years ago, two US-Gambian citizens travelled together to Banjul to set up a
tech company and create jobs.
Witnesses said they were arrested by Jammeh’s kill squad, The Junglers, and killed on orders of the dictator.
By then, Ms. Patricia Alsup, the current US Ambassador to The Gambia, was on her diplomatic mission elsewhere. In April 2016, she was less than six months in Banjul when another US-Gambian citizen, Fatou Jawara, was arrested along with opposition activists while on alleged protests for reforms in Banjul. She was beaten, tortured and remanded in prison.
In this exclusive interview with Journalist Sanna Camara, Ms. Alsup, who once served as deputy Ambassador from 2005 and 2007 earlier in The Gambia, spoke on US-Gambia economic cooperation, justice for the Jammeh victims, one year of President Barrow among other things. Below are excerpts:
Que: When you came as Ambassador in 20115, you already had a fair idea of the type of President you were going to be dealing with in Banjul, especially considering the mounting political upheavals between then and the December 1st elections?
Ans: Well, it was an exciting period, my first year here… I came in November 2015 and in 2016, we had protests in April which started a spiral of issues even greater than we had before. The USA spoke out clearly; that assault on the protesters was not… we actually condemn it because it was peaceful protest. It was an exciting year. For me, because I spoke out so much, President Jammeh was not happy and he did somethings to try to make it difficult for us to work here.
Que: What are some of those things he did…?
Ans: At one point, he took away our Police protection at the Embassy. At another point, he banned the Ministers from meeting with me, which actually made it very hard for me to do my job. Yes, it was a very difficult year and as you know, one of the alleged protesters who was arrested along with the UDP leader was an American citizen. So, I spent a lot of time in just trying to visit her. I believe Fatou Jawara is his niece, so I spent a lot of time talking to the Foreign Ministry; talking to the Chief Justice about the trial that took place and trying to just get access to Fatou Jawara. That, leading up to the elections to me was exciting times because I had been here in 2006 for that elections, and the difference in that atmosphere was really palpable…
Que: How so?
Ans: In 2006, there was resignation. It’s like ‘we know Jammeh is gonna win again…’ But this time in 2016, you can just sense the hope in the air. It was so different, and of course, the Gambian people decided and we have a new government. It’s wonderful that the Gambian people did come out and vote, speak out… and it’s been great work for this new government.
Que: Everyone was happy… at least, the majority of the people were happy; the US was equally happy. But prior to all this election stuff, US had already begun isolating Jammeh and The Gambia, suspended it from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and other bilateral cooperation. Has these contributed to bringing sanity in the democratization process?
Ans: Oh, absolutely. This has really changed the relationship between the US and the Gambia. Now we share values, in terms of democracy and human rights; adherence to the rule of law, which I could not say about the previous administration here... What that mean is that we have seen so much progress in The Gambia. For so many years, we focused on strengthening democratic institutions, supporting good governance, advancing human rights, and we will continue to do that.
Que: Talking of Gambia’s eligibility and re-admissibility into AGOA. I understand it was based on advice you gave to Washington. Was this because you were impressed with what was going on in ‘New Gambia’?
Ans: Yes, absolutely. One of the most important jobs we have here is to report back to Washington of what is going on… and we saw a lot of good things going on: a lot of progress. So, we reported to Washington and lobbied… and I was thrilled that the US decided to recognise the progress The Gambia is making by deciding to restore eligibility for AGOA.
Que: One of the objectives of the MCC is to increase economic cooperation between the US and The Gambia. What do you think Gambia should do to ensure it maximizes benefits of the MCC program?
Ans: What the MCC tries to do is to improve lives by reducing poverty through economic growth. The MCC makes decision through a score card. The MCC score card looks at things like, how easy it is to do business here; how much is government investing in health and education. Are girls being educated? Is there an effort to make sure girls are educated? And of course, we look at things like rule of law, transparency, adherence to democratic principles. The Gambia has done fairly well in some issues and we hope, in the next rounds, it does much better in terms of democracy and human rights.
This is the first year of the new administration. The current MCC program is called a threshold program and focuses on policy and institutional reforms. It is something that involves a relatively long-term engagement. It uses a country-led approach to reflect the priorities in the country that they work in. provide time-limited grants and assistance to countries that meet their rigorous standards for good governance. So, this threshold program will help Gambia solidify its democratic practices. It is one thing to talk about its commitment but there are a number of things that have to be done to really bring that to reality, such as modifying or repealing some of the harsh media laws.
We recently had a team from MCC in January: they explained their mission is to drive faster economic growth over time. But again, I said it’s a long-term engagement. This is not going to be a quick fix. What we trying to do is to build the foundation for a long term economic growth. What we doing now is to try to help the government keep its eyes on the horizon, so to speak, and have a long-term vison. We just begun MCC’s engagement here. The first step is going to be to work with the government, the economic advisory council that’s been set up by the government to determine what MCC calls ‘the binding constraints to the Gambia’s economic growth’. And then, based on that… and this would take anywhere between 18 to 24months, because it would involve consultations with all stakeholders all over the country, and a lot of economic analyses, a lot of data gathering; and based on that, they will make a recommendation on how to eliminate those constraints. At that point, they will put together a proposal that will address the most pressing of the recommendations that come out of their analyses.
Que: So, it indeed takes some years of work?
Ans: Yes, it will take years of work. But you can check with some countries that have had a threshold program and been able to graduate from a threshold program to compact, which is MCC’s much larger program. They will tell you it is worth the wait.
Que: It’s a year of the Barrow government already. You have been an observer on the sides. What do you make of this government? Are they on track? Are there things that needs to improve?
Ans: Well, any government (the US government included), there are always things that need to improve. But yes, I do think the government is on the right track. The difference is the way this government operates, compared to the Jammeh government, is like night and day. Right now, I see a Gambia full of hope instead of resignation, where the space is open for debate, where the national assembly is no more rubber stamp for the executive, where the people speak freely without first looking over their shoulders to see who might be listening. Of course, in the ‘new’ Gambia, the human rights abuses that we saw in the previous administration are a thing of the past. One of Barrow’s first act is to release political prisoners; no more arbitrary arrests or disappearances; journalists are no longer imprisoned for being critical of government. In fact, everybody has something to say, and nobody is mincing their words now…. (laughs).
Que: When the coalition government came, they made a promise to the people, that they wanted to serve three years. To the best of your memory, what was the message you recall?
Ans: I think, I, like everyone, understood that the coalition government would stay in for three years as a transition government. But you know circumstances change, and my take is, perhaps they realized three years is not really long enough to really turn things around. But I would leave that to the members of the coalition to decide what they are going to do. But I did understand that many people voted for the coalition also recognize that the constitution sets the term to five years.
Que: President Jammeh is in Equatorial Guinea and there is increasing calls for his extradition and trial. Would the US support such efforts should Gambia decide to formally charge him for crimes committed here?
Ans: Well, I am not sure what you mean by support. Extradition is really an agreement between two countries. For Equatorial Guinea to extradite Jammeh, that is really a decision for them. But of course, we would like to see Jammeh brought to justice.
Many are of course, questioning the capacity of the state to handle this considering legal, security and other issues...
The trial doesn’t have to hold here. You remember that Hassan Habre was tried in Senegal. That may be a better solution for Jammeh as well; to try him outside. It is an option to consider.
Thank you, Madam Ambassador, for taking your time and talking to us.
It’s my pleasure.