Army spokesman, Major Lamin Sanyang

On May 13, the Gambia Armed Forces (GAF) confirmed that they would indeed be embarking full steam on their agricultural adventure. The press briefing was remarkable in demonstrating to us that the military as an institution will spectacularly fail in its delusions that it has anything meaningful to contribute to agriculture, much less ensure food security in The Gambia.

What’s more, if this venture proceeds, the military would be doing far more agricultural activities than anything military-related. May be, GAF now stands for Gambia Agricultural Force.

Let’s start with the basic justification the military is using to defend their commercial agricultural venture. Taking their cue from the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Masanneh Kinteh, the military’s PRO claimed that the Yahya Jammeh constitution empowered them. As everyone should be well aware now, the 1997 Constitution was created by the Jammeh regime to give a veneer of legality to his dictatorship. Will someone please enlighten our Gambian military that there is in fact a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) tasked with coming up with new constitution because the 1997 Constitution is irredeemably defective?

If anyone needs any convincing as to how inappropriate it is to use the 1997 Constitution as a guide to any new activity, consider that it also says the following: “No member of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, any person appointed minister by the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling council or other appointees of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council shall be held liable or answerable before a Court or authority or under this Constitution or any other law, either jointly or severally, for an act or omission in the performance of his or her official duties.”

In other words, none of the AFPRC members who tortured and murdered numerous people, including the massacre of students should be prosecuted, according to Yahya Jammeh’s 1997 Constitution that our military today is using to justify their boneheaded escapade. By the way, that particular clause is just one of many problematic ones in the 1997 Constitution.

The press briefing was full of empty claims and missing details. For instance, we kept hearing how the military’s agricultural programme will employ youths and bring about food security. Little did these uninformed officers know that such claims have been made by the development community for decades.

The fact that food insecurity remains and our economies still experience high youth unemployment is not for lack of trying. No attempt was made to show how the military’s project would succeed where many interventions failed for the simple reason that the military leadership is completely ignorant of past efforts and investments in this sector.

The lack of detail was especially glaring in that the military proposed to go into a venture with a multinational private company. The public still has not been furnished with the referenced concept paper so that it can be objectively assessed. Nor have we been given any details about the commercial agreement.

The army’s PRO kept repeating activities they would embark on with AGCO such as “animal husbandry, poultry, aquaculture, rice cultivation and moringa production” as if that suffices to satisfy the public’s right to know the pertinent details of this venture that would use significant state resources.

The military officers also demonstrated how tone deaf they are in some of the details they provided. According to Army’s director of Social Welfare, the communities “gave” them the land. Who else was recently being “gifted” land by various communities across the country? The vast majority of the agricultural lands that Yahya Jammeh laid claim to were “given” to him by local communities.

One would think the leadership in our military would have the self-awareness to see themselves running into the same pitfalls that the country so recently went through.

The sad truth is that when a leader or a government institution makes it known that they desire land, many communities would trip over themselves to provide the requested land no matter how ill-advised it is. If the appropriateness of the land transfer is determined by the willingness of the community leaders to part with their resources, then Yahya Jammeh legitimately acquired all ‘his’ lands.

Other gems that were thrown around by the military officers during the press briefing included that the claim that the armed forces have the “professionalism” and the “discipline” to bring about food security. Where was the legendary discipline of the GAF when the military overthrew the lawful and the democratically elected government of Jawara? Where was this impeccable discipline and professionalism when countless crimes were committed by army officers during the Jammeh regime?  Their laughable claims would be highly comical if this foolhardy venture is not going to end in wastage of resources we can ill afford to lose.

Let’s be clear: this project is problematic because it is not only wrong in principle and but also how this particular venture was conceived and is being implemented. It is wrong in principle because the role of the military does not include such a major engagement in agriculture. This project was borne out of the same misguided notion that defending the country empowers the military to encroach into other activities that they were neither trained for nor have the necessary expertise.

Specifically, the AFPRC used their misunderstanding of the constitutional role of the military to justify their overthrow of a democratically elected government as Sanna Sabally confirmed at the TRRC. The mistaken idea that defending the security of the country mandates engaging in commercial agricultural activities means that our military today is led by officers who are irredeemably incompetent and lack basic understanding of their proper roles and responsibilities.

As a public entity, the engagement of the military in a joint commercial venture with a private foreign investor is a form of Public Private Partnership (PPP). There are established procedures for such ventures to be vetted to ensure that public resources are being put to best uses and that the government gets a good deal. To ensure such an outcome, certain institutions in the country are required to be involved in the process through a well-established consultative process.

In particular, GIEPA and the PPP Directorate are supposed to pay key roles. Unfortunately, this agreement between the military and AGCO did not undergo any vetting. GIEPA and the PPP Directorate were not involved in this project at all. For instance, we have no details as how this project would affect local private agribusiness investors.

There have been no consultations with communities whose lands would be used. We are just being asked to take it on faith that Masanneh Kinteh and his officers would take care of us. Given AGCO track record for bribing officials in countries where they operate for which they have been found guilty by multiple countries such as the US and Denmark, we would be fools with short memories if we find such a scenario acceptable.

It is also important to point out that the members of the press that were present at the press conference also failed spectacularly by not posing the relevant questions. Here are just a few of the questions that the press could have asked:

  • How exactly will AGCO be making profit from this venture?
  • Why didn’t this venture go through GIEPA or the PPP Directorate at the Ministry of Finance given that this venture involves a government entity going into a commercial transaction with a private investor?
  • How would we ensure that AGCO’s commercial activities do not entail improper access to and use of agricultural factors of production that are subsidized by the state?
  • How would the military be able to carry out its primary responsibility if a full battalion is going to be fully engaged in agricultural?
  • If the engagement in agricultural production does not weaken the nation’s defence from any outside threat, isn’t that an argument that the military is currently too big or that outside threats to the country are non-existent?
  • What safeguards are there to ensure that the commercial activities of the army go through proper auditing to ensure accountability in the use of state resources?
  • What capacity and expertise does the army have to encroach into the primary responsibility of the agricultural sector, which is supposed to be overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture?
  • Given that the army would be going into a venture with a private firm with profit motives, why is that the communities who “gave” away their land were not properly compensated for their land? Did sufficient consultations actually occur in these communities to ensure that there was informed consent when they decided to “give” their land?
  • Did the National Assembly get a chance to review this commercial venture?

These are just few of many questions that the press could have asked but did not.

It is easy to be dazzled by the millions of dollars or the food security goals being announced, or to be impressed by the machinery that AGCO would be sending. Don’t give in to the temptation. To allow this venture to go ahead is to undermine governance in our system.

To allow this venture to go ahead is to entrench an institution that has a track record of being the source of the most disastrously disruptive event in our country and is still yet to undergo any meaningful reform.

For instance, key officers who participated in atrocities continue to serve in the highest ranks of the army. Rather than doing the real and the unglamorous job of instituting reforms, Masanneh Kinteh wants to divert our attention with this new shiny deal that has not been properly appraised.

By Dr. Ousman Gajigo

The author is an economist. He has held positions with the African Development Bank, the UN, the World Bank and Columbia University. He holds a PhD in development economics. He is currently an international consultant and also runs a farm in The Gambia.

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