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Opinion: The sloppy rationalisation of Jammeh's development

By Dodou Jawneh:

In the name of rational analysis, Dr Ismaila Ceesay and Fatou Camara argued that the wanton destruction of the Gambia's social and economic fabric by Jammeh must be weighed against the development projects brought in by his regime. Dr Ceesay cited the education sector, especially the introduction of University education. He also pointed out the growth of a new urban centre in Brusubi area and, erroneously, the construction of a new airport. Dr Ceesay viewed those Jammeh critics who analyse the past 22 years in a mainly negative light, as acting on emotions rather than rationality. On the contrary, I believe his is the sloppy rational analysis and problematic in a number of ways.

Firstly, the argument itself is predicated on a familiar theme that when the junta illegally took over the government of The Gambia, it was a country in a state of tabula rasa, in terms of development. Although this, to a large extent, has been forced down our throats, nothing is farther away from the truth. The usual argument is that the junta found the country with no history of development and that anything in educational development, institutional development, and infrastructure all started with Jammeh. It was a convenient propaganda tool for entrenching Jammeh in power.

Proponents of this view often do not pay cognisance to the fact that Gambia's development challenges in 1965 differ somewhat from those of 1994. The scholar, Ebrima Kamara, aka Kabakama Solo, reminded us of the African proverb: 'The hoe used for the harvest of last year's onions (serung jaba jagha dabang ding), may not necessarily be suitable for the harvest of the current year.' This wisdom is applicable to development analysis of the two eras. It will not only give us the data on our post independence history as it unfolded, but also provides a proper appraisal system of the development achievements of the regimes of Jawara and Jammeh.

If we take the education sector, for instance, the common currency, as in Dr. Ceesay's Fatu Network assessment, is that the establishment of a university in the Gambia by the Jammeh regime was the Holy Grail of educational achievement and that the previous regime's failure to implement this gives it a zero score in educational development. Although supporters of the self-styled 'dictator of development' are often quick to dismiss any suggestion that the establishment of a university was part of the PPP government's plan, as Sir Dawda articulated in his speech to graduands at the 1992 Gambia College convocation, there is a compelling argument that university education is the logical later stage of a country's educational pursuit. The Swedish economist, Gunner Myrdal, for instance, suggested that educational planning for developing countries should aim first at achieving a broader based primary education. Through this, basic education could be extended to the wider population in order to enhance equity goals and widen the talent pool. Had the Jawara government committed resources to the development of a national university in the 1960s and 70s, especially taking into account the size of the newly independent county's resource base, this might have diverted resources for the investment in basic education in rural communities, and, thereby compound the then existing rural urban divide in the sector created by the colonial administration.

However, what gets missing in the debate is that by 1965, the challenge was not only the near total absence of primary education in the rural areas, but also the problem of convincing a sceptical population by the tiny group of Western educated people that their brand of education was the way forward for the newly independent country. Whether the people's scepticism had merit or not, is for another debate. It is clear, however, that opposition to Western education was widespread for a major part of the decades following independence and Jawara's 'meet the farmers tours' were often dominated by the argument that parents should be prepared to send their children to school.

Other misconceptions exist in the argument. One such holds that the absence of a national university prior to 1994 meant Gambians had no access to university education. On the contrary, the government created or sought opportunities for deserving Gambians to pursue university education abroad, mostly at universities in other English speaking West African countries. But even this was scorned at by the younger generation. One commentator, Bokar Bah, dismissively called out 'Fourah Bay College', when this fact was raised. His condescending attitude reminded me of the Times newspaper of Britain, which remarked in 1874 that Durham University should next affiliate with the London Zoo when Fourah Bay and Durham affiliated. Such young Jammeh zealots are oblivious to the fact that in the Gambian civil service, graduates from Fourah Bay and other West African universities were rated higher than or at least equal to their counterparts from other places due to the quality of their performance in the workplace.

In all areas of infrastructure development the Jammeh regime embarked on, there were corresponding antecedents in the previous regime. The growth of new urban centres, for instance, the Kanifing industrial centre and the tourism industrial areas of Bakau and other places come to mind. One noticeable difference between development initiatives of the two regimes was the conspicuousness and the propaganda attached to those of the Jammeh era as opposed to its predecessor. Whereas the Jawara era was concerned about developing viable institutions that are able to contribute to the productive base of the economy, its successor concentrated on the physical infrastructure, financed through borrowing. For instance, while the previous government constructed one major trunk road, it invested in the public transport company, the GPTC which was operating pretty efficiently before 1994. During Jammeh's time, more roads came under construction but the company almost disappeared because of mismanagement. Similarly, other state enterprises such as GAMTEL and the Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation were rendered almost bankrupt because their funds had been diverted to Jammeh's corruption networks.

