Attila Lajos, Head, EU delegation to The Gambia

Monday, January 22, 2018

In part 2 of our series of the New Year exclusive interview with the European Union envoy to The Gambia, we bring you his thoughts on the one year of the Barrow government and related matters. Journalist Sanna Camara began by asking him…. 

What changed in the relations between the EU and The Gambia since the coming to power of President Adama Barrow?

Wow! That’s the best question… and I am happy for it because now we really have something to talk about…

I was just reading some summary report from last year to see where we are, and I was shocked to see in some of the areas of cooperation between the European Union and The Gambia, the activities were multiplied – in some aspects by seven. I know statistics are not the most important things in life, but I am also doing my own inventory… I have been here for two years now (in 2016 under the previous regime and 2017 under the new dispensation). The changes are just incredible; you can’t just even compare the two. 

And this is not because we have President Adama Barrow and his government in power now, but it is the fact. The EU-Gambia partnership has boosted not only the amount of development cooperation assistance the EU is delivering to the country… (I know all the readers are interested in the figures); but let me emphasize that it is not just the multiplication of figures, more importantly, the complexity, the diversity, the different fields portfolio, if you wish, the development cooperation or the assistance cooperation have all multiplied – and that makes me happy.

So, how important is such a partnership with the Republic of The Gambia, especially during this transition?

This shows very firmly how committed the EU is, to support the transition and democratic changes in The Gambia. I think that is extremely important for the country because I believe that The Gambia carries potential to be an example of a peaceful democratic example to the rest of the world. So it has been a very intensive year, but also very challenging…. 

If we look at the calendar (today is 4th January 2018): a year ago, we did not know if it will be even possible to sit here and discuss the success story of the government. A year ago, we still have a despot who did not want to go, or accept the results of a democratic election. Now we are talking about an intensive eleven months, practically – eleven months which was busy with stabilisation…[I say this] because I suppose what the government inherited, to say the least,was extremely challenging – situation not sustainable – an indebted country, empty coffers and very demoralised society; a lots of wounds, lot of suffers, and an extremely high degree of expectation. 

Overall, 2017 has been a tough year for the new government; what were some of the pledges delivered by the EU in the context of its Gambia cooperation?

I think 2017 served as a year of stabilisation and this is where the EU is showing solidarity. The first visiting EU dignitary to ‘New Gambia’ has been the Commissioner responsible for development cooperation and he came with immediate offer of assistance (and you must have witnessed the signature ceremony at Kairaba Beach Hotel), where the EU offered assistance to The Gambia in two packages to a tune of 225 million Euros. I am happy to report that out of all the promises made, everything was kept! Of that amount pledged a total of 75Million was put in program currently rolling out. From the total, we have 150 Million Euros which is committed and going to be rolling out.

The remaining part – 75 Million – is going to be committed, programed and rolling out most likely by mid-this year or later-on, gradually rolling out…

 …with all the funds the EU is providing to The Gambia, what message are you sending to other emerging democracies in Africa?

Now, this I think is important not only in the sense of the figures but also in the sense of the political message.And the political message is very clear: play by the rules of democracy and you have partners in the world to count on.

Many critics of the new government lament the slow pace of delivery of much needed changes and progress. What is your view on that?

In my view, and of course for many people in the country, the first months or first year of the new government could not bring paradise… But I am afraid the situation where the new government emerged from was so troublesome that it would take some time. This road to develop for the country is not going to be easy and short. That is not just because of the past 22 years of autocratic dictatorship, but the overall development in many segments of the country require very consistent and continuous efforts for many years in order to bring results.

But the Gambia and the new government is not alone; the country is back to the international community of countries and it can count on the support of so many partners – development partners, old ones and new ones if you wish; and I think that is important because it brings prospects for the future. The EU is committed to supporting this democratic change, to assist the growing of the country and the packages and support we promised are not the last ones. We are also in preparation for very important event, an international conference for the Gambia…

Is that the much-anticipated donor conference?

…I d not want to use the term ‘donor conference’; it is more than just a donor conference.

It is an international conference for The Gambia to mobilise further political and development support for the country. And that is to say that the cooperation and the development of the country is not only about growth and projects; there is much more. And if the Gambia wishes to be a meaningful partner in any of the partnerships in the international field, they will also contribute in many other ways. The Gambia will be able to add value to the international community in so many fields, and this is important because no development cooperation can be successful on its own. It must come hand in glove with political cooperation and political activities in the international field.

Just an example: it is very pleasing to see when the president went to the UN General Assembly for the first time in his life;The Gambia signed very important protocols and treaties.This is a sign that the Gambia has returned to the international community, accepting and pledging to those noble and universal standards in different fields.

And the country is also trying to re-position itself as human rights capital of Africa…?

Gambia wanting to be the human rights capital in Africa, I think it has a history for that as the host of the [African] commission… what the government was doing, specifically in December, submitting the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparation Commission (TRRC) Bill and the National Human Rights Commission Bill, these are extremely important legal landmarks if you wish, in the whole process. Rome wasnot built in a day, not even a week. So I can assure you The Gambia will not be built in a day or a week either. But I think the important thing is that the country is moving on the right track. I witnessed once President Barrow saying that the country may be moving slowly but it is moving on the right track.

To many people, the changes are still slow…?

Many people believed the changes are slow, not happening fast enough. But you also have to understand how difficult it is to mobilise machinery – I am talking about the public service of the country machinery which was not supposed to be proactive in the past 22 years. To the contrary, the public service was made to have ‘done and wait for the instructions’ of the dictator. To change the mind-set, to change the status of proactivity, characteristics like taking initiatives, taking timely decisions, is a process; it takes time.

And what I think is also very important about 2017 is also that in spite of these tremendous challenges, the financial challenges especially, the country managed to maintain and succeed in maintaining peace and stability, complete another important election (the parliamentary elections), so things are there to carry on. We will see this year how successful we are going to be in further progress in the other changes.

I cannot deny but further confirm that the manifesto that the coalition announced before the election last year, the program of the Barrow administration if you wish, that is something they started delivering on. If I compare a media meeting today (I normally host a quarterly media breakfast with different media outlets), if I compare the circumstances now, the type of questions and the free atmosphere that anybody could ask any question from any government official, you just cannot compare it to something a year ago. So I think the overall climate of free expression, freedom of speech, freedom for people to exercise their basic human and political rights is just wow!compared to what obtained a year ago.