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Reviewing Gambia-China relations 7 years on

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By Talibeh Hydara

Last week, Sandton in Johannesburg, South Africa, became the centre of attention and discussion across mainstream media. The first in-person BRICS summit after the pandemic was being held in Africa, welcoming powerful leaders to the continent whose fast-growing economies would very likely dominate the globe in the next three decades. Having accepted six new members, I told a colleague that The Gambia should join BRICS just like it did BRI and FOCAC. Power is tilting and we must tilt with it. And like one writer puts it, BRICS is the broccoli of foreign affairs. But I will leave that topic for another day.

In November 1974, The Gambia formally established diplomatic ties with China, nine years after independence from the British. Seven months later, President Jawara visited Beijing, met Chairman Mao and signed a number of agreements, chief among which were the construction of the Independence Stadium in Bakau and Friendship Hostel. Nearly five decades later, it is still our only national stadium. The relations started on a strong footing and strengthened for almost two decades before the military coup that ousted President Jawara in 1994. A year later, in 1995, the military junta cut ties with China and opted for Taiwan. For a country whose foreign policy doesn’t compromise one-China—the fact that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China—there was no doubt that single decision made by the junta was the beginning of the end. It is indeed sad as we were ahead of many countries by 1995 but we are now behind because of the diplomatic choices we made, or were forced on us by the coupists. For two decades, it was all Taiwan and it showed in Jammeh’s incredible travel history to Taipei, which he visited nine times in 20 years. I am terrible at mathematics so I cannot tell you the average. During his last visit, which was in 2012, he travelled with over 70 people to Taiwan. Before all that, The Gambia enjoyed excellent support from China and part of the 13-million-dalasi agreement Jawara signed included construction of two big hospitals; later rewired as six health centres, which boosted The Gambia’s quest to attain primary healthcare.  

Back to his senses in 2013, Jammeh, as usual, cut ties with Taiwan without any explanation. I am sure he didn’t even inform the authorities in Taipei, just like he did when he unilaterally removed The Gambia from the Commonwealth, describing it as a neo-colonial institution. Since re-establishing ties with China in March 2016, The Gambia continues to enjoy excellent support from the Asian country.

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What have we benefitted?

The state-of-the-art $50 million international conference centre, inaugurated in January 2020, has been the face of Chinese infrastructure projects in the country recently. The Upper River Region ring roads and bridges have connected the region with southern Senegal and boosted trade across the area. The Basse and Fatoto bridges have been the first in the region and have brought that end into the national highway network. This has facilitated the free movement of goods and people, promoted regional integration and boosted economic development.   

In the area of education, which I believe should remain a priority, China continues to be a fountain of higher education for Gambians. The latest scholarships, awarded late last month, made it over 300 scholarships awarded to Gambian students in the past seven years to study at universities in China. 

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The Chinese government also continues to regularly offer short and long-term training opportunities for Gambians; from government officials, media, private individuals, to the National Assembly.

In the area of health—which even President Jawara focused on in the early days of the relations with China in 1974—continues to enjoy a huge support from the Chinese government. For a start, the famous Chinese Medical Team has been regular in batches, offering support to the health sector and donating lifesaving equipment to hospitals. In addition to training Gambian doctors, the Chinese Medical Team has also taken part in major health activities, including a massive support to contain the coronavirus pandemic.   

Even though we haven’t really tapped into the trade agreement that grants duty-free treatment to Gambian goods exported to China, there is hope the market will come alive very soon. China is the largest trading partner of The Gambia, with 2020 statistics showing the bilateral trade volume between the two countries reaching US$570 million, including US$540 million in exports and US$30 million in imports. More work needs to be done to improve that but the future looks bright. The Gambia has the most important element as a trade and investment destination: PEACE. We should blow that trumpet and attract more investment into the country.

The list is endless. Agriculture, fisheries, sports, have all received support from China in no small measure. 

What else can we get?

