Friday, November 1, 2013

Why the JWI campaign was personal

It is now official.  The lobbying contract between the K-Street firm of Jefferson Waterman International (JWI) and The Government of The Gambia has been terminated.  In its filings with the Justice Department to report on its lobbying activities, as required by law, it shows that the contract has been terminated  effective October 2013.*  It is unclear if the termination was mutual because it was to run for another three years at a total cost of $4 million.  The President of JWI is retired Ambassador Jackson McDonald who served as U.S Ambassador to The Gambia from 2001 to 2004.   Let us be clear, the contract was fro JWI to spruce up the image of a dictator whose human right record was appalling where democracy flourished under a democratically-elected government until replaced by military coup d'etat when extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture, rigged elections and false imprisonment became the norm of a once democratic country with a liberal economic policies.    

I met retired Ambassador Jackson McDonald in 2001 while we were both living and working in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire.  He was serving as Deputy Chief of Mission at the United State Embassy as I was serving as Executive Director at the African Development Bank.   He had just been nominated by George W. Bush to be the next American Ambassador to The Gambia.   To help prepare for his new role, and also to help in prepare for his Senate confirmation hearing, someone proposed that he reach out to me for a briefing.  He called, introduced himself and I immediate complied.  He invited me to a dinner an the Nuit de Saigon, a trendy Vietnamese restaurant in Deux Plateaux.

It didn't take him long into the dinner that he knew my position regarding the Jammeh regime.  I was not only highly critical of his overall handling of the economy, but I was particularly appalled at his human rights record.  I think he was taken aback not because of my strong criticism of the Jammeh regime but because I was able to reconcile my positions with the fact that I represented the interest of The Gambia, among four other countries, on the Boards of Director of the Bank.  My response was that my views about the government may be critical of the regime - views that I have expressed on the Board of Directors on a couple of occasions, but they were not inconsistent with my role as a Member of the Boards.  As long as The Gambia was servicing its loans, and abiding by the fundamental rules governing membership, it can continue to draw against its rights to access financing.  I implored him to press Jammeh to improve the human rights record and to allow for a more open election process, among a list of other issues.   I left the dinner thinking that the newly nominated Ambassador was going to make human rights his top priority which he promised.   

Ambassador McDonald left soon thereafter for Washington to prepare for his confirmation hearing and subsequent posting to Banjul.  We kept in touch and exchange emails.  When things started really deteriorating, the communications slowed and eventually stopped.  I have been in the business long enough to know that the personal views of a representative (be it a Board Member of a development finance agency or Ambassador) must be balanced against current policy, as in my case at the Bank, and national interest as in the case of Ambassador McDonald.  But is so happens that the promotion of human rights and a free and fair elections were always a top priority for the U.S. government, and yet during Jackson's tenure human right conditions deteriorated dramatically and political intimidation reached new heights.  Remember the 2001 presidential election campaign?  Granted Ambassador McDonald assumed office in October, few weeks before the 2001 elections but was present when electoral fraud was documented to be rampant, opposition party leaders and supporters were intimidated, beaten and jailed.  The Ambassador, in my view, did not come to the aid of Gambians whose rights were constantly being trampled on my a dictatorial regime. This is view held by many including those not holding strong political views but were keen followers of Gambian politics.    

On the economic management front, I had always felt that Jammeh was interfering too with the economy.  In October 2001, the BBC described the Gambian economy as "still work in progress, with much of the government's efforts spend on reducing poverty."  By now, Jammeh has established the reputation of being undisciplined which has exasperated donors to the point of almost discouraged the IMF to extending further loan facility.  This was the period that the effects of the seizing of the ALIMENTA facilities at the Denton Bridge were beginning to be felt across the economy with limited processing facility for the groundnut harvest.  Alimenta had won arbitration and Gambia was to pay $11.2 million to the grain giant for loss of earnings and investment - a payout that caused Gambia to miss IMF performance criteria that year.

These were developments that occurred under the watch of Ambassador McDonald which, in my view, were not handled with the proactive zeal that I expected of him.  At least, I expected that much from my friend.  It would seem that he had an excuse for every excess of Jammeh.  His relationship has become very cozy for the liking of many, including opposition leaders who felt that the Ambassador was more interested in protecting Jammeh than the opposition leaders by not speaking out more forcefully against the dictator.  To eliminate any doubt in the minds of Gambians that the outgoing Ambassador with a friend of the dictator, the Military Health Center at the Bakau Depot carries the name The Jackson McDonald Military Health Center as a passing gift.  No other American Ambassador has ever received such honor from Jammeh who built a reputation of being anti-American, anti-UK and anti-West.

It is this cozy relationship between the two men that got me going, so to speak, once I learned of the contract between Jefferson Waterman International where Ambassador McDonald is President and Yaya Jammeh.  Prior to good public with my petition against the contract with, I had made several attempts to reach out to him to see if the matter can be worked out privately.  That was my prefered choice.  But when he ignored my emails and phone calls to his office and website, I decided to go public. Along the way, I join DUGA-DC in a protest in front of the JWI offices last year.  I am now happy that the entire episode is over.  This chapter is closed.   The lessons that should be drawn is that lobbying firms will be risking their reputations if they continue to ignore calls to refrain from dealing with dictators like Jammeh who has very bad international press.  Firms will be entering into such contracts at their our peril.  Entering into business deals, especially lobbying contracts to spruce up their tattered images is high profit margin but with very high risks.

Let me go on record to say that Ambassador Jackson McDonald is a good man.  He made a bad business judgment in this case by trying to cash in on a relationship with a character whose international reputation is nothing to write home about.  I am certain that after Ambassador Jackson's experience with Jammeh, his firm will stay away from dictators who prey on their citizens by denying them the very basic of human rights and freedoms that we all enjoy in America and Europe.

Africa is the new business frontier with high economic growth.  In fact, of the ten fastest growing economies in the world, eight of them can be found in Africa.  Therefore, business opportunities are increasing and are presenting themselves in many sectors which present choices that never existed before.  Therefore, there is no need to do business with unsavory characters, not only in Africa but in the United States as well.  One simple rule that I tell my business associates and partners to apply in selecting where and with whom to do business in Africa :  if it bad for America, it is bad for Africa too.   Unfortunately, Ambassador McDonald did not apply this rule when he entered into a contract with one of Africa's dwindling pool of dictators.

*Corrigendum :  The termination was October 6th 2013 and not June 2013 as reported in an earleir version of this blog. My apologies