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By Talibeh Hydara

On 17 March 2016, The Gambia and China resumed diplomatic relations after more than a two-decade break. The two foreign ministers at the time, Neneh MacDouall-Gaye and Wang Yi, signed a joint communiqué which conditioned The Gambia to accept that there is only one China and that Taiwan is an inalienable territory of China while China, on the other hand, supports The Gambia’s economy and sovereignty.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping meets President Adama Barrow at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sept. 6, 2018. (Xinhua)

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But the relations between The Gambia and China did not start eight years ago; there was a relationship before this relationship. In September 1975, The Gambia’s first president Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara led a high-profile delegation to China, a year after the establishment of diplomatic ties between Banjul and Beijing.

‘Most fruitful relation ever’

Hassoum Ceesay, an eminent Gambian historian, flipped through the pages of history about the ingenuity of that diplomatic decision which set the country on course to rapid development for over two decades.    

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“The twenty-one years relation between the Republic of The Gambia and the People’s Republic of China from 1974-1995 was one of the most fruitful bilateral relations The Gambia ever had. First, the Chinese in a jiffy, opened an embassy here. Even before Jawara returned from his trip to Beijing, the Chinese were already here looking for a place to house their embassy. They were in earnest. Second, they picked up where the Taiwanese left off as regard the rice project in Sankulleh Kunda. Their first intervention was in rice because they understood that Jawara’s stay in power was largely because he associated himself with the farming community, the protectorate people. In fact, still now there is a rice variety called Chinese being grown in the villages. It is a quick maturing variety which they brought here. Third, they bought wholly into the PPP’s second development plan 1975-81; the first was 71-75. It was a very comprehensive blueprint which included building health centres; Fajikunda, Yorobawol, Kaur, Kuntaur, which were all built by the Chinese because they just lifted it from the primary healthcare aspect of the second development plan. Chinese doctors were also coming to offer medical services to Gambians. I still remember a Chinese dentist pulled out my aching tooth in 1987 in Bansang,” Mr Ceesay, also the director of National Centre for Arts and Culture, told The Standard.

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Chairman Mao greets President Jawara and Lady Chilel in June 1975. PC: Peking Review

“Fourth, there was this very active sports minister called MC Cham who was also president of the Gambia Football Association. He told Jawara to ask Chairman Mao to help The Gambia with a sport stadium. Jawara took that proposal to China and Mao accepted.  What delayed the work was that there was no place to build the stadium. The Chinese were ready but we were not ready. The stadium would have been opened latest 1980. The Chinese were chasing Jawara for almost three years for a land to build the stadium. Finally, it was built in Bakau and it became the epitome of infrastructure in post-independence Gambia. Fifth, scholarships. The first group of Gambian students I think left in 1985 to China.”

China’s support to The Gambia at the time was not only on infrastructure as other sectors of development have equally received interventions. Between 1974 and 1995, at least 200 Chinese doctors were deployed to The Gambia while Chinese experts helped in teaching Gambian farmers advanced techniques, especially in rice production in Sapu, a settlement Mr Ceesay jokingly described as a “China town” due to the high number of Chinese there in the 1980s.

However, despite all the potentials, junta leader Yahya Jammeh abruptly ended the relations between The Gambia and China twelve months after overthrowing the Jawara government and opted for Taiwan in 1994. Mr Ceesay believed two reasons stood out in Jammeh ending the fruitful ties with China.

“It is foolishness and ingratitude,” he said. “Foolishness because how do you isolate a rising giant if you are really serious about geopolitics? Ingratitude because the first diplomat to present his letter was a Chinese ambassador. He arrived on the day of the coup on Friday and on Tuesday, he presented his letters. So, China became the first country in the world to recognise Yahya Jammeh’s junta. I think gratitude could have even dictated you remember that.”

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historian and alumnus of Zhejiang Normal University Hassoum Ceesay,

But there was more. Jammeh overthrew a legitimate government which was in power for over three decades and faced international isolation with mounting internal pressure for a quick fix.  

“There was also desperation on the side of the junta. They sought legitimacy which could only come if they started to address some burning social issues and there was no money to do that. Tourism had dried up. The Europeans and the British had stopped. The junta had started interfering with the parastatals, even their annual premiums were either not forthcoming or threatened. So, they needed a cash cow to build high schools they always reminded us of and the hospitals in Farafenni and Bwiam, which only the Taiwanese could give with their cash diplomacy. However, as Jammeh’s request became incessant, I knew this because I worked under him at that time, the Taiwanese also had enough. They didn’t tell him in his face but as they were being less generous, he decided to go back to China only that The Gambia had missed out,” he added.  

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Neneh MacDouall-Gaye and Wang Yi sign the communiqué in Beijing in 2016 resuming diplomatic ties. PC: Foreign Ministry, PRC

It took Jammeh nearly twenty years to smell the coffee and in March 2016, nine months before losing the presidential election to Adama Barrow, he re-established diplomatic ties with China.  

