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OIC Banjul Summit: Promises, realities, challenges and lessons learned

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By Malang Faye & Muhammed Lenn

Although summits are a common occurrence now, from the annual UN General Assembly (UNGA) Summit and AU Summit to the tri-annual OIC Summit, summits were neither frequent nor conveniently vogue. Logistical arrangements relating to transportation, lodging, and security made it almost an impossible endeavour centuries ago. In fact, the term did not exist until the 1950s, thanks to Churchills, yet the interaction of highest officials of states and empires predates the terminology. Summit diplomacy is the meeting of state and government leaders at the highest level. Churchills defined summits as an avenue for finding peace.

However, summits were also very much frowned upon. The renowned English diplomat, Sir Harold Nicolson warned leaders against frequenting summits. Similarly, Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, warned against frequent summits which he deemed a dangerous unnecessary habit. However, when The Gambia gained independence, summits were already a norm and Jawara was at the UNGA in 1965. As international organisations increased and globalization deepened, the conversing of state leaders became a necessity.

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In 1969, the first Islamic Summit took place in Morocco Rabat. The summit was initiated in order to discuss extremist attacks on Al Quds. And the OIC had its first meeting of foreign ministers in 1970. Since then, 15 summits, including the Banjul-hosted summit have been concluded. While the renowned Gambian political scientist would want you to believe that attendance is not significant as long as heads of state are represented, we want to remind our good professor that we were taught in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the Political Science Unit under his leadership that the rank of delegates in summits matters just as venues matter. We can’t be proud of hosting the OIC as a nation and yet claim that rank of delegates doesn’t matter.

Attendance and rank of delegates matter: summits are for leaders with the highest rank

For both symbolic and practical necessities, the Islamic Summit has always attracted Muslim leaders. For example, the 13th Summit in Istanbul in 2016 attracted numerous heads of state including presidents Jammeh, Conde, El Sisi, Ilham Aliyev – Azerbaijan, Mamnoon Hussein – Pakistan, Lukashenko – Belarus, Buhari; Rouhani; Abdullahi – Chief Executive of Afghanistan; and King Salman, Qatari Emir – Hamad Al Thani; Sheikh Khalifa Al Nahyan of the Emirates; prime ministers Rafini of Niger; Razak of Malaysia; VP Yusuf Kalla of Indonesia just to mention a few. Those who claimed a role of defending the Muslims and Islam whatever that means were present. Leaders from Muslim majority countries around the world were mainly present. And the extra-ordinary summit in 2017 in the same city also attracted numerous heads of state and government.

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One might be made to believe that the abovementioned countries just attend summits in developed countries. However, this is not true. When our neighbour, Senegal, hosted the 11th Summit, presidents Gul of Turkiye, Yudhoyono of Indonesia, President Pawanti of the Malaysian Senate, Ahmedinejad of Iran, Bouteflika of Algeria, Mahmoud Abbass of Palestine, the Lebanese PM, UAE Vice President, Faisal – Saudi Foreign Minister, El Bashir of Sudan, Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency Chairman among others attended the summit.

While the government wants to convince us that the Gambia is a safe country ready to host guests, it was obvious that many presidents would not like to visit a country which is being partly protected by regional forces. In fact, it seems as no extra-security measures were instituted at the air and seaports as well as land entry points in the lead to the summit. How many people entered in the name of tourism without any serious background check? At this stage of Israeli War on Gaza, many Muslim leaders would want a platform to be seen to do something. Therefore, there absence sends a message!

However, as the Barrow government continues to insist that it is not attendance alone or rank of attendees that matters, one must ask what matters. The anticipation surrounding the summit, spearheaded by Barrow and his administration, was one of significant benefits such as the Gambia’s economic evolution, investor appeal, and a positive global perception. Initially, following the deferment to host the 2019 OIC summit due to capacity constraints, the government reached an agreement to relinquish hosting duties to Saudi Arabia, with assurances from the Saudis that The Gambia would host the subsequent OIC summit. Furthermore, the Saudis committed to supporting The Gambia by enhancing both its material infrastructure and human resource capacity.

On May 21, 2019, the State House of The Gambia posted on its Facebook page that the country secured funding for the construction of a dual carriageway from Yundum via Bertil Harding Highway to Sting Corner; the construction of a 400-room; 5-star hotel and 60 luxury suites (King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Hotel); the construction of the VVIP Lounge at the Banjul International Airport, enhanced water production, transmission, distribution, an enhanced power transmission and distribution network.

Keep in mind that the Sir Dawda Kairaba International Conference Centre was donated to The Gambia by China. And for deferring the hosting to 2022, the government announced that the massive infrastructure was the key to the success of the summit.  In fact in his State of the nation address in September 2021, President Barrow said “government secured 83 million US Dollars” for upgrading the Bertil Harding Highway. Therefore, any assessment of the project should also look into these promises.

Unfulfilled promises: roads, electricity, water, hotels

Although some milestones have been attained with regards to the Bertil Harding Highway, to date the carriageway from Yundum via Bertil Harding Highway to Sting Corner has not been completed. While we are unqualified to speak of the engineering failures/substandard of the design/works as social science students, the lack of consideration of efficient human interfaces is perplexing. The highway is within residential and commercial zones; hence pedestrians should have been adequately planned for. The existence of overhead or underground pedestrian crossing paths which also caters for people with disabilities to prevent human and vehicular interaction/collision should is nowhere to be found. Is it not heartbreaking seeing humans racing cars just to cross on such a busy route?

