Writing more than 130 years ago, the New York Herald Tribune disparagingly characterised diplomacy as “the sewer through which flows the scum and refuse of the political puddle,” suggesting that those deemed unfit for domestic politics were suitable for international assignments. 

This harsh judgment reflects a longstanding American tradition of skepticism towards the diplomatic profession, typically viewing the foreign service as a haven for political castoffs rather than a venue for skilled professionals adept in public administration, international relations, and statecraft.

In The Gambia, it seems this critique has found a second life, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation, and Gambians Abroad (MoFA) fielding its embassies and high commissions across the globe with inadequately prepared intellectuals and political rejects, thereby offering more drama than substance. 

Indeed, the current state of the Gambian Foreign Service has reached an unprecedented low, marked by numerous scandals that have tarnished its reputation and undermined its effectiveness. 

Recalls and scandals aplenty, one can’t help but wonder if they might consider hiring a professional ethicist—or at least a good PR team. Perhaps it’s time for a reality TV show—”The Real Diplomats of Banjul,” showcasing the complexities and failures of diplomatic protocol and public accountability.

Since Adama Barrow came to power, The Gambia’s foreign services have been reduced to a repository for mediocre officials whose educational credentials rarely extend beyond secondary school. Echoing Shakespeare’s sentiment in Hamlet, it seems that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” – or in this case, The Gambia, where inadequately prepared, semi-literate, unprincipled officials are continuously dispatched to represent the nation. 

The concept of diplomats being highly educated intellectuals with clean criminal records has changed dramatically in today’s Gambia. The current crop of Gambian diplomats paints a different picture of diplomatists.

One might imagine the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a circus tent, where the ringmaster is more interested in maintaining the spectacle than upholding any semblance of dignity. Had the likes of Dr. Sedat Jobe had their way, the Gambian Foreign Service would be an institution of impeccable integrity and professionalism, emphasising the importance of bureaucratic efficiency and meritocratic principles in public sector administration.

To get you up to speed with what we are talking about, let’s delve into the recent cascade of events that have led to the recalls of several diplomats, cementing The Gambia’s reputation as the country with the highest diplomatic scandals in mainland Africa over the past seven years. Here, we reproduce a few incidents that were reported by Gambian media:

February 24, 2021: A Gambian diplomat was recalled from Russia over a leaked sex tape. Yankuba Saidy, the deputy head of mission at the Gambian Embassy in Moscow, was brought back to The Gambia after his involvement in “activities deemed unbecoming of a Foreign Service Officer” came to light. 

Saidy’s scandalous behaviour has left him with plenty of time to ponder the importance of discretion, perhaps while sipping attaya and reflecting on his missteps. His misconduct underscores the urgent need for stricter vetting processes and ethical training for those representing the nation abroad. 

It seems that Saidy thought diplomacy involved more bedroom diplomacy than actual international relations—proving once again that “what happens in Moscow doesn’t always stay in Moscow【Gambiana】. 

May 30, 2024: The government spokesman announced the recall of Jerrehba Jammeh, Gambia’s Deputy Ambassador in Mauritania, and Abdoulie Conteh, Gambia’s Consul General in Saudi Arabia. 

Jammeh’s recall came after he was entrusted with $5000 intended for the Gambian community in Nouakchott—a sum that, unsurprisingly, didn’t reach its destination. One wonders if Jammeh mistook the funds for a vacation budget. 

Meanwhile, Conteh’s recall remains shrouded in diplomatic mystery, possibly involving a secret handshake or two. This blatant disregard for protocol and accountability reflects a deeper malaise within the Gambian diplomatic corps, where personal gain often overshadows loyalty to the nation. Such behaviour not only disrespects the authority of the state but also sets a dangerous precedent for future diplomat【Africa-Press】.

February 26, 2024: Sheikh Tijan Hydara, the ambassador, and his deputy, Vincent Mendy, were recalled from their posts in Cuba. The reason? Personal grievances and office clashes, proving that not even diplomatic immunity can shield one from office politics.

Perhaps they were inspired by Machiavelli, who would have surely found their antics entertaining. But rather than trying to manifest their martial skills, these diplomats should do what they were sent to do: diplomacy. 

