5th April, there was a remarkable interview in the pages of this newspaper with
the Commander of the Gambia National Army, Mr. Cham. The interview is
remarkable for both for what was said and what was left unsaid. There was a
significant amount of incoherence and inconsistencies in what he said, and the
overall conclusions to be drawn are disturbing.
At some point in the interview, Mr. Cham remarked that “Now the current democratization process is insisting that there should be complete independence of national institutions - the judiciary, the army and the civil services...”. First of all, why would the Commander of the National Army think the military is on the same level as the judiciary in the sense of requiring independence? Independence from whom? The judiciary is one of the three branches of government, the other two being the executive and the legislature. The military is answerable to the civilian authority in the executive, and it therefore makes no sense to think of it having any sort of independence on parwith the judiciary.
To be fair to Mr. Cham, he made some correct statements. For instance, he mentioned that the military should be subordinate and accountable to the civilian authority. But it is easy to make such statements. It needs to be made clear to Mr. Cham that being subordinate and accountable to civilian authorities is not consistent with independence from civilian leadership, who are politicians.
Mr. Cham also made a foray into the important issue of reforms. Unfortunately, this is the most disturbing part of his statements. As examples of reforms being implemented, he mentioned the creation of new battalions in Kanilai and Basse, as well as sub-units in Njongone and Lamen Koto. He also stated that reforms include creating small units such as platoons, companies and sections. Finally, making sure the soldiers “...understand themselves, their equipment and weapons”.
If we needed any evidence that no actual reforms are currently happening in the military, this is it. Without this interview, we could at least have held on to the possibility, no matter how remote or implausible, that reforms may be taking place behind the scenes. What is being revealed instead is that the top brass of the military is confusing simple and superficial reorganization of the military for actual reforms.
The fact of the matter is that there would be no meaningful reform of any of the security branches if the work is left to existing members of that unit. What we can be assured of is that those members would only keep on doing what they have always done. And what they would consider as reforms are superficial changes to their existing activities. No fundamental re-orientations of their goals would ever be considered.
The most egregious assault on the institutions of The Gambia was the military coup that took place in The Gambia on 22nd July 1994 and led by army officers. The repercussions of that tragedy will take more than a generation to get over. Any serious reform of the military should grapple with this fact and seek to address how this tragedy would never take place again. Deducing from the speeches of the current military leadership, it seems that they would want us to take it on faith that such an act would not happen with them. Lest we forget, the AFPRC called themselves “soldiers with a difference”. It would be beyond irresponsible to put our faith on how the activities of a particular institution would evolve based on the simple say-so of its officers.
As we reflect on the need to have an army, let us remember that we are a country where funding forbasic education and energy, to name just a few, are far below what they should be. Quality in education is low as indicated by multiple metrics and lack of sufficient funds is a major contributor. The energy shortage will strangle in the cradle any transformation of our economy no matter what cheery speech our leaders give to investors. Given these kinds of shortages and the low education funding, it is scandalous we spend millions of dalasi annually on the military - a security branch that has no use for The Gambia.
It is worth stating again why The Gambia does not need a military. The role of the military is to protect a country against external aggression and help preserve its territorial integrity. In the context of The Gambia, the presence of a military is completely superfluous.
The Gambia is completely surrounded by Senegal. No external aggregation against the country can take place without Senegal allowing or abetting it. Some may argue that we need a military should in case our relations with Senegal deteriorate in the future. However, given the superiority of the Senegalese military over The Gambia in terms of manpower and equipment, the budget allocation we would need to provide credible defense against any future Senegalese aggression would be economically ruinous. It would be the case of a medicine worse than the disease.
The best policy to safeguard our country against external aggression and maintaining our territorial integrity is investing in and maintaining a good relationship with Senegal. This makes sense on both security and economic grounds. It is not in Senegal’s interest to have military conflict its midst, and would make no sense to for it to start or foment one in The Gambia. On the economic side, Gambia being a small country should make us favor greater openness and integration with our neighbors. After all, the small market we havve does not encourage foreign investment.
Someone should let the GNA know that what they are doing, as stated by Commander Cham, is not a real reform. The beginning of real reform with regards to the military is the recognition of the basic fact that the military is of no use to The Gambia. Once this fundamental point is recognized, proposals for real reforms can be tabled and implemented.