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Could Gambia’s opportunistic streak see it shun China and return as a diplomatic ally of Taiwan?
On Dec.2, a day after Gambia achieved its first democratic transition of power since it gained independence in 1965, China's President Xi Jinping (習近平) sent his congratulations. Noting the peaceful nature of the proceedings, Xi pledged to maintain strong bilateral ties with the incoming administration of President-elect Adama Barrow.
It has now been a couple of weeks since those historic polls took place, and the praise for the smooth handover is now appearing a little premature. Observers were amazed that the country's autocratic leader Yahya Jammeh was bowing out with not so much as a whimper. Many Gambians were deeply suspicious. Jammeh said he just wanted to retire to his farm and enjoy a quiet life. But how could this whimsical man who had ruled his 1.8 million subjects with cruelty and caprice for 22 years be trusted to keep his word?
It now appears that this was far from groundless cynicism. Jammeh has returned to the fray, bleating about voting irregularities, and it would appear that he still retains backing from the military. It must be hoped that he can be convinced to back down by the delegation of regional leaders who met with him on Dec.13.
This will be easier said than done. China is only too aware of Jammeh's mercurial nature, having welcomed him back into the fold in March this year, after he broke ties with Taiwan in November 2013. Beijing is already said by one Africa-China analyst to be “begrudgingly” committed to the relationship.
If Beijing is hip to Jammeh's idiosyncrasies, Taiwan knows him inside out. An experienced official with the West Asian and African Department under Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs described Jammeh as “a special case, who had to be handled sensitively.”
Following the break, Taiwan's Ambassador to the Gambia Samuel Chen said things had come to a head when Jammeh had asked for a lump payment of US$10 million in January 2013 but refused to give a breakdown of how the funds would be used. Privately, MOFA officials confirmed that it was clear the money was going straight in Jammeh's pocket. This had not stopped Taipei presenting Banjul with the second installment of US$1 million “fund” for higher education in August.
It was commonly assumed that the PRC had nothing to lose from the diplomatic truce between Beijing and Taipei that held during President Ma Ying-jeou's (馬英九) two terms in office. Minnows such as Gambia were sometimes cast as little more expendable pawns in the game for a powerhouse such a China. But Beijing's well-documented drive into Africa means things are not quite that simple.
As was noted by Jessica Drun in a 2014 article for The Diplomat, China's refusal to resume ties while Ma remained at the helm complicated the implementation of various development projects in Gambia. It also enabled thousands of PRC nationals to continue exploiting a bizarre loophole that allowed them to invest in Hong Kong. This ultimately opened the way to residency in the Special Administrative Region through the prior purchase of Gambian residency for a mere US$12,000.
Presuming Jammeh is finally sidelined, and Barrow takes office, it will be interesting to see how the one-time supermarket security guard pursues the relationship with Beijing. Understandably, Gambian observers see this as the least of the country's concerns right now.
“At this time, there is no information available as to whether Barrow's administration would severing bilateral ties between with China,” says Pa M'Bai, editor of Gambia's online Freedom Newspaper. “The new administration is inheriting a virtually bankrupt nation, with the economy, health sector, tourism, agriculture, and infrastructure a shambles. Hopes are high within and outside the country for a brighter future Gambia – with the coming of the new administration sometime in the New Year.”
Other analysts believe there is little chance of a switch. “The election will likely change very little in terms of Taiwan's diplomatic relations with the country,” says Colin Alexander, a former research fellow with MOFA, who has written extensively about Taiwan's foreign relations. “Taiwan has traditionally relied upon systems of patronage for its securest of formal relations. However, Jammeh's decision to de-recognise Taiwan in 2013, despite the unlikely prospect of recognition by China as a result of the diplomatic truce, most likely put an end to Taiwan's diplomatic prospects. Moreover, with the now infamous phone call between President Tsai Ing-wen and US President-elect Donald Trump, Taiwan will be keen not to anger Beijing more than it already has, and most certainly to avoid another period of diplomatic competition as occurred during the second term of Chen Shui-bian's presidency.”
Michelle DeFreese, a Leland International Fellow with experience of development projects in Sub-Saharan Africa and study programs in China, largely concurs with this view. “It is unlikely due to the fact that both The Gambia and PRC seem to be invested in establishing the new ties and normalizing diplomatic relations,” she says.
However, she points out that the election will mean that China is monitoring the situation closely to see what to expect from the new leader. “Adama Barrow has no track record in terms of diplomacy and governance so Gambia's really sub-Saharan Africa’s wild card these days in many ways.”
With the issue of same-sex marriage occupying headlines in Taiwan of late, DeFreese also feels that Gambia's stance on LGBT issues would be a stumbling block. Jammeh, who has said he would decapitate gay men, introduced draconian anti-homosexuality laws in 2014, which DeFreese calls “one of the wedges driving the separation between Banjul and Taipei that widened over the course of Jammeh's leadership.”
Understandably, she doesn't see LGBT rights will be high on Barrow's list of priorities. “He’ll most likely be focused on domestic politics and economic growth during his first 100 days in office and beyond, with neither the experience nor the bandwidth to tackle reversing a major foreign policy decision like the partnership with the PRC.”
One thing Barrow has been vocal about is his intention to return Gambia to the Commonwealth, which Jammeh quit in 2013. While not directly relevant to China and Taiwan, it shows that Barrow appears prepared to reverse some of Jammeh's high-profile decisions, several of which were lambasted as foolhardy moves both at home and abroad. Like the break with Taiwan, the Commonwealth rupture stemmed from one of Jammeh's temper tantrums over aid. It is within this parallel that a glimmer of hope may remain.
For its part, MOFA insists there is no particular interest in seeking out new allies, let alone lapsed ones. The aforementioned official from the West Asian and African Department put it bluntly: “There has been no contact between Taiwan and the Gambia recently.”
Still, with Gambia having developed what DeFreese, writing in the Huffington Post, called an “opportunistic strategy in sourcing development aid and in the formation and dissolution of diplomatic alliances,” Beijing and Taipei will likely be paying close attention to developments over the next few months.
Editor: Edward White