, negotiated independence in 1965, part of a wave of liberation movements that reshaped the continent in the 1960s. He was elected Gambia’s first president in 1970.
His death comes at a particularly raw time for Gambia. Jammeh, his successor, recently lost a presidential election and fled the country. A new president, Adama Barrow, was democratically elected, and the nation is in the midst of truth and reconciliation hearings, which have laid bare the atrocities of Jammeh’s rule. Several of Jammeh’s lieutenants have recently admitted to murdering suspected dissidents.
The investigations and disclosures have left many feeling nostalgic for the Jawara era and deeply aware of the vulnerabilities of Gambia’s democracy.
Dawda Kaibara Jawara was born on May 16, 1924, in Barajally Tenda, a small town in the Gambian interior, while the nation was under British control. His mother, Mama Fatty, was a homemaker; his father, Almami Jawara, a merchant.
Mr. Jawara studied veterinary medicine at the University of Glasgow. On returning to Gambia, he converted from Islam to Christianity, took the name David, and married a Christian woman, Augusta Mahoney.
He had worked as a veterinarian and was the country’s chief veterinary officer when he decided to enter politics, having grown convinced that Gambia had to follow in the footsteps of neighboring countries, including Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria, and become independent.
“Gambia has no prestige projects, no grandiose spending projects, no political prisoners, no army and no defense budget,” The New York Times wrote in 1977. “Its elections are perhaps the cleanest on the continent: it has opposition parties and a free press, including several mimeographed broadsides that attack the Government in roundhouse punches.”
Some in Gambia, however, wanted more rapid improvement, and one of Mr. Jawara’s greatest challenges came in 1981, when a young Marxist named Kukoi Samba Sanyang led an attempted coup. Without a military, Mr. Jawara had to rely on President Abdou Diouf of neighboring Senegal to send in troops to push out the rebels. The coup failed. Officials put the Gambian death toll, including rebels and civilians, at 500; some put it higher.
In 1994, soldiers led by Jammeh, then a 29-year-old lieutenant, stormed Banjul and took over the government. Mr. Jawara escaped aboard a US Navy warship. He lived in exile in London.
Mr. Jawara returned to Gambia in 2002. Gambians voted Jammeh out in 2016, and Mr. Jawara lived just long enough to see his country return to democracy.