Monkey business

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By Katim Seringe Touray

In 1987, former US Senator Gary Hart who was the leading candidate in US presidential elections, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Although Hart had a solid lead over his rivals in opinion polls, his campaign was dogged by rumors that he was having affairs with other women. In the end, he was presented with incontrovertible evidence of his infidelity, and promptly announced an end to his bid for the White House. A few weeks after his withdrawal from the presidential race, a picture showing his girlfriend, Donna Rice, sitting comfortably on his laps aboard a private yacht named Monkey Business was published.

People in The Gambia have over the past few weeks been witness to a monkey business of a different sort from Senator Hart’s, but monkey business all the same.

On October 26, 2022, the Office of the Attorney General (AG) of The Gambia issued a press release announcing that the Government of Gambia had signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the Government of the United States of America for the latter to acquire property to build a permanent “state-of-the-arts” [sic] Embassy in The Gambia. The press release also stated that the proposed embassy site would be on 10 Ha (25 acres) land presently occupied by the West African Livestock Improvement Centre (WALIC), and that it will not adversely Bijilo Forest Park which is adjacent to WALIC. Furthermore, the US government would bear the cost of relocating WALIC, and building a new Visitors’ Centre for the Bijilo Forest Park.

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No sooner had the ink on the press release dried than the uproar started! Thus, the Gambia Environmental Alliance (GEA) and Sustainability Alliance (SAG) condemned the sale of land to the US government. The environmental groups also claimed that the Gambia government also included Bijilo Forest Park, commonly called Monkey Park, in the land to be sold to the US government, even though the Gambia government’s press release clearly stated that Monkey Park was not included in the proposed US embassy.

Nevertheless, the environmental groups launched a massive social media campaign, and started a petition, accusing both the Gambia and US governments of colluding to destroy Monkey Park, which was gazette in 1953, and is a haven for wildlife and nature in an area that, because of urbanization, is increasingly becoming a concrete jungle. Monkey Park is home to the Western Red Colobus Monkey which is an endangered species, and over 133 bird species have been recorded there.

Opponents of the sale of WALIC premises to the US government were particularly outraged because in 2018, they defeated the Gambia government’s attempt to build a 5-star hotel on Monkey Park. However, their sense of victory was short-lived because in 2019, the Gambia government carved 14 Ha out of Monkey Part to build the Chinese-funded Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara International Conference Centre. In April 2022, the Gambia government dispelled rumors that it had allocated Monkey Park to the US Embassy in The Gambia.

Neither the Gambia government nor the US embassy could afford to ignore the pressure being put on them by environmental groups, and the public outrage being expressed on social media over the planned sale of WALIC land. On November 1, 2022, the Forestry Department issued a press release denying allegations by GEA that Monkey Park was part of the land that was to be sold to the US government. The Forestry Department said that on the contrary, not “one centimeter” of the proposed US embassy would affect Monkey Park. Nevertheless, some experts consider the proposed US embassy site as being “functionally linked” to Monkey Park, and as such, there should be a full assessment of the impact of the proposed US embassy on the park, and a strategy to mitigate its impact on the park before its construction starts.

A former Gambian Minister of Agriculture vigorously criticized the decision to use the WALIC site for the new US embassy, pointing out that WALIC On the other hand, the Minister for the Environment, Climate Change, and Natural Resources, said that they had set up a multi-stakeholder committee to investigate the issue, and pleaded with the public to allow the committee to do its work. Otherwise, she said, people would be acting like they are “subject and the ruler” at the same time. You know you have a problem when your Minister starts talking about issues in terms of subjects and rulers.

On its part, the US Embassy in The Gambia met with GEA and other environmental groups to hear their concerns about the proposed acquisition of WALIC’s premises to build their embassy. In addition, the US Embassy answered called “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQ) about their plans to build a new embassy on WALIC’s site, and managed to speak from both sides of its mouth.

On one hand, the US Embassy said that the technical assessment would “determine whether the site was suitable,” which can be seen to mean that the decision to locate the embassy at the disputed site has not been finalized. On the other hand, the same FAQ document said that the results of the “due diligence” in-depth survey and analysis of the proposed site for the embassy will form the basis for its design, effectively meaning that the decision has been made to have the embassy on WALIC’s grounds.

The US Embassy continued to engage Gambian environmental groups and held another consultative meeting with them last November. The outcome of that meeting must have been a relief to the US Embassy because the GEA, one of the most vociferous groups opposing the siting of the new embassy, issued a statement saying that the proposed new US embassy would not affect Monkey Park.

