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President Barrow’s Cabinet Reshuffle: Implications for Security Sector Reform

President Barrow meeting with subregional security chiefs at State House

Defying his so-called Friday “Bombshells”, the State House on Thursday August 22nd, announced the appointment of former Inspector General of Police (IGP), Yankuba Sonko and former Gambian Ambassador to the US, Sheikh Omar Faye as Ministers of Interior and Defense respectively. Until recently, the Ministry of Defense was under the purview of President Adama Barrow, a tradition inherited from former President Jammeh who had in the past, combined several ministries under his personal purview.

This latest (third since President Barrow assumed office) cabinet reshuffle has raised questions as to the motive behind the president’s decision and public opinion is already divided. While some observers believe the appointment of the former Jammeh “enablers” is in preparations for the protest stage in December 2019 to ‘force’ Barrow to respect the three years coalition agreement, others believe that the decision is in reaction to EU’s criticism on the state of Gambia’s security sector reform. Whether or not the decision to appoint Faye and Sonko is in preparation for the planned protest or an appeasement tactic, what is noticeable is that the appointments have some implications for Gambia’s Security Sector Reform (SSR).

Among all the transitional justice processes embarked on by the Barrow government, SSR is the least controversial, yet the least successful. While the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) and even the most recent National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) are making progress, SSR in the Gambia continues to be derailed by lack of political will, as well as capacity gaps.  However, the third cabinet re-shuffle by Barrow and the appointment of two highly experienced individuals despite their past association with former President Jammeh, have led to cautious optimism among security sector reform enthusiasts.

President Barrow with the senior command of the Gambia Armed Forces

SSR in The Gambia

Following the defeat of Yahya Jammeh in December 2016, the new coalition government under Adama Barrow, launched various mechanisms to come to terms with the human rights violations of the past and at the same time prevent future recurrence. One of the key transitional justice mechanisms adopted by the Gambia is institutional reforms, which include transforming security institutions in line with democratic norms and practices.

Undoubtedly, the need to reform Gambia’s security is premised on popular opinion that the security services in the last two decades were mere tools of oppression and did not serve the purpose and intend they were established. They have been accused in the past of emboldening Jammeh and serving as the vanguard of the regime. In December 2017, an SSR assessment report highlighted many gaps and malfunctions, including the absence of updated legal framework to guide security sector governance, lack of oversight, issues of recruitment, promotion and dismissals, the politicization of the security services in the past and the lack of training and resources available to the security institutions. The Assessment report recommended the updating of the legal and policy framework, as well as the appointment of a Minister of Defense to provide for clearly reporting structure and oversight over the administration of the army. A National Security Policy has been launched for the first time and the drafting of national security strategy is under way.

Although there have been numerous initiatives and activities carried out under the SSR program including the launching of National Security Policy, most of these activities at best are done behind public purview and lack the participation of the general public. The past incident in Faraba, and the most recent anti-crime protest and the general feeling of insecurity have raised critical questions regarding the state of SSR in the Gambia. For instance, the maiden Afrobarometer survey in The Gambia suggests that despite perceived lack of insecurity among Gambians, there is high trust in security institutions, particularly the army and police. According to the survey, majorities of Gambians say they trust the Gambia Armed Forces (65%) and Police (60%). The high trust in the army has been linked to the recent activities of the military, including the arrest of some members of former President Jammeh’s paramilitary hit squad known as the Junglers. Equally, the improved relationship between the military and the media in particular has been commended as it is contributing positively on civil military relations. The military’s eagerness to engage the media fraternity by being responsive to queries has greatly assisted in reducing “negative” reporting thus helping to create a more positive image of the military among ordinary citizens.  Although the trust in the security institutions is noticeable, citizens have also raised concern as to the state of their security and wellbeing. According to the survey,

. About four in 10 Gambians say they were victims of theft from their house (40%) or felt unsafe walking in their neighbourhood (36%) during the previous year. One in four (25%) feared crime in their home, and one in 14 (7%) were physically attacked.

. In the past two years, about half or more of Gambians have feared or experienced violence among people in their neighborhood (53%), during a public protest (49%), or at political events (56%).

Equally, the survey results also show that “Gambians are split as to whether ECOMIG should leave and allow the Gambia Armed Forces and Gambia Police Force to take charge of security matters in the country.”

ECOMIG officers ©Daily Guide

Implications for SSR

For the First time in Gambia’s political history, we are having a Minister of Defense that is not the president. As for former President Jammeh, the title worked because of his background as a military man and a dictator, but for Barrow, people are even questioning his leadership qualities, and have doubted his ability to adequately address the security challenges the country face. Some critics have accused him of being a leader who will not utter a word, even when grieving youth burn tires, while the police brutalized citizens demanding accountability from their local political leaders. How on earth will Barrow be able to oversee the transformation of the Gambia Armed Forces in particular? His critics have raised this question repeatedly. Some observers have expressed relief that Barrow has finally come to his senses and appointed someone with the necessary military background to serve as defense minister.

While many have welcomed the appointment and Barrow’s decision to implement one of the recommendations of the SSR process, the new defense minister is being encouraged to serve as a link between the Gambia Armed Forces and the population. Gambians deserve (and want) to know more about the activities of their army; it will be the job of the new defense minister to be the primary vehicle or instrument for civil military relations in the Gambia. Corresponding to the appointment of the Interior Minister, Mr. Faye has also accumulated years of experience serving the military and as well as being part and parcel of Gambia’s diplomatic core. He has the experience of a military officer and a diplomat and the way he uses these accumulated experiences will be crucial to the security sector reform agenda.

