In his first meeting with editors of Gambian newspapers at his Fajara residence a fortnight ago, the new US chargé d’affaires to The Gambia, Ambassador George Staples, discussed a host of issues ranging from the raging debate on homosexuality, US’s human rights record, recent report on CIA’s use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and two American missing in The Gambia. We pick up from where we left last Friday.
Osman Kargbo, The Point: What has been your contribution to The Gambia’s development under this regime?
We don’t have a big development or aid budget here or anything like that and we shouldn’t. The Gambia is not one of the poorest of the poor. It is a country that is blessed by its geographical location – it has tourists and it does not have huge population pressures like Rwanda or other countries that could make it difficult to provide food. US’s contribution has been advisory in terms of technical assistance. I don’t think much of assistance programmes in general in Africa. Maybe in places like Rwanda after the genocide or years ago Ethiopia after the drought – yeah, humanitarian assistance efforts to alleviate mass suffering after a disaster, absolutely! In that the US is at the front in providing relief. Our assistance programmes for the most part, has not helped Africa. It has built dependency. Young people who should be starting businesses and who should be working wherever they are to make their countries more efficient and to improve the economic life of their societies are instead looking always for the next donor, waiting for the next person and organisation to do this and do that whatever. We have a small self-help programme here. Last year we gave out US$40,000 where communities could apply for a little bit of money to buy materials and they do the labour and put a roof on their health clinic. That to me makes more sense than huge projects in agriculture or construction and two years later it is not working? What has it really accomplished? And the answer is then we need someone else to come in. I think that kind of thinking is what has held Africa back. Africa suffered as a result of the Cold War because we had African countries who tried to play off East and West. And we all fell for it. When the [Berlin] Wall came down and the Cold War ended there was no one to play off anymore and where was Africa? And we see the same thing today in my opinion with China. Your governments are trying to play off China and the US. China’s influence is growing, what are you gonna do? And you go to the US and say US influence is growing, you gotta give us more money. But what is happening in Africa? Where is the growth, where is the self-sustainability. No country can forever live off donor assistance. African governments have gotta stand on their own two feet, somehow, someway, sometime. So, questions about how much are you giving and followed by that’s nothing compared to the EU, I don’t talk about that! If I had my way, I would not have anybody doing anything for Gambians except helping Gambians get to universities, education, access to international credit facilities and then it is over to you. And you gotta do it, maintain it and sustain it.
Abdul Hamid Adiamoh, Today: I would like to take you back to the issues of democracy and human rights. You mentioned that change in The Gambia is ultimately up to Gambians. However, we have one of the weakest civil societies in this country. Opposition parties are also weak and the media itself is not very strong. Can US help make change happen ultimately by helping these sectors?
It depends what the change is. The change we are talking about is to help make the kinds of things happen in society so that Gambians can begin to have more effect and influence in society.
Musa Sheriff, Voice: It is over a year since two Americans went missing, what is your take on this?
My message is very simple: Where are my Americans? Where are they? As far as I can tell, as far as we know, they were picked up and then disappeared. We have asked the government for an investigation, we have offered assistance from US organisations like the FBI and we hope and are still hopeful of news and we are waiting. And my question is: Where are my Americans?
Sheriff Bojang, The Standard: Who are you asking?
You put it in your paper. Help me get an answer. We have asked the government for an investigation and we are still waiting for what will be the result of their investigation. We hope to have an answer and we will keep pushing. If you follow the news, you take a look at what happens in Yemen, the United States has mounted a very expensive, costly and deadly effort to rescue an American citizen. We don’t forget our citizens. We don’t let that just go.
Abdul Hamid Adiamoh, Today: The US has had a policy of regime change in a few countries around the world. Given that the relationship between The Gambia and US has got to a point that The Gambia is actually refusing to accept your suggestions, does it get to a point where you will consider regime change?
No. I am not gonna answer anything like that. We are not in any activity whatsoever here for regime change. As I said, we have had historically a very good relationship with the government and I am looking forward to continuing and improving it. There is no need for something like that.
Sainey Darboe, The Standard: What is your take on President Jammeh as a leader?
