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Gambia Needs a Professional Foreign Service, Not Politically Appointed Diplomats, Alagi Yoro Jallow writes

Alagi Yoro Jallow

The Gambia’s Foreign Service Recruits’ Quality falling: And Whom Are The Gambia Government Sending As Our Country’s Ambassadors and Diplomatic Corps Abroad?

Fatoumatta: Take for granted that there is anything imperial leftover from the colonial past in the Gambia. It is the recruitment method and appointment of foreign service officers and diplomats in the Gambia Foreign mission. To remain effective, the Gambia government should strive to set ever-higher standards of professionalism and dedication through the Foreign Service department. The government must encourage and help the Foreign Service in the quest for excellence and professionalism. It is essential in the national interest to assist the President and the Foreign Minister in conducting foreign affairs in New Diplomacy and Soft power in international relations.

Fatoumatta: There has been expressed concern over the “deterioration” in the quality of recruits to the Gambian Foreign Service and Diplomatic Missions. Therefore, only the best must be selected and appointed as Gambian ambassadors, Consuls, foreign service officers, or specialist diplomatic officers.The concern at the deterioration in the quality of recruits to the Foreign Service and Diplomatic Missions is happening at a time when the lure and appeal of the civil service examination no longer exist, unlike in the past couple of decades ago when only those obtaining the highest ranks in civil services exam were taken into both the Civil and the Foreign Service.

Therefore, it has come as a surprise that even low-ranked candidates can enter the civil and Foreign Service through political patronage, being a party loyalist to a ruling political party, or through a political godfather. This development is both a symptom and a reason for erasing excellence, professionalism, and prestige in the Civil and Gambian foreign services.

Gambia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Tangara

Fatoumatta: The Gambia government and the Foreign Ministry must take urgent steps to make the Gambia Foreign service more attractive, more professional, and remunerative as a career choice for Civil and Foreign Service aspirants. In addition, the ministry must take urgent notice of the low strength of the Gambia Foreign service cadre and that of the entire diplomatic corps and initiate remedial measures at the earliest not to value amateurism over professionalism in diplomacy and cultivate diplomacy as a career profession.

Furthermore, since diplomacy is expanding into emerging areas like law, economics, commercial, media, political, environmental diplomacy, health, and medical, thus foreign service officers should receive mid-career training to develop specific skills and fields based on their professional educational background. Public diplomacy and foreign policy can be challenging and always under construction because the challenge we face is more significant and complex than the threat. Moreover, modern diplomacy is currently experiencing fundamental changes at an unprecedented rate, which affect the very character of diplomacy as we know it.

These changes also affect aspects of domestic and international politics that were once of no great concern to diplomacy. The Gambia government and the Foreign Service must constantly increase the number of foreign officers/specialists who speak needed foreign languages. More emphasis must be placed on achieving higher language skill levels and maintaining those skills; the government must recruit the best candidates, knowledgeable persons willing and able to serve under difficult and dangerous conditions abroad, But ready to pay what it costs to attract and keep them. However, each administration must responsibly choose well-qualified political appointees. Although, there have been many superb political appointees named for ambassadorial posts. Still, others have not had the background, experience, or training for the job.

Fatoumatta: The Gambia government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs need to raise their standard of professionalism and conduct a special examination for Foreign service officers/diplomats, ambassadors, Consul Generals, or even protocol officers serving in the Gambia’s foreign missions for it to make it even more exclusive remain elitist than it is under the fading umbrella of the Gambian Foreign Service imprimatur. The recruitment process should examine qualified Gambians to concentrate more on foreign affairs, international relations, public diplomacy, and language skills. The appointee and diplomats should display a different bend of mind instead of the ability to master the Gambia national anthem and be party loyalists. Fair enough, and it makes sense if we need them at all.

Fatoumatta: Whom are we sending as our country’s ambassadors and diplomatic corps abroad? What do we know of some of them, and what level of education, experience, knowledge in public diplomacy and international relations, or specialized skill sets do they have apart from party cadres or relatives of the appointing authorities and political godfathers? Why are we sending chopped liver envoys to represent the Gambia before the G-7 nations like the United States of America, South Africa, Britain, China, India, Russia, and particularly to the United Nations-related agencies as our representatives? How do we want these countries to respect the Gambia if we send party cadres, party loyalists, and political godsons with no geopolitical clue about the importance of the countries they are dealing with to the Gambia? We need to up our games and pull our socks on some of these key Foreign Service appointments.

No wonder our missions abroad are no-go areas for Gambians! Some diplomats (no idea who they are) for being appointed the Gambia’s ambassadors abroad! I have no idea what they are doing there, but I hope they enjoy it and learn as much about what it means to be a diplomat. The preference for inexperienced political appointees at the expense of career diplomats for KEY diplomatic postings is part of our problem. We are slowly tilting towards a situation where political appointees may have outnumbered career diplomats.

