The new and democratic Gambia, interview with H. E. Lang Yabou, Gambian ambassador to Spain

PolíticaEconomíaEspañaÁfrica del oesteGambiaEntrevistas
3/07/2017Alejandro Dorado Nájera



In 1994, Yahya Jammeh’s coup d’état brought him to power in the Republic of The Gambia. In December 2016, a democratic election ousted him from it. H. E. Mr. Adama Barrow, the brand-new president of this small West African republic, won the presidential election. The election, recognized as fair and democratic by the international community, ended a 23-year long reign that, year after year, became more authoritarian, showing signs of decay mirrored by its growing international isolation.

Never-ending human rights violations, violence against journalists, activist and minorities such as LGTBI people, together with dramatic interventions on international stage isolated Jammeh, making of him a self-engrossed international pariah. After the presidential election that confirmed the end of his leadership bringing the young newly-elected Adama Barrow as the head of the State, Jammeh did what most feared: he initially accepted the outcome and described the election as the freest, fair, transparent and rigid-proof election but thereafter changed his position and attempted to strengthen his grasp on power, calling the results of the elections illegitimate, even though they had been previously validated by international organizations, observers, and Jammeh himself

Jammeh’s turn around provoked an unprecedented international reaction led by African organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU), together with other countries such as Senegal, Nigeria, etc. while the EU, the UN, and other international organizations put pressure on him to step down.

Thanks to diplomatic movements coming from Africa and led by Africans—and to the convincing threat of military intervention—the Gambian impasse was overcome without bloodshed, which is both excellent news and proof of the shrinking support illegitimate governments have on the continent.

With H. E. Adama Barrow’s arrival as the head of The Gambia and the political and institutional stability stemming from it, a new window of opportunity opens up. An even bigger window of opportunity thanks to the interest that the Gambian impasse has piqued in the international community and media, creating the perfect opening to show to the world the challenges and potential of this new emerging Gambia.

H. E. Lang Yabou, Gambian ambassador to the Kingdom of Spain since 2013 was a part of and witness to the diplomatic movements that provoked the international response to Jammeh’s refusal to hand over power which, eventually, accelerated his removal from power. He is also a connoisseur of the challenges and opportunities ahead. In this interview, he gives us his views on the recent past and the future of The Gambia:

 

I want to thank the people and the government of Spain who, from the very beginning, have committed to supporting the implementation of the elected democratic regime

 

As you may imagine, our first question has to do with the recent political shift in The Gambia and the country’s renewed political stability and openness. How would you assess this almost tectonic shift that brought the new president Adama Barrow to power replacing former president Jammeh?

We are very appreciative of your interest in working with us towards marketing The New Gambia. Our country has experienced a unique change since, as far as I know, it is one of the only times in history that a country has been able to overthrow and replace a dictator, without any bloodshed. This change happened because of Gambians, both on-site and abroad, sharing a notion and commitment towards the imperative requirement of having a government that abides by the rule of law, democratic principles and human rights towards all who inhabit in The Gambia.

There was a serious political impasse, which was only possible to sort out with the support of both the majority represented by the president-elect, H. E. Adama Barrow, and his team, as well as the international community. Once the international community stated its support to the political coalition headed by the elected president, and ECOMIG [ECOWAS' military intervention in The Gambia] got the greenlit for a military intervention, the balance of power shifted, and that marked the end of the former dictator and his entourage.

The Gambia is now a free and stable nation, where people can express their opinions and participate in the country’s development process within a democratic law-abiding state. For me, this is everything, for nothing is achievable without freedom. At last, every citizen enjoys equal rights and privileges as stated in our Constitution.

This government’s commitment is to developing profitable business opportunities for the country, hence enabling the people of The Gambia to experience and gain from the dividends of democracy. A very important step consists in the country’s reintegration in both the Commonwealth of Nations [former president Jammeh unilaterally left the organization in October 2013] as well as the International Criminal Court of Law [after former leader’s withdrawal from it in October 2016 accusing it of being a “racist” organization]. Jammeh was afraid of potential prosecution due to existing crimes against humanity performed by his government, but The Gambia now continues to be committed to its international obligations under existing treaties and conventions while being fully open to establishing partnerships with the rest of the world.

