by Ousman Sillah
Ambassador (Ret) John D. Stafford III, the new United States Charge d’Affaires in The Gambia, said they are not interested in the unconstitutional Change of government in the Gambia known as regime change.
“I want to stress that we recognize President Yahya Jammeh as the sovereign leader of a sovereign country. We wish him, his government and people well. We are not interested in regime change in the Gambia.”
The Charge d’Affaires said this on Friday, 29 May, 2015 at an “on the record” press conference with editors at the residence of the US Ambassador in Fajara.
Charge d’Affaires Stafford had previously worked in the Gambia as the United States Ambassador between 2004 and 2007. He succeeds Charge d’Affaires George Staples, who was here late last year and stayed briefly. He is here temporarily just for a few months up to the middle of August 2015.
“I recognize that there are challenges in our bilateral relationship but I want to assure you that the United States Government is committed to working with the Government of The Gambia in a spirit of goodwill and partnership to advance the challenges and to move forward in our relationship on the basis of mutual respect,” said the US Charge d’Affaires.
The head of the US Mission in the Gambia said that in terms of official relations, the United States “continue to appreciate the Gambia government’s support in combating terrorism, its contributions to peacekeeping operations and stability in the continent and beyond”.
When asked by this reporter to explain why the US has not been heard commenting on the issue of disappearances and detentions without trial of the child and parents of people alleged to be involved in the 30 December 2014 insurgency which is highlighted in Foroyaa, the US Charge d’Affaires indicated that these are the kind of issues that feature prominently in their dialogue with the Gambian Government. “.And you will see this when our Annual Human Rights Report comes out. It is mentioned in that report among other human rights concerns,” he added.
The Charge d’Affaires assured that there is no silence or neglect as this is an important issue which they recognise.
On how the United States manifests its friendly relations with the Gambia Government in terms of influencing it to respect its own constitution and laws which bar detentions without trial and the termination of services of officials without due process, he stressed that such issues feature in the dialogue between them as a primary tool.
“We hope that through frank and open dialogue, we can make progress with the Gambia Government in addressing some of the human rights concerns and other challenges that we have,” said Charge d’Affaires Stafford.
He noted that they have an array of tools at their disposal to utilise to influence change through their dialogue such as restoring the eligibility of Gambia for AGOA, training programmes and exchange visits that include government officials to enable them to see how US institutions, e.g. the courts, deal with human rights issues and rule of law. He also stressed the importance of a strong civil society in a democracy.
On whether the US Embassy is engaged in any consultation with both the Government and Opposition to know how it could contribute to free and fair elections, given that next year (2016) is very important in Gambia’s political and electoral calendar as it marks the beginning of another electoral cycle, the Charge d’Affaires responded in the positive.
“The dialogue is going on. I have the privilege of meeting with the Chairman of the electoral commission for example and have declared our interest to promote free and fair elections. In coming months, during my time here and my successor’s time here, be sure that we’ll reach out to the political parties, including the Opposition. We will reach out to civil society; reach out to government as well,” revealed the US Charge d’Affaires.
Responding to the question regarding the US reaction to Gambia’s rejection of the term limit, retired Ambassador Stafford said their position is clear as they believe that term limit is a universal principle and a good idea. He explained that it is in the 1950s after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected four times to the presidency that the two term limit was enshrined in the US Constitution.
“We believe it is an important democratic principle that term limit means the transfer of authority on a regular basis from one person to another. Maybe from one party to another or it could be same party,” he said.
The US Charge d’Affaires noted that there are different views around the world as some constitutions have it while others do not, but added that “evidently in the ECOWAS the widespread view is that the term limit is a good idea”.
Elaborating further on the issue, Charge d’Affaires Stafford said term limit is only one indication of the strength of a democracy. He said other indicators are “how accountable is a government to the public? Is civil society allowed to act freely without interference from the authorities? Are the elections free and fair? Are all political parties allowed to campaign freely and openly? Are they allowed to engage in free and fair campaigning on behalf of their candidates? How about freedom of assembly?”
He said a strong democracy is measured when all these indicators including religious freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are taken into consideration.
Charge d’ Affaires Stafford said the United States Embassy being headed by a Charge and not an Ambassador is just the form the relation has taken in both the US and the Gambia; that there is reciprocity.
“I would say the term I used before is the one I would apply. It’s one that’s correct. We have dialogue. We have official diplomatic relations. We have relations at the full ambassadorial level. We have not had ambassadors present in the capitals (Banjul and Washington). We are on the path of having them i.e. ambassadors,” he said.
As far as retired Ambassador is concerned, they have a fully-fledged and functioning embassy in The Gambia with expanded scope that is beyond what he left behind at the end of his duty as Ambassador in 2007.
“I can assure you that your Charge in Washington (Gambia’s Charge d’Affaires) is dealt with respectfully as the senior representative of a sovereign government. Whether Charge or Ambassador, I hope that the Government of The Gambia treats the United States representative in similar fashion,” he remarked.
On what his assessment is regarding the media in The Gambia, Ambassador (ret) Stafford indicated that the Human Rights Report on The Gambia which is yet to be released has touched on it. “Let me put it this way, I was impressed when I attended the GPU (Gambia Press Union) event to mark World Press Freedom Day….There were a number of speakers who in a forthright way defended the freedom of the press and the importance of expanding it here in The Gambia,” he said.
The US Charge d’Affaires said there is considerable progress and the Gambia has to be commended for that. “For the radio and television, that’s a different matter. I think there is room for expanding the space and coverage of the diversity of views,” he added.
He also cited the closure of media outlets in Gambia some of which, he said, is temporal while it is not for the others.
Retired Ambassador Stafford also responded to questions such as Gambia’s removal from AGOA, denial of non-resident visas to applicants who they believe want to stay permanently in the US, the non-implication of US in the 30 December 2014 coup attempt, among other issues.