[EDITORS' NOTE: Last week Dr Nick Maurice was present in London for meetings of the Commonwealth People’s Forum and the launch of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting or CHOGM. There he learnt more about the problems The Gambia has as it recovers from 22 years of dictatorship.
It was the first CHOGM attended by HE the President of The Gambia, Adama Barrow - leader of the newly democratic country that has been restored to membership of the Commonwealth.]
During CHOGM, I attended a meeting arranged by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative who had undertaken last year a largely very positive study of the human rights situation in The Gambia following the overthrow of Yayha Jammeh, and that report is now public.
The journalist Zeinab Badawi opened the session by stressing what a great country The Gambia is and how welcoming and peace-loving its people are - with which I was absolutely able to concur. However, she said it would take a long time for The Gambia to return to prosperity and normality after 22 years of dictatorship by Jammeh and his regime. The effectiveness of the civil service had been completely undermined and is now paralysed. The country urgently requires training for its civil servants.
She mentioned that The Gambia’s coffers are empty, that the country is largely dependent on tourism but with 70 per cent reliance on agriculture on which climate change was having a negative impact. There is 43 per cent youth unemployment and 45 per cent illiteracy. Only 10 per cent of MPs are women. The sexual exploitation of children in the tourist industry is a major problem.
She raised the issue of the unrealistic expectations of some Gambians that improvements are going to be witnessed overnight.
The debate that followed caused me to reflect on two areas.
There has been understandable and absolutely correct jubilation by the vast majority at the overthrow of Yayha Jammeh and a return to democracy and freedom of speech. But, inevitably, after 22 years of dictatorship with appalling human rights abuses, illegal killings and a complete breakdown of trust between individual Gambians, caused largely by the widespread presence of the National Intelligence Agency in every community and no one quite knowing who might be an informer, it is going to take a long time for that trust to be restored.
I was recently in France and had a conversation with a French friend about the legacy of the German occupation of France during the 1939-45 World War when the country was divided into collaborators with the Germans, and, on the other hand, the brave resistance to the occupation. There was this breakdown of trust in communities and my friend said that even after 70 years, there remained a legacy of distrust and even enmity amongst the older generation in some communities.
The Commonwealth debate also raised in my mind the role of the Gambian diaspora in restoring The Gambia to a prosperous, safe and healthy country. Let’s not forget that there has been a huge outflow of educated migrants to other countries during the Jammeh regime for a variety of reasons whether political, economic, family and so on.
It was a question I was able to put to the President at a subsequent meeting chaired by Tony Blair.
The President had stressed that his Government now has a three year development strategy 2018 -2021 and I wondered whether he saw a role for the diaspora in delivering that strategy given that clearly there is an extraordinary potential resource of highly educated and skilled people living around the world.
The President made it clear that Gambians living abroad would be welcome to return home and contribute to the development of the nation.
But I wondered whether there might be a role for Gambians living abroad to come together maybe in different professional groups, whether teachers, doctors, lawyers, business people etc and form groups that, without necessarily returning to live permanently in The Gambia once more, who could work with the Government on its development strategy.
They could, for example, give advice and support to civil servants in the various fields of responsibility - especially agriculture, health, education and transport. And in particular I wonder how we might put pressure on other Commonwealth countries to support the development of The Gambia now that it is a member of that international family - the Commonwealth.
In conclusion I believe we all have to show considerable patience. It is too easy to be critical of the Government, but the barriers to The Gambia’s development are high.
Nothing is going to change overnight, not least because the country is bankrupt. And don’t let’s forget that even though there will be some deficiencies – name a political leadership and Government in the world that does not have deficiencies, we certainly have them in the UK and in the USA - at least the Gambian Government was elected democratically and what an example it was to us all that the opposition parties all came together as a coalition in order to throw out the dictator Jammeh.
I also believe we all ought to be asking ourselves the question, “how can we collectively or individually, no matter in which part of the world we are living, support the Gambian Government’s development process in the country that ultimately we all love and which has given us so much?”