Murtala Touray

(JollofNews) – The Gambia is not yet out of the woods and still not a safe place. That seems to be the verdict coming out of the Summit of Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that concluded on 4 June in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.

Among the decisions taken at the Summit was to extend for another 12 months the mandate of the armed forces of the ECOWAS Mission in Gambia (ECOMIG).

The extension of the mandate of ECOMIG forces until June 2018 speaks to the gravity of the precarious security situation in The Gambia. The decision of ECOWAS shows that the current composition of the Gambian Armed Forces (GAF) remains a threat to President Adama Barrow.

Until GAF is reformed, the solemn duty of ensuring security of the Gambian state is entrusted in the hands of foreign troops.

This is an unchartered territory as it is the first-time Gambian soldiers are asked to play a subordinate role to foreign forces in their own backyard. The situation is humiliating for a good number of Gambian soldiers, especially those loyal to the former president, Yahya Jammeh, who is in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

As experiences in other countries have shown, a bunch of discontented soldiers with weapons, if not well contained, is a recipe for instability.

Over the last three months, several violent incidents underscore the security risk facing the country. Two notable incidents are worrying signs for the country’s security situation in the one-to-two-year outlook.

In April, fighting broke out between ECOMIG forces and some Gambia soldiers guarding Jammeh’s property in Kanilai, the heart of Foni. The fighting was short-lived with no fatalities, though both sides reportedly sustained some injuries.

The Interior minister, Mai Ahmad Fatty, tried to downplay the seriousness of the incident by claiming that the scuffle was a result of “delayed communication”. Nonetheless, the incident is indicative of the lack of communication and animosity between the two forces. While the majority of Gambians see ECOMIG as a liberating force, there are other Gambians who perceive ECOMIG as an occupying force.

The second notable incident is on 2 June, when security forces opened fire on protesters in Foni, resulting later in the death of a protester from gunshot wound.

Under genuine democratic dispensation, organised demonstrations as well as sporadic protests do occur every now and them if the electorates are dissatisfied with government actions and policies. Frequent protests are likely in Foni where fear is running high among the people that the current administration is out to oppress and impoverish them.

However, the excessive use of force including live ammunitions to quell a protest by the Gambian police force will only infuriate the people of Foni and fan the flame of violence.

The police had a terrible record on crowd control under the Jammeh’s regime, and they are now adopting similar approach under Barrow’s. Opening fire on armless protestors sends the wrong message that the days of Jammeh-style intimidation and excessive use of force are not yet over.

At present, Foni is on the verge of becoming a hotbed of anti-government radicals. This raises the risk of a low-intensity insurgency.

The ingredients for an insurgency are slowly coming together given the deep-seated discontent of a bunch of soldiers and the growing confrontations between the people of Foni and the government.

Foni shares border with Casamance (southern Senegal), which has been experiencing insurgency by separatist groups for close to 35 years without any resolution. The people of Foni, who are mainly Jola, could receive support from some factions of the Casamance separatist groups (also Jola) on the basis of shared ethnicity and kinship as well as gratitude to Jammeh, their former benefactor.

Jammeh has always been a sympathiser and patron of the Casamance separatists.

Incidentally, the presence of Senegalese troops based in Bwiam could be a further incentive for Casamance rebels to come to the aid of the Foni people to hurt Senegalese troops.

Low-intensity conflict might not overthrow the Barrow government but could hurt the economy by disrupting the agricultural sector, which accounts for 40% of GDP.

To conclude, the approach to rebuilding The Gambia has to be both security and economy-focused. But Barrow’s priority seems to be on his safety and the consolidation of power at the expense of the economy. The economic situation is getting dire with inflation approaching double digit, the Dalasis losing its value against major currencies and electricity supply becoming erratic.

With all the economic woes, Barrow has to produce his development blueprint and provide a clear policy direction to show that the country is open for business.

Dealing with the post-Jammeh political and security situation calls for tact and reasoned approach guided by the rule of law. If not, there will only be the reversal of role with the former oppressed now the oppressor.

By Murtala Touray

Murtala Touray, a Gambian based in the UK advising government and corporate entities on commercially-relevant political and security risks