29 C
City of Banjul
Thursday, January 21, 2021

Michael Arietti (Outgoing acting ambassador of the United States)

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Yes, I have been in The Gambia for about three months and in fact I will be leaving very shortly. I came here to assist the embassy during the period when we did not have an ambassador and I have been the charge d’affairs. I am actually a retired ambassador and I have had a lot of experience in Africa. I used to work for the State Department dealing with West Africa. I visited The Gambia 10 years ago and I visited probably thirty different countries in Africa over my career. So it has been a pleasure to be here in The Gambia. Since I have been here I have really tried to acquire a current understanding of what the situation is like in the country. I have had an opportunity to meet a number of people in the government. I have tried to meet a lot of the population. I have been able to travel up country as well as here in Banjul. I have been able to visit businesses in the private sector. I met with the Chamber of Commerce. I went to the trade fair. I have been to the university. I have met with the non-governmental organisations. I have tried to get a full picture of The Gambia. My impressions are that there are many positive things that are happening here. Number one, it is quite important that The Gambia has been peaceful and stable. You have avoided the ethnic violence that has bothered so many other countries in Africa. You have obviously been working very diligently on improving the infrastructure. There have been advances in education and in the health field. And I think there is a focus in trying to improve people’s lives. That is appreciated and the United States has been keen and remains keen to be a helpful development partner with The Gambia.

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So why is it that despite all these commendable developments, The Gambia has not been benefiting from the Millennium Challenge   Account of the US which supports the development efforts of poor countries?

Not all countries are participating in that programme. The United States and The Gambia are friends and we have been since the time of your independence. The United States wants to have normal relations with the government and with the people of The Gambia. As friends, we think it is best to be open and frank and to keep dialogue about issues where we seem have some differences. One of the requirements for the Millennium Challenge Account is to have a positive governmental human rights and respect for the rule of law record. While there have been positive things that have happened in The Gambia there are a number of other difficult circumstances and other problems that have prevented The Gambia from being able to participate in this programme.

 

Such as?

Well you know Gambia. I think it is best to be open and frank as friends. The US wants to have a constructive, friendly and open relationship   with The Gambia. We think that, as you know, we have a global policy of promoting respect for human rights, of promoting good governance and in particular of respecting the rule of law. Because in our experience and I think in my personal observation elsewhere in Africa, respect for the rule of law is critical for a country’s development. Since I have been here for three months I have read so many times about different individuals who have been detained by either the police or  the National Intelligence Agency for more than 72 hours which, as  I understand, is the maximum that is authorised under the rule of law in The Gambia. There doesn’t seem to be any consequence of that. I have not read of anyone being held accountable for keeping people over the permitted period of time. That is an example of where we would hope that both the people and the government of The Gambia would want to see those kinds of problems addressed.

 

Have you done anything to address those things with The Gambia government?

Well, in my meetings with the government, I speak very generally of course, we have expressed our desire for open communication, for positive dialogue, for a discussion of some of these problem areas both from our side and from the government of The Gambia side. If they see   problems with something being done by the US we are willing to talk about all that. So yes, I have raised these questions with the government.

 

We all know the Peace Corps have been doing a great job in The Gambia. But can you quote any other specific examples where the US is contributing to the development of The Gambia?

I am glad you mentioned the Peace Corps. I think it has been a wonderful programme here. It’s been very successful and when I traveled around the country I had taken the opportunity to visit our Peace Corps volunteers. I met their Gambian friends and counterparts and the people they are working with. Everyone seems to think that   this has really been a very, very positive programme both in terms of helping development but also in strengthening people-to-people relations. We have a variety of programmes here. On the cultural side, we have our American Corners. We get about 6,000 Gambians who visit the American Corners every month. We have a number of training programmes. In the past year, we have sent 60 Gambians to different types of law enforcement training programmes. We have had military officers go to the US. We have had a programme to strengthen the cashew growth and export industry. We have also worked with individuals who are collecting oyster and fisheries. We have a variety of programmes that I think together are part of assisting the country and its development.

