People sitting on a public square, in the foreground there is a sign saying "Police Stop".
Trust is not rebuilt over night and structures cannot be changed either in three or five years. | Photo: Mark Knobil via flickr | CC BY 2.0

Security Sector Reform in The Gambia – The Historic Roots of Current Challenges

After a democratic change of power in The Gambia in 2017, the country embarked on a transitional journey. The Gambian government identified Security Sector Reform (SSR) as one of the key priorities in its National Development Plan. Five years in, Gambian citizens express doubts about the government’s seriousness to move the process forward and the progress of SSR remains limited. In this blog post, we take a historical lens to examine current challenges and suggest a long-term perspective in both looking back and moving forward. 

In early 2017, The Gambia experienced its first democratic leadership transition since its independence in 1965, ending 22 years of authoritarian rule by President Yahya Jammeh. To support the national transition process, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) deployed a military force (ECOMIG) to The Gambia alongside ongoing diplomatic negotiations. As part of the National Development Plan (NDP), the new government identified five priority areas of reform, including a comprehensive Security Sector Reform (SSR).  In September 2017, President Adama Barrow launched the SSR Initiative together with international partners. The idea was to overhaul the security sector from the past with a  preventive glance into the future. Five years on, a majority of Gambian citizens expresses doubts about the government’s seriousness to move the reforms forward. What actually is SSR and where do the challenges in the Gambian SSR process lie?

Security Sector Reform (SSR) gained acceptance as a critical tool of (post-conflict) state-building in recent decades. Coined by former UK Minister of State for International Development Clare Short in a 1999 speech, SSR generally focuses on the core values of democracy, good governance, gender equality, transparency, accountability, and respect for universal human rights. In light of its transformative agenda, a transition to a democratic system of governance is not complete until security forces and their institutions are brought under the control of civilian, democratic authorities that ensure accountability through a system of democratic oversight subject to the rule of law. In many states transitioning out of conflict or authoritarian rule, a highly centralized and inflated security sector that lacks civilian oversight is a common problem. Often understood as being limited to military and police reforms, SSR reaches further when its transformative reform claims are regarded in their full complexity: attaining human security requires a move beyond traditional security actors by complementing security-related efforts with a political dimension. In concrete terms, this can mean including non-state armed actors and civilians in SSR efforts.

This blog post is based on interviews and background conversations with various stakeholders in the SSR process in The Gambia in 2021 and 2022. The interviewees repeatedly emphasized that the centralization of power as well as a lack of civilian oversight in the past remains a legacy and key challenge for SSR today. In this blog post, we argue that historical structures of security institutions in The Gambia are reproduced in current discourses around the size of the security apparatus in terms of down- or “rightsizing” and its relationship with and trust in the government. These continuities result in a lack of will by political, security and civilian decision makers that impedes the implementation of reforms. We suggest that these historical patterns should not be discounted when revamping SSR processes in The Gambia. For SSR to unfold its preventive potential, we encourage both the policy and research community around SSR to adopt a historical lens.

Historical Continuities in the Background: The Security Sector in Historical Perspective

We observe two main continuities as we explore the historical development of security institutions in The Gambia: First, the structure of the security forces has its roots in The Gambia’s history. Second, there has always been a relationship of mistrust between the government, the population and the security forces. Both historical features remain salient in the ongoing SSR process.

Historically, there has always been little space in The Gambia for the security organs of the central state to exert their influence. Indirect rule was the guiding model of the country’s colonial period. British security forces – the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) – exemplified this model in 1900 under London’s direction to supplement the colony’s own security forces, such as the River police or the paramilitary group Constabulary. However, the role of the RWAFF was one of rule rather than a social service or a source of protection and security. For Gambians, it essentially represented a foreign presence. Most of rural Gambia also functioned without the direct presence of these central state security agents.

The relative absence and insignificance of the state security and law enforcement sector continued into the post-colonial era after 1965. Due to The Gambia’s small size, generally peaceful relations with its only neighbor, Senegal, and President Dawda Jawara’s democratization policies, a Gambian military was not established after independence. While the delay in militarization and the small size of the security forces contributed to an initial period of peace, an attempted civilian coup d’état (the “cab driver coup”) in 1981 marked a turning point in two respects. First, it cast the security services as facilitators rather than preventers of social instability by decisively equipping the rebels. Second, it initiated a rapid growth of the security sector and contributed to the formation of the Gambia Armed Forces (GAF) in 1985. During the military’s formative years, most of West Africa was ruled by leaders who came to power through military coups, leading Jawara to perceive the military as a potential threat from the outset. In line with its colonial origins and exogenous status relative to the Gambian population, its social role was essentially one of control and repression. 

