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Monday, August 8, 2022

Elite capture in The Gambia?

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By Amet Ngallan

A year ago China’s foreign affairs ministry presented a letter at a meeting of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Switzerland. It was a joint statement of 69 UN members who stand with China in opposing interference in China’s internal affairs.

Behind this “joint statement” are the “unfounded allegations” and “disinformation” about China’s mistreatment of the Uighur, a mainly Muslim population in their Xinjiang region. The countries that signed this letter say they “respect the right of the people of each state to choose independently the path for human rights development in accordance with their national conditions”. Such diplomatic-speak needs to be read carefully. In the case of the Uighurs, the first stop along the path to human rights development, according to ‘unfounded allegations’, is detention centers.

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The Gambia was among these ‘CCP 69’, along with other notable human rights champions like Equatorial Guinea, Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Syria to name a few. Senegal was among only four conscious Ecowas members who did not sign on. 

So here we have The Gambia, known for flip-flopping its policy towards the China-Taiwan issue over the years, in one instance leading the legal charge against Myanmar for their genocide against the Rohinga population, a Muslim ethnic minority. While at the same time, The Gambia, the hopeful host of the OIC Conference, supports China leading the Uighur people along the path to their version of human rights development. Of course, the crime of genocide is more serious than that of merely imprisoning, enslaving and educating an ethnic group on the merits of Confucianism compared to Islam.

Add to The Gambia’s confusing policy mix the regime’s TRRC White Paper conclusions about human rights abuses during Jammeh’s misrule. Leading to the 2021 election, President Barrow made nice with the APRC, with suspicions galore about a secret understanding about how he will treat Yahya Jammeh if he wins the election with APRC support. After Jammeh rejected the union and Barrow won anyway, the White Paper hammer came down. The president’s ethically conflicted positions on these matters are bewildering to say the least. Perhaps it is some form of 4-D chess strategy most of us cannot grasp.

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China has been very generous to The Gambia. They forgave US$14 million of longstanding debt The Gambia defaulted on. They’ve sent medical teams, donated Covid vaccines, medical supplies and equipment, set-up the Confucius Institute and various agriculture training projects, provided scholarships for Gambian students to attend Chinese universities. China spent US$81 million to improve some roads and build four bridges. Their first project after The Gambia embraced them was the Jawara Convention Centre, an impressive reminder of their generosity, abilities, and presence here. These activities are welcomed and commendable. They also add to China’s prestige here and elsewhere.

Add to these gestures of good will are the funds China loaned for improving the Banjul port, broadband infrastructure and electric grid. These projects give jobs to Chinese workers employed by Chinese companies who supply material made in China. US $500 million of imports makes China The Gambia’s leading trading partner. Certainly a ‘win’ for China.

Hopefully forgotten is a suspicious incident early on involving  a Chinese manufacturer of electrical equipment (thought to be TBEA) “loaning” US$753,000 to a Gambian foundation so The Gambia could rent a jet plane to take a vital group of VIPs to China. No mention can be found about the “loan” being repaid.

What does The Gambia have to offer China in return? First on the list is The Gambia’s pledge of allegiance to the “one China” rule. More generally, The Gambia is expected to back China’s positions at the UN, AU and Ecowas. The Gambia then adds its name to the list of the ‘CCP 69’ behind China’s self-serving “joint statement”. It would be a “no-no”, of course, for The Gambia to comment about the suspected origin of the corona virus pandemic that has broken  The Gambia’s tourism industry.

Nor does The Gambia mention anything about Indian minister Narendra Modi’s bad behaviour towards their Muslim population. India, after all, has joined China and Russia against the West’s domination of the world’s economic and political affairs. And The Gambia is indebted to India’s Exim Bank to the tune of US$80 million, US$45 million of which is for an asbestos water pipe replacement project that required an Indian contractor to install ‘Made in India’ pipe and equipment, using labourers from elsewhere. Somehow, the drinking water situation in the KMC region, now asbestos-free, remains as erratic as ever.

Add to this checklist of The Gambia’s offerings to China are behaviours like its paralysis stopping the illegal timber shipments to China and elsewhere. The Gambia could benefit much more from its piles of seized timber by promoting industries making quality furniture for export rather than let others enjoy the timber profit potential.

Further down the list is Chinese business investments here, usually a ‘win’ for China but not much of a ‘win’ for The Gambia. These have led to The Gambia’s inability to solve the pollution problems caused by fishmeal factories and its damaging effect on beachside restaurants and guesthouses. Making matters worse are plans for even more fishmeal factories. Doing so will boost The Gambia’s modest US$30 million of exports (except timber) to China. The Gambia has increased the number of commercial fishing licences, details of which are nobody’s business, as is any accounting of the fines paid by those caught fishing illegally. Such policies have led to the scarcity of fish for food-insecure Gambians, inflating its price and putting the long term survival of the regions fish population at risk.

True to the “non-interference” doctrine, China will not act to discourage The Gambia’s role in the illegal timber trade, nor the chain of corruption that lets China import the timber. This same doctrine ignores the environmental damage its ‘win-win’ investments are causing here. It would not do for Gambia to complain about the Chinese fishing trawler attacks on SeneGambian fishermen.

After the timber runs out and the fish population disappeared, China will probably focus its efforts to land the remaining big fish – loans of serious money to develop the Port of Banjul or the president’s dream – the Banjul-Barra bridge. No need to worry about adding more to The Gambia’s unsustainable debt pile, the IMF and World Bank are on stand-by rescue poor The Gambia. Another probable “win” for China, but not so much of a “win” for The Gambia.

As you are travelling past the Kairaba Police Station at the traffic light junction, take a look at the new home of a Chinese commercial bank. This looks to be a first step towards making The Gambia part of the new China-Russia MIR international “sanction protected” payments system, an alternative to the dominant SWIFT money transfer system.

Could it be that “win-win” jargon includes exploiting corruption? Researchers use the term “elite capture’” a strategy China, among others, employs. It involves motivating a country’s elite to realise their interests and China’s interests, for example, are connected, or even the same. This strategy covers a wide range of activities, some of which are not obvious. One writer on this topic reminded readers of what troublesome author Upton Sinclair wrote many years ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Over and out.

The author Amet Ngallan lives in Fajara.

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