However, career diplomats are most skilled by years in service, having undertaken extensive training on the taxpayer’s account. Moreover, career diplomats are the repositories of a country’s geopolitical ambitions in many nations worldwide, both trade and foreign relations. Therefore, there is no wrong in using diplomatic postings for political patronage. However, problems arise when we overuse diplomatic postings for political reward, resulting in the most incompetent, unqualified, and inexperienced persons occupying compassionate diplomatic posts to the detriment of a nation’s diplomatic objectives.

Fatoumatta: Some of our diplomatic missions are staffed by people (Some of whom have interacted with them) who do not even know their responsibilities – towards the Gambia and the Gambian citizens resident in countries where such diplomats are posted. It is often not strange to come across Gambian diplomatic missions where phones go unanswered, even in times of crisis. The Gambian missions in some Asian countries and other Commonwealth member countries were once notorious for this, where consular services are delivered at the leisure and whims of diplomatic staff. Where trade inquiries and potential investor emails go unanswered, we have Gambian missions abroad with no websites. Where such websites exist, save for the extended biographies and photos of the Ambassador or High Commissioner, they are barely updated. They are thin on information to promote the geopolitical and trade interests of the Gambia. (Try a search for the details of the Gambian diplomatic mission to the ASEAN member countries). Where Gambians feel helpless at the very hands of people who are supposed to help them in times of crisis in a foreign country.

Fatoumatta: In the last two decades, we have mainly picked inexperienced people who lack character and morals from the bush on political, ethnic, and nepotistic leanings and rushed them through induction at the Institute of Diplomacy. International Studies then posted them to susceptible diplomatic stations. Often at the chagrin and frustration of career diplomats. The National Assembly Select Committee on Foreign Affairs/ Relations and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have not helped vet such diplomatic appointments.

On the contrary, they have mostly rubber-stamped such questionable nominations without blinking. Unfortunately, however, the predecessor government of President Yahya Jammeh and the last government of President Barrow has been very careless with the selection and appointment of diplomats. Mediocrity and complacency breed corruption and let impunity take root. It is entirely mundane and absolutely stupid to appoint a diplomat through political patronage or be able to recite the national anthem as a requisite qualification to become the Gambia’s diplomat in the Foreign Service, becoming Ambassador, high commissioner, consul General or a protocol officer.

It is inappropriate to recruit diplomats through party loyalty. It is shameful to recruit a diplomat base on elementary questions that should be reserved for primary and nursery school pupils in civics class. Instead, it became an important question asked of persons seeking to represent the Gambia globally. It is disturbing that the appointing authority does not understand the implications of designing irrelevant and tangential questions to screen mostly political actors who do not know diplomatic representation or comprehend the norms guiding relations between and among nations.

Fatoumatta: Asking would be envoys such questions lends credence that our political leaders or National Assembly Select Committee on Foreign Affairs/relations do not know what to ask and are mentally lazy or incompetent as members of the foreign relations/affairs committee! How about asking the diplomats how they will project the domestic and foreign policies of the government they represent? How about asking them questions about global affairs related to The Gambia and any other core policy of this government? How about asking them questions about selling the Gambia in a world with negative country expectations? No, the Gambia ambassadors will go and sing national anthems in representational duties! How about questions on salvaging the Gambia’s name with corruption and youth migration tainting the country. These ambassadors will represent the most prominent black nation on earth, for God’s sake!

Fatoumatta: How would our diplomats canvass international assistance to fight against poverty, corruption, youth unemployment, and other transnational crimes that have blighted this country? Why must the Gambia be shortchanged at every turn? How do we get the best hands to represent the Gambia at difficult times like these if all that is required of an ambassador is the ability to sing the National anthem? This cycle of mediocrity has brought the Gambia to this sorry point. Like every appointment, the screening and process must comply with the selection and appointments with international standards for diplomats! How do we screen out thugs and empty-headed party enforcers? This is the same system that produces Baba Jalinding as a diplomat.

Moreover, it may yet produce more Yadicone in the foreign service in the future! A party loyalist, party insulter, and able to sing the National anthem as a question for people to engage the world on behalf of the Gambia? Give me a break! Like the rest of us, our leaders have refused to evolve and be better. What does it take to engage foreign affairs experts, support staff, and assistants? They get paid to hire people who can research on their behalf and articulate policy positions. Still, they will instead pocket the money and pad the budget for more money to line their pockets. The Gambia deserves better than this at this stage, and it is heartbreaking.

