A year ago the people of The Gambia voted for change, ending two decades of misrule, the systemic diversion of state resources and human rights abuses. President Yahya Jammeh was removed through a free and fair democratic process; the first since the country’s 1965 independence. It was a historic return to democracy for a nation of just 2 million people.
The new President Adama Barrow and his coalition unity government are now undertaking the hard task of rebuilding a nation on its return to democracy. We at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change are working alongside them to help put the governance systems in place to deliver this.
After a long campaign to take back their country, this is not an easy undertaking. Under Jammeh, GDP per capita languished: at $490 it is a third of the Sub-Saharan African average. The previous President also fled the country with millions of dollars in cash, emptying government coffers, and a plane-load of luxury cars. But less well-known is the scale of his systematic theft of state resources over the past two decades – Gambia’s finance minister has estimated $100 million may have been stolen from state-owned enterprises alone – and the legacy of debt he left behind in government.
To date, the new administration has made good progress in building a solid foundation for the country’s development . It has maintained peace and security. It is bolstering finances by restructuring debt and gaining the confidence of the markets. It has maintained an open and vibrant press. The President is restoring justice through a Truth, Reconciliation & Reparation Commission which has televised hearings. And the government is building ties abroad: it is again active in ECOWAS, the WTO and started the process of re-joining the Commonwealth.
In a country that has been mismanaged for so long, the list of things that need to be done is overwhelming, and all of them are urgent. The government knows it must prioritise and ensure effective governance practices in order to turn the hopes of the people and their vision for the country into reality.
The complexity of the transformation underway in society and that which is still necessary within government after 22 years of authoritarian rule can not be underestimated however. Since I first visited The Gambia to discuss our potential work with the government in March 2017, there is a palpable and growing sense of relief, of opening up, of freedom. Conversations about Jammeh, his regime and expectations for the future under President Barrow are now discussed openly, rather than in hushed tones. Not only are people finally free to speak about Jammeh and his regime, but there is freedom of speech and press to engage critically with Barrow’s administration, as well; a dialogue between citizen and government that wasn’t previously possible
While societal behaviour is changing rapidly, shifting the gears of government bureaucracy that has been ruled for decades by an authoritarian leader will take much more time. For two decades civil servants diligently managed the business of government, but were never empowered to challenge decisions, analyse alternative policy options, or refuse an order from Jammeh. Those who dared were fired, at best, jailed or disappeared at worst.
The civil service culture was therefore one focused on implementation – executors of the decisions and whims of their leader, who not only managed the state and its assets as his own personal fortune, but centralised power to a mind-boggling degree, for example staying up all hours to personally handle all written correspondence. Now that culture must change to adapt to the country’s expectations for more open, democratic rule. Citizens expect action, but they also expect consultation and communication about progress. They have zero tolerance for corruption. And the politics is naturally vastly different – the government is a coalition of 7 political parties led by an independent President. Coordination and cohesion within Cabinet will therefore be crucial to the government’s ability to prioritise and align scarce resources in the short term to deliver change.
The President has understood the urgency of this and already identified five priority areas: empowering youth through creating jobs and improving education, agriculture, tourism, infrastructure, in particular access to electricity, and health. On the request of the President, we have a small team in Banjul helping his office and wider government to flesh out specific deliverables within these sectors and adapt their ways of working to suit their new democracy. We’re bringing to bear international experience, including within the West Africa region, with “delivery” principles to accelerate progress. For us this means 5Ps: prioritise because if you try to do everything at once you’ll achieve nothing, set the right policies including based on international experience, develop detailed plans, introduce performance management systems to track progress and solve bottlenecks, and finally, ensure you have the right personnel in place to lead these efforts.
We are also offering advice on planning strategic engagement with investors and international development partners to support the Government’s priorities and reforms, drawing on the Institute’s international network and the experience of our partner governments elsewhere in Africa.
This will be crucial. The government and people of The Gambia need the support of regional and international partners to accelerate their return to prosperity. The EU, World Bank and others have recommenced large-scale support, but there is a pressing need for more, especially from bilateral partners.
But for any assistance to properly succeed, it cannot come in a piecemeal and untargeted way. It needs to be coordinated and aligned with the country’s own national development plan and priorities. With a small population, modest investments can yield huge results in the smallest country on Africa’s mainland.