In this edition of Bantaba from the EU country delegation headquarters in Fajara, anchor Alagie Manneh, aided by Tabora Bojang, spoke to the EU Ambassador Corrado Pampaloni on EU-Gambia relations, the Ecomig issue, the rejected draft constitution, and the deportation of Gambian migrants from across EU countries among a host of other pertinent issues.
The Standard: Your Excellency, your predecessor Mr Atila Lajos was a distinguished and effective diplomatic figure during his time in The Gambia. You have been here for several years, yet relatively unknown. Can you give us a little information about yourself?
Pampaloni: I am coming from the External Relations Service of the EU. The external relations is a big family; there is cooperation for development, and there is the diplomatic side.I started with cooperation for development working with the EU delegation back in 2021 when I went to the Central African Republic, and I stayed there for five years and then went to Brazil in the framework of the cooperation.
Then I passed through the structures of Common Security and Defense Policy, CSDP, where we deal with missions in post-crises countries or in crises countries. This is a civilian mission. For that, I worked in Africa in Congo, Somalia, Libya, Guinea Bissau. I also worked in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, etcetera. And before coming to The Gambia, I was acting head of delegation in Fiji for four years.
How would you describe the state of EU-Gambia relations?
EU-Gambia relations are very constructive, very good in general. We have an excellent partnership, and we are likeminded in many of the topics debated across the UN. We have a substantial contribution to the development of this country. Since 2017, we have supported The Gambia with 500 million euros, and around 497 projects. It includes the Tekki Fi, the YEP project etc. But we also support the democratic transition. We have a big pillar that is meant to support the democratic transition. We were the co-founder of the project that has been run by the UNDP with the TRRC. So, we are a co-founder of the TRRC. We are supporting the Security Sector Reform (SSR), democratic transition governance and the various infrastructures of the state. For example, if you have been on the Senegambia bridge, we have been contributing around whatever is there – the streets and the set-up of the Senegambia bridge… and then we are dealing with other two sectors; We are tapping into the tourism sector with an objective to liberate The Gambia from the monopoly of the travel agents. Because as you know, there is only one season in The Gambia for tourists which is during the dry season, while during the rainy season – which is not as bad as in other countries the low arrivals can be improved. In other words we would like to extend the period of tourist reception to be all-year round. But we would also like to have tourists who would visit villages, going to the countryside, bike tourism and bird watching. This kind of tourism can benefit the population in the countryside. This is what we are going to do. And then we will do smart transport, smart city. We will announce the transportation in the river, to connect for example, Farafenni and Jenoi to the ports in order to release a little bit of traffic from the road, and also have a utilisation of the river that is more complete.
The SSR, which the EU has been supporting since 2017 is supposed to be a priority agenda of the Gambia government and an expected milestone in the crusade for democratic consolidation in The Gambia. But many observers, including your predecessor say its progress has been remarkably slow or non-existent. What do you see as the main challenge to The Gambia’s SSR?
Well, first of all, my predecessor was three years ago. When I arrived, indeed, there was not so much progress. There were some stumbling blocks and some frustrations etc. Now the SSR has made some leaps forward. Only a few weeks ago, the president inaugurated the new Security Sector Policy at the Kairaba Conference Centre. We have new security structures, new laws on security or those that have impact on security. There is still much to do, but this government I think understands the need to improve, the need to go on. There is something nobody noticed, I think. You remember the Ministry of Defense? It does not exist during the Jammeh dictatorship because there was none. He was the master in charge. Jammeh was the only one deciding everything. They were embedded in the State House. Now we have a minister and a ministry. We have a security adviser who is doing a very good job. There are still many things to tackle. And I know where you want to go. I think you will mention sooner or later Ecomig. So, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Ecomig is leaving in December. It is foreseen to leave in December 2023. It has now been decided that Ecomig will leave. It has been accepted. You know better than me why Ecomig came. They came because Jammeh didn’t want to leave. Now, as Ecomig tackled all the things that they were supposed to tackle in the framework of the SSR – 50/50 – let’s say that there are some parts that remain to be tackled, but they will be tackled now by external actors or [through a] consultancy because they were tasks linked to mentoring, to tutoring and to coaching the army. I think that they did, but I don’t know to what extent. But there is still some margin for improvement. But this minister of defense is somebody who is ready to discus with partners. I think that he has regular conversation with the president and we the community involved in the SSR is trying to do a leap forward. And let’s not forget the minister of justice and his ministry. I think he is a great stakeholder in the SSR as there will be new laws, and let’s not forget, we all expect a new constitution. A new constitution will tackle elements within the constitution that belong to the security sector…
Your Excellency, given the well-documented high handedness of some of our security operators, like the PIU for example, many Gambians believe that the reform aspirations of the SSR hasn’t been realised seven years after Jammeh. Do you think that’s a fair observation?
