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Thursday, July 25, 2024

Diplomacy: What The Gambia can learn from China

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By Talibeh Hydara

If you visit China or even just learn about it, you would certainly notice that the country is far more than just the Great Wall of Beijing, the maze of skyscrapers of Shanghai, the suspended monorail of Wuhan, the green steppe of Inner Mongolia, the floating teapot of Zunyi or the Daming Lake of Jinan; its foreign policy is as good as the best, even better than the best. In the past two decades, more states have recognised the one-China policy and the country has arguably got the biggest influence in the world. How?   

On 4th January 2019, I was assigned to write a press release announcing the high-profile arrival of Wang Yi, the State Councillor and Foreign Minister of China at the time. I was working at the communication unit of The Gambia’s Foreign Ministry. When he arrived, I followed our foreign minister to receive him at the foot of the aircraft. He climbed down the airstair and shook hands with his counterpart. I took pictures and got into the convoy to accompany him to Coco Ocean, where he was lodged. For the next two days, I watched and covered his meetings with government officials including the president. It was a symbolic visit as The Gambia had resumed diplomatic ties with China three years earlier after nearly two decades break, which started in 1995 when the new military government established relations with Taiwan. The Gambia and China had, until that time, enjoyed excellent ties with President Dawda Jawara visiting China four times and meeting Chairman Mao. One of the first things I read in China was about his first visit in 1975, which is still in the archives of the Peking Review, now renamed Beijing Review. Mr Wang Yi had an aura around him, charismatic and versed. I was quite impressed and admired his leadership. He is now the Director of Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee. All that happened before I went to China and while I was there, I realised it isn’t just Mr Wang Yi who is incredibly good. It is a whole structure. I attended the press conference of his successor, Mr Qin Gang, after the opening ceremony of the Two Sessions in March and I was equally amazed by his brilliance. The country has got it right both in personnel and structure. Can The Gambia get it right too? Yes, we can.  

Gambian Foreign Minister Dr Mamadou Tangara receives his counterpart Wang Yi in January 2019 during a visit to The Gambia
Gambian Foreign Minister Dr Mamadou Tangara receiving his
counterpart, Wang Yi in January 2019 during a visit to The Gambia

First, for our diplomacy to work, we must start with the personnel; those we entrust with the image of our nation to the outside world. We have foreign service rules that haven’t been reviewed or changed for two decades. It is beyond logic for any country to remain stagnant in diplomacy while the rest of the world is dynamic. I was happy to see the permanent secretary, Lang Yabou, update the National Assembly about the new reforms underway in our foreign service. But as noble as these are, I am afraid we took too long again. We are being reactive, not proactive. These reforms should have been done years ago but we waited and waited until there is a major scandal before we start communicating anything to the public. In the past five years alone, our diplomats have been involved in sex scandal, fraud, even cannibalism, when a certain ambassador bit off the finger of a protocol officer. In that same period, we have added more people into our foreign service with questionable characters. What do we expect?

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For context, while I was at the foreign ministry, my colleague and I worked on the profiles of every former foreign minister since independence. We thought having their frames on the wall would refresh and protect the ministry’s record. It was a daunting challenge for us but we managed to complete it, with the help of historian Hassoum Ceesay. Here is what I found out: from the first cabinet after independence in 1965 to the recent one in 2023, twenty-two different individuals have served as The Gambia’s foreign minister. Not more than half of them have actually been diplomats, especially those who came after the First Republic. Not just that, out of our 24 missions abroad, I cannot remember one ambassador who is a career diplomat. Almost all of them are former security officers, politicians, academics, whose only common characteristic is their loyalty to the president which is not bad because diplomatic appointments go hand-in-hand with loyalty but loyalty to the nation, to the people. Therefore, the starting point is hiring people with knowledge, impeccable character and love for country.  

After personnel then come institutions. The Gambia desperately needs a foreign affairs school. It doesn’t have to be a university; just a small building where potential diplomats are trained before deployed to our foreign missions. The international relations course at our university is clearly not enough. Once a school is established, the government should then make it a commitment to only pick people from that institution into the foreign ministry and, by extension, our embassies and foreign missions across the world. If anyone wants to be in the foreign service or the foreign ministry, let them learn and earn the right to be there. Don’t make the appointment just a privilege or luck; that you can be picked from anywhere and be made ambassador. The government should build a foreign affairs institute and hire career diplomats, most of who have either retired or been ignored, and allow them to shape the next generation of our diplomats. 