The fact that the transfer of power was peaceful is largely due to the role that the international community played in the crisis when Jammeh refused to render the power that Adama Barrow had won in democratic elections. How important was the role of regional organizations as the ECOWAS and the African Union? What about the role of the EU and Spain, as President of the UN Security Council in December 2016?

The ability to have quickly ended the political impasse to a great extent was exclusively derived from the tremendous support gathered amongst the international community for a free and democratic State in The Gambia—namely ECOWAS, the African Union, the United Nations and other institutions as well as friendly countries. ECOWAS military mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG) was authorized by the UN to resort to military force in the case the former president refused to hand over power at the end of his mandate. The call for action was triggered by the fact that former president Jammeh attempted to remain in power after he had publicly assumed that these were free and democratically held elections which mirrored the people’s choice.

Spain was one main partner throughout this process and I want to thank the people and the government of Spain who, from the very beginning—over meetings that I held with some official representatives—have committed and fulfilled the promise of supporting the implementation of the elected democratic regime. That was made through specific actions towards all the resolutions in the UN as well as through the continuous support of this government with our efforts in order to make The Gambia great again.

In addition to being the Gambian ambassador to Spain, you are ambassador to Italy, Greece, Malta and three international organizations, the FAO, IFAD, WFP, and the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization). Tourism is the main economic sector in The Gambia, accounting for more than 20% of GDP and employing more than 100,000 Gambians. How important is your relationship with the UNWTO as the international organization specialized in tourism? What are the importance and future perspectives for the tourism sector in The Gambia?

Tourism is both a vital area for the economy of The Gambia as it is a dear-hearted area of mine because it represents one of the main potential employment areas for our youth while reducing the number of irregular migrants. Tourism enables the creation of wealth alongside with the countries’ infrastructure development.

The past four years have witnessed a massive increase in our interactions with the UNWTO, with The Gambia participating in the majority of initiatives, mainly INVESTOUR, which is a very important annual event that usually takes place during FITUR, Madrid’s tourism fair, where investors from all around the world are present to interact and explore business investment opportunities within the tourism area. UNWTO has also proven to be a valuable asset towards supporting the certification of The Gambia’s Tourism and Hospitality Institute.

Now we are focused on tourism statistics. You will agree, that in order to improve something you need first to be able to measure it; and by doing so, understanding if you are improving and moving forward or going backward. And that requires having statistical data. So the UNWTO is supporting us in making our tourism industry capable of gathering and storing statistical data that can then be analyzed. We hope that having a new democratically elected government while finally becoming a democratic State will foster further and deeper collaboration with the UNWTO in the near future.

Since having started my assignment in Spain, I have focused my efforts and authority towards making sure the embassy is constantly marketing The Gambia as a touristic destination of choice and I am glad that we have in fact witnessed a growing number of visitors from Spain. 

Spain needs to upgrade its representation in Gambia to a full-scope embassy. There are now over 30,000 Gambians living in Spain, both countries are now linked forever and the interaction will continue

 

The Gambia is currently living a fascinating political momentum that translates into new policies in the economic field as well. Where are the main business opportunities in this new Gambia?

One area that is also very close to my heart is agriculture, which employs about 70% of the population of The Gambia. Until 1994—when Jammeh’s Government stepped in—agriculture was the pillar of the Gambian economy, with peanut production reaching 300,000 tons during that year, constituting the main source of foreign currency for the country due to exportation. Unfortunately, the former government led to the collapse of this crop, currently representing less than 5,000 tons per year. This shows the current need for a huge investment effort towards making agriculture a lucrative activity once again. 

Another area with interesting investment potential is the renewable energy sector, alongside health—The Gambia is in need of expats who can assist us in the health sector—and infrastructure; trading in The Gambia is currently focused on high-quality building materials produced in Spain. Therefore, there is room for growth here and these sectors are definitely high potential investment areas where investors will also enjoy some governmental incentives.

