Another Reason to Abolish the Military in The Gambia
A few recent events have provided yet further arguments as to why the country needs to abolish the military. One event had to do with a pronouncement by the Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) Masanneh Kinteh and the other by Sanna Sabally, one of the lead perpetrators of the 1994 coup d’état.
CDS Kinteh was quoted in the newspapers as saying that the recent agreement between the US agribusiness company (AGCO) and the army on a commercial venture fulfilled a constitutional requirement for the army. This part of the pronouncement did not get a lot of publicity but it should have. It demonstrates that the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the Gambia National Army is highly confused about the constitutional role of the military.
The fact is that there is nothing in the constitution that requires the army to partake in commercial activities, whether by itself or in collaboration with other entities. If CDS Kinteh can convince himself of such a glaring misinterpretation of the constitution, what other aspects of the constitutional role of the military can he be confused by?
In his testimony in front of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) on the 24th and 25thApril, the former vice chairman of the AFPRC, Sanna Sabally insisted that their actions in overthrowing the Jawara regime on 22nd July 1994 were consistent with the military’s constitutional role of defending the country. Even under relentless questioning by the TRRC Lead Counsel Essa Faal, Sanna Sabally stuck to his twisted interpretation of the responsibilities of the military under the constitution where they imagined themselves as the custodians who had the responsibility to correct all perceived wrongs in the society, maintaining standards in government and holding the government accountable, even if it means doing a constitutionally treasonous act.
It appears that once soldiers are informed that the constitution grants them responsibility to defend the country, they interpret this as widely as possible. Given a sufficiently wide interpretation, almost any action by the military can be justified. A military confused about its role can justify the overthrow of a corrupt government that is democratically elected. This means that as long as we have a military, the danger that individual soldiers will misinterpret its role and responsibilities within the constitution is ever present. You can take aside CDS Kinteh and Sanna Sabally and enlighten them if possible but one is still left with thousands of other soldiers with probably the same erroneous understanding of their constitutional role.
In theory, military training for recruits could be reformed to ensure that every single soldier goes through a rigorous training on the proper role of the military in a democracy. Mr. Essa Faal even suggested re-orienting the mindset of the military to get rid of this tremendous confusion since he recognizes its ever-present danger. However, no such reform of the military would be a robust solution for a number of reasons.
The first reason is that the quality of recruits that enter the Gambian armed forces is abysmally low. One can get a sense of this low quality from the testimonies of senior military officers in the TRRC. Beyond the frequent atrocious grammar, their utterances are replete with faulty logic and general incoherence. Of course, we all know of some individual military officers who are highly intelligent. But they stand-out in our minds precisely because they are the exceptions rather than the rule.
With such low-quality intakes, the sad fact is that there is no amount of training that can make most soldiers fully comprehend the proper role of the military in the context of a democracy.Just as no amount of renovations can strengthen the structural integrity of a building that has a poor foundation, it would simply amount to wasting resources to try to improve the cognitive capacity of poor-quality recruits. Our army has largely and remains an institution that individuals go to when their efforts to enter other professions fail.
The other reason why no amount of training would solve this problem has to do with incentive alignment. Even if we are to have high-quality recruits in the national army who can easily be made knowledgeable about the proper role of the military, there would be no mechanism to prevent them from overthrowing a government if they perceive the benefits to be worth the risk. With sufficient benefits, any future coup plotter could use whatever justification appears convenient. For instance, according to Sanna Sabally and other officers that testified before the TRRC, one of the key precipitating events for the 22 July coup d’état was the arrival of the Nigerian military contingent. Whether that was true or not is beside the point. If the Nigerian contingent hadn’t arrived, the coup plotters would have likely found some other justification.
Despite all these dangers, are there still reasons to have a military in The Gambia that can justify these risks? To answer that question requires looking at the primary responsibility of a military, which is to defend the territorial integrity of The Gambia. In other words, are there threats possible to our territorial integrity that justify the cost of maintaining an army.
Let’s see. The Gambia is surrounded on almost all sides by Senegal. This means that any risks to our border must come through Senegal. We have the option of maintaining good relations with this neighbor, which as it turns out is beneficial not only for security but for economic reasons as well. As a small country, greater economic integration with our neighbors is to our benefit. It would also make no sense for The Gambia to have a military that tries to protect us from a hypothetical aggression from Senegal. The difference in powers between the two countries is so great that the required military investments would literally bankrupt the Gambian state.Needless to say, such a course of action would amount to monumental foolishness.We should take our unique geography as a blessing and use it to our benefit.
The appropriate conclusion we should draw here is obvious. The dangers and the financial costs of having a military in The Gambia far outweighs its benefits of which there are hardly any. We currently spend more than D700 million annually on the military – money that could be better spent on other sectors such as education, internal security or infrastructure.
Ousman Gajigo is an economist. He has held positions with the African Development Bank, the UN, the World Bank and Columbia University. He holds a PhD in development economics. He is currently an international consultant and also runs a farm in The Gambia.