This internal discord further illustrates the lack of professional decorum and ethical standards among Gambian diplomats, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive conflict resolution training within the foreign service【The Point】.

October 11, 2019: Samba Camara Mballow, a Gambian diplomat in Pretoria, has been at the centre of a storm with allegations ranging from providing false reports to the solicitation of sexual favours. 

A petition to recall him has painted a picture of a toxic work environment and abuse of diplomatic immunity. One can only imagine the diplomatic immunity card being flashed like a VIP pass at a dubious nightclub.

Mballow, a relative of the president, seems to have been treated with the sort of leniency reserved for those with high-level connections. Mballow’s case highlights the corrosive impact of nepotism and favoritism in public service, damaging the credibility of the diplomatic corps【Change.org】.

July 11, 2023: The US expelled four Gambian diplomats. Abdu Cham was found guilty of striking his daughter with a mop, while Pa Sako Darboe used fraudulent documents to enroll children in school. 

Alhagie Babou Joof was involved in visa fraud, and Mustapha Sosseh, the Deputy Chief of Mission, was linked to the illicit schemes. These actions, described as “unacceptable,” led to their expulsion from the United States. Clearly, these diplomats took “breaking bad” to a whole new level【The Standard】.

November 18, 2021: Sheriffo Sonko, the Gambian diplomat in Turkey, was embroiled in a scandal where his sex audio was widely circulated online, leading to a petition against him to step down as the then chairman of the Brikama Area Council. 

Upon losing his seat, he was swiftly bundled off to a foreign mission, a fate that echoes the British adage, “out of sight, out of mind.” His reassignment to a foreign post despite the scandal reflects a cynical strategy to manage public relations, undermining the credibility of the diplomatic service and eroding public trust【The Voice】.

January 31, 2023: General Lamin Bojang, after being relieved from his post as standard bearer of the Gambia Action Party over a nude video scandal, was appointed as the defence attaché at the Gambian Embassy in Guinea-Bissau. It’s as if the Gambian government follows the satirical practice of sending disgraced officials abroad to keep them far from domestic scrutiny, much like sweeping dirt under a very distant rug. 

This practice of appointing discredited officials to key diplomatic posts reflects a deeply flawed approach to governance, highlighting the need for rigorous background checks and ethical standards in diplomatic appointments【Kerr Fatou】.

August 16, 2022: Rambo Jatta, known for his inflammatory rhetoric and controversial past, was appointed the Gambian Consular to South Africa despite lacking qualifications. This move is reminiscent of the line from The Godfather: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” 

One wonders if the Gambian Foreign Service requires a degree in absurdity as a prerequisite for appointment. This appointment underscores the dangers of appointing unqualified individuals to sensitive diplomatic positions, further eroding public trust in the diplomatic service and highlighting the urgent need for reform and accountability【The Point】.

The Role and Importance of Diplomacy

Diplomats and diplomacy are essential to statecraft. In fact, ambassadors are the unsung poets of international relations, weaving the delicate fabric of global harmony with words and gestures. 

As American author and humorist Mark Twain would say, ambassadors are the custodians of their nation’s dignity, the frontline soldiers in the war of peace, and the torchbearers of their country’s values on the global stage.

In stark contrast to the New York Herald Tribune comments, the views of François de Callières, a French diplomat writing in 1716, offer a more dignified and professional perspective. De Callières regarded diplomacy not merely as a job but as a serious profession, similar to law or medicine, demanding rigorous preparation and dedicated attention. 

He argued, “Diplomacy is a profession by itself, which deserves the same preparation and assiduity of attention that men give to other recognised professions.” According to de Callières, while the intrinsic qualities of a diplomatic genius are innate, many essential skills can be cultivated through practice, highlighting the profession’s complexity and depth of required knowledge.

These contrasting views have given rise to two schools of thought. One school sees diplomats as highly skilled professionals who play a crucial role in statecraft, requiring extensive training and expertise. 

The other school, influenced by the negative portrayal in media and some political practices, views diplomacy as a domain for self-serving individuals, often appointed for political convenience rather than merit. This dichotomy reflects broader public administration theories on governance and the role of civil servants.

