Economist Faults Army’s Commercial Agric Project, Says it Will Endanger Democracy
A former Principal Economist at the African Development Bank said the plan by the Gambia Armed Forces (GAF) to venture into commercial agriculture will endanger the country’s democracy and governance.
Dr. Ousman Gajigo, now an international consultant who also worked for the World Bank cautioned people who are sympathetic to the multimillion dollar project based on assumption that the military would simply go into agribusiness and stop there. According to him, once the military is allowed in that sector, there would be no basis to prevent it from expanding into other business ventures such as tourism, wholesale trade, construction and mining.
“As we should know by now, no individual or institution willingly relinquishes power once it is acquired. When we allow this to happen, the military becomes too powerful as institution and becomes fatal to democracy,” Dr. Gajigo told The Chronicle.
On April 8th, President Adama Barrow gave his blessing to GAF to embark on a large scale commercial agricultural production following an agreement with US agribusiness company AGCO. The president assured the army and its investment partner of his office’s support to the project.
Earlier this month, GAF held a press conference in Banjul to defend the project following criticisms by people who were concerned about its ramifications. The GAF PRO, Major Lamin Sanyang said the army’s decision was within its mandate, and was constitutional based on the 1997 constitution.
But according to Dr. Gajigo, the PRO was appealing to a defective document that is in the process of being replaced. He argued that “the military in The Gambia, and for that matter anywhere else in the world, is constituted to serve a basic role, which is ensure the security and territorial integrity of the country against external aggression.”
He accused the military of chronically misunderstanding this responsibility by misinterpreting their mandate to include interference in domestic matters, be it commercial or governance issues. He said this is the root cause of the 1994 coup d’état.”
Egypt a bad example
Dr. Gajigo, who runs a farm in the country, raised concern about GAF’s use of AGCO’s engagement with militaries in other countries such as Egypt as a source of inspiration.
“This should concern us deeply. The dominance of Egypt’s military due to its engagement in commercial activities in all sectors has made it almost impossible for that country to have a democracy. The military has become too powerful that it is almost as if it is a state within a state. One would think that our recent experience with a military dictatorship would make us sensitive to this reality.”
In Egypt, the military has gained unprecedented political influence and continues to dominate the economy thanks to its long list of commercial activities, including agriculture. Naguib Sawiris, Egypt’s richest man is quoted by U.S.-based publication, The Defense Post as saying that the Egyptian army controls 40 percent of the national economy. The figure could be as high as 60 percent, according to anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. The Egyptian military is today notorious for tightening grip on politics and crushing dissent, especially after current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over the country. Many analysts blame this on the military’s financial clout.
Dr. Gajigo also raised concern about the execution of the army’s primary role and responsibility if it is going to undertake such a large-scale agribusiness venture that would require a whole battalion.
“If a whole battalion being used in agriculture does not degrade the military’s ability to perform its primary role, doesn’t this mean our military is too large? Shouldn’t the primary occupation of the military brass be to institute the necessary reforms to bring the military to its proper size?”
He said no meaningful reforms in the military have taken place since the arrival of the new government, adding that the military is still as large as it was during the Jammeh regime.
“High ranking officers have been named and implicated in testimonies at the TRRC. The military continues to have numerous internal check points which are not consistent with what the roles of the military should be. The military continues to have costly and unnecessary practices of embedding military attaches in Gambian embassies. Put differently, our military today under Barrow’s regime is hardly different from the military under the Jammeh regime,” said Dr. Gajigo.
He queried that having the military going into commercial agriculture will not only divert it away from its necessary security reforms, but will also divert the government from addressing the fundamental reforms needed in the agricultural sector. He said to boost agricultural productivity and address food security, the primary government institution should be the Ministry of Agriculture, which is tasked with implementing the government’s agricultural policy.
No MoU signed
Meanwhile, PRO Sanyang last week told The Chronicle that there was no MoU or an agreement signed between the army and AGCO, though he said the army had decided in principle to go ahead with the project, following the meeting with the president.
“Initially, our intention was to go into rice cultivation, the proceeds of which would be used to feed the army, but no to commercialize it. This is why when our partners AGCO came we took them to State House to brief our Commander-in-Chief and to tell him about our intentions and that of AGCO who were given the time to make some presentation before the president,” Sanyang told The Chronicle in an interview.
Asked whether the government will provide subsidies for the project, he said “that issue has not yet been discussed”, but added that “subsidies could be needed as far as the issue of fertilizers, tractors, power-tillers, among other equipment are concerned to be able to start on a strong footing.”
Sanyang said the army has set aside a full battalion, in addition to a ‘30% youth force’ from the communities whose lands will be utilized in this project to implement it. He admitted that the Gambia Armed Forces has not engaged in large scale agriculture before, but stressed that all the units in the army are into “some sort of agricultural production and gardening to subsidize their diets that they used in the camps.”
Babucarr Saho, the Manager of Projects at the Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the project will address the government’s food self-sufficiency drive.
“As far as The Gambia Chamber of Commerce is concerned, this initiative by the Gambia Armed Forces is a step in the right direction and will go a long way in making food affordable and accessible,” he told The Chronicle.