President Jammeh cuts Gambia’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan after his demands for millions of dollars were rebuffed
President Yahya Jammeh’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Taipei came as a surprise, according to Taipei’s diplomats. Other officials, however, believe the move was linked to an ‘unacceptable’ request in January for money from Gambia’s President. The Banjul government announced that it would end its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan on 14 November. Jammeh justified the action, saying that it was a matter of ‘strategic national interest’. Nonetheless, after breaking ties with Taiwan, Banjul did not immediately switch its recognition to the People’s Republic of China and the Taipei government continues to send conflicting messages about the fallout.
President Ma Ying-jeou severed Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with Gambia on 18 November. This leaves Taiwan with just 22 international allies, three of which are in Africa – São Tomé e Príncipe, Lesotho and Burkina Faso. Ma, who has adopted a more sympathetic approach to Beijing, was quick to absolve China of any part in Tawian’s diplomatic defeat. Officials from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were also swift to deny that the Beijing government had any contact with the Banjul government during the lead-up to the decision. Beijing confirmed that it had played no role in the affair with Gambia and reiterated its willingness to improve cross-Strait ties.
Back in Taiwan, parliamentarians, questioned Foreign Minister David Lin about the affair. The Minister revealed that in January President Jammeh had made ‘exorbitant demands’ of an irregular nature. This was irregular because the money requested was not to be used ‘in a project-oriented manner’. Lawmakers from Taiwan’s governing Kuomintang (KMT) party said that the demand was for US$10 million in cash. Foreign Affairs staff also reported that Jammeh set out his own timeframe during which he expected to receive the money.
Deputy Foreign Minister Simon Ko told politicians that the Embassy in Banjul had received the government’s decision to end relations in a letter and that in their analysis, it was ‘Jammeh’s personal decision’. Director of West Asian and Africa Affairs David Wang suggested that ‘the unilateral decision may have something to do with the unique style of President Jammeh’.
Foreign Affairs officials also said that their Gambian counterparts had explained that the break in ties stemmed from Banjul’s estimation that in the light of improved relations with China, Gambia was no longer so important to Taiwan.
On 18 November, Jammeh’s Facebook page carried a message about the decision: ‘I am now taking an important step towards advancing Vision 2020 for all citizens of The Gambia.’ That statement fuelled accusations from KMT politicians and opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that promises of Chinese aid had motivated the move since Taiwan’s aid budget is substantially smaller.
Officials in Taipei have questioned the Banjul embassy staff as to why they had failed to provide any intelligence that might have alerted the government ahead of the decision. Gambia’s Ambassador to Taiwan Ebrima Jarju complained that he, too, had no prior knowledge of the Gambians’ decision and only heard about it afterwards. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched an investigation into the diplomatic incident.
The Taipei government has faced angry questions from politicians from all sides. Premier Jiang Yi-huah told Parliament that diplomats would face ‘administrative discipline’ over the lack of any warning. DPP MPs urged the government to take immediate action to prevent a ‘domino effect’ and the loss of more diplomatic allies. Jiang, in contrast to his colleagues, preferred to wait until the results of the government’s investigations were known before pronouncing on whether China – or perhaps members of the European Union, he said – had a role in the affair.
On learning of Jammeh’s decision, the Taipei government had immediately despatched two diplomats to Gambia to discover the reasons and to ask the Banjul government to reconsider its action. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director of the Department of Protocol Richard Shih and International Cooperation and Development Fund Secretary General Tao Wen-lung flew to Banjul to support Ambassador Samuel Chen and request a meeting with President Jammeh.
Their two requests for meetings were rebuffed but they did manage to see other senior government officials, including Vice-President Isatou Njie-Saidy and Presidential Office Secretary General Momodou Sabally. Njie-Saidy offered to transmit the message to Jammeh but said that the President would not reconsider his decision. Shih, Ambassador Chen and Tao returned to Taipei on 20 November. At a hearing in the Legislative Yuan on 25 November, Chen confirmed that Jammeh asked for $10 mn. in January with no strings attached – to be delivered by March at the latest.
US10 million in loans
Both governments said that it would take about a month to close their respective embassies. Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund announced that it had ended its technical assistance programmes to the Banjul government. The ICDF also said that it expected the government to repay its debt to its Taiwanese creditors. The body claims that there are outstanding loans of $10 mn., the same amount that Jammeh had demanded in cash in January of this year, according to Foreign Minister Lin.
Taiwanese aid has covered projects in health, agriculture, education, infrastructure and national security. Taiwan sent three patrol boats to Gambia this year and launched its first training programme for 30 Gambian soldiers in June. It also offered aid of $1.2 mn. in August to finance the rehabilitation of police barracks and to train six Gambian students in aeronautical engineering. Taiwan’s planned aid commitment for this five-year period was $15 mn., $3 mn. of which was to target agricultural development in line with Jammeh’s ‘back to the land’ policies. The $10 mn. that Jammeh requested represented a large portion of Taiwan’s annual aid budget for its African allies. Government sources estimated that the 2012 aid programme for Taiwan’s four African allies was NT$2 billion (US$68 mn.).
More than 200 Gambian are currently studying in Taiwan, funded by Taiwanese government scholarships. Taipei has agreed to allow them to stay and study until the next term ends in January 2014. The non-governmental organisation Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps has said that it will continue to work in Gambia, whatever the circumstances.
Taiwan and Gambia have enjoyed close diplomatic relations since 1995. Presdent Ma, who has been in office since 2008, has been a proponent of ‘flexible’ or ‘viable’ diplomacy. That means that Beijing and Taipei agree not to seek to poach each others’ allies. This strategy marked the end of dollar diplomacy, through which each government sought to sway other countries’ allegiances with large aid packages (AAC Vol 2 No 6, If not trade or aid, then what?). The Taipei government says that the loss of Gambia as an ally will not scupper its diplomatic strategy.
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