Omar Gibril Sallah, Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of the Gambia to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, discusses the progress the West African country has made over the past two decades and what the next five years hold in store, its recent declaration as an Islamic Republic by President Yahya Jammeh, and its strengthening links with the Middle East and other Islamic nations.
Could you please discuss the significance of the anniversary of the proclamation of the second republic in the Gambia 22 years ago?
On July 22, 1994, there was a change of government in the Islamic Republic of the Gambia. Prior to 1994, infrastructural development in the country was basically at a standstill – with very little progress made. With regard to development in the education sector, progress was slow, but it is important to note that is has largely accelerated in a space of 20 years. For example, there is a significant increase in the number of major high schools in the country – a 92% increase in the past 20 years. With regard to basic education, it has multiplied over three times. With regard to the health sector, the same level too. There were few hospitals in the Gambia in 1993, but within 20 years we have a plethora of health centers and over four major hospitals. Child mortality has reduced considerably, and life expectancy has also increased. This goes to show that development has been solid over the past two decades. Unfortunately, however, the agricultural sector has been heavily affected by the drought. Another problem that has affected not only our country, but also the world, is the global economic meltdown and the rise in the price of basic commodities.
The Gambia has seen other sectors, such as the cashew industry and the fisheries industry, grow under the leadership of the current President Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa. We are trying to ensure that agriculture remains the main sector of the economy. We try to grow our own food and ensure that there is food self-sufficiency in the country. At the moment, the Food Security Corporation has been formed to handle food safety and security, and to make sure that we can reduce the amount of food imports into the country, as we are currently importing a lot of rice. By the end of 2016, hopefully, we’ll start to feed our own population and also conserve a lot of foreign exchange that we have been using to import commodities.
What priorities has the government established on this front?
The government has been concentrating definitely on the agricultural sector because this is the mainstay of the economy. We have also placed a lot of efforts on diversifying our agricultural base over the last 20 years, which is something that had never existed before.
You briefly mentioned the education sector earlier; could you please go further into this topic?
The Gambia never had a university prior to 1994. Over the past 20 years, we have built many schools, colleges and a university. Enrollment for this university is growing immensely, as we are accelerating our efforts in recruiting our own human resources. As human capital development is an important aspect of the development index of any country we’re also trying to build more skill centers. The Management Development Institute, which is part of the University of the Gambia, is contributing effectively in harnessing the human resource capacity of the nation.
Can you please expand on the democratic consolidation of the Gambia?
When it comes to democracy, the Gambia has passed the test. Since 1996 we have been conducting elections, both for the presidency, the national assembly, and local government councils. All of these elections have been witnessed by international observers and they have been declared free and fair. We are again in an election year this year. All the international observers are going to be invited again to observe the election and to make their own judgments. The people vote according to their choice and the government is also aspiring to see if the resources are there, both in terms of human and material, to enfranchise Gambians abroad. There is good governance in the country in terms of the maintenance of the rule of law and establishment of an independent judiciary. There is freedom of speech also. There are independent radio channels, and independent newspapers in the country. The government does not control the media; they have a voice of their own. Well, the critics can dispute this. It is their legitimate right to do so; but it is equally the government’s responsibility to govern. This task of measuring the balance between legitimate rights of individuals and the obligatory responsibility of the state is a challenging and daunting one that all government’s face.
The media plays a crucial role in communicating and generating dialogue. It is imperative that we mention the fact that the country was officially declared an Islamic Republic in December 2015, which represents the largest religion in the country, as 95% of the population is Muslim. What are the implications of becoming an Islamic state going to be?
I am convinced things will generally be the same as before. Many people tend to associate this with negative publicity – an eye for an eye so to speak. This is not going to happen in our country. Our President has said that we will be an Islamic state with a difference. We’re going to respect other religions, like we have always done. The only thing is that we’re going to bring more spirituality into our way of life. That is to say that before one does anything that is immoral, or criminal, one will always think about the Almighty Allah and the consequences of one’s action or inaction. I want to emphasize that the declaration of Gambia as an Islamic state is not a ploy to garner funds from any Muslim country, but it is the firm conviction of the President that it is the only right thing to do since 95% of population of the country is Muslim.
How would this translate into the way the country is governed?
It will be very positive because we’re getting into another platform. But I do not envisage a situation where people are going to be afraid because of stringent laws that have nothing to do with Islam. Islam is a peaceful religion that asks us to love our neighbors like any other religion. But it’s also very serious when it comes to crime and immorality. Our President has been very concerned about the incidence and spate of serious crimes in the country and wants to stamp them out.
Let’s discuss the national vision, whose deadline is coming up in 2020, in which the country has focused its efforts to bring development in certain areas. What have been the vision’s achievements, and how close is the country to reaching all the goals established?
