Overcoming corruption challenges
While still far below the global average of 43 out of 100, with a score of 37 out of 100 on the latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) The Gambia has gained seven points since 2017. Although in general we should not read too much into a single year-on-year change, even of this magnitude, the increase reflects significant changes in the way the country is tackling corruption and strengthening democracy.
From 1996 to 2017, the small and densely populated West African nation of The Gambia suffered under the violent and repressive regime of its president, Yahya Jammeh. Systemic corruption and kleptocracy crippled private enterprise and robbed the Gambian people of vast sums, undermining an already fragile and shock-prone economy.
In 2017, the year Jammeh finally left office after losing an election which he then declared void, the country scored just 30 out of 100 on the Corruption Perceptions Index, and ranked 130 out of 180 countries.
A year later, The Gambia is inside the top 100 countries for the first time.
So, what has made the difference?
Stronger democratic practices
In our analysis of this year’s CPI, we looked at how democratic institutions like a free media, checks and balances on power, and an independent judiciary relate to fighting corruption.
In the short time since Jammeh has been ousted from office, The Gambia has shown progress in many of the areas we identified as critical. There are encouraging signs that the opacity, repression and violation of basic rights that marked Jammeh’s time in office are slowly being changed by a commitment to democratic norms, good governance and the rule of law.
The Supreme Court, for instance, has declared several pieces of repressive legislation to be unconstitutional, including the 2013 Information and Communication Act, which punished the “spreading of false news” via the internet.
The new administration under President Adama Barrow has also established a commission to determine how the constitution — consistently weakened and undermined under Jammeh — can be reformed to better protect citizens’ rights.
Ministers have begun to declare their assets to an ombudsman. The new government has also launched processes to reform the security sector and civil service, including giving a new name and mandate to the domestic spy agency, previously known to Gambians as the “house of terror”. In 2017, a Commission of Inquiry was established to investigate Jammeh’s financial misdeeds, which include an estimated US$50 million stolen from the State Treasury.
Newfound democratic freedoms are contributing to a sense of optimism within the country, and are reflected in improvements to the country’s performance in international democracy ratings. In 2019, Freedom House awarded The Gambia an aggregate score of 45/100, pushing the country further into the “partly free” category it entered in 2018.
The government appears committed to making anti-corruption a key part of democratic reforms. Our research has shown this to be critical to sustained progress in both democratic development and reducing corruption.
That said, it is still early days. Shortcomings in the constitution did not disappear overnight after Jammeh was ousted from power. A promised anti-corruption commission has not yet been established.
Moreover, recent allegations of corruption involving a foundation belonging to President Barrow’s wife have raised serious concerns. A Chinese company deposited more than three quarters of a million dollars into the foundation’s accounts, most of which was soon transferred to a Portuguese charter airline, ostensibly for a flight to China.
Barrow’s government has also insisted on upholding a controversial contract with a Belgian firm, Semlex Europe SA, to manage its citizens’ identity documents. The agreement does not allow any government oversight over Semlex’s work, despite the fact that the company has previously been investigated by Belgian police for suspected money laundering and corruption.
A look towards the future
As these recent scandals illustrate, corruption is a complex, international problem that can’t be tackled in isolation within a single country. Many of the proceeds of high-level corruption by Jammeh and his cronies have left The Gambia, much like Jammeh himself who now lives in luxurious exile in Equatorial Guinea.
While The Gambia needs to ensure that effective institutions, a constitution that serves the country’s citizens and rule of law replace Jammeh’s repressive dictatorship, other governments need to help close the loopholes and bring greater transparency to the murky jurisdictions that enabled the theft of The Gambia’s assets.
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