Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The improbable nation at 50 : Tale of two Gambias

D.K.Jawara, Rev. Fye, S.Sisay and GarbaJahumpa

Gambian school children i n 1965

It was Mr. Ian MacLeod, the Conservative Leader of the House of Commons who, in his opening remarks at the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference in 1961, referenced the Gambia as "the accident of history..., too small and too ill-endowed with natural resources to develop economically in isolation."  The American journalist, Berkeley Rice, described this sliver of a land in the belly of Senegal, even at Independence, as "an improbable nation" whose survival as a nation was questioned even after lively debate within the confines of the United Nations, London and some Western capitals about its economic viability.  In short, in the eyes of many Gambia made sense as a colony but an absolute nonsense as an independent nation because of its size, geographic location and, of course, its scarce resource endowment.

David Kwesi Jawara, who later became became Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who led his government's delegation to the Lancaster House Talks, though insisted on and determined to see Gambia's independence, was realistic enough to recognize the limitations of the new nation.  Following the coup d'etat of 1994 that ushered in a group of ill-prepared soldiers for modern leadership that led to the weakening of institutions that were still in the process of being built and strengthened concurrently, the issue of economic ability is once again being mooted in some diplomatic circles because the comparative advantage accrued to a small but relatively efficiently-managed economy has been lost to Senegal.

Sir Dawda Jawara seemed to have always been conscious of the limited capacity of the country's economy which, in my view, greatly influenced his style of leadership in the economic management sphere, and understandably so.  The Gambian economy at Independence, like many colonial economies, can best be described as commercial enclaves of the metropolitan capitals of Western Europe.  These economies were run by the colonial mercantile class to feed the factories of Western Europe.  Apart from its geographical size and lack of natural resources, The Gambia was no different in terms of its role of feeding the factories of Europe with raw material.   Groundnut was, of course, Gambia's mail export, and thus the agrarian nature of its economy.  The heavy reliance on one crop as the only source of foreign exchange meant an economy that was at the mercy of externalities that, by definition, the government has no control over.

Ten years into independence, the monocultural economy was evidently unable to generate sufficient foreign exchange to spur economic development.  Thus in 1975, over 80% of the country's foreign reserves were in the form of grant-in-aid from Britain.  It took the government of the day a decade to realize the need to diversify the economy which led Sir Dawda to admit that "[Unless] we looked beyond grant-in-aid our political independence would be meaningless and we would still continue as a semi-autonomous colony."  Both the economy and the source of development finance were ready for diversification.  Bilateral assistance started coming from Germany and other Western European countries,an the United States.

At the multilateral level, The Gambia looked to the World Bank, the African Development Bank. The Ministry of Economic Planning and Industrial Development was created in 1974 to led the economic planning effort and to coordinate the sectoral development activities.  This period also saw the rationalization of several public sector activities into public enterprise or semi-autonomous parastatal bodies such as GAMTEL, Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation, GPA to name a few. With the Economic Recovery Program (ERP), The Gambia was able to diagnose the problem facing the economy, prescribe painful remedies and was determined to see them through, leading to economic prosperity.  The once weak local currency, the Dalasi, dalasi recovered its lost value and began to appreciate steadily until 1994.

The economic gains under Sir Dawda, however modest, were made possible by the peace and stability of a style of governance that guaranteed the rights and freedoms of ordinary Gambians who were free to pursue their dreams as far as it was feasible given individual circumstances.  The economy was open with little or no interference from the Executive, couple with a vibrant democratic environment and rule of law.  Certainly, President Jawara was neither an abuser of human rights of Gambians nor was he an active participant in the market as a businessman like Yaya Jammeh.

The peace and stability that the Jawara regime provided was briefly threatened in 1981 which was quickly restored by Senegal only for a group of ill-prepared low-ranking members of the security forces seized power unconstitutionally.  The putschists, led by Yaya Jammeh in July 1994, brought with them a culture of violence never experienced before as a means of retaining power. They also brought with them a level of corruption never seen in the previous 30 years under Sir Dawda.

The liberal and reasonably well-managed economy the soldiers inherited came under immediate threat because their low level of education and lack of relevant experience in governance.  Unlike the Founding Father of The Gambia, non of these soldiers who formed the Military Council that ran the affairs of state, at the time of seizing power, were not married and thus never managed a household budget.  The oldest of the group was 29 years old which qualified him to be the leader.  Suddenly, they found themselves managing an entire national economy.

The civil service that took a painstaking 30 years to build to the level to be regarded as one of the best and most efficient in Africa was one of the first victims of the institutions because of the rules and procedures that inhibits the actions of a hungry group of soldiers who came to loot the public treasury.  The Tender Board was dissolved and government procurement centralized at State House. Experienced civil servants were accused of corruption, detained illegally and eventually dismissed from the service.  They were replaced eventually by semi-literal personnel with no idea of how a government operates.  The most profitable and highly efficient public enterprises fell into the hands of supporters and relatives of the new rulers of the junta.

Economic mismanagement is the standard norm under the Jammeh regime because qualification and experience matters very little.  What qualifies one is your relationship with Yaya Jammeh and your allegiance to his ruling party.  Nothing else matters to a ruler who demands absolute submission to his dictatorial desires.  The cumulative effect of twenty years of economic mismanagement characterized by deceptive reporting of economic data and the concealment of financial data, resulted in an IMF Staff Monitoring Program that is currently being negotiated before a quick disbursing bail-out loan is approved.

The regime of Yaya Jammeh did not only bring the Gambian economy to its knees, it brought Gambians to their knees by being routinely tortured, murdered, maimed, extra-judicially executed and exiled.  Jammeh and his minions have overseen the transformation of a once democratic and well-managed economy under Sir Dawda Jawara to the present pariah status Gambia has become within the Community of Nations.  The improbable nation became a possible nation under Jawara to the doubtful category under the current dictatorship.  Where The Gambia goes from her is anyone's guess.  Thanks to a man named Yaya Jamus Junkung Jammeh.