It is not for me to give you comments about the president or his leadership style. I haven’t met him yet. I hope to. I look forward to having a good conversation and a very good exchange of views just as other chargés have had as well.
Sheriff Bojang, The Standard: Your critics say you have one set of rules for some countries and totally different set of rules for other countries. For example, you don’t go to Israel and Saudi Arabia and say you can’t do this or that. But you come to ‘a banana republic’ like The Gambia and you tell us to do things. That is hypocrisy?
First of all we don’t go to The Gambia and say ‘must’, ‘must’. With regard to Israel, it is a very, very special friend of the US with a special relationship. You can’t say that we haven’t gone to the Israelis and expressed concerns about certain things. We have. Some of the things you read in the papers… but in diplomacy a lot of things are said quietly between governments in private. We don’t say that every country in the world has to be a democratic republic and have elections every year. There are all kinds of countries with different systems including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and many countries where there is parliamentary system and non-presidential systems and so forth. What we believe is that in countries where people are free to express their views, practise their religion and can travel freely and live under rule of law strictly enforced, are countries that are the strongest. Those are the countries that succeed in this world. We don’t say you have to be like us but you have to treat people fairly and decently and then you will be better.
Sheriff Bojang, The Standard: Israelis don’t treat their Arabs citizens or the Palestinian with any decency yet America gives Israel in excess of $3bn every year and pretty much vetos every proposed UN resolutions against Israel?
One of the reasons we stand by Israel in the UN is because many of those resolutions we see as unfair and unbalanced. The reason we give billions to Israel is to help them strengthen their defences against, in particular Hamas, which has as its agenda the destruction of Israel. We are not gonna sit by and let the people of Israel and the state of Israel be wiped from this earth. So, for Palestinians and Israelis, our position has been very clear about the need for negotiations, settlement and two-state solution, living side by side in peace. It is difficult when one side still lives with this fantasy that they are going to destroy you…
Sheriff Bojang, The Standard: Sir, with due respect we all know Hamas with its mostly ineffectual Qassam rockets can never destroy Israel which has one of the most powerful and advanced weapons systems in the world. The power calculus is just too asymmetrical.
Israel is a special friend of America and we will always stand by Israel. We are gonna stay with our friends when they are attacked. It is not a question of whether they can be destroyed or not. You have a neighbour and he makes a commitment to peace yet arranges to fire rockets into your society. That shows they are not serious.
Sheriff Bojang, The Standard: From your statements, it seems you don’t believe in the notion of ‘Africa rising’?
Africa is on the right trajectory. The idea of the whole of Africa rising I am not in agreement with that. It is true that there is a larger and growing African middle class. It is true that in terms of communications capabilities – cell phones, banking and information sharing, Africa has done a lot. In fact, for years and maybe now it has been ahead of the US mainly because of the shortage or ability to get and lines and the cell phone industry exploded which is all good. In terms of educational opportunities, there are more university graduates in Africa and more Africans studying overseas and more Africans taking advantage of the Internet in terms of education. All of these things are good. However, the traditional problems that have held back this continent continue. Many people say, for example, that it’s in the US that we need an honest conversation about racial issues but in Africa there is need to have an honest conversation about tribalism. Why is it that in certain countries, certain people are in power, have the advantages and then it becomes so hard to move them on because they protect the region, their tribe, et cetera. Are you really a member of a country or are you really a member of your tribe or region? Africans need to come to grips with that. Being in the military in the US is an honour to serve the country. It is something special to put on the uniform. In Africa, militaries are mainly a means of employment and once people are in you have to find ways to keep them quiet so they don’t take over. That hasn’t changed in many places. Then you have weak institutions. You have ministries staffed by people who are picked because of their political ties not on competence and where procedures to get things done are outdated because of political pressures or worries or you have people who are willing to make decisions. So all of those fundamental things continue to hold back this wonderful continent. It has great people and so much promise. These are things the US can’t fix. These have to come from Africans. Africa will not really rise unless these fundamental fissures in society are really addressed and looked at. Those are the kind of things only Africans can do no matter how difficult they may be.]]>