Another worry is the lack of any automated traffic control systems. Accordingly, we can argue that the OIC roads are nowhere closer to what could be deemed modern roads. Today, serious governments are legalizing special cycling and pedestrian lanes on roads. With a lineup of trees, such could help promote cycling and walking which are healthier, more climate friendly, mitigate traffic congestion, air pollution and accidents as well as diseases related to inactiveness. Unfortunately, these are nowhere to be seen.

Do not forget that most of the other feeder roads linked to the OIC project have been haphazardly done or not fully completed. A number of feeder roads have been or are being constructed without any standard drainage system. A lot of open drainages have been constructed. Every year KMC have to clear uncovered gutters before or during the rainy season, yet central government is adding more open gutters. One of the roads few meters from our houses has been closed for three years without any significant work done.

Furthermore, on April 13th 2021, both the Fatu Network and Eye Africa TV broadcasted the signing ceremony between OIC Secretariat The Gambia and Imoland Construction at the SDK Conference center, attended by VP Dr. Touray and ministers. The VP said that the OIC Secretariat had among its responsibilities the construction of key suitable infrastructure including accommodation for VVIP which is a “key requirement” for the success of the event. Hamat the disciple declared that “this is a government of action, men and women of action…when we say something we mean it…We are led by an action-oriented individual”. Well, action-oriented did not turn this promise into action.

Abdoulie Thiam, the chairperson of the company asked the government to provide all the support while his company provides all the financing and deliver within 18-20 months. Mr. Thiam promised excellent engineering and technology and jobs for the Gambian and Senegalese youth. It has been over 36 months since the signing ceremony and Thiam had not delivered a one-star lodge to the secretariat. In the post summit press conference, the CEO of the Secretariat responded to a question on the hotel. He said that ImoGam is a different independent entity and the board of directors of the said entity should be questioned not the Secretariat. Easy way to escape accountability. 

Another significant output we expected from the funds generated was the modernization of electricity and water distribution. However, NAWEC’s press release asking customers to bear while it focuses on serving the OIC guests is a clear indication of the company’s incapacity and failure to meet the demand. Where has all the funds gone to?

While the Barrow government is spinning the argument that such works can continue, it must be emphasized that works were meant to be completed, in fact by 2022 following the first postponement. Perhaps the government needs to be reminded that extending project duration is bad for many reasons. Prices of goods and services increase beyond budget and available resources. Overhead costs too increase. And it is a sign of failure and breeds mistrust.

Impacts: employment, local participation; continuation of projects

In the post summit press conference, Dr. Ceesay declared the summit as one of the most successful events just like Mr. Tunkara and Nfally did. In fact, Mr. Fadera reported that more than 90% of contracts issued went to Gambian companies, most of these run by young Gambians. However, it is more interesting to establish how much does that translate to funds. One can give 90% of contracts to the youth, yet that may not translate into 10% of funding.

Obviously, one cannot compare printing and cleansing fees to road construction. What are the stakes of Gambians in the construction companies? I know some who were not in the social security register despite working in the construction sector for years and months. What safeguards were put in place to prevent the exploitation of young Gambians?

Meanwhile, on Coffee Time, Minister Sillah has acknowledged nonpayment of some people affected by the demolitions. Whereas some may have encroached upon public space, there are some who were found in their places by the state. They have lost income generating structures and residences. Therefore, it is disheartening to hear that they have not been compensated to date. When would the compensation come?

Furthermore, it was shocking to see hardworking drivers who are part of the lowest earners from our public sector claim their wages for services rendered to the OIC. Why did the OIC offer contracts without indicating the honorarium to be paid? Isn’t this against ethics?

While the government had a golden opportunity to develop local industry and services in preparation for the summit, it did not. Rather, it wholeheartedly handed over such roles to outsiders. For example, RTS wanted to take a leading role in the coverage of the event until the outcry when it was spun to a supporting role to GRTS. Was it not enough for GRTS to pool resources with domestic TVs? In events like this, it is important to market your national TV.

It has also been alleged that the catering service was outsourced to a single foreign company; although the government reported otherwise as it thanked the Kingdom of Morrocco for the free catering service. Were our food inspectors deployed to assess the suitability of the company even if provided as a good gesture? Wouldn’t it have been better to get funding for catering and give it to young Gambians?

Furthermore, the government seemed to suggest that some of our own medical professionals were deemed incapable as some foreign medical personnel were recruited from Senegal. These personnel did not come to support; rather, they wanted to lead. Fortunately, our esteemed personnel resisted. The minister has never mentioned that foreign medical professionals would be necessary to serve during the summit due to the perceived incapacity of our local healthcare staff.

This issue isn’t limited to medical affairs; even in the presidential lounges, there were Senegalese security personnel. Given the substantial deployment of Gambia military personnel trained in Turkey and Egypt for this summit, what justified the presence of Senegalese servicemen controlling access to specific areas?

While the government as expected portrayed a perfect handling of everything, we do know there were severe lapses in receiving and handling guests as many of the arrangements were rushed. However, it was gratifying to see young Gambians take up crucial roles especially students. That is indeed commendable.

To be continued

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