Analysis: African intelligence run amok and prospects for reform in The Gambia

Adama BarrowFor a very long time, the field of Intelligence Studies has been dominated by analysis of the Five Eyes community, which is comprised of the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. In reality, that study is more often the study of intelligence in the US and the UK. While not entirely fair to characterize this as Western prejudice —access to data is better in these two countries and intelligence scholars and analysts for the most part do not fear retribution or reprisal— more voices need to come forward to consider intelligence and its role on societies beyond the Five Eyes.

There has been slow but gradual progress in getting the discipline to understand this fact, to understand how important the study of intelligence is outside of the Five Eyes. In recent years, particular emphasis has been paid to Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel, just to name several case studies. But the countries of Africa, unfortunately, have largely remained a near-blank analytical slate when it comes to deeper work on the continent’s various intelligence communities. As recent events in The Gambia show, that absence needs to be rectified at a time when some deeply disturbing aspects of state development and political stability hang in the balance.

A few days ago, nine intelligence officers, among them the ex-head of the Gambian National Intelligence Agency (NIA), were arrested and charged with the murder of Ebrima Solo Sandeng, a top political opposition figure. Sandeng, the National Organizing Secretary of the United Democratic Party (UDP), died in custody after being arrested for his participation in a protest demanding q-quoteelectoral reforms back in April of 2016. The protests were geared to influencing the December 2016 presidential election, which ultimately saw the defeat of incumbent President/Strongman Yahya Jammeh to Adama Barrow. Jammeh had corruptly governed the country since rising to power as a young military officer in a bloodless military coup in 1994.

The official docket accused Yankuba Badjie and eight other members of the NIA of “conspiring amongst themselves to take part in the murder of Solo Sandeng”. Back on April 14, 2016, Sandeng and five other members of the UDF party were arrested by police and taken to Mile 2 Prison where, after two days of torture, Sandeng died of shock and respiratory failure. Arguably, this was the case that broke Jammeh’s stronghold rule on power: the disgust and shock of the murder (following what most in The Gambia considered an illegal arrest) pushed voter motivation all the way into the presidential election. Perhaps more importantly, it became the final Jenga block removed from a tower of intolerance, abuse, corruption and torture that had plagued the NIA since its establishment by Jammeh. The latter had founded the NIA in 1995 through Decree No. 45, issued by the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council. Indeed, the NIA has always operated outside of the formal legal framework in The Gambia: originally set up to supposedly combat threats within the armed forces, it ended up combating real and perceived domestic threats to Jammeh. As an organization that remained under military decree, the NIA de facto behaved like an extra-legal institution, above and beyond the law. Until, it seems, the murder of Solo Sandeng.

But there are still many questions remaining for the future of The Gambia. Perhaps a corner has been turned. But it does not mean old forces will not strive to prevent a new day from dawning. The clear immediate threat is Jammeh himself, who, after initially conceding defeat to Barrow, changed his mind and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the election. Adama Barrow was sworn in as President of The Gambia on January 19, 2017, but did so at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal. It was only two days later that Jammeh was forced to step down and go into exileq-quote when a combined military force team of several ECOWAS countries entered The Gambia. Jammeh first went to Guinea and then to Equatorial Guinea, where he still sits and claims rightful ownership of the Presidency. The obvious danger is that as long as Jammeh makes such claims and is free, The Gambia will be susceptible to coup, insurgency, or outright invasion by paramilitary forces.

Newly-elected President Adama Barrow is doing his part, at least symbolically. On January 31, he announced that the NIA was going to be renamed to State Intelligence Services (SIS), while also claiming to have stripped the NIA of its extraordinary and extra-legal state powers. This attempt to reign the intelligence services back under proper state oversight and control is essential and logical. But it is also likely to be the first area ripe for Jammeh to recruit malcontents for future attempts against the new regime. After all, NIA operatives were once before accused of an attempted 2006 coup d’etat against Jammeh. Making moves against a new President trying to strip away all of its special power is not much of an analytical leap.

More interestingly for the long term of Gambian democracy, Barrow has promised a truth commission and open investigation into all of the alleged human rights violations carried out under Jammeh. However, any such investigation is going to inevitably end up shining an even brighter light onto operatives of the NIA/SIS, many of whom still work for the organization. This is the precarious security/intelligence balance that The Gambia finds itself in today. A new presidency is trying to take the necessary steps to not just emerge from a generation of corrupt autocracy, but must take those steps under the eyes of people who were also part of the corruption. So, while Intelligence Studies within the Five Eyes will undoubtedly remain dominant in the immediate future, case studies like The Gambia of today show why more focus needs to be placed on events far outside it. For perhaps the effort to study and analyze these places, bringing more international light and attention to them, will end up helping the fledgling efforts to establish stability, rule of law, and democratic consolidation.

Author: Matthew Crosston | Date: 28 February 2017 | Permalink

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One Response to Analysis: African intelligence run amok and prospects for reform in The Gambia

  1. jones says:

    The attention given of field of “Intelligence Studies” concerning the African continent is woefully lacking – at least from a public perspective. There are few breaking Western headline news stories related to intelligence activities concerning Africa – unless you subscribe to specialized intelligence publications or reports – which reach the Anglo world. Not many people could name one Intelligence agency on the African continent – globally most people are aware of CIA or MI5.

    The focus placed on intelligence studies concerning the African continent are akin to studies related to global terrorism. Most of institutions studying terrorism are Western based type Think Tanks, academic and institutions based in Europe and USA and thus are subjected to a type of Western bias in understanding and explaining some of roots causes of terrorism. The academic papers written on subject matter are done mainly by Western scholars. In order to combat terrorism one needs good policing and good local intelligence.

    The truth is, most of terror attacks do not take place in the West – perce. Even defining the word”terrorism” is not easy – the word is subjective. For example what is difference between a terrorist and freedom fighter? Sure, terrorism is rising in Europe, but insofar as on the continental USA – outside of 911 – there are only a few terror cases, i.e.; people killed by acts of terrorism. Truth is most terrorism activity takes placed outside Western confines in places like, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Syria, etc., and the African continent. How important is the field of intelligence studies in Africa – follow the money. The study of intelligence/terrorism focusing on Africa is no different nor less note worthy and deserves more attention followed by concrete actions.

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