Cigar-trading diplomats and vowing to die than be 'colonised twice': just a day in the life of The Gambia

When you are a small nation, and no one takes you very seriously—your best shot then lies in deflection.

THERE is never a dull moment in the West African nation of The Gambia. The mere mention of the country stokes up images of its erratic rumbling leader named Yahya Jammeh, a man not averse to invoking mysticism to continue to hold his constituents in awe.

News out of the country can often take a tinge of incredulity, the latest being the conviction of Gambian diplomats based in London for ordering 26 tonnes of tobacco, which was brought in through more than half a million 50g pouches, supposedly for personal consumption. 

Diplomats as part of their privileges under international law are allowed to import a lot of things tax-free, and despite the staggering size of the tobacco ordered, this would have been perfectly legal if they had intended to consume it all themselves.

But they did not. A delivery driver giving evidence in a London court described how people queued up outside the embassy, snapping up the pouches. This meant the tobacco should have been declared as for sale, and the British government says it lost $7.5 million in taxes over a three year period, terming the operation “like running a business”.

A chaffed Banjul waived diplomatic immunity for four diplomats who qualified for immunity, including deputy head of mission Yusupha Bojang. 

The convictions come days after The Gambia rebuked Guinea for what its says was a “bizarre attitude” towards diplomacy, accusing its neighbour of not saying thank you for a sizeable $500,000 donation in the fight against Ebola.  (READ “Gambia fumes over Guinea’s failure to say ‘thank you’ for Ebola grant, as Conakry youth protest new clinic”).

The cash was sent in September and acknowledged by Guinea’s central bank, but not by politicians. The Gambia is one of the regional countries criticised for closing its borders to people coming from the three countries hardest-hit by Ebola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

The country is however almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, which was declared Ebola-free after a scare from a single case. It also depends on tourism for 16% of its Gross Domestic Product, making a case for it being being more cautious about a blanket ban.

At the weekend, the United States’ National Security Council took time out from bigger geopolitical concerns to criticise the country of 1.85 million for blocking access to top UN human rights investigators, in addition to bringing in tough laws against homosexuality.

“We remain concerned about ongoing reports of forced disappearances and arbitrary arrests, including of journalists, human rights advocates, and civil servants,” NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said.

Interestingly, the statement was allowed to be read on state-owned Gambian radio and television. UN investigators have said they were prevented from visiting parts of the main prison in the capital Banjul as they sought to probe into allegations of illegal killings and torture, especially against government critics.

Jammeh in October quietly signed into law legislation that provides for “aggravate homosexuality”. Human rights experts say its violates fundamental human rights.

The country has also threatened to sever ties with the European Union over the bloc’s criticism over its rights record, despite Brussels being among the country’s biggest donors.

These latest diplomatic disputes add to a long list of others in its dealings internationally, prompting speculation that the country has no foreign policy to speak of, with relations and dealings dictated on the fly by Jammeh, who came into power in 1994 through a coup. 

Eccentric diplomacy

The most high profile diplomatic shift in recent years was the withdrawal from the Commonwealth last year, branding the 54-member group a “neo-colonial institution”.  

“I think a head of state should be very,very careful in making his statements because whatever he says can be regarded as government policy. In the Gambia, here, government policies are seen as law when they have not been enacted,”  Ousainou Darboe of the main opposition United Democratic Party said in local media Monday.

The country argues independence as its main justification for its foreign relations positions. Recently, it said it would not participate in Economic Partnership Agreements with the EU, arguing it was designed to continue exploiting the African continent.

“We will rather die than be colonised twice,” Foreign minister Bala Garba Jahumpa said on state television in November. In other settings, the country’s pro-African stance would be commendable, but the facts on the ground are that it is more political than ideological. 

It is also from the realisation that it has little clout in the international arena, and needs to do more to create a splash in the pool.

The EU will soon decide if to release nearly $200 million in development aid to the country, even if it is apparent the bloc uses this as serious foreign policy leverage in the country.

Yet despite The Gambia’s push back on pressure from donors, it is apparent that it needs the cash, and that the focus on anti-gay laws is a diversion from a rapidly deteriorating economic climate, and are designed to whip up public support for the regime. 

The economy grew 5.2% in 2012, and 4.8% in 2013, with a  7.5% projection for this year.

But the government now projects growth of -0.7%, blaming the impact of Ebola on its economy, and late rains. Agriculture is the country’s biggest employer, with a Vision 2016 aiming for food self-sufficiency.

Dwindling purse

The rapid contraction of GDP, which was also blamed on high fuel prices, is alarming enough for Gambians, but while the fall in crude may have served to break this steep fall, the country will next year remove subsidies on oil signalling inflation. 

Its own central bank has warned that it will struggle to pay for imports and pay debts, as foreign reserves fell 17% over the last year to $132m. The dim tourism picture—arrivals are expected to fall by up to 60% while the World Bank notes 65% hotel cancellations— portends a bumpy ride ahead.

The country’s domestic debt also grew to 45.4% of GDP, from 38% in September 2013, while inflation has risen to 6.3%. 

In many other countries such a narrowing economic scenario would portend major social unrest but few would term Jammeh’s position as being under threat. Still, it is wise politics—and good insurance policy— to keep the people onside, hence the high-pitched quarrel with donors and human rights advocates.


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