This tendency, contributing to insecurity in The Gambia, continued in the post-1994 period. On the evening of July 22, 1994, Radio Gambia reported that the government was in the hands of the Armed Forces Provisional Government Council (AFPRC), led by Lieutenant General Yahya Jammeh. The coup was successful and was met with hardly any opposition, since the Gendarmerie was disbanded in 1992. Jammeh was finally elected president in 1996. This was followed by a further expansion of the security sector, including the establishment of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) in 1995. During Jammeh’s tenure, the state security sector was strongly internally centered and largely served to protect the regime. The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) launched as part of the 2017 transition exposed extensive human rights violations under Jammeh’s leadership. While the security services were key to limiting opposition to Jammeh, the GAF also posed the greatest threat to his position.

By using a historical lens, this blog post highlights the means by which historical patterns in the GAF challenge attempts to restructure the security sector. Both former Gambian presidents Jawara and Jammeh were suspicious of the military and deliberately limited the development of a professional officer corps. Barrow’s current distrust manifests itself in an inherited security structure that was built on loyalty to Jammeh, explaining his reluctance to withdraw ECOWAS troops.

SSR since 2017

The history and developments of the GAF before and during colonial times ultimately shape the security sector up to today. In 2017, after 22 years of autocratic rule, The Gambia embarked on a transitional period of initially three years (later extended to five) after the Gambian people electorally ushered in a change in power. Especially the security landscape in The Gambia was identified as a legacy of the past and hence an area of necessary reform by the Gambian government. As a critical tool of transition, the SSR initiative aims to overhaul the security structures in line with democratic norms as a key outcome of the broader transition process outlined in the National Development Plan (NDP):

“A reformed security sector and establishment of civilian and democratic oversight mechanism guaranteed for non-recurrence of serious human rights violations by the security forces”

Since 2017, the Gambian security sector has seen a multitude of overlapping projects, partners and actors, all of which are working on moving SSR forward along the core values outlined above.

Steps Forward…

On the plus side, we see five key steps that the SSR initiative in The Gambia has successfully taken forward: First, after the change in power, the military’s leadership has been replaced. Former Jammeh loyalists were replaced by military officers trusted by the new president Adama Barrow. In addition, the security forces are working towards a well-balanced configuration along ethnic lines. Second, to pragmatically support The Gambia’s SSR process, the African Union in 2018 mandated the AU Technical Support Mission to The Gambia (AUTSTG) and deployed technical experts to The Gambia. As Chido Mutangadura writes, six high-ranking military officers from other AU member states were embedded in the Gambian Armed Forces and the Office of National Security where they engaged in experience sharing and contributed to policy development. Third, one of the major improvements made relates to the development and adoption of new security policies, such as the overarching National Security Policy in 2019, as well as the following National Security Strategy (NSS) and the Security Sector Reform Strategy (SSRS), in 2020. Often criticized for a lack of strategic vision, in this case, the Gambian Government and its national and international stakeholders delivered crucial strategic milestones showcasing an alignment to the people-centered norms articulated by the African Union and ECOWAS. Fourth, training opportunities and offers for capacity building for security forces have been diversified, now following a more holistic approach, including human rights training. The Gambian Armed Forces participated in several trainings in The Gambia and beyond, led by Senegal, Turkey, and the US, to name but a few. Fifth, to strengthen civilian oversight, various sensitization programs and trainings took place for civil society organisations, journalists and with the wider public, all in cooperation with ECOWAS, GIZ, or DCAF, among others. In 2019, DCAF, for example, offered a training for 30 journalists on reporting about SSR processes. In 2022, ECOWAS and GIZ hosted a three-day national stakeholder workshop for all Gambian security institutions to enhance cross-institutional dialogue. In a nutshell, the long-term effects of these often rather technical measures remain to be seen, but they are decisive steps in an SSR process and should not be underestimated. More so, the trust that Gambian citizens place in their military has improved: in survey round 7, the Afrobarometer in 2016/2018 has found that for over 50% of Gambians the security forces’ ability to respond to security problems is better or much better compared to Jammeh’s reign.

…Facing Challenges

However, more concerningly, changing the “DNA” of security institutions that are deeply shaped by the past remains a key challenge for the SRR initiative. Recent developments have left Gambian citizens with doubts about the government’s seriousness to move ahead with the reforms. Members of the security forces are also feeling marginalized due to shortcomings in the implementation of the SSR process but particularly because current president Barrow keeps requesting an extension of the ECOWAS troops (ECOMIG), allegedly due to a lack of trust in his own forces.

Bearing in mind the historical legacies mentioned above, the SSR process since 2017 has revealed a recurrence of well-known patterns. Not surprisingly, these patterns appear in debates about the size of the security sector on one hand and the problematic relationship between the Commander-in-Chief and the security forces on the other. Defence Minister Sheikh Omar Faye said the desire of the government and the Gambian people is to have an army that is properly manned, trained and equipped to fulfill its constitutional mandate. Objective 5.1 of the SSR strategy emphasizes the goal of achieving a compact, rights-based and affordable security sector. This is precisely where controversy emerges within the SSR debate in The Gambia regarding “right-sizing”. The National Security Advisor, Momodou Badjie, presented its essence:

For us at the national security advisory (sic!), what we conceive is right-sizing. When we say right-sizing the security officers it may be either increasing or decreasing the figures depending on the security situation and needs of the service personals.” 

