22 June 2017: The need for reform of the armed forces in The Gambia is pressing - but a delicate political task. Tomas Serna discusses the Gambian security sector in light of the recent decision to extend the presence of the regional military force.

Gambia has changed rapidly from an autocratic system to a democratic one. But what has this meant for the security sector? Photo: Manogamos, Algunas veces Mujeres Violentas


The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Operation “Restore Democracy” was deployed in January to ensure this transition. Its duration was supposed to be six months. The mission in the Gambia, ECOMIG, was mandated to “facilitate the exit of Yahya Jammeh, restore the popular will of the Gambian people as expressed in the December 9 elections and create conditions for normalising the political and humanitarian situation in Gambia.” The force consisted of 7,000 troops from Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, and Togo, with air and naval support.

Without a doubt, ECOWAS leaders acted in a timely and decisive manner, avoiding uncertain humanitarian, economic, and security tensions for the entire region. However, armed peace was not the only result that was intended. Operation Restore Democracy was also intended to normalise the political and humanitarian situation. Was this mandate too ambitious for this armed force?

Defence and security reform

One of the key cornerstones of the Gambian transition is the reform of the defence and security sector. The Diola minority, which is the ethnic group of former President Jammeh, is over-represented among state officials, in particular within the defence and security sector.

This is uncomfortable for the new President. It is also problematic for the Senegalese forces in ECOMIG; Diola is the leading ethnic group of the MFDC (Mouvement des Forces Democratiques de Casamance), who are fighting for the independence of Senegal’s southern Casamance region.

Events have also tested ECOMIG’s capacity to fulfil its mandate. On 04 April, military trucks belonging to an exhumation team were apparently repelled by hostile local villagers and rebels in Kanilai, a Diola village where President Jammeh was born, in the Foni region on the Gambian’s southern border, with Casamance.

Some weeks later, two Gambian soldiers were wounded in exchanges of fire with the ECOWAS mission.

ECOWAS forces attempted to enter the area without exhibiting any supporting documentation, on the belief that their mandate allowed them unrestricted access. According to the Minister of Interior, the event was due to miscommunication and “there is no serious confrontation.”

But on 2 June, six people were seriously wounded in the same Foni region after supporters of ex-President Yahya Jammeh clashed again with ECOMIG troops, while protesting against the presence of the regional military mission in the Gambia.

The Gambian Army audited

The Gambian authorities recently audited the national army
Two weeks previously, the Gambian authorities had finished an audit on the identity and composition of the men of the national army. The key objective was to “ensure that foreign individuals, including Casamance rebels, have not infiltrated the troops to jeopardize the current regime.”

Its first findings, according to the BBC, highlighted that “soldiers who could not read, write or speak English, the official language of The Gambia, were listed.”

Are these soldiers supposed to be francophone, and thus Casamance rebels? I don’t believe so. Low income families in the Gambia, like in other parts of the world, tend to favour a military career for their children. Newcomers in the army often have poor school records or are illiterate. The same thing is evident in the Senegalese Army, a much more developed one. The country's main language is Wolof, and many people cannot read, write or speak French. The same can be said about the army in Guinea Bissau, which speaks Kriol and not Portuguese. So this audit highlights information that says nothing about the alleged presence of foreigners, or Casamance rebels, in the Gambian army.

The inaccurate findings of this audit make us wonder if the current reform of the Gambian defence sector could materialise into ethnic cleansing.

Backing uncertainty?

Operation Restore Democracy, launched within hours of President Barrow’s inauguration, was intended to support democracy. Further to a request by the new Presidency and due to the current deteriorating security situation in the Foni, the ECOMIG mandate has been extended.

But for a number of Gambians, particularly in the Foni region, the ECOMIG force is part of the problem. For them, this force is Senegalese and thus not impartial, and another year of armed peace by ECOMIG won’t result in “democratic normalisation.”

In any case and without a doubt the post-conflict agenda in The Gambia needs more than just the military support being provided by ECOMIG.

More than military support

Institutional reform should refer to the importance of adequate minority representation
In the Banjul political arena, some Gambian ethno-nationalist politicians, belonging to the new dominant majority – President Barrow's majority – are demonising the Diola minority and presenting the new dominant group as victims. They are calling for urgent reform. But this might lead to dangerous outcomes if it ignites ethnic rivalries.

Proposals for institutional reform should refer to the importance of adequate minority representation in institutions like the police, the judiciary, and the military. Normalising the political and humanitarian situation in the Gambia will have to include political, legal and social measures that guard against the mistreatment of the minority by the new dominant majority. That will help build sustainable peace.

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