Fatoumatta: Foreign service officers and ambassadors should be asked critical questions about the nation and its direction under President Barrow and his core policies. The President and Minister responsible for Foreign Service should be able to simulate scenarios that will allow them to see how nominees can address a donor gathering or face those interested in assisting the Gambia with her multifaceted challenges. Questions ought to mirror the real-life challenges they will meet on the job.

They should watch how the United States screens its ambassadorial nominees since they love to quote the United States when demanding benefits and privileges. Gambians abroad have complained of their embassies’ poor consular and welfare services abroad. The story has always been the same, from visa application to passport renewal or other consular services. How would the potential ambassadors change this? How will they ensure the best service delivery to Gambians by their embassies and the workers in those missions? How? At this very minute, the Gambian missions in other countries cannot pay workers. They cannot pay bills to generate air conditioning. Their offices are hot as hell during these dog days of Summer.

However, that mission collects hundreds of thousands of dollars in visa and passport fees, document authentication, and administrative charges! Why can’t those monies be deployed transparently to service the missions and avoid the kind of embarrassment on the task in that country? How would the envoys address service delivery issues and best global practices in assisting and servicing Gambians abroad? Fatoumatta: Why not just disband their excellencies, send them packing and maintain simple offices to offer ‘consular’ services and documentation facilities and support when a citizen gets into hot water.

A bureau that serves as a representation for fellow citizens living in foreign lands without all the tinsel and feathers. We are now in an age of saturated audio-visual intrusion and a few hours away from each other. Every nation has a desk at home that deals with each region…the Ministry of Foreign Affairs already has them in Banjul. So the ASEAN desk, the Mid East desk, the Moscow desk, and twelve or twelve hundred silver-tongued chosen ones can sit there, keep the global lines of communication open and then take the metro home, a sort of upgraded call center.

You might find this laughable but look at the upside. The savings in real estate and the substantial costs of maintaining diplomats across the globe would be immense. The vast palaces for the embassies and the consulates and residences that the government pays for, the cars and the flights and the retainers and the support staff come to a sizeable sum.

Fatoumatta: Just the party circuit and the bill for entertaining would be worth a king’s ransom. However, if one is truly serious, do we need this service and the recorded achievements? For example, former US President Donald Trump showed how diplomats are passé in their present form. He directly called world leaders without letting his embassies know. What would happen if it was genuinely downsized? Diplomatic immunity would be a thing of the past. All those secret pouches and bags would also be open to checks. Diplomats would have to stand in line at airports, and all this reciprocal stuff of this global and exclusive club would be a thing of the past. Even the recalling of the Ambassador in a moment of hostility has lost its edge. So, sure, take him and one empty house, and let us turn it into a hotel. There has to be a balance between exorbitant luxury in a world blasted by poverty and political gain that is not particularly dramatic.

Fatoumatta: President Barrow alone cannot do everything. It is a shame that diplomats do not have international relations knowledge, experience, and public policy. The real shame is the lazy senators who cannot ask the tough questions. How can singing the national anthem and naming state and capital be the questions Gambian diplomats are answering to qualify as representatives of the Gambia in Washington, Berlin, London, Tokyo, China, Cairo, in Vienna? Are they going to be reciting anthems and pledges in those places? A lot is wrong with the Gambia.

A lot! Nevertheless, President Adama Barrow’s nationalist vision for the Gambia can be brought together with global engagement and development through investment and public diplomacy. Public diplomacy and the best Foreign Policy tool– a key instrument of foreign policy, are the official activities of Government, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, diplomatic officers, and specialists in foreign missions abroad, and special delegations to international forums on the rights and interests of the state, its institutions, and citizens abroad. To regain respect through clear and focused leadership, the New Gambia must redefine its public Diplomacy and foreign policy stance.

For example, former President Yahya used Islam to entice “checkbook” diplomacy from the Arab and Gulf States and caught between China using aid and investment to isolate Taiwan using checkbook diplomacy in the Gambia’s foreign policy. Likewise, China’s expanding engagement with Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean has mainly in the form of massive investment and financial assistance – “checkbook diplomacy” – which contrasts with the emphasis on governance issues like democracy, human rights, corruption, and the rule of law that comes with economic reliance on the European Union and Washington. So what is The Gambia’s foreign policy engagement under President Adama Barrow?

Fatoumatta: When you celebrate your birthday, you do this with friends and family, only inviting them. You would typically never ask people you do not like, for example, your enemies. The situation of a president of a democratic country is much more difficult. He must support his own country and the interests of his country, and he must deal with other countries, dictators, and other regimes. He cannot only deal with countries he likes. To sit with a dictator at a table and find a gentleman’s agreement with them is very hard. You never know if these guys will follow the contracts. However, ignoring them accomplishes nothing and makes the lives of people who live within that dictatorship much more difficult.


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