Ambassador: ‘UK-Gambia relations steady despite…’

Speaking in an interview with The Standard shortly before his departure following the completion of his tour of diplomatic duty and retirement from British Foreign Service, he explained:

“Well I think at the moment they are pretty steady. Over the time I have been here you have heard me refer to bumps on the road. I think the way I would assess them, in a valedictory context, if I could put it like that, is that we have had different levels of relationships. I think that is the same with every country. We have grassroots relationships which are very warm and effective. We have the relationship which I enjoy with ministers and senior officials. It has always been extremely courteous and helpful.

“And then I suppose we have the political element to the relationship where we have His Excellency President Jammeh making a few remarks in public which never fails to be of interest to anybody who listens to him. I sometimes think that His Excellency’s remarks tend to be… I know he has a very good sense of humour. So these are different elements of the relationship and I think they will always be strong. But as I said before, it goes up and down. At the moment I am feeling pretty comfortable but who knows what will come up round the corner next week.”

When put to him that the European Union might be seen as meddling in the affairs of The Gambia with the presentation of a 17-point recommendation on good governance, which attracted caustic comments and opposition from President Jammeh citing differences in culture and laws, he retorted: “It is a fine line, isn’t it? I absolutely recognise what you are saying. I get very annoyed when the EU tells the UK how we ought to be doing things. I recognise the negative impact of appearing to tell people how to do things. It is the art of diplomacy in many ways to try to get messages across without offending anybody and I have tried to say during my time here that what we want to see is a successful country.

“We are not saying do it this way because as you say you have your laws, you have your constitution, you have your culture. What works in some countries won’t work in others but I think what we can say or be sure of is that success does not come from aid money alone. My prime minister talks about the golden thread of development and countries develop because they are democratic, the rule of law prevails, there is transparency, there is good government. These are the building blocks of success. I was reading recently that a quarter of all sub-Saharan countries are now poorer than they were in 1960- 54 years ago. A quarter of countries in this region are poorer than they were then. And many of these countries had millions of pounds of aid money poured into them. It made no difference. This is really at the hub of how I feel about The Gambia. We are not being prescriptive, we are not ramming benchmarks down people’s throats but we want to see The Gambia succeed and there are tried and tested means of achieving that success and it is  in the hands of the government.” In this maiden edition of the relaunched The Diplomat, the outgoing British Ambassador to The Gambia granted anchor Sainey Darboe an exclusive interview in which he talks about a myriad of issues relating to Gambian-British relations.

Mr David Morley was appointed British Ambassador to The Republic of The Gambia in succession to Mr Phil Sinkinson OBE, who has retired from the British diplomatic service. Mr Morley took up his appointment in May 2011. He joined the FCO in 1973 and has served at a wide variety of posts overseas.

How would you describe the state of UK Gambia relations?
Well I think at the moment they are pretty steady. Over the time I have been here you have heard me refer to bumps on the road. I think the way I would assess them, in a valedictory context, if I could put it like that, is that we have had different levels of relationships. I think that is the same with every country. We have grassroots relationships which are very warm and effective. We have the relationship which I enjoy with ministers and senior officials. It has always been extremely courteous and helpful. And then I suppose we have the political element to the relationship where we have His Excellency, President Jammeh making a few remarks in public which never fails to be of interest to anybody who listens to him. I sometimes think that His Excellency’s remarks tend to be… I know he has a very good sense of humor. So there are different elements of the relationship and I think they will always be strong. But as I said before, it goes up and down. At the moment I am feeling pretty comfortable but who knows what will come up round the corner next week.

