Security reform must re-examine the need for an army in The Gambia

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Gambia government is currently receiving assistance to support its reform of the security service sector. This is an important development as everyone would agree that a serious reform of the sector is needed. Because of the importance of this sector in terms of where we are today as a country, it is important to clearly articulate the goals. Without a clear articulation of the goals, we run the risk of running a wasteful and useless exercise that just brings us back to where we were previously.

In reforming the security sector, the guiding principle should be what is in the best interest of the country in terms of maximizing the security of individuals and safeguarding our democratic institutions. This means that the existence and the public financing of any security unit must be justified by the clearly-defined benefits it brings, without recourse to empty sentimentality or historical precedent for its sake – attitudes that achieve nothing apart from reinforcing the status quo. Furthermore, the reforms need to be thorough. This means that no branch of the security service should be sacred and off limits. This entails the re-examination of the roles, usefulness and costs of key security institutions such as the army, the police and the intelligence services.

The army is in a unique position in our security sector reform for a number of reasons. For one, it is from within this branch of the security services that the disastrous 1994 coup d’etat was launched. Any reform must ensure that - once and for all - such an event must never be repeated. The army is also unique in the sense that the reason for its existence in The Gambian context, even without the threat of another coup d’etat, is not obvious when one stops to think about it carefully.

It is indeed true that an army is traditional for countries, but what are its benefits for The Gambia? The most important reason for having it is for territorial defense against external aggression. However, The Gambia is surrounded on all sides by Senegal apart from a tiny strip on the Atlantic Ocean. There is no chance that an external attack against the country can take place without Senegal’s approval, directly or indirectly. If Senegal is against any external aggression against The Gambia, it simply will not happen since it would involve an aggression against them as well. But if they were to support any aggression, we would have an adversary that has effectively surrounded us on all sides. I contend that there is no way we can successfully defend ourselves against such a scenario on a permanent basis without the cost crippling our economy. In other words, the level of investment in the military that The Gambia would need to ensure that it can consistently and successfully defend itself against a Senegal-led or abetted aggression would be economically ruinous for us. And irrationally so given how improbable such an event would be in the first place.

In the case of a possible external aggression against The Gambia, it should be obvious by now by that the key to its prevention always comes down to one country: Senegal. This means that safeguarding The Gambia’s security against external aggression depends on maintaining good relations with Senegal, rather than our maintaining an army. Even without security in mind, it makes simple sense that we invest in and maintain a good relationship with our neighbour so that economic integration can be deepened. So, when it comes to the objective of safeguarding the country against external aggression, this is best achieved through a strong bilateral relations and integration with Senegal. In this regard, it is therefore heartening to see that Barrow government recognizes the importance of relations with our neighbour. What this illustrates clearly is that our military is no longer consequential when it comes to the main reason for its existence given our context.

Maintaining an army would not have been an issue if the institution has other roles and is not expensive to maintain. In reality, not only is the military expensive but there are no other roles to justify that cost. For instance, in 2016, the government allocated D580 million to the military, a budgetary allocation far higher than the Ministry of Interior, as well as the Ministry of Trade and Regional Integration. This is a colossal waste of resources in a country that is struggling with under-investments in infrastructure, education, health and weak internal security (police). Moreover, there is no other function that the military is fulfilling in the country to justify such a cost.

An expensive security institution without a primary function is a prime candidate for outright elimination. It is an empty argument to claim that every country has a military and therefore The Gambia should have one too. The criterion for instituting or maintaining institutions should be whether it serves our need as a country given our realities. In other words, the argument for keeping the military should be based on whether the risks and costs it poses for the country are balanced by benefits it brings. In the case of The Gambia, the case is clear cut.

Therefore, the current reform of the security services should seriously consider the need for the military at all. Serious consideration should be given how resources can be usefully diverted from the army’s budgetary allocation to internal security. Unlike the army, the case for a well-resourced and professional police force is quite strong.

Ousman Gajigo, PhD