The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings
I have had the privilege of being invited to and attending several meetings of the Commonwealth People’s Forum in the last few days, leading up to the wonderful launch by Her Majesty the Queen of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting at Buckingham Palace yesterday 19 April 2018.
It was such a privilege to be present in the palatial room at the launch with the 53 Heads of State including of course HE the President of The Gambia, Adama Barrow. Earlier in the week I had attended a meeting arranged by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative who had undertaken last year a largely very positive study of the human rights situation in The Gambia following the overthrow of Yayha Jammeh, and that report is now public.
Zainab Badawi a Sudan born, renowned journalist in the UK opened the session by stressing what a great country The Gambia is; how welcoming and peace-loving its people are, with which I was absolutely able to concur, but that it would take a long time for The Gambia to return to prosperity and normality after 22 years of dictatorship by Jammeh and his regime. The effectiveness of the civil service had been completely undermined, is now paralysed and urgently requires training of the civil servants. She mentioned that The Gambia’s coffers are empty, that the country is largely dependent on tourism but with 70% reliance on agriculture on which climate change was having a negative impact. There is 43% youth unemployment and 45% illiteracy. Only 10% of MPs are women. The sexual exploitation of children in the tourist industry is a major problem. She raised the issue of the unrealistic expectations of some Gambians that improvements are going to be witnessed overnight. The debate caused me to reflect on two areas.
While there has been understandable and absolutely correct jubilation by the vast majority at the overthrow of Yayha Jammeh and a return to democracy and freedom of speech, inevitably, after 22 years of dictatorship, of appalling human rights abuses, of illegal killings and a complete breakdown of trust between individual Gambians, caused largely by the widespread presence of the National Intelligence Agency in every community and no one quite knowing who might be an informer, it is going to take a long time for that trust to be restored.
I was recently in France and had a conversation with a French friend about the legacy of the German occupation of France during the 1939-45 World War when the country was divided into collaborators with the Germans, not least those French people who, for rewards from the Germans, informed on the Jews in the country who would then be sent to the concentration camps in German occupied Poland to be tortured and gassed to death. On the other hand there was the brave resistance to the occupation. But there was this breakdown of trust in communities and my friend said that even after 70 years there remained a legacy of distrust and even enmity in some communities.
It will of course take a long time for trust between individuals and within communities to be restored in The Gambia. That trust can only really be gained by the evidence one, as an individual, can show of having contributed to making the country a more prosperous and peaceful place in which to live for the majority of people.
I remember Guy Stringer the Director back in the 1980s of the large UK international development agency Oxfam insisting that every employee should have a note pinned above his or her desk to be read every evening before leaving work. The note read “What have I done today to contribute to the alleviation of poverty in the world?” The Commonwealth debate also raised in my mind the role of the Gambian diaspora in restoring The Gambia to a prosperous, safe and healthy country. Let’s not forget that there has been a huge outflow of educated migrants to other countries during the Jammeh regime for a variety of reasons whether political, economic, family etc.
It was a question I was able to put to the President at a subsequent meeting chaired by our ex Prime Minister Tony Blair. The President had stressed that his Government now has a three year development strategy 2018 -2021 and I wondered whether he saw a role for the diaspora in delivering that strategy given that clearly there is an extraordinary potential resource of highly educated and skilled people living in the USA, Europe, Scandinavia and other parts of the world. The President made it clear that Gambians living abroad would be welcome to return home and contribute to the development of the nation.
But I wondered whether there might be a role for Gambians living abroad to come together maybe in different professional groups, whether teachers, doctors, lawyers, business people etc and form groups that, without necessarily returning to live permanently in The Gambia once more, (although that could be ideal) could work with the Government on its development strategy, not least in giving advice and support to civil servants in the various fields of responsibility that they have, whether in agriculture, health, education, transport etc. And in particular how might we put pressure on other Commonwealth countries to support the development of The Gambia now that it is a member of that international family. Common Wealth is not named such without reason!
At a local level, I was last week privileged to be a part of an international teleconference with members of the Gunjur Development Agency (GDA) based in the US and the Kombo Sillah Association with headquarters in Bristol, UK. One member of the conference was ringing in from Saudi Arabia. We discussed our role in encouraging the export of mangoes from Gunjur and the West Coast region and ideas were promoted of the support that could be given not least in attracting investment from international funding agencies.
In conclusion I believe we all have to show considerable patience. It is too easy to be critical of the Government, but the barriers to the Gambia’s development are high. Nothing is going to change overnight, not least given that the country is bankrupt. And don’t let’s forget that even though there will be some deficiencies – name a political leadership and Government in the world that does not have deficiencies, we certainly have them in the UK and in the USA - at least the Gambian Government was elected democratically and what an example it was to us all that the opposition parties all came together as a coalition in order to throw out the dictator Jammeh. I also believe we all ought to be asking ourselves the question, “how can we collectively or individually, no matter in which part of the world we are living, support the Gambian Government’s development process in the country that ultimately we all love and which has given us so much?”
Nick Maurice is a retired Medical Doctor and the founder of Gunjur Marlborough Link which has been existing for over 35 years. He served as director of Commonwealth organisation Building International Links for Development (BUILD)for almost a decade until his retirement.
Dr Nick Maurice - Founder of Gunjur Marlborough Link