For example, there are uncountable number of universities across China that offer courses in diplomacy and international relations, including the reputable China Foreign Affairs University and Beijing Foreign Studies University. Hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in these universities and are well groomed to become diplomats, proficient in foreign languages. It doesn’t end there. Every year, thousands of college students from these universities and others sit exams to enter the MFA. It is a rigorous procedure because the country wants the best among the best to shape its foreign policy and its relations with the rest of the world. The exams test their intellect, integrity and mental strength; their ability to endure pressure, sacrifice and service to country. That is why their MFA and foreign missions are filled with people of excellent character and intellect. We need to emulate that.   

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Hua Chunying Assist Foeign Minister Talibeh Hydara Gambian journalist Yu Lei director of CIPCC Wu Hailong president of CPDA at closing ceremony of CIPCC
With Hua Chunying, Assistant Foreign Minister, Yu Lei, director of
CIPCC, Wu Hailong, president of CPDA at closing ceremony of CIPCC 2023

The next thing is to have a foreign affairs commission which will be responsible for designing our policies and implementing them. Mr Lang Yabou has indicated that we have the Diaspora strategy, foreign service manual, foreign service strategy, scheme of service, service bill, posting policy, service rules, all in the works. These policies and strategies could all be handled and implemented by the commission like it happens in China. We can even extend its mandate to vetting incoming diplomats to make sure we have high quality individuals in our foreign service. This will ensure there is a smooth transition from the school to the foreign ministry.     

Now to the foreign ministry itself. I was there, not as a minister or a permanent secretary or a director. I was a communications officer but I have a pretty good idea how that place works. We have a lot to improve and a lot to introduce. Our foreign ministry is not complete. We don’t even have an assistant minster or an official spokesperson. If the ministry wants to communicate any information to the public, it does so through a press release, which is mainly signed by the communications officer. If a journalist wants official position of the ministry, or the government, on a particular diplomatic issue, the only person you can have on record is one of the two permanent secretaries. If none is available, which happens most of the time, then you will have a report without the position of the ministry. The whole organogram might need some restructuring to include spokespersons and, at the very least, a deputy foreign minister. We all know a foreign minister’s office is on the next flight. That is how it is everywhere in the world, even in China, where, while FM Qin Gang is busy strengthening and building new ties outside, Ms Hua Chunying handles domestic activities. Plus, the foreign ministry has different spokespersons, including Ms Hua Chunying herself. I met her three times during my stay in China and, by just speaking to her, I know why China’s diplomacy is thriving. Smart, measured and humble, with a wide range of knowledge. Make no mistake, China is big, yes but the people are organised and discipline. There are also regular press briefings, sometimes daily, on major diplomatic issues. If you don’t see Mao Ning speaking to the press, you would see Wang Wenbin. We need that kind of structure so that when the foreign minister is engaged outside, there is a deputy who can step in and handle diplomatic meetings. Our ministry doesn’t have to continue this odd practice of “borrowing” ministers from the cabinet to meet a foreign diplomat while the minister is away or having to wait for the minister to return for an ambassador to present a letter of credence. Imagine, just for a moment, “borrowing” a minister of agriculture from cabinet to preside over a diplomatic meeting or to receive an ambassador. We can solve all these by just appointing a deputy foreign minister.      

The Gambias Foreign Ministry building in the capital Banjul
The Gambia’s Foreign Ministry building in the capital, Banjul

We should equally document our activities in the diplomatic front either through our respective embassies or the ministry itself or even through the commission I suggested above. Documenting and reviewing our diplomatic activities would offer us chance to plan better. If we don’t review, we cannot measure progress and that invites failure. I bought the last two editions of the China Institute of International Studies Blue Book and spent weeks reading them in Beijing. I can tell you for a fact that every major activity in every country, every continent, every entity is documented with China’s position unequivocally stated. That is serious diplomacy.

The Gambia is small, too small to lack some important developments. If we are struggling to develop our fisheries, agriculture, education, etc., then we should use efficient diplomacy to secure investment and develop these sectors, starting from a proactive foreign ministry. We have to be very thorough in our foreign service recruitments because, right now, people have taken it as any other civil service job and it is not any other job. I have been to China and seen how much we can benefit from the relations, which is at its all-time high. There is huge potential for The Gambia-China ties. It is up to us to learn best practices from them and take our diplomacy to the next level. We ought to do more.      

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