By Ousman Gajigo, Ph.D., Rome, Italy
A military is almost as a natural for a country as having a Head of state, and this is not difficult to see why. Countries with hostile neighbors or those that needed to fight for their independence owe their very existence to their armed forces. For such countries, no cost is high enough for the continued existence and maintenance of their militaries.
The promises of this new era require us to re-think many things we have taken for granted. This includes reflecting on whether we need a military in our context given its cost. The Gambia is in a unique situation. We are situated in a region that is not beset with interstate military conflicts. The country is almost completely surrounded by Senegal, which means this is the only country with which we have to worry about in terms of the integrity and security of our border. This reality therefore, poses an opportunity rather than a security challenge.
First and foremost, Senegal is not a hostile neighbor that warrants the existence of a military on The Gambia’s part. And even in the unlikely event of Senegal being hostile, The Gambia has not had a military that is capable to defending the country against Senegalese aggression. This is a simple matter of fact based on geography, as well as a significant disadvantage in capability and sheer size.
Maintaining a military is expensive, and more so for a poor country such as The Gambia. This cost becomes all the more burdensome when its primary function is not vital to the country. The Gambian army averaged about 1000 soldiers under Jawara’s rule and about 3000 under Jammeh’s rule. The resource needs to maintain such a military is not trivial. For instance, the budget allocated to the Ministry of Defense in 2016 was D580 million, which represented about 5% of the total national budget that year. This was higher than the amount allocated to the Ministry of Interior (which oversees the police), as well as the Ministry of Trade, Regional Integration and Employment. As a share of GDP, our military spending is significantly higher than the world average of about 3%. This level of expenditure is enormous and poorly allocated given the Gambia’s enormous development challenges.
There are all sorts of arguments for keeping Gambia’s military, but none withstand close scrutiny. One argument contends that we may need a military for defense since future aggression from Senegal cannot be ruled out, irrespective of the current state of affairs between the two countries. One must admit that the absence of a Senegalese aggression does not guarantee that the relations between the two countries will remain on the same positive level in perpetuity. Given that uncertainty, the argument goes, we should still retain a military force as some form of an insurance policy. To take that argument seriously though, would require us to maintain a military actually capable of defending against Senegal in a hypothetical conflict.
However, such a military would require an investment far more than we have done so far – both under the Jawara and the Jammeh regimes. Unfortunately, doing so would lead to economic ruin for us because the budget requirements would be tremendous. So maintaining a military against a possible Senegalese aggression would entail incurring a high and debilitating cost against a possible but improbable event. Even when relations between the two countries reached their lowest levels under Jammeh, there has never been any indication that Senegal has any inclination to use its military against The Gambia despite the advantage in their favor (a visual observation of Senegalese-led ECOMIG should be sufficient demonstration to any skeptic as to the significant military advantage Senegal enjoys over The Gambia). This reality leads to one inescapable conclusion: the goal of securing The Gambia from external threats (whether from Senegal or other countries) lies not in maintaining an expensive military but in investing in good relations with Senegal. This is far more cost-effective not least because greater economic integration with The Gambia is necessary for the country’s economic development.
Another argument holds that getting rid of the military removes the ability of the country to participate in important activities such as peacekeeping missions abroad. In reality, Gambia’s size means that its contribution is never critical to the success of any peacekeeping operations anywhere. Moreover, our lack of military need not preclude our ability to meaningfully contribute to such undertakings given the presence of other security branches. In fact, several police officers have served in the Gambian contingent in the Darfur region of Sudan. This is not surprising because the responsibilities of a normal peacekeeping force in most cases are better aligned with police training than the traditional combat trainings of military officers.
Once the primary reason for having a military is no longer tenable, secondary justifications become even less compelling. And this is more so given the costs involved. For example, the fact that a unit of the military may engage in civil works does not undermine the argument. The civil works occasionally performed by the military are better carried out by the private sector such as private construction or engineering companies. In general, there is no justification for a public entity to provide services that can be adequately provided by the private sector, since it would be displacing or undermining the private sector.
Furthermore, since the public sector is effectively shielded from market forces, there is neither an incentive to promote quality nor a metric to evaluate the unit’s efficiency. The guiding principle for public provision of services should be to address market failures. Since there is no market failure in the construction sector that one could plausibly argue that the engineering unit of the military is well-placed to remedy, then the argument for the military to provide such services disappears.
The resources that would be saved from getting rid of the military could easily be put to more productive uses. An area that could use such funds would be law enforcement, demonstrating that the price of being rid of the military does not entail less security for the country. The Gambian police are under-paid, under-trained and under-equipped. Unfortunately, it is the Gambian citizens who bear the full brunt of this effect in the form of unprofessional police officers who confuse their responsibilities with harassing citizens.
For instance, the main reason for the ubiquity of checkpoints is just a way for police officers to supplement their meagre salaries. This means that a higher average salary for police officers, combined with better training can form part of a package of needed reforms to professionalize the police force. The savings earned from slashing the military budget would be more than adequate to finance such a reform. In addition, it can finance a nationwide law enforcement information system, which is necessary for an effective internal security. Furthermore, a better policing of our borders could be achieved by establishing a Mobile Unit of the police force, part of whose equipment can come from decommissioned military equipment.
Some may still be hesitant in scrapping the military for precautionary reasons since such a decision may appear unprecedented. The good news is that getting rid of the military when its usefulness is limited is not an unprecedented act. Several countries have already done so. These include Costa Rica, Grenada, Andorra, Dominica, Panama and Vanuatu. As you may notice, these are small countries just like The Gambia. Blindly following tradition did not stand in their way when it came to making a rational policy decision. Costa Rica, in particular, transferred the resources that were previously used for the military to internal security and other productive sectors. A new Gambia coming out under years of autocratic rule under Jammeh could use all the resources it can get, as well as better allocating the small resources it currently has. Any expenditures on the military is nothing but wasteful, no matter how small the amount. The best course of action is to follow the footsteps of a country such as Costa Rica and transfer our millions of dalasi that we currently spend on the military and invest them into productive sectors and grow our struggling economy.