Yes, this vision is embedded in our government policy document called the Vision 2020, which was adopted in 1996. Within the long-term scope of the Vision 2020, one finds the program for accelerated growth and employment. It’s called PAGE, which is the Gambia’s development strategy and investment program from 2012 to 2015. PAGE is based on Vision 2020 and various other sector strategies, providing a template for the government’s long-term vision, which is also aligned with the Millennium Development Goals. Its main objectives are to accelerate growth, create employment, and encourage decent wages in order to consolidate and sustain decent economic achievements.
We are trying to devise another strategy paper, which we’re working on at the moment. It is being drafted with the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals and will focus mostly on the social sectors, agricultural sectors, education and health. In all these areas there have been marked improvements since the present government took over 22 years ago. We have really achieved most of the objectives. There are challenges, of course. Others will say that you have achieved nothing; others will say that you did; but nobody can deny the level of achievement. Even in the economic sector, despite the global fallout in the previous years, the Gambia was insulated from this problem. There was a constant growth of 5 to 6% GDP.
We have a small country, and we are not exposed to most of the externals shocks that other countries fall victim to. We have been able to manage our resources. One of the areas that we are focusing on now is proper financial management and the correction of some macro-economic imbalances.
In your opinion, how does this affect international investors that may be interested in doing business in the Gambia?
First of all, the security of the country is paramount to the government. You can see there is security and stability. Without that, there cannot be economic growth. The security of the state is of utmost importance to the government. Therefore it has made security one of the pillars and priorities of the government. Within that security umbrella we’re able to attract investors and accelerate our economic development. Forget about economic development if there is no security and stability. We can say that our country is very stable. This is good for investment and sustainable development.
Can you please expand on the Gambia’s international agenda?
The Gambia’s foreign policy is based on three fundamental principles, among others, namely:
1- Self-determination and non-interference in the internal affairs of states,
2- Peaceful coexistence and mutual respect, and
3- Settlement of disputes by peaceful means.
Based on these principles, we have become peacemakers in the sub-region. Not only in the sub-region, but we also participate in UN and AU peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations. We’re going to be part of the coalition in Saudi Arabia against terrorism. This government has been fighting terrorism since its inception. We have been a member and chaired the AU Security Council for many periods. We have a well-trained and highly discipline armed force that is well respected in the international arena. Our agenda and priority is mutual cooperation in a peaceful, stable and secure world, and to this effect we have a very independent and proactive foreign policy.
As Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, it is important to note that Saudis are looking towards Africa in terms of investment; they see African countries as a land of opportunities. What are the competitive investment advantages that the Gambia has to offer?
The Gambia and Saudi Arabia established diplomatic links about 50 years ago, i.e. since 1965. However, It was only in 2014 that we have had a Bilateral Cooperation Agreement that covers agreements in economic development, agriculture, tourism, education, health, infrastructural development, exchange of information, and investment. We signed that Agreement on the 19th of August 2014. It covers all these key areas. Now, we’re negotiating to sign another one on the Avoidance of Double Taxation and Protection of Investments. We have to put all these legal frameworks in place to guarantee a smooth take-off. Saudi Arabia is helping us in various other sectors, including the drilling of wells and rural water supply. We also want them to invest in the energy sector, i.e. electricity. Without electricity, forget about development.
As I am based in Saudi Arabia and accredited to some states in the Middle East and the Gulf region, it is important to mention that we have signed many Memoranda of Understanding with some of these countries. We are currently negotiating to sign one with Jordan, Lebanon and Oman. These are all in the pipeline. We have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain on economic development and other sectors. All the critical foundations have been laid and now it’s time to implement them. At the end of the day, the groundwork has largely been established. The future is indeed very bright for our nation.
Where do you see the Gambia in the next five years?
As a diplomat for the past 20 years, I’ve worked in many countries: Libya, the United Kingdom, United States, and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia twice: first as a counselor and now as an ambassador. I have seen tremendous development in the kingdom during this period in the interest of the pilgrims, developing countries and the Muslim Ummah.
Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is certainly blossoming. What I would like to see in the next five years is its consolidation. Our job is to lay the foundation. We have laid a solid foundation. I hope that anybody who comes after me will take it to another level so that jointly we will realize the fruits of our efforts.
As for Gambia as an Islamic state in the next five years? Indeed, I think most of the misconceptions of the people will be laid to rest. It will be business as usual and I’m quite sure the economy will grow more than it is doing at the present moment. We need to be very positive in our outlook for our country and ensure that everybody is on board. We are a small country with a lot to offer. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
On the whole, I’m convinced we’ll get the assistance of the international community, as in time, they will see the merits of our government’s policy objectives.