The US Embassy also assured Gambians that they are committed to being transparent about their plans to build a new embassy, and toward that end, they would provide the public with periodic updates, and hold consultations with Gambian environmentalists. In addition, they would set up an advisory body, and the US Ambassador to The Gambia has pledged to sign the US “State Department’s Green [sic] Diplomacy Pledge.”

The US State Department’s Greening Diplomacy Pledge is, of course, not the only commitment the US Embassy in The Gambia must abide by. As one of 22,000 State Department facilities around the world, the US Embassy in The Gambia is also bound by various US environmental laws and Executive Orders as well as international laws that the US subscribes to. Two legal provisions worthy of note in the case of the Monkey Park saga are the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, and Executive Order 12114 issued in 1979 by former US President Jimmy Carter. While the ESA provides for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and habitats they live in, Executive Order 12114 deals with the environmental effects of major US government actions abroad, such as building a new embassy.

The Gambia, of course, has laws and institutions responsible for protecting the environment and safeguarding the biodiversity of the country. As early as 1977, the Gambia government issued the Banjul Declaration on protecting the flora and fauna of the country. In 1994, the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) as passed, laying the ground for the creation of the National Environment Agency (NEA), along with provisions requiring the assessment, audit, and monitoring of the environmental impact of major projects in the country.

And therein lies the rub because the NEA, nor the Gambia government for that matter, is no match for the US Embassy. The relationship between the US government and the Gambia government is clearly not one of equals; with The Gambia being the weaker party. For this reason, the kerfuffle about the location of the proposed new the US Embassy in The Gambia near Monkey Park must be seen in the context of asymmetrical diplomacy.

All nation states have, since the Westphalia Peace of 1648, been considered equally sovereign, and the United Nations Charter recognizes the sovereignty of individual states. Despite this, some States are more equal than others, and small countries like The Gambia must live with this reality. As, in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE), the Athenians told their weaker foes, the Melians who they went on to slaughter, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

But asymmetrical diplomacy does not always mean that weaker nations suffer the wrath of strong nations. Indeed, Korea survived for 2,000 years as an independent state next to its much stronger neighbor China by effectively managing their asymmetrical diplomacy, thus saving itself from being swallowed by China as it did Tibet, Uyghur, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria, to name a few. Iran has also successfully used asymmetrical diplomacy in negotiating with the P5+1 countries (including the US, and the UK) about its nuclear program.

The Gambia can learn from Korea and Iran, and exploit the asymmetric relationship with the US to its advantage. First, Gambian environmental groups should have partnered with US environmental and animal rights groups to take on the US government where it matters most: in the US law courts, and in the court of public opinion. Suing the US government on behalf of and/or in the interest of the monkeys at Monkey Park would have made the US government to sit up straight.

The Gambia government could have also managed the matter better by being transparent from day one. For example, the Gambia government could have borrowed a page from the US government playbook and the USEPA guide on public participation by actively involving all stakeholders in the negotiations with the US embassy. For its part, the US Embassy should have encouraged the Gambian government to do the right thing by insisting that civil society organizations, especially environmental groups, should be involved in the negotiations to ensure their buy-in of the outcome of the negotiations.

Unfortunately, the Gambia government handled the matter in a rather opaque, even inept, manner. According to the US embassy FAQ document, the MoA with the Gambia government was signed on Oct. 6, 2022. However, the press release from the AG’s Chambers came out almost a month later, on October 26th. What took them so long? Besides, why did the AG’s Chambers, instead of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Lands and Regional Administration make the announcement? And why didn’t they hold public hearings and call for public comments on the matter, given the uproar in 2018 year over government’s plans to build a 5-star hotel in Monkey Park?

The US Embassy, and the US government, should also learn from this. First, it isn’t necessary to locate the new US embassy at WALIC grounds. I think a better option would be for the US Embassy to talk with the British High Commission about using part of the sprawling Medical Research Council (MRC) campus, which sits on almost 30 Ha of land across the street from the British High Commission. The eastern part of the MRC campus is sparsely built, and the MRC should be able to carve 10 Ha of its campus for the new US embassy.

At the US-Africa Summit last week, President Biden announced that The Gambia was one of four countries selected to develop new grant programs with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) of the US. This gesture is very much in keeping with the long and generally cordial relationship between the two countries. Despite this, many of Gambians have, in the Monkey Park saga, chosen to side not with the US, but with the monkeys. This, if anything, should remind the US government that as powerful as it is, it has an image problem.