Dr Ceesay observed that when Jammeh travelled and saw good things abroad, he would try to replicate them at home. But this approach supposes a kind of technological determinism. It assumes, without much thought, that these new stuffs from abroad can be implemented in the Gambia and produce the desired effect. In the broader scheme of things, they often do not. Questions still remain whether the infrastructure projects such as the two bridges at Kerewan and Janjanbureh that gave him the name 'Babili mansa' are realising the return on investments made in them. Many other investments went to enhance Jammeh's power and personal wealth directly, whilst the nation's debt burden skyrocketed. The regime's supporters invariably benefited more from development projects, especially in the agricultural sector, as he also confiscated vast swathes of land around the country for his private farms and business ventures, resulting in dispossessing poor farmers of their farmlands.

Yet it should be recalled that Jammeh enjoyed more favourable economic conditions compared with his predecessor. Apart from the stable economy the regime inherited in 1994, it did not suffer major economic and security upheavals as was the case with the Jawara regime. The oil shocks of the 1970s created severe balance of payment difficulties for non-oil producing poor countries such as The Gambia. The country was also devastated by the attempted coup of 1981. By the mid 1980s the Jawara regime had to embark on a comprehensive economic and administrative reform in order to overcome the effects of these debilitating conditions.

Conversely, the goodwill of the international community in the 2000s created favourable conditions for Jammeh's regime enabling The Gambia to benefit from substantial debt relief under the HIPC Initiative. By the end of 2007, the IMF announced that Gambia had qualified for debt relief worth $140 million in nominal terms, but warned that the country should maintain prudence to ensure its debt sustainability remained on track. It appeared the authorities in Banjul did not heed this warning. A Reuters report indicated that by 2017, the country's debt has reached 130 percent of GDP and that the IMF had warned against further borrowing. The report stated also that 'most of Gambia’s debt was contracted under Jammeh, either through borrowing or the government’s taking on the liabilities of state-owned enterprises.'

The combination of corruption and abuse of power by Jammeh ensured that he became about as rich or even richer than the Gambian state at a time that the purchasing power of the people and living standard of the general population dwindled. The evidence are all there in the findings of the Janneh Commission.

By far the more devastating impact of Jammeh's rule was the cost in human terms. The country, dubbed the 'smiling coast of Africa' and renown for its protection of human rights had suddenly become the country of sorrow. Democratic values were subverted and the Jammeh regime became a symbol of abuse of its citizens so that many had decided to vote with their feet. The exiles, ironically, became the thorn in Jammeh's flesh and had contributed significantly in bringing down his regime.

Taking into account the variegated nature of Jammeh's misrule, my contention is that it represents a negative development for the Gambia. The level of infrastructure progress over the past two decades would have been achieved in spite of his administration, considering the development trajectory the country was following prior to 1994. The cost of those projects in economic and human terms represents a retrogression for the country. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is recounting firsthand information of harrowing human right abuses under Jammeh, it is best to wait and see how this unfolds. Early accounts revealed the existence of death squads and torture chambers throughout the 22 years of his administration.

Considering the gravity of the the economic and human destruction the country endured under Jammeh, how is it possible to argue that the country has achieve progress under him if we consider development in its holistic sense? Doing so will equate with the Germans crediting the Nazis following the destruction it brought to their country because Hitler, for instance, had invested in the industrial sector which enabled many working class Germans to own the VW cars. Instead the Germans turned their back on the regime's legacy altogether. In addition, the the approach has a striking resemblance with the attitude of the Eurocentrist apologists of colonial exploitation of Africa because they claimed it brought 'civilisation' of a sort to the continent.

This approach to development analysis does not only lack the rationality that Dr Ceesay claims it has, but is also demonstrative of the quagmire of new Gambia unable to free itself from Jammeh's archaic Gambia. Whilst we lament the Barrow administration hobnobbing with Jammeh's men and copying from the dictators rule book, we also face the predicament of analysts still unable to stop dancing to Jammeh's development propaganda jives he bombarded us with over the 22 years of his rule.

Dodou Jawneh

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