Where do you think the government will focus its efforts, and how is it going to communicate these opportunities to the rest of the world?

In the past, the political context would often instill fear and mistrust in investors’ minds. Fortunately, we now have a very favorable political climate within the right legal context, where anyone is welcome to come and invest profitably, with protection, benefits, and stability.

Once the right message is passed on, people will start coming onboard and we have already started to witness this. Since the government changed, we are having an increasing number of ship arrivals at our seaports, increasing flights landing at our airports and several companies have already expressed interest in our market.  

For The Gambia, as you previously mentioned, the agricultural sector and fisheries are the two main economic drivers. Both sectors are also important for Spain. How do you think that both countries can learn from each other in these fields?

Agriculture and fisheries are the backbones of our economy, but both have been very poorly managed over the past 22 years. We now focus our attention on getting the expats’ potential to revitalize these sectors: Spain being very strong in the cooperative movement area—which was also strong in The Gambia in the 1970s and 1980s—it can support the revitalization of the cooperative movement in the country as well as contribute to advanced technologies and knowledge about new more efficient ways of farming. The same applies to the fishing area.

Now, Spanish farmers, as well as fishermen, can invest in The Gambia with much lower production costs when compared to most of other world locations. There are several mutual opportunities and The Gambia has both available land and water to support Spanish farmers to invest in. Our main need resides in the mechanization of our agriculture.

Are you actively promoting that from your position in Spain?

Yes, of course. I have just returned from the region of Lleida where there is expertise in the areas of horticulture, fish farming, and animal breeding. It would be great if we could partner up with them, having some of our young farmers spending time there and learning from them, so in the future, our instructed young farmers can multiply and implement those techniques by going back to The Gambia and teaching local farmers.

With adequate resources, under a nation that now has both political will and proper mental framework, we can move this country forward

 

Innovation is a driver for development. How innovative is The Gambia and how do you perceive The Gambia’s future in technological terms?

Gambians are born innovators and I foresee a bright future within this context. But to get there, we need continuous support under a partnership spirit from people who have the required resources and appropriate knowledge. The government has managed to perform a 180º shift for the better within only six months in office. When the former president left power, he even took the Central Bank’s cash reserves with him, leaving the country with less than one month’s worth of imports in budget liquidity.  

Thanks to innovative thinking from both the government as well as the population the country has almost recovered from such a deficit as of now. You can witness the associative spirit coming back to The Gambia with all sorts of people gathering to create new voluntary associations to foster national development: that is innovation.

One of my main concerns is finding ways to maintain our youth in the country while contributing towards its evolution. With adequate resources, under a nation that now has both political will and proper mental framework, we can move this country forward.

Additionally, and, after having been the Gambian ambassador to Spain for more than four years, how do you assess the bilateral relation?

The Gambia and Spain enjoy excellent bilateral relations. In fact, both countries are geographically close—the distance from The Gambia to Las Palmas is shorter than the distance from Las Palmas to Madrid—and have established a fruitful relationship.

In these years I have seen both countries collaborating at several levels, with The Gambia maintaining a full-scope Embassy presence in Madrid, while Spain maintains a strong diplomatic presence in The Gambia which they should try and make it a full-scope embassy. We have also signed several cooperation agreements, negotiated two memoranda of understanding, several Spanish councils are actively involved in the sponsorship of development projects in The Gambia and there are several Spanish philanthropic organizations and individuals volunteering to aid the development of The Gambia.

Regarding the tourism industry, in 2013 we registered some 3,000 Spanish tourists while in 2015 the number peaked to 7,000—a growth rate of more than 100%. That is thanks to the fact that both countries have been connected by two direct flights a week, from Las Palmas and Barcelona, for four years now.

What measure do you consider have to be taken by both governments, to take it to the next step of excellence?

Spain needs to upgrade its representation in The Gambia to a full-scope embassy. There are now over 30,000 Gambians living in Spain (many also being Spanish citizens), who have family members in The Gambia, so both countries are now linked forever and the interaction will continue.