I understand there has been resumption of talks following the rejection by the President Jammeh of the EU 17 point recommendation on good governance. What progress has been achieved so far?
Yes, it has obviously gone a little bit quiet. It is not always easy to arrange dialogue like this because we are supposed to have them twice a year. But it is not unreasonable for the government of The Gambia to have other things to do. We had hoped we would have a discussion this year by now but as you know there was a big African Union meeting which the foreign minister had to go to and a lot of officials. It is sometimes difficult to get the calendars together so the talks have been a little bit delayed, but I think they will take place next month after I have gone and they will be very much carrying on from discussions we have had last year and the position is still the same as it was , as it always has been which is the EU and Republic of The Gambia have a relationship enshrined in the Cotonou agreement which President Jammeh has signed and the relationship – the partnership – has obligations for both parties. What we are trying to do with the dialogue we have had is to try and persuade the government of The Gambia that there are different ways of doing things and the EU isn’t going to go away in the context of these discussions so they will keep going. They are always amicable and despite what people say about the EU I know as a representative of a member state that it has the interest of The Gambia at heart. It is not trying to dictate. It is not trying to tell people how to do things but it is trying to point out that success can follow certain paths. And some of the paths that have been taken here over the years may not be the most perfect ones so there are always other ways of doing things. But I am confident that the talks, when they take place, will just be as amicable as they have been in the past.

What are the potentially adverse implications if Gambia refuses to implement those recommendations?
Well, again I do not want to make it sound as though we are back to the benchmarks. The issues to which you refer were only ever meant to be discussion issues. They are not an ultimatum. They are what were presented to be discussed further but unfortunately they were presented in a rather different way but the issues remain issues and we are going to have to address them at some stage. Since the talks last time, we have seen that Taranga FM has got the green light to reopen. We have seen your newspaper has got the green light to reopen and we hope the other one will get the green light in due course. That is a step in the right direction. Also there might be examples of things that have not gone so well. This is an ongoing relationship and it will endure; it will keep going. But how it will turn out I don’t know.

Don’t you think by putting pressure on the Gambia government to embrace the values you advocate, you run a substantial risk of being accused of meddling The Gambia has different laws, culture and history, so where do you draw the line?
It is a fine line, isn’t it? I absolutely recognise what you are saying. I get very annoyed when the EU tells the UK how we ought to be doing things. I recognise the negative impact of appearing to tell people how to do things. It is the art of diplomacy in many ways to try to get messages across without offending anybody and I have tried to say during my time here that what we want to see is a successful country. We are not saying do it this way because as you say you have your laws, you have your constitution, you have your culture. What works in some countries won’t work in others but I think what we can say or be sure of is that success does not come from aid money alone. My prime minister talks about the golden thread of development and countries develop because they are democratic, the rule of law prevails, there is transparency, there is good governance. These are the building blocks of success. I was reading recently that a quarter of all sub-Saharan countries are now poorer than they were in 1960, 54 years ago. A quarter of countries in this region are poorer than they were then. And many of these countries had millions of pounds of aid money poured into them. It made no difference. We are not being prescriptive, we are not ramming benchmarks down people’s throats but we want to see The Gambia succeed and there are tried and tested means of achieving that success and it is in the hands of the government.

There has been a shift on your part in giving money to grassroots organisations rather than direct aid to government. Is this trend going to continue and why?
Well, I wish I knew. The short answer is yes. The way we work here is tried and tested. As you know we shut down the DfID aid programme in 2009. And what we might call capital development comes in through the EU now. Twenty percent of all EU money that get spent here is British. A lot of our aid money is spent regionally. You might be surprised a lot to know some British aid money goes into the African Union. Some British aid money goes to the ADB so it is not all on one side. Despite food price rises and inflation, a little money goes a long way here. We have found that there is quite modest but well focused support for grassroots communities which is very effective. What every ambassador has to wrestle with this time of the year is how much he or she is going to be given by the UK for next year’s programme. As we speak, I don’t know. I hope it won’t get any less but sometimes you know we are talking about the austerity that the UK is facing .This year, the upcoming year, 2014-2015, is the most difficult year yet for the UK public sector. We have had to make big huge cuts. We are looking at cuts between 7-10 percent on our costs here. Let me take this opportunity to say that we are not closing, we are not going anywhere but each year it becomes harder to maintain the same level of operations. We will have a programme. I don’t know how wide spread it might be but we will be advertising soon for the bits like we always do. It may be we won’t have quite as much money to go round as we had last year.