The new Defence Minister Sheikh Omar Faye

Equally, the appointment of the former Inspector General of Police Yankuba Sonko to replace the Gambia’s ‘most unpopular minister’, Ebrima M. Mballow shows willingness on part of Barrow to listen to critics and respond positively. To appoint seasoned security personnel to assist and even take the lead in the reform agenda is a welcome development, some analysts have noted. However, the Gambian intelligentsia has received Sonko’s appointment differently. There are those who believe that Sonko’s appointment is long overdue as the interior ministry since the departure of Mai Fatty, he (Sonko) has not be seen to be active in the SSR. Although Sonko’s new role will be political, there is cautious optimism that he will use his experience and love for country to help shape security institutions under his purview. Analysts say Sonko has no excuse to fail or to allow further foot dragging. He understands the challenges of the institution some of which he has personally experienced and now has the opportunity to reform internal security institutions, given Barrow’s shortcomings when it comes to understanding security matters.

These two key appointments, it is thought, will now provide Barrow’s cabinet with new resources to transfer the job of SSR to. Already, the Justice Ministry is believed to be suffering from human capacity gap, and therefore, adding the responsibility of SSR to the Justice Ministry could backfire as seen in the case of the Junglers. The combined experience of Sonko and Faye and will make it more acceptable perhaps to the security chiefs to put into action some of their plans.

However, a broader political analysis of the cabinet re-shuffle has resulted in two different interpretations. In one school of thought, the appointments of Sonko and Faye are seen as appeasement mechanism to rob EU shoulders, following the charge by the EU Ambassador on the state of SSR in the Gambia. Although it will be too early to suggest that the EU’s dissatisfaction of the progress made in the SSR led to the cabinet adjustments, one cannot but observe the centrality of the security sector. Within this analysis, the appointments of Faye and Sonko are expected to help fast track the SSR process so as not to wrath EU. In my view, the second school of thought holds sway over the first.  Contrary to popular belief that the re-shuffle is in preparation for December 2019 planned protest, I for one, see the appointments of these two individuals as move to fast-track the Gambia’s SSR process. Whether that is the intention of the government or not, I believe the current state of our SSR process needs experienced individuals to guide the process.

The new Interior Minister Yankuba Sonko

Nevertheless, claims by those who believe the appointment of Sonko as interior minister is in preparation for the December planned protest should not be easily brushed aside. Sonko’s past record as police chief under Jammeh cannot be overlooked, as he was central to numerous permit denials and unleashing terror on protesters in 2016. So, his appointment considering his past track record will undoubtedly send wrong signals given the fact that Barrow has been likened to Jammeh. In fact, some analysts have suggested that the appointment of Sonko will present the Barrow government with a more coherent individual with a wealth of experience to deal with the planned protest in December, organized by a group calling themselves #Occupation 3 Years Jotna. The plannedprotest in December 2019 is one of the most critical political discussions in The Gambia as the organizers vouch to force Barrow to respect the three years agreement. Daily threats by activists and government reaction, including the alleged purchase of water tank and the threats of violence by senior government officials have received wide public condemnation. Though the three years issue has taken center stage, whether the protest will happen or not or genuine or not is debatable.

However, in my view, Faye and Sonko’s past should not be easily swept under the carpet, but given our current situation and circumstances including human resource challenges, both Faye and Sonko are more prepared to carry out the task of the defence and interior ministry compared to unpopular Mballow. Whether they will deliver for the public or for Barrow is totally a different matter.

At the end of the analysis, all one can do is to have patience and hope that those who are called to duty will not renegade on the national interest for political expediency. The issue of security is a national issue and should never be politicize. Gambians also must take ownership of their national security institutions. We must advocate for greater transparency and accountability of our security institutions, but we must always acknowledge the sacrifices of our men in uniform. There is also need for clarity on the issue of right sizing and downsizing. These two concepts and the absence of its domestication continue to create challenges in the SSR process. There is a need to clarify, what the stand of the government is and efforts to address possible constraints factored.

EU Ambassador to The Gambia Attila Lajos

A greater need for research and broader public engagement can be crucial to the success of SSR. For instance, the maiden Afrobarometer survey measuring public opinion on key security questions such as the presence of ECOMIG; trust in security services as well as perception around safety and a similar study by DCAF when complete will be handy in designing effective security policies based on evidence and perceived citizen realities.

Another Challenge facing the security sector reform is the way external support is channeled. Since its inception, the SSR process has received considerable amount of both financial and technical support. The pool of international advisers although provide great resource, must be channeled to our national security vision. The advisers can only support through experience sharing and technical advice but the bulk of work, particularly behavioral change, must come from Gambians.

Parliament also needs to play greater role in its oversight mechanism. Although, there have been huge gaps in parliamentary oversight including the non-existence status of the security and defense committee, a more pro-active parliamentary committee can be crucial to the success of The Gambia’s SSR Project.

Finally, SSR in The Gambia cannot be implemented in a piecemeal basis; rather every aspect ranging from legal and policy framework and training must be addressed. Training must not only be technical but must also include behavioral. There is also the need for President Barrow to show urgent leadership, to take the bull by the horns and lead efforts to reform our institutions most importantly the security sector. He is the Chief Servant and he must lead the way. So far, he has not lived up to expectation.

Sait Matty Jaw is a political science lecturer at the University of The Gambia.

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