On 12 June, 1975, President Sir Dawda Jawara met the great Chairman Mao, the pioneer of the new China, which was featured in the pages of Peking Review, now renamed Beijing Review. The Gambia had only been a republic for five years and just a year after establishing diplomatic ties with China. During that visit, and in subsequent ones in 1976 and 1987, various agreements were signed between two countries.
Historian Hassoum Ceesay stated: “The projects signed included the construction of the Independence Stadium and Friendship Hostel in Bakau in 1983, six major health centres at places like Kaur, Kuntaur, Yerobawol, Fagikunda and rice projects in the then Maccarthy Island Division. With Chinese support, The Gambia, in the nineteen seventies and nineteen eighties, was on the cusp of achieving food security.”
Yes, 30 years ago, with the help of China, we were on the verge of attaining food security. Let that sink in. But just last year, the World Food Programme revealed that over 200,000 people were facing emergency levels of hunger in The Gambia. A stark difference and what a drop it has been.
Jawara laid the foundations for Gambia-China relations. A tiny snake-like country with a population of barely half a million at the time would have enjoyed the fruits of such relations with a potential superpower like China. He didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. Chairman Mao respected Jawara. Chinese people respected Jawara and The Gambia. In fact, according to Mr Ceesay, Jawara was taken to visit the famous Chinese Premiere during his first visit, Chou En-Lai, who later died in 1976. “Jawara went to see him at his hospital bed, and according to Xinhua, the two leaders spoke for 30 minutes, and were both satisfied with the talks. In fact, Jawara was one of the few African leaders to have had the chance to meet with Chairman Mao on two occasions—a measure of how seriously China regarded The Gambia as a dependable partner,” Hassoum said.
In 58 years of independence, The Gambia has got just one national stadium, which was built by the Chinese and Friendship Hostel after Jawara secured 13 million dalasis during his visit to China. Both structures are still alive, even though the Confederation of African Football, CAF, considered the stadium no longer fit to host international matches after our musicians turned it into a nightclub for decades by launching their albums there and dancing it to the ground. This means The Gambia now plays its home matches away. Imagine, just for a moment, if our requests to play our games in people’s stadiums have all been rejected. We would be given the Nobel Prize for international embarrassment. I can bet half of my salary on the fact that, had our relations with China continued unabated, we would have had a new stadium. I will only bet half of my salary because if I bet all and lose, I will starve. Jawara had the foresight to understand that China would be a world-beater in the future so he grabbed the opportunity at the earliest.
However, in 1995, Jammeh, in his lack of wisdom and pure naivety, ended diplomatic relations with China and recognised Taiwan. A 30-year-old lieutenant in the army decided for the whole Gambia that Taiwan was a better development partner than China. For the next 18 years, Jammeh has not only flirted with Taiwan but trolled China, mounting podium at the UN General Assembly and demanding the independence of Taiwan. He invited at least two subsequent Taiwanese presidents in Chen Shui-bian in 2000, and Ma Ying-jeou in 2012. Those are the ones I remember. He might have invited more but I was too young to bother. He played football and did a push-up challenge with President Ma on national television. Not just that, he has visited Taiwan nine times. That was incredible. I am still not sure what The Gambia benefitted from Taiwan in nearly two decades of relations apart from building a secondary school and giving us lots of rice. Maybe that is too harsh. But when Jammeh started growing rice in large scale and building schools in bushes, the stupidity of his decision to opt for Taipei over Beijing dawned on him. And, as typical of him, shortly after his last visit to Taiwan in 2012, he severed ties with them, citing ‘strategic interest’. Yes, he finally understood the meaning of strategic interest after 18 years. That cost The Gambia a lot in terms of education and infrastructure development.
The only good thing Jammeh did in our relations with China was to restore them in his final year as president in 2016. Since then, China has been providing regular financial aid to the government, scholarships to Gambian citizens to study in universities across China, exchange programmes for civil servants, medical team offering healthcare services to poor Gambians, funded the construction of roads and bridges and built a top-class international conference centre which is comfortable enough to host even an assembly of angels in heaven.
In 1976 China was just finding its feet and the country was probably not even in the top 30 major economies in the world. Now they are second, just behind the United States with all the signs of overtaking soon. We could have developed with them. Maybe not at the same pace but we wouldn’t have been this far behind.
Since I arrived here, I haven’t seen a mutilated bank note. Cash transactions are rare. Everything is done through apps; Alipay, WeChat. Technology is advanced in China. If you want to ride a bike, buy food at the supermarket, clothes at the mall or take a subway just scan the QR Code, bingo! I still look at my new bank notes and smile. In The Gambia, because everything is done with cash, our bank notes become so mutilated and soiled that you don’t even recognise them. I recently received some cash from our office and there was a particular bank note which I ended up leaving on my table. Everyone I turned to refused to accept it; drivers, shopkeepers, even fish sellers, who are half of the time responsible for the tragic appearance of our bank notes because of how they man-handle cash. China is the perfect place to learn how to solve that problem. Every year we print a new family of bank notes and none survives the torture of our palms.
The bottom-line is, The Gambia should never have severed ties with China in 1995. We could have increased rice production and stopped importing it. We have vast arable land and at least six months of sufficient rains. We could have maximised our groundnut production by providing modern equipment to farmers and we wouldn’t be seeing government haggling with farmers over the price of groundnut. We could have built more and better roads without waiting until 2023 to have our first flyover. We could have hundreds of Gambians with advanced knowledge in science, technology and engineering, so we could solve our perennial drainage problem during rainy seasons with houses filling up like buckets under running taps. We could have… we could have… we could have but we missed all of it because of a terrible decision Jammeh made. It is not too late though. We need to work harder. Learn best practices from the best. Instil discipline in the citizenry. Modernise, not Westernise, by preserving our values and cultures. A country of 2 million people doesn’t require magic to develop. China got it right. We need to get it right too. And with relations between Banjul and Beijing at an all-time high, there is no better time to both benefit from China and learn from its path to development. The Barrow government has a chance to revisit Jawara’s plans and focus on areas that have long-term impact on the people. President Barrow has already visited China. As a president of a Least Developed Country (LDC), stepping in Beijing alone gives you all the inspiration you need to be pragmatic and spearhead a revolutionary development in your country. The time is NOW!