Opinion: Effects of Lack of Security Reforms are Showing

Friday, March 16, 2018

The government has so far paid only lip service to the urgent and needed reforms to the security services. By security services, I mean the full spectrum of security services in the country, including the army, police and SIS. When a reform is taken seriously, specific objectives must be targeted and certain action plans must be implemented. There seems to be little evidence of any of these in The Gambia after more than 12 months since the inauguration of the new government.

Recent security snafus that we have witnessed in the country are direct consequences from the lack of reforms.  In January 2018, two prominent generals under Jammeh (Tamba and Mendy) were able to march back to the country without our security services being aware. Apparently, neither the SIS or the police had assembled a list of major suspects that were monitored. In retrospect, this failure in intelligence and basic police work is not difficult to see.

First of all, let’s start with SIS, formerly the NIA. Apart from a name change and a new head, there has been a very little substantive restructuring in that institution. The overall size of the service still remains roughly the same size as it was during the Jammeh regime. A large number of unqualified individuals recruited in the organization who should have no business being associated with any entity with the word “intelligence” in its name continue to be employed there. The reason the NIA got to reach the size that it did under Jammeh is that it was involved in all sorts of activities that a professionally-run intelligence agency should not have been doing. This means that, at the very least, there should have been a rationalization of its size if a true reform had indeed taken place or is being considered.

Some fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of SIS have never really been part of any national conversation. The SIS may not have everything under the sun as part of its mandateas it used to do under Jammehbut it still has many of the hallmarks of an organization that has its genesis in an autocracy.

Take the practice of embedding SIS staff members in government departments or parastatals. This is a practice that has been carried over from the NIA days. What useful function is served by putting SIS officials in a parastatal or government agency where specialized technical skills are required? If the concern is that they would be able to provide intelligence on misdeeds by civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises, wouldn’t the most efficient measure involve restructuring those organizations? The thinking that embedding intelligence officials in other departments could be in any way useful only makes sense to an organization that is still too connected with its autocratic roots, and yet to undergo a real reform. This has the echoes of a Stasi-like institution that is more preoccupied with spying on the population than strengthening security.

Apart from these larger institutional issues, more glaring day-to-day operational issue abound that remind us about the lack of reform at SIS. Given the leading role that the NIA played in enforcing Jammeh’s autocratic rule, a significant number of individuals who served in senior positions under NIA continue to work in this SIS. Whether or not these individuals’ hands were dirty in the illegal acts does not really matter. What matters is that their continued presence in SIS would only ensure that it continues to operate in the same manner that it did before. Organizations, by nature, are highly conservative with a high degree of inertia in their operations and worldview. Absent deliberate, disruptive and sustained efforts at reforms, past behaviors and patterns are simply perpetuated.

Another example of the lack of real reforms is the recent arrest of a university lecturer (Ismaela Ceesay) for simply voicing an opinion. The security service at fault this time is the police. The fact that the first instinct of the police was to arrest him shows that they still have the mindset they had under the autocratic Jammehregime. A substantive reform of the security branch would have by now made it clear that the expression of opinions by citizens, even against the government, is a right rather than a security threat to be confronted and silenced. Unfortunately, what change can be expected from police tactics or operating principles when resources are not properly allocated to them?

One factor that would delay any meaningful reforms of the police is the lopsided way in which funds for the security services are decided. We continue to have an unnecessary military, which is consuming a significant amount of resources in a country when basic services are still not fully provided. While the budget allocated to the military this year is lower than the last year under Jammeh, the546 million dalasi allocated for their recurrent expenditures is a significant misallocation of resources. The military is an institution that the country does not need and the case for why we do not need it has been adequately in other articles. There are constant reminders of how the country wastes resources with regards to this branch of the security services. None is more galling than the ostentatious display foisted upon us by the four-car envoy that always accompanies the Chief of Defense Staff (CDS)MassannehKinteh on his daily commute to work. Even the ministers do not get that kind of escort to and from work. Why does the CDS need that? This sort of display looked natural under the Jammeh regime. After all, Jammeh was a military dictator throughout in reality even when he shed his uniform, and the military remained the major source of his power. But should the spectacle of CDS in a military convoy be normal in the dawn of a new democratic regime?

It is going to be hard to start on the path of development and internal security when only lip service is paid to real reforms. We are already seeing signs of lack of reforms and they are not good. The return of Generals Tamba and Mendy was erroneously referred to as “lapses”. That event would have been a lapse if it were a momentary failure of operations caused by deviation from protocols. But this wasn’t the case. There wasn’t even a list of wanted individuals at the country’s ports of entry. Rather than a lapse, this event demonstrated major systemic failure both in intelligence and law enforcement. And there should have been consequences that go beyond the junior officers.

Dr. Ousman Gajigo