 

The Gambia government has been strident in its opposition to recognising the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people ­(LGBTs) which the US has criticised for reasons well substantiated in the public space. Don’t you think the US government is being insensitive to the cultural and religious beliefs of other countries by persistently promoting the rights of such people?

I think we recognise that different countries have different cultural traditions but I don’t think they are universal. Our effort here has been   to ensure that the human rights of people no matter their background or their orientation are protected. I don’t think even Africa is monolithic in this. The government of South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to recognise the rights of gay and lesbian people. This was under the time of Nelson Mandela. I don’t think anybody could argue that he was anti-African. We recognise that it is a matter of adaptation. Even in my own country and other countries in Europe we have an evolution in our views towards people who have previously been discriminated against. I think the bottom line is not trying to impose any new obligations on people but to ensure that governments respect the rights of all of their citizens no matter what their sexual orientation.

 

In light of that and your criticism of the state of human rights in The Gambia, how would you term the state of US-Gambia relations?

I think the relationship is not as good as we would like it to be. I think we have been quite frank in some of our views. Hopefully, our intention is to be constructive. Our intention is to try to bring positive change. Sometimes it seems that any criticism is seen as something extreme or something intended to be anti-Gambian. And you know we have also had an issue: there are many, many people in the US from all parts of the world who happen to be critical of the governments in their countries of origin. We have lots of Americans who are very critical about the American government. So criticism is part and parcel of what we anticipate, what we expect in a democratic society. It seems that sometimes some people in The Gambia might believe that just because they are critics of this government who live in the US that somehow  this is something supported by the government of the United States. This is not the case. We have an open society, we respect free speech. The Internet is a wide open field for all sorts of people. I think we have to distinguish between governmental actions and governmental   policies and whatever individual people no matter where they live may be saying aboutanother government. I would like to say we would like to see a better relationship as I have mentioned and we are working very hard to make sure officials understand the US wants to have open communication with them but it takes two sides to be able to have this kind of communication. We are quite open. I am not sure on the side of the government that the same degree of desire for openness is there.

 

So the Gambian dissidents based in the US waging campaign against the government of The Gambia through the Internet and across the media do not enjoy your support?

We do not support anybody who is trying to change the government in The Gambia certainly by violent means. We think that The Gambia is a democratic country. It should have an open political process and people ought to be able to speak their minds without being arrested or being accused of somehow going beyond simply expressing their opinions. So no, I would say we have official government-to-government relations. What individual people do in the US is not a part of the policy of the government of the United States.

 

Which brings me to the next question, do you think the climate exists for people to express their opinions and compete for public office on a level playing field in The Gambia?

I think there is always room for improvement. I think that there are restrictions in The Gambia that we would hope could be liberalised. I have read since I have been here in the newspapers instances of people being arrested for attending political meetings and they seem to be prosecuted and charged with some crime just for having political meetings. That is not normal in an open society. I think that there are difficulties in getting your message across if you happen to be an opposition political party. I think that it is important for all of us to just have full support for freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. All those fundamental principles that are as valid here in The Gambia as they are in the US, South Africa or anywhere else in the world all of them should be respected. And is there room for improvement? Yes I think there is.

 

Some countries have tied aid conditioning to improvements in good governance. How effective is this and how does China’s foray into Africa with generous aid to ‘undemocratic governments’ affect your quest to promote the ideals of democracy, human rights and good governance?

As I said before, we think that respect for human rights and good governance are universal principles. We would hope all countries would support them. I think that in the US we have not only our policies but in some cases we have legislation passed by our congress that set limitations on what we can and cannot do regarding certain governments that have some human rights problems. We think that it is important to work through these problems. We think it is important to be able to have some types of assistance through programmes .We do have some assistance programmes even though we have some criticisms of the government’s policies here, we continue a variety of different  programmes which I have already mentioned. So it is not black and white. I think there are degrees of cooperation that we can find.

 

But hasn’t China’s development of closer ties with Africa diminished the United States’ influence in Africa?

