In my article in this newspaper on 26th April 2018, I presented some reasons as to why The Gambia should abolish its military. Most of the private feedback I received were supportive with my assessment that the country’s expenditure on the military is wasteful and serves no useful purpose. However, I also received some feedback from people who felt that abolishing the military might be too drastic a step and offered some counter arguments. The point of this article is to address those key counter arguments and demonstrate that there is no good argument for the country to keep the military.
The interesting fact about all the arguments that are put forward for keeping the military in The Gambia is that most of them have nothing to do with the main reason for having a military, which is to defend the country against external aggression. Even those arguments that are ostensibly related to defending the territorial integrity of the country, they are based on highly implausible scenarios that only reveal how truly weak the case for the military is in The Gambian context. In other words, most arguments focus on secondary reasons that the Gambian military is rarely equipped or trained for.
One of the arguments is that even though we are currently on good terms with Senegal, we should keep the military in case we need it as a future defense against that country since anything is possible. However, taking this argument seriously requires The Gambia to maintain a military that is far larger than the current one. Our current military has close to 7,000 personnel. The budgetary cost of the military is about D700 million per annum, which is more than what we spend on the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Lands and Regional Government. As a share of our budget or GDP, our military expenditure is one of the highest in Africa. If you think D700 million per annum is high, imagine the scale of the resource drain if we decide to fund a military that is strong and professional enough to provide a credible defense against a possible Senegalese aggression. The cost of such a military would ruin us economically. What then would be use of such a military?
The fact of the matter is that it would not make sense for The Gambia to resist any hypothetical aggression from Senegal through the use of military force. Senegal is a country on the continent that is well known for its democracy and relatively functional institutions. It is no surprise that, for instance, recent visits to Africa by US presidents always include that country. In other words, it is a country that drives enormous value from its international reputation. There will be nothing more damaging to that than an unprovoked aggression against a neighbor. Even if Senegal were to be taken over by a mad president, it still would not make sense to militarily resist any aggression by it. The best course of action in such an unlikely scenario would be to mobilize international pressure against it not only through ECOWAS but also through the AU and the UN. That route would be far more effective than any attempt to militarily engage our much larger neighbor that has a more capable military, which would result in a destructive war on Gambian soil.
Another argument holds that getting rid of the military would make it impossible for the country to participate in peacekeeping missions abroad. Let us be realistic. The Gambia’s size means that the country’s contribution is never critical to the success of any peacekeeping operations anywhere in the world despite what one may hear. Even granted that our symbolic contribution could still be important as a member of community of nations, the absence of military does not in fact remove our ability to contribute to peacekeeping operations. Other branches of our security services can enable us to contribute. In fact, numerous police officers and non-military personnel have served in the Gambian contingent that went to the Darfur region of Sudan, and they performed just as effectively. This is not surprising because the responsibilities of a standard peacekeeping force in most cases are better aligned with police training than the traditional combat trainings of soldiers. Rarely do peace keeping forces engage in combat. In fact, when combat is likely in a particular conflict zone, hardly any country sends its forces there on a peacekeeping mission.
Another argument holds that the military may be needed because they can engage in civil works or disaster relief.Some have even pointed to the existence of the Army Corp of Engineers of the US military as an example of how useful the military could be in this regard. In reality, effective engineering works require well-trained engineers and well-resourced institutions, which is not the case as far as our poorly trained military is concerned. Moreover, the civil works occasionally performed by the military are better carried out by the private sector such as private construction or engineering companies. The reality is that the engineering works done by the Gambia National Army are of very poor quality and below modern quality standard. Pointing to the existence of an engineering wing in the US military is as bad and inappropriate an example for The Gambia as it would be in pointing to the presence of a US military to justify one for The Gambia. The contexts in the two countries couldn’t be more different. The US is a world power where the military’s role extends far beyond the defense of its homeland.Given the importance of the military in its power projection globally, its military is excessively resourced and capable of doing tasks well beyond those of other advanced nations even when one accounts for differences in size. As for disaster relief, the country would be better off providing greater funding the National Disaster Management Agency than again tasking the military with a function that it has neither the mandate nor the expertise.
In general, there is little justification for a public entity to provide services that can be adequately provided by the private sector, since it would be displacing or undermining the private sector. Furthermore, since the public sector is effectively shielded from market forces, there is neither an incentive to promote quality nor an informative metric to evaluate the unit’s efficiency. The guiding principle for public provision of services should be to address market failures. Since there is no market failure in the construction sector that one could plausibly argue that the engineering unit of the military is well-placed to remedy, then the argument for the military to provide such services disappears. This is another reason why it is such a bad idea to have the military engage in commercial agriculture.
Some may still be hesitant in abolishing the military for The Gambia for precautionary reasons since such a decision may appear unprecedented. The good news is that getting rid of the military when it has nouse is not an unprecedented decision. Several countries have already done so. These include Costa Rica, Grenada, Andorra, Dominica, Panama and Vanuatu. As you may notice, these are small countries just like The Gambia. Blindly following tradition did not stand in their way when it came to making a rational policy decision. Costa Rica, in particular, transferred the resources that they previously used for the military to internal security and other productive sectors.
The unavoidable fact is that funding the military represents a significant resource drain for a country such as The Gambia that cannot afford to waste a single butut. The amount that the country spends on the military could be much better spent on other sectors. Take for instance, internal security, which is of immediate need for the country. To have adequate internal security, the country needs a well-funded and a well-trained internal security service like the police. Unfortunately, our police are not well-trained and funded since the resources allocated to the whole Ministry of Interior is far lower than the budget for the military. For example, less than 1% of the police stations in the country have functioning vehicles that can respond to emergencies, while the military barracks are full of vehicles. Furthermore, there is so much excess military personnel in the GNA most senior military officers have multiple soldiers guarding their compounds.
In other words, internal security is a problem and will remain because our government seems incapable of recognizing which institution is best suited to addressing the problem. Instead, the military continues to command a lot of resources and being given responsibilities for which they are ill-suited and ill-equipped to handle. For instance, we still have numerous military checkpoints in the country, manned by soldiers who have no training in law enforcement or internal security, and have no experience in dealing with civilians.
Finally, the major reason why the military should be abolished in The Gambia is that the possibility of a coup d’état is forever present as long as we have a military in the country. The ultimate story of the 22 July coup d’état is yet to be written but one contributing factor is the fundamental confusion among Gambian military officers about the proper role of the military. For instance, the Gambian military is still full of officers who believe that the military’s role extends into many spheres of activities that go beyond defending the country against external aggression. It does not take lot of imagination to guess what could happen given the right opportunity and incentives.
Getting rid of the military does not mean the Gambia is left defenseless. It simply means taking advantage of what would normally be considered a disadvantage (being surrounded by another country) and turning it into an opportunity rather than lamenting about it. We can take advantage of our unique geography by maintaining good relations with Senegal and further integrating our two economies. Not only would this protect us against external aggression, as low a probability as that is to begin with, but economic integration is beneficial to us given our reality as a tiny nation.This does not mean achieving security for Gambia by appealing to Senegalese benevolence or outsourcing out security to them. The reality is the fact that our security and stability is in Senegal’s interest as well since no instability in The Gambia will leave our neighbour unscathed.
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.