Addressing the Foreign Service Club in Washington, DC in 1995, American-born retired diplomat Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, on the theme “Diplomacy as a profession,” noted that diplomats are supposed to be the face of their country, representing its values and interests abroad with dignity and professionalism. 

In that, the role of foreign services and diplomats is foundational to international relations, acting as the primary channel through which states communicate, negotiate, and foster bilateral and multilateral relationships. 

According to renowned international relations scholar Hans Morgenthau, “Diplomacy is the brains of national power,” underscoring its critical role in the strategic conduct of international affairs. Without skilled diplomats, the global stage would resemble a chaotic marketplace, and thus, the role of diplomats cannot be overstated in maintaining global harmony.

The Systemic Failure

Recent incidents involving Gambian diplomats raise serious questions about the integrity and competence of those entrusted with such crucial roles. The litany of scandals ranges from corruption and financial mismanagement to severe personal misconduct. 

As the British might say, these incidents are not just a blot on the escutcheon but a full-blown stain, eroding trust and severely compromising the country’s ability to engage with the international community. 

The extensive damage extends beyond immediate diplomatic circles, affecting economic partnerships, foreign aid, and the overall global perception of The Gambia. 

As Joseph Nye posited in his discussion of soft power, the ability of a nation to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction is paramount. When diplomats engage in behavior that undermines their country’s image, they significantly diminish this soft power, making it harder for The Gambia to assert its influence and pursue its interests abroad.

Diplomats serve as both negotiators and representatives of their home country, fostering positive relations and promoting national interests. Their conduct directly reflects the nation they serve. When diplomats engage in misconduct, it signifies a profound failure of the systems that select, train, and oversee them. Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism theory highlights the importance of systemic structures in shaping behavior. 

The recurring scandals suggest deep-rooted systemic issues within the Gambian Foreign Service, where accountability and oversight mechanisms are either weak or entirely absent. This systemic failure necessitates a comprehensive overhaul to restore credibility and functionality. Implementing public administration best practices and international diplomatic protocols is essential for addressing these challenges.

Furthermore, the role of a diplomat extends beyond formal negotiations to include public diplomacy and the cultivation of cultural and educational exchanges. Diplomats are expected to build bridges between nations, facilitating mutual understanding and cooperation. 

As Edward Said noted in his concept of Orientalism, the representation of a culture can significantly influence perceptions and relationships. Gambian diplomats, therefore, have a responsibility to challenge stereotypes and promote a positive image, ensuring their conduct reflects the nation’s dignity and values.

The Far-Reaching Impact

The impact of these diplomatic failures is far-reaching. In an era where global challenges such as climate change, terrorism, and economic instability require coordinated international responses, the effectiveness of a country’s foreign service is more critical than ever. 

Scholars like Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye argue that the interconnected nature of the modern world means diplomatic failures can have cascading effects, weakening a country’s ability to collaborate and engage in global governance. The current scandals reinforce negative perceptions and hinder efforts to build constructive international partnerships. As the British adage goes, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and it appears the Gambian Foreign Service has far too many weak links.

Final Thoughts

The current Gambian Foreign Service is a veritable halfway house for the politically and morally compromised. One might imagine the job application includes a checkbox for “Scandalous Background Preferred.” The once-respected position of a foreign service officer has been deeply tarnished as our diplomats continue to stoop to new lows. 

More so, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs has dropped the bar so low that it seems anyone with a tainted past can now represent the nation on the global stage. Simply put, the Gambian Foreign Service has become a case study in bureaucratic dysfunction, where each chapter is more absurd than the last. 

The diplomatic corps, with its tales of sex, money, and violence, resembles an American gangster movie. It’s as if our diplomats are auditioning for roles in a Hollywood mafia film, bringing international embarrassment rather than prestige. Perhaps it’s time for a reality TV show—”The Real Diplomats of Banjul.” This might be the only way to bring much-needed attention to the farcical state of our foreign service and the dire need for reform.

By Arfang Madi Sillah,

Washington DC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Please disable your adblocker and support our journalism. Thank you.