‘China is not into intangibles’

The relationship keeps flourishing ever since and China has become The Gambia’s most reliable partner with a wide range of support across all sectors.

“I applaud China’s relationship with The Gambia because it is tangible. Their interventions are solutionist with direct bearing on the socio-economic lives of the people. This is why I think China-Gambia relation is unique. Their interventions answer to the urgent needs of the people. China is not into intangibles like some other countries. Their presence is usually felt. It is physical. That is why it is changing lives for the better in all parts of The Gambia,” Mr Ceesay said.

The tangibles include a remarkable Chinese-funded infrastructure development in The Gambia, from roads to bridges which have boosted trade and economic growth even in the remotest settlements.

“The Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara International Conference Centre is a good example. It is an exceptional infrastructure. The bridge at Fatoto. That small stretch used to hold hostage economic activities when the ferry was not working. There would be no business in Basse because the people from the other bank could not come to buy,” he said.

“One thing about Chinese here that we should really underscore is their work ethic. Gambians admire their work ethic. When they were building the conference centre, there was a rumour that they used to work at night. When they were building the stadium, the opposition used to say that the Chinese worked at night because they did not want Gambians to see what they were doing. No, it is their work ethic. When they say it is two years, it has to be two years. Even that work ethic alone is healthy for a country like The Gambia where you give a deadline and meet it.”

The conference centre, named after the founding president Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, is a 50-million-dolar ultra-modern edifice funded and built by the Chinese with the capacity to accommodate over 4000 people, making it one of the largest in West Africa.

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$50-million-dollar conference centre built by China

With a gross floor area of 14,000 square metres overlooking the picturesque Atlantic Ocean next to the Monkey Park, the centre has a 1000-seat conference hall, four 200-seat themed meeting rooms, four pressrooms, 14 meeting rooms, banquet halls, etc.

The conference centre was a standout infrastructure as The Gambia hosted the second largest intergovernmental gathering in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit barely a week ago.

The magnificent building has made The Gambia a conducive spot for international conferences and meetings.

The developments also touched on road networks. On May 19, 2017, The Gambia and China entered into an agreement on economic and technological cooperation.

The two governments signed the exchange of letters on the feasibility study for the construction of the China aid road and bridge project in the Upper River Region.

The ring roads and bridges, which cost at least USD80 million, connect URR north and south.

The 50km two-way two-lane Basse-Fatoto-Koina road adopted asphalt concrete pavement with drainage culverts, which has attracted trade and investment into a previously neglected rural settlement.

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Basse bride built by China and inaugurated in October 2021. PC: Isatou Keita

The four bridges; Fatoto, Basse, Suduwol, and Chamoi have all ensured safe passages and booming trade in the region.

Educating The Gambia’s next generation

There’s a hadith attributed to the Islamic prophet Muhammad in which he reportedly said “seek knowledge, as far as in China”. Even though that is over a thousand years ago, China has lived up to this billing until today as the Asian powerhouse becomes a fountain of knowledge for young Gambians.

Since the two countries resumed ties, China has provided over three hundred scholarships to Gambians for various degree programs across Chinese universities. Hundreds of Gambians have also benefitted short-term trainings in China.

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Minister Gomez speaking at China-Africa think-tank forum in May 2023, Zhejiang Province

Professor Pierre Gomez, the Minister of Higher Education, Research Science and Technology, also an alumnus of Zhejiang Normal University in eastern China, is upbeat about getting more support in education.

“Now, they have other long-term training package here in The Gambia tenable at the University of The Gambia and this year, they will give scholarships to Gambian students at the University of Science Engineering and Technology. China supports training of Gambians both in China and in The Gambia. This is something very useful. We are very grateful to the people and the government of China for the support,” he noted.

Professor Gomez, who was one of the speakers at the 12th China-Africa Think-tank Forum in Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, in May 2023, said the country’s TVET sector is equally getting the needed boost from China.

“Recently, we also signed an MoU on the promotion of TVET because this is the way forward. This is the game-changer for Africa, especially for The Gambia. This training will really help in stemming rural-urban and irregular migration. This is where we have the skills gap. Most of our major projects, we need this skill set which is not available here and we have to rely on non-Gambians. Next year, we will celebrate sixty years of independence. Yet, we cannot have good plumbers, engineers, auto-mechanics, good tailors, and so on. This is an opportunity to reclaim our independence by having our own people getting the skills and doing the job and getting paid, so that they can feed their families and society. In other words, we are doing what I call a system of containment, strategies to contain the youths here in their own backyard and the contribution of the People’s Republic of China is very important for us and we really appreciate it. We have started discussions to have state-of-the-art equipment for our TVET centres and labs. Already, our trainers have started going to China for training because we don’t have a training centre for TVET teachers.”