On the other hand, critical voices emphasize that the security sector should be shrunk, as funding the security sector does not reflect the social realities and needs in The Gambia, alongside the structural argument that the security sector has historically always been limited in size. Despite the obvious lack of contribution to national economic development, the GAF is seen by some to have an oversized sense of entitlement. In this regard, Sait Matty Jaw, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Gambian Center for Research and Policy Development (CRPD), emphasizes the notion of SSR as a reform by warning that SSR should not only focus on state structures but also needs to involve the element of human security”. The “right-sizing” debate is driven by the lack of transparency in government spending on military and intelligence services, which divides political opinion.

From these recurring challenges, some of which are not unique to The Gambia, we identify a lack of strategic vision and political will preventing serious progress. Initially designed for three years, the SSR process is still unfinished and currently at a stalemate. Future steps should include retrospective analysis regarding the security forces’ historical development. The lack of implementation and political will becomes evident through failure to overcome the historical patterns of mistrust towards security actors.

The Way Ahead – Where to?

The Gambia underlines a point that is repeatedly stated in research but rarely followed by policy design and implementation: Trust is not rebuilt over night, structures cannot be changed in three or five years, and SSR is a process of decades and needs to be tackled as such. Historical perspectives on both the Gambian Armed Forces and The Gambian Police have received little attention in research on state security forces in Africa. Drawing on the Gambian example, we encourage SSR researchers and policymakers to further explore historical perspectives on security structures in SSR contexts to make a case of prevention for the future. Specifically, the colonial retrospective provides relevant insights into historical legacies of security apparatuses. To unlock the preventive potential of SSR, a sustainable implementation of SSR should tackle historical continuities.

For The Gambia, this means that the stakeholders in the SSR initiative have already gotten the ball rolling: new policies have been adopted and citizens’ trust in their military has been increasing. However, how the Gambian presidency decides to overcome the remaining challenges will be decisive, including the mistrust between President Barrow and the security forces, as well as the decision to “right-size” the security forces. A recent mission of the UN, AU and ECOWAS to assess the status quo and future needs of the Gambian SSR process sends a strong signal that at least the international partners remain ready to further support The Gambia in its transition. It will be up to Adama Barrow and his government to take up speed in putting strategic vision and leadership into practice and for the security forces to formulate their demands.

Adrian Barchet

Adrian Barchet

Adrian Barchet ist Masterstudent der Afrikanistik an der Universität Leipzig. Zu seinen akademischen Interessen gehören Postwachstumsdiskurse, Machtverhältnisse in Nord-Süd-Beziehungen, dekoloniale Ansätze zur politischen Ökonomie in Afrika und die Friedens- und Konfliktforschung. Aktuell forscht er zu Synergieeffekten und Kontextualisierungen von Degrowth in Äthiopien. // Adrian Barchet is a Master's student in the Department of African Studies at the University of Leipzig. His academic interests include post-growth discourses, power structures in North-South relations, decolonial approaches to the political economy in Africa and peace and conflict studies. He is currently researching on synergies and contextualizations of degrowth in Ethiopia. | Linkedin: Adrian Barchet
Sophia Birchinger

Sophia Birchinger

Sophia Birchinger ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin im Programmbereich „Glokale Verflechtungen“ und der Forschungsgruppe „African Intervention Politics“ der HSFK. In ihrer Forschung beschäftigt sie sich mit der Afrikanischen Friedens- und Sicherheitsarchitektur und Peacebuilding // Sophia Birchinger is researcher in PRIF’s Research Department “Glocal Junctions” and the Research Group “African Intervention Politics.” Her research focusses on the African peace and security architecture and peacebuilding. | Twitter: @birchinger

Adrian Barchet

Adrian Barchet ist Masterstudent der Afrikanistik an der Universität Leipzig. Zu seinen akademischen Interessen gehören Postwachstumsdiskurse, Machtverhältnisse in Nord-Süd-Beziehungen, dekoloniale Ansätze zur politischen Ökonomie in Afrika und die Friedens- und Konfliktforschung. Aktuell forscht er zu Synergieeffekten und Kontextualisierungen von Degrowth in Äthiopien. // Adrian Barchet is a Master's student in the Department of African Studies at the University of Leipzig. His academic interests include post-growth discourses, power structures in North-South relations, decolonial approaches to the political economy in Africa and peace and conflict studies. He is currently researching on synergies and contextualizations of degrowth in Ethiopia. | Linkedin: Adrian Barchet

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