The relations between The Gambia and China have been good. In fact, in my view, I don’t think it has ever been this good. But it can be better and, as a Gambian, I believe there is so much potential we still haven’t explored in the relations. As a member of the Belt and Road Initiative since 2018, we need to push for more infrastructure projects, especially railway, which remains elusive to Gambian people. The Gambia is small, which means you can just zip the entire country with one railway and take the transport network to a whole new level. Since President Xi introduced BRI, no country has been able to offer a competing vision, and the global infrastructure initiative is promoting regional integration and boosting trade. Summits for both the Belt and Road Initiative and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation are billed to take place later this year. We ought to make a compelling case for ourselves and develop the country’s dire infrastructure, especially transport network. Like the Chinese would say, build road before you build wealth.

Since agriculture is our biggest employer, The Gambia should be food self-sufficient now. From Jawara’s ‘Tesito’ to Jammeh’s Vision 2016, the country continues to punch below her weight and thousands continue to run out of food simply because there was not enough rainfall. That is tragic, considering we have enough arable land to do high scale and mechanised farming. In fact, people now don’t care if the land is arable or not. I went to Pinggu, a district in Beijing with just half a million people, but having advanced agricultural techniques. There was a strawberry farm with artificial soil and the fruits tasted just fine. We cannot develop unless we fight hunger and feed our people. We can do this with the help of China through smart agriculture and investing in priority areas.  

Bear with me. Let me make two more points. I stayed in Beijing for four months and I have moved around in Chaoyang district, where most if not all foreign embassies are located, including those at the Diplomatic Residence Compound. I have seen embassies. Respectfully, I don’t think ours is even close to those embassies. Granted, we only resumed diplomatic ties with China seven years ago and have a small economy but like I said earlier, I don’t think our relations have ever been this good. I think The Gambia’s embassy in Beijing is close to being our most important, commanding the same status—if not bigger—than our foreign missions in London and Washington DC. Therefore, in my opinion, its relevance must be shown in both the structure and the staff. The Gambia government should apply to the Chinese government for a bigger place to build a proper structure which will house both the embassy and the residence. This will provide opportunity to bring in more staff, who will each focus on different areas of cooperation and attract investment into the country. What we have in Beijing is not enough; we need a new place and more people to fully explore this cooperation and learn best practices to develop our own country. Having an embassy in China—a country strolling towards an economic superpower—with not more than five staff and two of those coming straight from the military makes me want to scream my lungs out. We are missing out big time! I have attended several forums in Beijing with lots of potential for investment and cooperation but, sadly, we didn’t have representatives from our embassy and I know why: the embassy is understaffed. Our foreign ministry doesn’t even need to explain why we need more people at the embassy in Beijing. It is very obvious. Of course, “financial difficulties” is the phrase we often hear but we must weigh these embassies and see which ones deserve more. This particular embassy deserves more and if things are more complicated than I make them appear, then let’s simplify them.      

Lastly, Gambians who want to travel to China submit their visa applications at the Chinese embassy in Dakar. Despite our proximity to Senegal, it is still tough for anyone to travel to Dakar for your visa processing, especially those who don’t have families there. When I went for my visa application, I travelled with my colleague on a Sunday to Dakar. We then slept over at a family member’s house in Pikine and then went to the embassy early Monday morning. When we submitted our applications, and was assured to get the visa by 3pm, we couldn’t return to the house. We then decided to loiter in the streets of Fann, enjoying the seafront and visiting oceanside art space with exhibits until it was time. That was fun for us but it might not be fun for others. And if you don’t know when you will get the visa, you will have to return to The Gambia or get a place to stay and wait for it. And Dakar, as Statista reported, is the most expensive city in Africa. That is not convenient at all for Gambians. Here is my suggestion: we ought to submit a formal request to the Chinese government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to start processing visas at the embassy in The Gambia. Hundreds of Gambians are now travelling to China for all kinds of purposes. Imagine if we can do all the visa processes at home. The Chinese embassy in The Gambia is arguably the most strategic; big space and amazing seaview with excellent team headed by Ambassador Liu Jin. I believe the embassy has incredible human resources to process visas. We just have to ask and I think we should. Someone told me we just resumed ties and the two countries are taking baby steps. I don’t like baby steps. I like giant steps.    

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