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.
The personalization of Taiwan financial aid package is perhaps the main reason for the break in diplomatic relations. Jammeh became the face of everything Taiwan. The checks are presented to him or his vice president at State House.
The huge scholarship program is directly under Jammeh’s control. He is the one who selects the recipients, often without regard to qualification and/or aptitude or competence. It is ironic that one of the reasons advanced for seizing power was that the former regime awarded scholarship to children of the “elite” and ruling party supporters, yet Jammeh personally selects scholarship recipients from a pool of supporters of his political party and from members of his Jola tribe.
The personal demands of Jammeh on his Taiwanese friends have been unrealistic, be it financial or otherwise. He was not held in high esteem by some officials in both the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at the embassy in Banjul. Taiwanese in both Taipei and Banjul have used words like “greedy, selfish and self-centered” to describe Jammeh because of the manner in which he spends financial aid and other demands he makes that were considered unreasonable.
Until the rest of the facts that led to this abrupt rupture are known, it is safe to say that the cost-benefit analysis of the symbiotic relationship brought about because of the checkbook diplomacy has finally caught up with the parties.
It has proven to be an expensive proposition from the point of view of Taiwan given the continued diplomatic isolation of the Gambia, which is frustrating to Taipei, because it sees the withdrawal of membership from the Commonwealth as self-inflicting.
After all, what use is one diplomatically isolated country to another equally diplomatically isolated country.
Jammeh will now be looking toward China, if he has not already started, to replace Taiwan. China will certainly welcome the Gambia into the China fold, but not under the same type of arrangement that Jammeh has enjoyed for 18 years with Taiwan.
China’s Africa policy, like its investment strategy has evolved over the years. Faced with a rapidly growing economy with a rapidly growing population, China has to feed its hungry factories to maintain the pace of economic growth and development.
It sees Africa’s natural resource potential as an integral part of its economic development strategy. Although it has huge investments in countries like Angola, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China has elected to work closely with regional organizations, including the African Union.
The Gambia obviously lacks the natural resource endowment of a DR Congo to enjoy the huge investments from China. It is, however, possible for the country to benefit from regional power projects or road transport projects linking major commercial ports and points within the Economic Community of West African States with Chinese investment funds.
Any diplomatic relationship that will eventually be struck between China and the Gambia will not be as cozy as the one between Jammeh and Taiwan. Until then, we will try and piece together what really happened and why that led to this abrupt separation between two former close friends and allies.
In doing so, we must not rule out domestic Taiwanese politics, which has seen a former president sent to prison for the misuse of the presidential fund, or slush fund, to pursue diplomacy abroad.
Sidi Sanneh is a former foreign minister of the Gambia.
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