I don’t think that is a good way to look at it. It is not like China and the US are competing in Africa. I think we are both very important countries with global interests. The Chinese are huge buyers of natural resources. They have their own economic interests that they support. That’s fine. We don’t have any problem with that. I have no objection to China having relationships in Africa. In fact, we have a relatively good relationship with the Chinese. So I don’t see that as a problem.

 

But when you look at Zimbabwe, it was starved of aid by UK, US and other Western countries. But thanks to Chinese aid their economy is picking up and Mugabe is relatively stronger politically. Doesn’t this strengthen dictatorships?

If you are asking me what I prefer, whether all of us who are development partners with countries – whether it is in Africa or Latin America or anywhere else in the world – could take it with the same approach and we have the same goals and the same purpose in term of strengthening overall policy of human rights policies, I would like to say yes. We would prefer that it was a different way. But I can’t speak for the government of the People’s Republic of China. They have their own policies and they choose to do it their way.

 

What is your take on the perception that the US foreign policy is anti-Islamic with wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and using drones which inadvertently kill hundreds of civilians?

I think that is a totally false perception that has no basis in reality. The US has expended a lot of lives and resources to protect the people of many Islamic countries. If you were to look around I think you will find going back to the original attack on Kuwait and the efforts… I think if you were to take a poll in Afghanistan now people are pleased with the US attempt to help their government. If you go back to the civil war in former Yugoslavia, we intervened on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims against those who were attacking them. I think we have a very strong history of respecting Islam and working to try to help people who are Muslims. I think it is not at all correct that the US is in any way anti-Muslim.

 

So what about the victims of US drones…are the casualties just some ‘collateral damage’?

I think there have been fewer people who have been killed by those drones than have been killed by people who set off bombs in market places and those people who attack schools, who present themselves as true Muslims. One of the things I would very much congratulate President Jammeh for is his very strong condemnation of those people who misuse the lslamic religion to try to basically gain political points or some ideological points. I think what we see now in Nigeria, Boko Haram, is another example. Again the president has been highly critical of those sorts of extremists.

 

Anything else you would like to say?

I think that people-to-people contact is extremely important. We now have Gambians who are having their education in the US, who traveled there, who have family members there. And we support that very much. We want to overcome some of the problems we have discussed in this relationship. Some of them are general but a couple of them are specific. And I just wanted  to mention that we have both publicly and privately asked for help from anyone in The Gambia who can help us to locate two missing American citizens who have been missing for about ten months now and who were last in The Gambia as far as we can tell. Their names are Balla Jobe and Alhagie Ceesay. Their family members are very worried about them. We have a responsibility as the government of the US to look after the well-being of its citizens when they travel. I would just like to use this opportunity to broaden our message that anyone who has information about them, we would like their contacting the embassy so that we can help to heed the concerns of their families. It has been an honour to represent my country here in The Gambia and a pleasure to have had the opportunity to meet so many Gambian citizens. It truly is a ‘smiling coast’. You have done a wonderful job of attracting tourists here. And we very much hope that the economic efforts that are underway, the development efforts will succeed so that everyone in The Gambia has a fair chance to have a prosperous life and the children will have a happy future.

 

A lot of people are not getting visas to the US yet you talk about the importance of people-to-people relations. Why are Gambians having a harder time getting visas to your country now?

There are plenty of people who get visas to go to the US. But we do have our own requirements, our own procedures and our own regulations that have to be respected. And if someone comes to the embassy and seeks to have a visa to go visit some relative and they   have no funds and they have no obligations there… We have had so many cases when people have decided to stay in the US even though they claimed that they were going there to just visit. It is complicated. We would love to see people travel to the US. We have an open society. But again people just have to meet these minimum regulations that are again something that has been regulated by the American Congress which we have to respect. Regarding the number of students in the US, Gambia has the third highest per capita number of students in the US of any sub-Saharan country including those countries which have a much higher per capita income than The Gambia, so actually, you are not doing very badly in comparatives terms to other students that live in the US.

 

With Sainey Darboe

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