the sidelines of a three-day visit to The Gambia, where he met the president of
the republic, His Excellency Adama Barrow government ministers and senior
government officials, Christophe Bigot, the ambassador of France to Senegal and
Gambia has disclosed to The Point about the imminent reopening of the French
diplomatic branch of Banjul, which was closed in 2013.
The diplomat also talks about the detachment of colonel of the French Gendarmerie at the Interior and Defence Ministry of The Gambia. Below is an his interview with The Point
Your Excellency, can you come back to the goal of your visit to Banjul?
Christophe Bigot: First of all, this is not my first visit to The Gambia, I come regularly. I went to the provinces many times. This time I came from Casamance and the objective of these three days of visit was twofold: I met President Barrow as well as his entire government team.
I wanted to tell them that we will reopen the diplomatic branch, which was closed in 2013 and we appoint an experienced diplomat, Hug Nordie, as the head of this diplomatic branch. He is former Consul General in Germany, former Chargé d’Affaires of France in Libreville, Gabon.
He will take office in a fortnight in November. This was the first step, which is in line with the commitments we made when President Barrow came to France in March this year – is first official visit outside the continent, following the invitation of the French president at the time, François Hollande.
During this visit, he had met in addition to President Hollande, the minister of Defense, the minister of Foreign Affairs, Finance and the speaker of the Parliament.
The reopening of the diplomatic branch is normal, because there is a lot to do with The Gambia. For this, we need a local work. The French Embassy in Dakar obviously cannot follow daily what is happening in The Gambia. It is important to have a relay here who can ask us about the needs, training, assistance and cooperation to be provided by France to The Gambia. This opening of diplomatic antenna is a first decision. The second decision was to come with the Colonel of the French Gendarmerie, our friend Colonel John Renaud, who was assigned to the Minister of Interior, Mr. Mai Fatty.
Because President Barrow, on the sidelines of his visit to France had wished that we could support him in his reform of the security service. That is why this Colonel of the Gendarmerie who has been permanently stationed here in Banjul will be able to contribute his expertise and will also be able to use the resources of France in terms of police cooperation, his gendarmerie cooperation and military cooperation to help Gambia as part of this reform.
Security reform is important, first and foremost, because it helps to guarantee the fundamentals of Gambian democracy and, of course, to ensure that security services are as effective as possible and to provide security.
These are two important things I wanted to say. That is why I visited President Barrow and the Vice-President, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the minister of Finance, the minister of Justice, the minister of Energy, and the governor of the Central Bank and the president of the Chamber of Commerce to inform them of these two measures. But there were other important topics of discussion, in particular with the minister of Finance of The Gambia, Mr. Amadou Sanneh.
We invite him to a meeting in Paris next week, which is a support meeting to discuss Gambia’s debt. This debt is still very high, 120% of GDP. It is therefore necessary that we can keep within the framework of the “Paris Club”, that is to say the club which gathers the principal creditors, as well as outside the Paris club, the main donors who obey the rules of the club who are interested.
How can we all work together to pay off this debt?
To ensure that it is not a burden that would prevent the Gambia any development. Other topics were also discussed with my interlocutors: there is everything that concerns education, culture, the Francophonie. I think it’s important in this active area.
I recall that Gambian students were welcome in France and we will be happy to welcome them. In addition, the Alliance Française could also provide support in terms of training in French, so that the level of French is sufficient to take courses at the University.
I also think that there is a will to promote regional integration for The Gambia. This one is like we say “is back”, it’s back on the world stage. So that Gambia is not an island, so that it is connected to the rest of the continent, fluency in the French language is crucial for participation in discussion forums in West Africa. We also mentioned the investment of French companies in The Gambia, so that the port of Banjul is as competitive as possible. On top of that, there is an important offer from Bolloré, who is known on the continent for his expertise in the port area. And the advantage of this offer is it does not ask the Gambian authorities to subscribe to loans to provide financing,but its the Bolloré group that will provide all the funding. Other things we talked about are the financing of electricity. I understand that the energy issue was urgent and sensitive. Everyone told me. I recalled what groups like EIFFAGE have done in Senegal in a very short time to build solar plants from 25 to 30 MWT.
Here are some examples of topics of discussion with our interlocutors. Knowing that I had driven here last May with a delegation of French business leaders and some of them wished to continue the adventure in The Gambia, as the group Fruitière who is interested in the organic banana sector, as it does in Senegal on the Gambia River. This company would like to do it in The Gambia on the same river. There are other topics discussed with the minister of Justice, including the Justice and Reconciliation Commission – knowing that French experts were in the country to share their expertise. Because justice is important in this new Gambia, France was quite absent from Gambia during the dictatorship under Yaya Jammeh. But there are still two institutions that could resist: The French Alliance on the one hand and the school on the other. We have for these two institutes this important project which is to try to bring them together on the same site to enable the training of children, students, adults, in short, a francophone training center here in Banjul.
You mention the question of the huge debt of the Gambia, is France ready today to lighten or reduce it?
On the debt question, I do not believe that The Gambia has a debt to France. So we cannot help to cancel it physically. But what can be done, as president of the club of Paris is to give our support. It is the responsibility of the French treasury; we have decided to invite the minister of Finance to discuss the debt issue in the light of the country’s situation. The situation of the country is very particular; you come out of 22 years of dictatorship. We also want to support democracy because it is a great and revolutionary message. It shows The Gambia and Africa that one can simply by electoral process bring down a dictatorship. This without any violence, even if it took a process of discussion; thanks to Senegal, ECOWAS, and the European Union to support this democratic revolution.
President Barrow, every time I meet him, recalls the very warm welcome that France had given him in the midst of the post-election crisis at the Africa-France summit in January in Bamako. The situation was very tense here and President Hollande had welcomed him as elected president of The Gambia and he had made sure that the heads of state of the continent welcome him as well.
His Excellency, what were the main reasons for the closure of the Banjul Diplomatic Branch in 2013?
It was closed simply because we had nothing to do. The regime being what it is, there was no possible interaction with the dictatorship. We decided to end this diplomatic branch and leave, instead of pretending.
Today, what will be the special nature of this diplomatic antenna?
It will be an antenna that will depend on the Embassy of France in Dakar. This antenna will allow us to have a diplomat here who will be an interlocutor of the Gambian authorities and this diplomat will be able, if necessary, to ask France for means of cooperation in matters of development, economy, justice, sport, education of police or military. It is a variety of actions that will need to be discussed with the Gambian authorities. I come here every two, three or four months and it’s limited. It is important to have someone here every day, an address, a man who will be the interlocutor of the Gambian authorities.
Regarding the colonel seconded to the Ministry of the Interior, is it a participation in the reform of the Gambian army?
This is an element of the French Gendarmerie and not the army. This colonel is placed with the Gambian minister of Security, Mai Ahmed Fatty. He will give him advice to help reform the security services. He brings his expertise, his knowledge and his know-how. Moreover, obviously, as a colonel of the French Gendarmerie, he could ask the French Gendarmerie but also other services present in France such as the Police, the Army, tools to accompany the reform of the Gambian security service.
For example, we can imagine elements of Gambian security service trained in France or in Senegal where we have staff, either for missions in The Gambia or to participate in peacekeeping operations. We have in Dakar what are called French elements who participate in the training of various West African contingents who are sent to the peacekeeping forces.
For example, you have Gambian soldiers in Darfur. If the Gambia wishes to participate in other peacekeeping operations, it needs more form of support for its soldiers.