Drafting a National Security Policy will not lead to reforms in the sector

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By Dr Ousman Gajigo

According to recent press accounts, the government is about to embark on drafting the first National Security Policy (NSP). If the experiences with other sector policies are any guide, this will be another pointless and costly exercise. This conclusion is further reinforced by the apparent confusion demonstrated by the president’s own national security adviser, Retired Colonel Momodou Badjie, on what the NSP could reasonably be expected to accomplish.
The first sign of the unsuitability of Retired Colonel Badjie for this position is his belief that, according to media reports, the most critical deficit that perpetuated security deficits in the country is the lack of a national security policy. If such a basic misdiagnosis of our security system by a purported expert is not disqualifying, I don’t know what else can be. It is easy to evaluate this easily refutable claim by evaluating the importance of a sector policy for the various sectors of the country.

In the case of the security sector, let’s consider the most egregious malfunction in it since independence – the successful coup d’etat of 1994. How would the existence of a security sector policy have had any effects on the decision by the group of soldiers to overthrow President Jawara? Is the best reading of the situation the proposition that AFPRC members were rudderless young solders without a security sector policy to properly guide them and as a result, stumbled upon the coup d’etat idea? Or, upon the coup taking place, would the existence of a security policy have altered the operations of the various security services during the 22-year reign of Yahya Jammeh? The fact of the matter is that, Gambian institutions and capacities in government being where they were, no sector policy, no matter how expertly crafted, would have mattered. To think otherwise is to demonstrate one’s detachment from reality.

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Consider the case of the petroleum sector in The Gambia. This sector does not currently have a written policy framework to guide its operations. But anyone paying close attention to the relevant ministry would know that it is operating and implementing actions in a fashion that is consistent with what a good policy in the sector should strive for. This includes setting up a framework for assessing multinational oil companies investing in the sector and maximising value for The Gambia in exploration agreements signed so far. They have also improved capacity by tapping into relevant expertise during negotiations with well-resourced multinational oil companies. The sector’s activities so far have been open and collaborative by engaging other relevant sectors within the government.

What these two situations demonstrate is that the presence or absence of a sector policy is far from being the determinative factor in getting things done. Badjie’s misdiagnosis mentioned earlier inadvertently revealed the real problem with the security services: the lack of competence at the top. What is important is the capacity of the personnel. Hence the saying: “personnel is policy”. Even without a policy framework to guide operations, a competent body of professionals in a unit would most likely design operations and deliver outcomes consistent with a good policy. On the other hand, a beautiful crafted sector policy would accomplish nothing if competent personnel needed to implement it are absent.

By the way, drafting of policy most documents for the various sectors in The Gambia go through a well-traveled route. It is a government ritual that is as predictable as it is useless in leading to any improvements in government operations. Gambians in various ministries are so good at going through these motions that we would be among the most developed countries in the world if going through the process was all that was needed for development.

First, a consultant is paid for (most often by the UNDP) who drafts the actual policy document with very little involvement from government officials in the relevant sector. The first draft of the document is circulated through the relevant sector ministry where only a few substantive comments are made. Then, a consultation workshop is done at one of our fancy hotels, which only results in little substantive feedback for the initial draft. Finally, a validation workshop is held at the same or another fancy hotel, where the same group re-appears. Again, some alteration is done to the document. Shortly afterwards, the consultant finalises the document and sends to the relevant sector ministry multiple copies to occupy some dusty cabinet in Quadrangle. The drafted policy document will be superbly written since the chosen consultant is usually a competent individual. But this is the easy part. What is challenging is how it shapes operations on the ground. This is where the failure starts.

These policy documents get forgotten until five years later when the exercise is repeated all over again. One thing though remains constant. During any given four or five-year period when the relevant policy document is supposed to guide operations in that sector, its existence is completely forgotten. There is hardly any change in day-to-day operations. The purported support by the UN, Ecowas and other international bodies cannot change the fact that this will be useless government ritual where simply following a process is confused with accomplishments.

If an actual security reform is about to be launched, there would be undeniable signs. First of all, the process would not go through the same useless exercise that the drafting of other government policies typically undergo, which have not led to any real changes. Second, a genuine security reform underway would have been previewed by real changes on the ground. But what we actually observe is the continuation of ill-informed activities, some of which were originated under Yahya Jammeh.

Take the military, for example. In the context of The Gambia, the country does not need a military. This should be the point of departure for any meaningful change post-Jammeh. There is no credible threat assessment for The Gambia that would highlight external security threats. This means the military serves no useful function in our context, while at the same time being extremely expensive. The budget for the military exceeds that of the Ministry of the Interior by a wide margin, for instance. A reduction in the size of the military, which is being talked about, is far from sufficient. It needs to be scrapped completely. But instead, we are seeing greater number of military checkpoints around the country. Most inexplicably, the country is posting military attachés in various embassies abroad. If this is not a waste of money, I don’t know what is. Greater integration and cooperation with Senegal would accomplish what the military purports to be in existence for (protection against external aggression) without the cost, while bringing significant economic benefits. The fact that the military remains in existence and no serious consideration is given to totally abolishing it gives us the evidence we need that no actual reforms are afoot in the security sector.

The police, responsible for internal law enforcement and security remain severely under-funded. This is the branch of the security service that needs to be centre stage in any security reform in the country. Of all the security services, this group needs more reforms and greater resources and even fresher thinking at the top. In the Gambian context, it would make far more sense to have a former member of this security branch heading the national security council rather than a military holdover from the autocratic Jammeh regime. Instead, the police remain so underfunded that they cannot, for example, respond to robberies in progress. It is testament to the poor level of decision-making in our government that authorities believe that the appropriate remedy to the inability of police to responsed to crimes in progress is to give greater internal security role to the military rather than reducing the military and transfer more resources to the police.

Let’s look at the intelligence service – the SIS. A simple name change and a new head is far from sufficient to create a dramatic departure in a tool created by a dictator. Granted, SIS does not go about making arbitrary arrests since the Jammeh regime ended. But looking at the organisations shows that there have been no actual reforms in the past two years commensurate with what’s feasible and what we can reasonably expect. Take something as fundamental as the institutional basis for the organisation’s existence, which is a decree made by a dictator. Such a change does not need to wait for a security sector policy document. The fact that this change has not been made this long into this government’s tenure is evidence that the president is surrounded by a poor group of advisers, which partly explains his poor choice in the current SIS leadership. Besides the embarrassing legal basis for the existence of the NIA/SIS, one can see ample evidence for misguidedness of the SIS’s leadership by their continuation of Jammeh era practices of embedding SIS staff at Gambian embassies around the world, as well as within several government agencies within the country.

The fundamental objective that underlies the need for reform in the security sector is how the sector can be structured to contribute to the development of the country in the long term. When the significance of this goal is well appreciated and understood by the various heads of the security branches, we should be observing significant changes in their operations and structures well before there is any talk of a security sector policy document. The absence of those and the continuation of the same inefficiencies give no confidence that the current leadership within the security sector is up to the job. The first step towards a genuine security sector reform is the replacement of the current heads of the military, SIS and the police with more competent leaders.

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