Liu Jin, the Chinese Ambassador to The Gambia, who has been a remarkable supporter of the country’s education, while presenting scholarship package to young university students on Friday 17 May 2024, said: “Last month, at UTG’s 16th Convocation Ceremony, H.E. President Adama Barrow emphasized the positive contribution of education to the country’s development. Education is a key area of China-Gambia cooperation. After our two countries resumed diplomatic relations in 2016, a total of nearly 300 Gambian students have received scholarships to study in China. The vast majority of them have played a positive role in The Gambia’s economic and social development after studying in China. Last year, Hon. Minister Pierre Gomez signed a MoU of cooperation on vocational education between our two countries with his Chinese counterpart, opening up a new area of vocational education cooperation. Fifteen teachers in vocational education area have been invited to China to participate in capacity building program. Gambian young students and skilled talents have been invited to China to participate in the Second Belt and Road International Skills Competition. We are promoting USET to join the China-Africa TVET Cooperation Consortium, and identifying sister institutions in China for USET.” 

People-to-people exchanges

Since the relations were resumed, people-to-people exchanges have been the cornerstone of the friendship with a huge number of Gambians and Chinese exchanging visits.

Beijing set the ball rolling on that front with President Xi Jinping sending a Special Envoy Ma Peihua, vice chairman of the CPPCC National Committee to attend President Adama Barrow’s swearing in which took place in February 2017. President Barrow himself visited China twice and for the past eight years, media workers, ministers, government officials, National Assembly members, and businesspeople have visited China.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, also visited The Gambia in 2019, indicating a strong relationship built on mutual respect and cooperation. 

Also, at the historic Banjul Summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on 4-5 May 2024, President Xi sent a Special Representative, Zheng Jianbang, the vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, to the attend the 15th summit on his behalf.

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President Barrow welcomes Special Representative Zheng Jianbang at OIC Banjul Summit. PC: State House

Mr Jianbang delivered a speech at the opening ceremony as guest of honour and also held a bilateral meeting with President Adama Barrow on the sidelines of the summit.

China’s support to The Gambia has been felt in all sectors, especially in health where the medical team continues to make lifechanging contributions to healthcare delivery. The China Medical Team also successfully performed The Gambia’s first cardiac pacemaker implantation in December 2022.

In the peak of the coronavirus global pandemic, China sent an anti-epidemic medical team to The Gambia, and provided medical supplies and vaccines in The Gambia’s fight against the COVID-19.

As The Gambia embraces information technology, the Chinese government provided a concessional loan of over US$27M for the National Broadband Network Project to bring faster fiber access direct to subscribers while making per-MB internet access cheaper.

The project, which installed 420km of fibre-optic cable, is up and running since June 2019, connecting households and offices at cheaper rates.

The project was jointly implemented by national telecoms company Gamtel and Chinese tech giants Huawei.

8 years down, a whole future ahead

The future could only be bright. The Gambia has joined the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, FOCAC.

The Belt and Road Initiative, which is an ambitious President Xi project that connects the world via land and maritime networks, could improve the country’s infrastructure, with growing optimism for a new stadium or even a railway as The Gambia is among a few countries in the sub-region without a railway network.

Hassoum Ceesay suggests a number of areas that needs China’s help to continue the development trajectory.

“I want China to continue accompanying us in our infrastructure. The only partner we have now that pays attention to our infrastructure demands is China because they put premium on the tangible. Heritage infrastructure; national theatre, national museum. Sport infrastructure; regional stadiums. This country should be able to host Afcon in the next ten years. Agriculture, they are familiar with that and they have all the blueprints, all the salinity counts, let them come back. Irrigation, not only for rice but for cotton, horticulture. Capacity building, Chinese education is now highly respected. They have some of the best universities in the world particularly in areas related to the new sciences; AI, nuclear science, solar energy. Finally, to assist the ruling party in particular on political education; they are experts in that. That is something we are all not looking at but at our own detriment. Leaders have to be trained. This country knows nothing but electing leaders. Even Yahya Jammeh got elected five consecutive elections by popular vote. We cannot continue to ignore that those aspiring to lead us should be well capacitised; political education, political mobilisation, national mobilisation. Look at setsettal [national clean-up exercise] we are struggling to bring it back. Everyone seems to be lost on how to remobilise the people. This is where friends like China can come in, like the Party School [they have in China]. Let them help the NPP to build a party school. We should not joke with this. If you’re a ruling party, you should have a school. Before anyone rises up to cabinet or to ambassadorial positions, you go through that school first,” he said.

The two countries’ relations are at an all-time high and as more Gambians change direction towards China instead of the west, the need for visa processing in Banjul becomes even more pertinent. Gambians currently do their visa processes in Dakar, Senegal.  

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Ambassador Liu Jin. PC: Chinese Embassy in Banjul

Ambassador Jin noted that the relations between The Gambia and China have been strengthened in the past eight years with The Gambia strong on the one-China principle. Ambassador Jin has opened up the embassy to Gambians from all walks of life which makes more people embrace Chinese culture.

When The Gambia and China established diplomatic ties in 1974, the relations smoothly developed for two decades until there was an unfortunate interruption in 1994. This time, however, there is high optimism in both Banjul and Beijing that the relations will flourish in building a community with a shared future for mankind.

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