Photo credit: “Gambia Grunge Flag” by Nicolas Raymond is licensed under CC BY 3.0.
On this day, Gambia Independence Day is observed as an annual holiday to mark the anniversary of the Gambia’s liberation from the British Empire over 50 years ago on February 18, 1965, with the introduction of The Gambia Independence Act of 1964. Going from the British Crown Colony and Protectorate of the Gambia into the independent sovereign state of the Gambia. In material reality, this day in history established the Gambia as an internal self-government under a constitutional monarchy, with the British monarch, Elizabeth II, remaining head of state of the Gambia, which shared its Sovereign with other Commonwealth realms. Elizabeth’s constitutional roles were mostly delegated to the colonial administrator, Governor-General of the Gambia, John Paul. The Gambian people celebrated this historic event with great enthusiasm, showing that they were ready to take control of their destiny and make their own decisions about the future of their country. This day is still celebrated annually as Gambia’s National Day, yet the day in history marks only partial independence.
Over 250 years ago, on 25 May 1765, the Gambia was colonized as part of the British Empire (and before that by the Portuguese and the French). The government formally assumed control and established the Province of Senegambia. The Gambia was the first land to be carved out by the British in West Afrika, and when the Gambia gained its independence it was the last colony of Britain’s West Afrikan colonies to do so.
The Gambian independence movement had been gaining momentum since the late 1Severalber of political parties had been established, including the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the United Party (UP). However, the main focus of the struggle was the African People’s Party (APP), which was founded in 1959 and led by the charismatic and visionary leader, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara. Jawara was a strong advocate for Pan-Afrikanism and was determined to free Gambia from the yoke of British colonialism.
The British government eventually conceded to the demands of the independence movement and agreed to grant Gambia partial independence. Under the new agreement, Gambia was to become a constitutional monarchy with a parliament and prime minister. As part of the agreement, the British would still maintain control over the defense, foreign and financial matters.
Despite the limited independence, Jawara and the APP were determined to make the most of their new status. Jawara was eager to develop the Gambia’s economy and improve the lives of its citizens. During his time in office, he introduced some progressive policies, including the introduction of a minimum wage and the expansion of education and health care. He also initiated some projects to improve infrastructure and promote development.
Jawara’s commitment to Pan-Afrikanism was evident in the foreign policy he pursued. He sought to strengthen ties with other Afrikan countries and was a strong advocate for the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)–the forerunner of today’s African Union (AU)–setting up a human rights office in Gambia’s capital, Banjul. He also advocated for the creation of a West African Economic Community (ECOWAS).
The legacy of Jawara and the struggle for Gambian independence is still very much alive today. The country is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and is a strong proponent of democracy, human rights, and economic development. It is also a member of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The partial independence of Gambia in 1965 was a milestone in the struggle for Afrikan liberation and self-determination. It was a testament to the determination and courage of the Gambian people and the leadership of Dawda Kairaba Jawara. His commitment to Pan-Afrikanism and the cause of Afrikan liberation will continue to inspire generations of Afrikan leaders for years to come.
When the Gambia became “independent” on 18 February 1965, Jawara himself came to realize immediately that after all, he and his government had no power. Rather he came to realize that actual power resided in a Queen in London. It was because of that rude awakening that he realized the urgent need to transform the Gambia into a republic, and hence attain independence in a truer sense of the word.
This means that the Gambia was not independent on 18 February 1965. The 1965 Constitution, as the supreme land stiupulated clearly that the Gambian was only a dominion under the British Empire. This was why his government sought a referendum on two occasions (in Sept. 1965 and April 1970) just to attain republican status for the country, both of which failed. On 24 April 1970, this objective was achieved and Gambia became a republic albeit within the Commonwealth.