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Security sector stagnation: ECOMIG’s role delays security overhaul in Gambia
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Security sector stagnation: ECOMIG’s role delays security overhaul in Gambia


By Kemo Fatty

 It could be recalled that the Barrow administration has strategically aimed at transforming the new Gambia through a comprehensive five areas of reform agenda as the country transition to a new democracy in 2017. Key among these areas was to develop, professionalize, and transform the country’s security sector. Sadly, almost eight years down the line the Gambia’s security sector proves to be the most quiescent sector in the Barrow administration. 

Recent surveys conclude heightened insecurity and crime rates since 2017, something quite uncommon in the recorded history of Gambian politics. These revelations therefore manifest the government’s lack of seriousness in revamping the country’s security system as well as protecting the lives of the Gambian people.

The ECOWAS Military Intervention in The Gambia (ECOMIG) was undoubtedly considered the most successful military intervention in the political history of West Africa as it successfully ushered The Gambia into a new dispensation, ending a 22-year of aggressive rule in January 2017. 

However, this longstanding pivot to The Gambia holds no significance in the protection of the civilian population. It contributed to insecurity, communal violence, and border conflicts among others, creating more perpetual fears in civilians' minds.  

It is evident that one of the key issues that complicate or delay the successful implementation of the Security Sector Reform was the Barrow government’s continuous containment of the ECOMIG Forces in the Gambian soil. This decision indicates the President’s lack of trust and confidence in the Gambian security forces as he shifts more attention to the external forces for his personal protection and the Gambian people. 

In a robust democracy, this is detrimental to a country’s long-term security strategy. It exposes our country’s weakness to our neighbors, who could emerge as potential rivals in the future. As a government that succeeded a dictatorial regime, the Barrow administration should not delay in professionalizing the security sector while also unifying an already divided political society. 

As ECOMIG troops are predominantly occupied by Senegalese soldiers it is worth noting that the country’s political history with Senegal has not always been smooth sailing since inception. 

Decades ago, we witnessed the collapse of a mutual defense pact (Senegambia Confederation) formed in the aftermath of the 1981 coup led by  Kukoi Samba Sanyang, a radical leftist politician. This was followed by a successful military takeover masterminded by a few junior soldiers led by Yahya Jammeh. Key drivers of the 1994 coups were due to the Army’s complete dissatisfaction and disappointment with the government's lack of trust in the Gambian security personnel and their failure to professionalize the security sector. This is very reminiscent of the current government’s approach towards external forces. As the government continues to neglect its security sector reform agenda through overarching security strategies and strong operational mechanisms there will always be a complete distrust in the relationship between the civilian population, government, and the security sector.

In the conventional Realist wisdom, states are responsible for their internal and external protection and must not rely heavily on other states for survival. In a recent survey conducted by the Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies (2022), 76% of their respondents agreed that crime rates had either increased or rapidly increased under the Barrow administration since 2017. 

Another credible source regarding security issues in the Gambia revealed by the Afrobarometer placed security as the fifth most important concern to Gambian people. The GlobalEconomy.Com’s(2022) security Threats Index also ranks the Gambia 81st out of 177 countries. As should be clear, Gambians, to a very large extent have never been as worried and concerned about their safety and security as they are today. It is therefore crucial for the Barrow government to realize the supremacy of ECOMIC in the security sector and the potential impact it might create on his administration and the future of the country. 

It is clear that the Gambia has indeed fully relinquished its military power to foreign personnel (particularly Senegal) for almost a decade, a move that raises concerns about our country's future territorial integrity and border security. Senegal's strategic military calculus seems aimed at controlling our security sector while ensuring the safety of its civilian population in an offshore environment. According to the Institute for Security Studies (2022), more than 2000 Gambians from 302 households within the Foni region faced internal displacement due to tensions between the Senegalese soldiers and the Casamance insurgence. This shows how strategically Senegal intends to quell the Cassamance insurgents through The Gambia, creating heightened tensions and fear in communities within the region. To remedy this the Gambia should always engage the two sides on diplomatic resolution. If this longstanding military intervention continues Senegal might likely control critical settlements in the name of security and border protection in Gambia. 

Reflecting on history, in 1994, President Bill Clinton advised Ukraine to surrender its nuclear deterrent to Russia. Despite warnings from American scholars about Russia's expansionist ideology, Ukraine complied and handed over its nuclear arsenal. In 2014, Russia successfully controlled part of Ukraine (Crimea), and last year, after 29 years, Russia invaded Ukraine again, nearly gaining control of major cities. President Clinton, in an interview with Irish broadcaster (2023) expressed his profound regret over persuading Ukraine to surrender its nuclear arsenal. This serves as a clear analogy, emphasizing the importance of heeding critiques and utilizing critical analysis in shaping a nation's future. 

I hold the view that a transition to a democratic society, with good governance and fundamental human rights, is not complete until the security and its organs are controlled and professionalized by the civilian population. Therefore, the more Barrow and his government realize this impact the better for the future of our country and its security system. 

The Barrow administration should fundamentally reconsider its approach to the Gambian military forces and promptly implement a strategy to transform our security apparatus. Also, it is imperative for the President as the commander-in-chief to establish a rapport with the military personnel while bridging the gap between the government, security forces, and the civilian population. The government should grant greater authority to our military personnel to oversee critical operations in the country, rather than heavily relying on external forces. ECOWAS should now pivot to Francophone countries, where coups and internal conflicts are prevalent. The Gambia must be ready to assert control over its critical interests on the global stage. For the longstanding dependence on foreign powers will not last forever. 

Happy New Year 2024. 

Kemo Fatty

Penn State University School of International Affairs

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