So, my appeal is for the Spanish government to upgrade its presence in The Gambia to a full-scope embassy or at least a consulate. By doing so, facilitating the needs of Spanish and Gambian citizens. Currently, Gambians need to physically address the nearest Spanish consulate, in Senegal, which represents a €300 expense in order to get an official legal document that costs €3 to be legalized. I have already had the chance to convey this concern to the Spanish relevant authorities since it is something that affects our business as well as our potential interactions.

Another important step forward would be the establishment of mutual conventions, like a Social Security convention, that would allow both countries to take care of each other’s citizens under an expat status. Another convention being analyzed by the Gambian government is the reciprocal protection of trade and investment that, once finalized, will empower the trade between both countries. 

My appeal is simple: the Spanish government and people have supported The Gambia during this critical transition period of our History and should continue to do so now, either directly or indirectly, enabling The Gambia to become a successful nation.

As ambassador, one of your duties is to take care and to be in contact with the Gambian diaspora. How would you assess the integration of Gambians into Spanish society? Is the community well organized?

That is a very important question since the entire diaspora topic has become one of the most relevant in 21st-century diplomacy. This is an area where I have registered a tremendous amount of success. We have been able to manage our interactions with the diaspora very successfully and both parties understand that the embassy exists to serve them, and it does so.

The people of the Gambian diaspora in Spain are very respectful and appreciative of their embassy and it is a sector of the Spanish population that is perfectly integrated into the community, now in their second generation. Being highly disciplined, law-abiding and dedicated hard workers—both as entrepreneurs and as employees contributing to both economies—as well as taxpayers. Over 20% of The Gambia’s GDP results from the diaspora, which bears by itself a high level of relevancy and attention towards assuring adequate responsiveness towards their needs from our side.

Now that the political situation in The Gambia is better, are there plans to attract people from the Spanish diaspora to locally support the country’s development?

That is a process that is already underway. The Gambia is proud of its diaspora and the role it had in supporting the change towards democracy that took place. Our message to the diaspora now is for it to continue supporting the country’s evolution by getting together and associating into groups that may support and foster such evolution. Fortunately, they have been very positively responsive.  

How would you evaluate your time as ambassador in Madrid from a professional and personal viewpoint?

The most important thing for me is the fact that under my leadership, we were able to place The Gambia on the map in Spain. We were able to market and promote the Gambian brand in the Kingdom of Spain, and, driven from that, we have witnessed significant growth in the number of interactions between both countries, either through investment, tourism, flight connections, etc.

Additionally, we were able to establish social cohesion in a number of our local communities. We have also been successful with the implementation of some local operational reforms that allowed maintaining the embassy in operation without an additional budget, with a policy of responsible use of taxpayers’ money. We have a specific concern in creating simple processes and procedures for those requiring our services. Through such reforms, we have managed to foster the relationship between both countries, not only at central government level but also between some Spanish municipalities and communities in The Gambia. 

There is a real and effective growth in trade, investment, visits, and interactions between both countries, which leveraged the creation of a very positive image of The Gambia and the establishment of goodwill from the Spanish people towards The Gambia and its people. We have done well as a team and my stay here over the last four years has been very fruitful. Our constant endeavor is nevertheless to accomplish even greater achievements because there is room for improvement.

Personally, I have also learned a lot during these four years, having witnessed the power of diplomacy in action during the period of our political impasse.

I can assertively state that my experience in Spain while as the head of the embassy has contributed to making me a better person. My first tour of duty has ended, but I was granted a second one by the new government, which is a vote of confidence and I hope and believe that this embassy, as a team, will be able to achieve great things for The Gambia.

I always tell my team that, independently from where one stands in this world, every Gambian's brand is the Republic of The Gambia, and we need to continuously promote that brand, especially the few of us that have been chosen to represent the country abroad. And that is why I will continue to do my very best to promote The Gambia and its development. Mutual understanding, collaboration, and increasingly robust relations will make Spain and The Gambia stronger in the future.

 

Interview conducted by Alejandro Dorado Nájera (@DoradoAlex), Javier Chica Acedo, and Yolanda Moreno Bello.

 

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.