Look, for me, beating people without reason, is something that shouldn’t happen and the abuse of the security, the security structures, abuse of the army, the police,too cannot be tolerated. It is as simple as that. And we are working with the police. You know that we inaugurated here in Kanifing a new structure for the police that also guarantees the [protection and safety] of people that are detained or under interrogation. It’s a structure, but it’s also a concept that the German police is working with GIZ. But what I want to say is that I trust very much the new security adviser of the president. He has a very open view on what is needed. He is open to discussion, exactly like the minister of defense, and to understand the things that need to be tackled. You won’t see change in just a day or two and though seven years seems a long time, but coming after 22 years of abuse, it is not a long time. I am very honest when I say this because it’s the first thing that I say to my colleagues in Brussels. Because those in Brussels also seem sometimes a little bit impatient – ‘how comes this change has not yet occur’? ‘How’? For me, there is something that we should all remember, and that is there were no structures in this country and when I talk about no structures, I am talking about no civil service. The civil service were servants of the king, of a dictator. I see it when I speak with them, there is none… they are learning now for example, [what] we call in Europe interservice consultation, which is a consultation among different services, among different ministries, on a shared interest. For example, the security sector is not only the interest of the ministry of defense or the ministry of interior but also, the interest of the ministry of tourism, the ministry of women’s affairs, the human rights commission, and so on and so forth. These discussions among the different services have been happening since a few years now and they are building these structures, without which there is no communication flow. Each one decides on his own way, and then you would have to reconcile. So, in a state that has been abused so much for a long time, it will take a long time to reconstruct. But I see that is happening, so, as an external viewer, I always remind my colleagues in Belgium, ‘guys, The Gambia is not really bad, at all’. I mean, I think it’s one of the best countries in Ecowas, to be honest.
Exactly why did you stop funding the Ecomig in 2020?
The mission was decided from the beginning in 2017 that it was a regional reaction [force]. We didn’t really fund Ecomig directly, but through Ecowas. We funded it via the delegation in Abuja, because it is a regional and not a local intervention. We were not even in control of the funds. I don’t think we stopped in 2020, I think we stopped in June 2021. Why? Simply because we didn’t receive any bills anymore. And then it was agreed that it will be transformed into a police, coaching, teaching, mentoring system, which didn’t happen. We were supposed to stop the funds anyway in 2021. It happened that six months before December, in June we were not invoiced anymore, so, we stopped paying. But in any case, our contract with Ecomig would have been terminated in December 2021. We said during the talks at the beginning in 2017 that our funding will stop in 2021. However, if you will transform it into a police force, that is a civilian force, we are ready to discuss the funding again. But the transformation into police force never materialise, and so we never started the discussions again.
When Ecomig leaves in December or in 2024, if it leaves, who do you think should take charge of The Gambia’s security?
But there is a perception in some quarters that because the army seems to have been sidelined since the change of government, it may not be ready, or even entrusted to take charge? What do you think?
Perception? When it comes to perception, you expect to, with ten people, have eleven opinions. So, the perception is very difficult to get from my point of view. What I can tell you is my official assessment. I think that there were some delays in the SRR in the beginning, but now it is taking pace. The government is aware that Ecomig is expiring, and they have taken on board recommendations etc, but also their own assessment and their own way ahead. Let’s not forget, they have a minister, and this minister has launched a policy recently.
The National Assembly’s rejection of the draft constitution was a major setback for our transition to democracy and for the security sector reform process. How will the EU help to bring back the progressive draft constitution?
We support the government, and we discussed with the government, not only the EU but all the partners. They asked the government what were their intention on resuming the discussion on the constitution. The answer of the government has been that the constitution is going to be re-assessed and re-voted. So, this is what we are expecting. More or less, the same International IDEA is here again and they already have their hands again on the draft together with the government and we are expecting anytime soon the announcement of the draft to be put to the votes of the National Assembly. What I think is that the government before, was very much focused on the technical aspect, and not on the consensus. Now, I seem to think that they’re more aware that a consensus must be built not only with the National Assembly, but also with the population. So, I hope that this is the path that we are seeing in the next weeks.
Read Part 2 next week