In characteristic YaHya Jammeh style, Gambians were informed of the government’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) — the official name of Taiwan — in a brief statement from the Office of the President. Until today, Taiwan has been, undoubtedly, the most important diplomatic partner of Jammeh, not necessarily of the Gambia, and necessarily so because it was a dollar diplomatic relationship.
Economic and financial aid was extended in 1995 to a military regime that was fighting for political survival in exchange for the recognition of Taiwan as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people.
Initially, the financial aid was generalized to help the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), but the aid soon took a personal coloration that went straight into the hands of Jammeh for distribution as he saw fit. For instance, shortly after recognition of Taiwan, the AFPRC received US$35 million in financial assistance, part of which went directly into the pockets of Jammeh, council members and a couple of civilians who facilitated the diplomatic switch of allegiance from the People’s Republic of China to Taiwan.
Prior to the Sino-America rapprochement in 1973, ideology was a prime motivator for maintaining relations with Taiwan, which distinguished itself as democratic and anti-communist. It was this ideological motivation that drove the regime of then-Gambian president Dawda Kairaba Jawara that prided itself on being democratic and anti-communist, to initially recognize Taiwan before switching to the People’s Republic of China.
The end of the Cold War saw the end of ideology as the selling point for recognition in exchange for economic and financial motivation. Trading recognition for cash became very attractive for small and poor countries in Africa and the island countries in the Caribbean and Oceania.
It may be pure coincidence, but it is worth noting that most of these island states with diplomatic ties to Taiwan, such as Nauru, St Lucia, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, and St Vincent and the Grenadines are all members of the Commonwealth. Most of these countries shared the same UN office complex in New York paid for by the Commonwealth from where the Gambia was served notice to vacate following its decision to withdraw its membership from the organization.
Just as the reasons for withdrawal from the Commonwealth was unclear, the Gambia’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan is equally unclear, but certainly not new or unusual.
For instance, since originally forging diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1962, Senegal and the Central African Republic have switched five times between Taiwan and China, initially driven by ideology, but later by economics and finance. Ten countries — including African countries like Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, the Gambia, Lesotho and Liberia — have switched more than once.
Taiwan’s foreign aid budget in 2009 was estimated at nearly US$500 million. Because the Taiwanese aid package to the Gambia and its administration is not transparent, it is difficult to estimate its size.
The public is provided with a monthly dose of check presentations by the Taiwanese ambassador to the Gambia for education, agriculture and a variety of other sectors. These checks end up in special below-the-line accounts. It is not unusual for some of them to be cashed and carted off toward the State House. Taiwan has helped train numerous Gambians in many fields, particularly in ITC and petroleum engineering.