Down and Out in Serrekunda

The impact of Chief Awolowo’s free primary education program launched in 1956 is evident in the Nigerian community in The Gambia

Katim S. Touray, Ph. D.
7 min readApr 5, 2022
Street in Serrekunda, The Gambia, Nigerians (mostly Igbo) sell where used auto parts (left), and Nigerian-owned used auto parts stall (right). Photos by the author April 2022

About 10 years ago, I saw at the Embassy of the United States of America (US) in Dakar, Senegal which was then under construction, and it sent a chill down my spine. Allowing myself a moment of stereotyping (albeit in a positive way), I thought to myself: only a Toubab (meaning a white person in Wolof) would think like that! And what was it that I saw?

Well, the Americans decided to put an air-conditioner in each sentry box (as can be seen in this picture) at the entrances to the embassy complex — and it’s a huge one! Although this made perfect sense, I knew that the last thing on the mind of the average African bureaucrat would be to air-condition a sentry box for a security guard.

And my hunch was soon proven right. When I mentioned what I saw in Dakar to some Gambian friends of mine who are senior bureaucrats they said it wasn’t necessary to air-condition a sentry box. That really depressed and saddened me! That they saw no value in air-conditioning sentry boxes, even though they themselves spent each working day in an air-conditioned office. How could they be so inconsiderate of the welfare of their security guards?

Another case of Gambian malaise happened almost exactly year ago to the day, when I shared a link to the Chinese government White Paper on poverty alleviation with other Gambians on an Internet discussion group. The Chinese government wanted to share their experience in fighting poverty in China, and how they were able to take about 770 million people out of poverty between the 1970s and 2021.

I thought that Gambians, especially civil servants, and those working the development field, would want to learn from the Chinese experience to help fight poverty in the country. I also mentioned to them that while China, since the 1970s lifted over 770 million people out of poverty, the number of people living in poverty in The Gambia increased from 0.79 million in 2010 to 0.94 million in 2015/16. And what was the reaction of my Gambian friends when I shared the Chinese government’s White Paper on fighting poverty? They yawned! Nothing, it seemed, could sound more boring to them.

Gambians should also learn from is the free primary education program launched in the Western Region of Nigeria in 1956. Although the Constitution of The Gambia provides that “basic education shall be free, compulsory and available to all”, and the government introduced a free and compulsory primary education in 1998, almost 50 percent of the recurrent cost of primary education in 2011 was borne by households. As such, the high cost of education was cited as one of the main reasons why kids do not attend school in The Gambia. Furthermore, less than half of the working-age population of the country completed primary education, and over half of the population has not had any formal education.

The free education program of the Western Region of Nigeria was launched by the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Premier of the Western Region, which was one of the three Regions of Nigeria, and consisting mostly of Yorubas. The other two regions were the Eastern (mostly Igbo), and Northern (mostly Hausa and Fulani) Regions. Chief Awolowo also introduced free health care program for primary school children in the Western Region.

Other significant achievements Chief Awolowo as Premier of the Western Region include building the first TV station in Africa, the first industrial estate, and the first public-owned sports stadium. He also built farm centers that trained youths in modern farming techniques and started an investment corporation which invested in various sectors of the Nigerian economy. For a very good reason, then, the Western Region started calling itself “First in Africa.”

About two weeks ago, I sent a link to the video about Chief Awolowo’s free primary education program to a WhatsApp Group with over 200 Gambian subscribers. Many members of the Group are former and current government and international civil service employees who have been round the world many times. They also are a highly educated bunch if, that is, we consider the fact that many of them have Master’s, and some have Ph.D. degrees.

The video is especially interesting to me because I had my undergraduate education at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), located in the Eastern and predominantly Igbo part of Nigeria. Despite this, UNN in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a cosmopolitan university with students from all over Nigeria and, indeed, Africa. For this reason, I became friends with Nigerians from various ethnic groups, including Igbos and Yorubas. I have also since then been eternally grateful to Nigeria because I had a full Nigerian government scholarship throughout my undergraduate studies at UNN.

When I shared the video about Chief Awolowo’s free primary education program in Western Nigeria on our WhatsApp Group, I mentioned that it explained the reason why Igbos in The Gambia are selling slide bread, as well as used goods (e.g. auto parts, appliances, and clothing), while their Yoruba compatriots were teachers, engineers, and doctors.

To my surprise, I got some push back from subscribers on our WhatsApp Group. The thrust of the responses to my posting was that university or college education is not necessary for success, and that there are many successful Igbos in the US, for example. Fair enough. Given that there were 263,000 people of Nigerian descent in the US in 2012, and that 61 percent of them had a bachelor’s degree or higher, it should not be difficult to come across successful Igbos. My friends must have seen a few trees and took them for a forest, but a few trees do not a forest make.

Furthermore, I am not alone in my position that Chief Awolowo’s free primary education program is the reason why Yorubas are ahead of Igbos and Nigerian other ethnic groups. At a 2015 event in honor of Chief Awolowo, a Nigerian academic said that the Chief’s free primary education program helped push the former Western Region and her mainly Yoruba people ahead of other regions of the country.

As it happens, the ethnicity of Nigerians can be determined with reasonable certainty based on names. Using this strategy, I analyzed the Wikipedia list of prominent Nigerian-Americans and found that it is dominated by Yorubas. Specifically, Yorubas accounted for 53.1 percent of the group, compared to 32.7 percent for Igbos. Yoruba’s also out-numbered Igbos in six out of eight fields, ranging from activism, business, and government to mathematics and medicine, as well as science and engineering. For example, Yoruba’s account for 68.4 percent of notable Nigerian Americans in science and engineering, compared to 26.3 percent for Igbos.

My interactions with Nigerians in The Gambia buttress my conclusions about the reason for the differences between Yorubas and Igbos in the country. I recall one evening in Serrekunda when I talked to an Igbo man selling sliced bread. I asked him how his folks were back home in Nigeria, and said that they were doing fine, except that his wife in Nigeria kept asking him for money. I really felt sorry for him because I could not imagine how long it will take him to save enough money to send home selling loaves of bread at $1 each, and on any given day, his stock could not be more 100 loaves!

The opinion that university education not a prerequisite for success in life might be true, as billionaire exceptions such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson show. However, the fact of the matter is that university education has been valued for 1,163 years since the first university in the world was established in Morocco. Furthermore, university graduates are an exclusive bunch given that only 6.7 percent of the 7.2 billion people have a university degree. The world’s most educated countries (in terms of percentage of their populations with degrees) are also some of the most developed countries in the world. The demand for university education is also indicated by the report that the estimated 18,000 degree-granting institutions in 180 countries around the world will help more than double the number of university graduates from 137 million in 2013 to 300 million in 2030.

Against this background, the only way my friends can win our debate is if we can conclude that Chief Awolowo’s free education program had no impact; that it was pointless. Clearly, this cannot be the case because as has been attested to, and as data from Wikipedia show. For this reason, I maintain, and the facts bear me out, that Yorubas in The Gambia are mostly professionals, while their Igbo compatriots are petty traders because Chief Awolowo’s free primary education program. I rest my case.