The Gambia has had traditionally good relations with the UK but over the years in the Second Republic, it has been waning with The Gambia looking more to the east. How do you feel about this?
I think strategically there is a case for it because we have the Vision 2020, sub-strategy of PAGE. There is a very clear development strategy in this country and it is not unreasonable to think well if we can’t get investment from one country we would look at another country. It could purely be a business approach. It does not mean that we are not as fond of each other as we used to be, as we have always traditionally been. So I think it is a perfectly understandable strategic move and  His Excellency has been in Turkey over the last two or three days and I know Turkey opened up here two or three years ago or so. I think the second ambassador is here at the moment, the first trail blazer ambassador has gone and the two countries signed some agreements. It would be interesting to see what flows from that relationship. But I think the UK now we are focusing very hard upon certain parts of Africa with our ‘prosperity agenda’ in mind and that is why we are doing a lot of work in Sierra-Leone, a lot of work in Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and the common denominator of those countries is obvious. As we are forced to focus much more strategically due to our own austerity pressures it is inevitable we would have to do more with some countries and less to do with others. It doesn’t mean we do not like the countries with which we have less to do but it is just the inevitable result of our ‘prosperity agenda’ which is what drives so much of our foreign policy these days.

But these countries Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire are relatively richer with vast natural resources. Is it because poor Gambia has nothing to offer you in the immediate and short term?
That is a very fair point and I think I have made it clear in my responses. What you have just described is very hard-nosed foreign policy. When you are representing a country with the financial constraints UK has you have to look at that aspect of   relationships far more keenly. Well the other side of this is that focusing away from The Gambia does not mean our influence diminishes.

When did we have any influence here since 1994? What influence have we had here?
Well I haven’t seen any.

We send a lot of tourists here each year, depending on the tourism climate. But influence?
This is where you have the really interesting aspect of what we can call soft power. The Gambia is not in the Commonwealth anymore. This is an example of where countries can have influence in different ways. You have got the bilateral relationship which is the core demonstration of foreign policy, then you got the multilateral relationship and in my time here our influence, if you call it that, is more effectively expressed in a multilateral way. In a multilateral forum it can be easier when you are discussing with other people. The Gambia is not a member of the Commonwealth anymore and my research has shown that for every pound that The Gambia paid into the Commonwealth if you like it got 13 back. The value of Commonwealth to this country was enormous and as well as losing all that development investment which is what it was. You remember the Commonwealth judges and lots of other developmental projects, workshops and so forth. The Commonwealth even paid for your office in New York, at the UN. There are all sorts of things the Commonwealth did for The Gambia and I use the past tense advisedly.

But as well as the hard cash element, if you like, is the influence of talking. Did the VP go to the CHOGM in 2012?
Hmmm! I don’t know. I am getting old, I can’t remember. If you don’t talk to people then there is no relationship and it is a great shame that the Commonwealth is not available as an interlocutor now for anybody in this country. The EU still is.

It raises the points you made earlier on. Who is The Gambia talking to? Who are its interlocutors?
I think that is a pretty long-winded answer. I think I will sum up by saying that we are always happy to talk to anybody here but I can’t help but reflect on the fact that it has been nearly ten years since we had a British minister here. I think Baroness Amos was the last British Minister here and I think that was in the previous government. I am very hopeful the honorable Foreign Minister will be visiting the UK in April. There is a big conference that my Foreign Secretary and Angelina Jolie are co-hosting in London and The Gambia has lots of good points and lots of positive things that have been done by government and civil society in combating sexual violence and rights of women. There is this conference in London to which we have invited the foreign minister. I hope he will go. We haven’t heard from him yet. There are opportunities to reinforce the relationship in the bilateral context. But as I said with the Commonwealth not around now multilateral opportunities are less available. But we have a new British ambassador arriving in April.

Who knows what that will bring?
There is always a bit more enthusiasm, a bit more energy to re-launch a relationship, make it a bit stronger. But I won’t be leaving feeling particularly gloomy. The Gambia is a great country, it always will be. Whilst it is easy for us to say, ‘oh this is not good’, ‘that is not good’, there are lots of good things about the country. There are lots of good things in the regional context that The Gambia and Gambians are ahead. I am pretty optimistic that things will turn out well for your country.

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