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Foreign Policy

Giant China Recognizes Tiny Gambia

Mar 31 , 2016
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

China’s resumed diplomatic relations with the Gambia could result in positive economic and social outcomes in one of Africa’s tiniest countries. Conceivably, too, China’s influence could reduce repression and autocracy in an African polity that is widely regarded as among its three most arbitrarily ruled.

In mid-March, Mainland China and the Gambia agreed to send envoys to each other’s capital, re-opening official links that had been severed since 1995, a year after President Yahya A. J.J.  Jammeh had usurped power in a coup. From independence in 1965 to 1971, the Gambia had recognized the Republic of China (Taiwan) instead of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Then, when the PRC took Taiwan’s place in the United Nations in 1971, the then democratically-run Gambia switched its allegiance to Beijing.  But President Jammeh, a young, mercurial, head of state, decided that recognizing Taiwan would be more beneficial financially, and moved the Gambia back into Taipei’s corner.

Three years ago Jammeh complained that Taiwan was refusing to support the Gambia in the manner to which he and it had become accustomed. So he broke off relations and began moving back toward Beijing, an entente that has now been sealed with appropriate meetings and public announcements in China. Whatever China has promised the Gambia to seal the deal has not been announced.  But, last year, China began expanding the harbor and airport in Sao Tome and Principe, an African offshore island republic which still has ties to Taiwan.

With the Gambia’s switch, in Africa only Burkina Faso, Swaziland, and Sao Tome still recognize Taiwan. The Gambia agreed in March that there was “only one China in the world, and that the government of the People’s Republic of China [was] the sole legal government representing the whole of China and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.” The Gambia promised not to engage in any official contacts with Taiwan. For China, taking the Gambia back into its official fold presumably was worth more than other accompanying problems necessary to erase ties between Taiwan and an African nation, no matter how small and insignificant.

China must know how difficult an ally the Gambia will be. A sliver of an ex-British nation that does little more than surround the 295-mile long river of the same name, it contains just 4400 square miles spread from the Atlantic Ocean inland. With a population just shy of 2 million, it has fewer citizens than any other entity on the African mainland.  Depending on beach tourism from Europe for much of its earnings, plus a heavy flow of remittances from workers overseas, the Gambia produces peanuts and palm kernels for export, plus some fish. Its annual per capita GDP in 2015 was about $1700, adjusted for purchasing power parity. China has for many years been the Gambia’s main trade partner, taking much of what little the Gambia was able to supply.

Under President Jammeh, who has won four widely criticized elections, most Gambians enjoy hardly any civil rights and civil liberties. He has survived several coup attempts mounted by Gambians living overseas.

Jammeh has a reputation as a capricious and vengeful leader. His tight control of the people of the Gambia compares well with the authoritarian reigns of Presidents Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

In 2015, Jammeh declared his country an Islamic Republic, stigmatizing its Christian and animist peoples and threatening to compel women to wear the burqa and everyone to obey sharia law. In 2014, he called gays and lesbians “vermin,” and declared that his government would crush them as it crushed mosquitos. In 2007, Jammeh surprised even local commentators when he said that he could personally cure HIV/AIDS by prescribing a diet of herbs and bananas.

The Gambia has no press freedom, many journalists having been jailed and their newspapers closed. The government operates the only TV and radio stations, and blocks critical Internet sites. Any reporters who remain in the Gambia practice extensive self-censorship since, as Reporters without Borders indicates, a “pervasive climate of fear” chills the country.  Arbitrary arrests are common.

Because the Gambia is dependent on China for much of its foreign exchange earnings and, now, for much of its standing in the world, Beijing will be able to persuade Jammeh to begin taking a more enlightened view of leadership and how his beleaguered citizens are treated by their government and its security forces. China will have undoubted leverage for good, and can assist in boosting the Gambia’s economic growth. Possibly, China will want to encourage farming for export on existing fallow lands.  It will also want to help the Gambia to modernize its fishing industry. Both agricultural and fishing improvements will benefit China as well as the Gambia.  But the overriding change that could strengthen the Gambia is a move toward better governance, which China could stimulate.

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