Where did tiny Gambia get the cash to host the most lavish AU summit?

Writes Jerry Okungu in Banjul, The Gambia.

There is a serious contradiction in the Gambia. Its wealth and vast resources are not visible on its website. Its GDP, population and standard of living all agree that it is one of the poorest countries in Africa and the Third World. Yet, on arriving at the Banjul International Airport, one suddenly meets with astounding surprise and confusion.

Though not really big by international standards, the Gambia has built a modest but beautiful airport with reasonably comfortable facilities. The staff that man their airport; from the police, the immigration to customs officials; it is perhaps the real place where guests feel the Smiling Coast effect of the Gambia. Unlike many airports I have passed through in recent months, the Banjul airport is the only one where an immigration official took my passport, filled departure forms for me, stamped it and gave it back to me and wished me a safe journey with a smile!

Though situated ten miles away from Kariaba city where the AU Summit was held, the dual carriage-way to the Kariaba made us feel proud of Gambia. We felt proud because a tiny poor African country had used its resources- sources not withstanding, to take care of its infrastructure. Never mind that the Highway, aptly dubbed the AU Highway, could have been built with the Summit in mind; never the less it was built and was there for the entire world to see!

Banjul city is a typical Third World African city with all its contradictions and little miracles. Like every city in the world, it has two distinct personalities; the poor and the opulent living side by side on both sides of the divide. The wealthy cousins live in beautiful suburbs while Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth must continue to suffer the stench and squalor in equal measure.

As I sampled the lifestyles of those patrons of the Five- Star Hotel culture to which I definitely belonged most of the time, circumstances forced me to share part of my stay in Banjul with the rabble and the bystanders in this seemingly success story of the Smiling Coast.

Two drivers named Ken and Jina made my stay in Banjul more memorable. They literally became my running commentary on the Gambia’s political, social and economic background.

Jina, who is a Rastafarian and a very good Muslim according to him, was a confessed apolitical operator that survived on his trade as an hotelier and a cab driver during the heavy tourist seasons like the one we were having. As much as he hated to talk politics, the Banjul Summit seemed to have gotten the better part of him prompting him to pray for a faster political union of the whole continent. That was his biggest wish for the Summit. He was at pains to understand why African leaders had not seen the logic of uniting the continent like America and Europe.

Ken on the other hand was a highly charged political animal. He hated President Jameh with a passion for his corrupt and authoritarian ways. He found it difficult to understand why male African leaders always stole their nations' wealth and mismanaged their economies. His wish was to get all men out of power and try to experiment with women. When prompted to explain why he thought women would be better leaders, he contended that women, unlike men would not eat everything!

Driving us through a down town flea market, we came across a sewage tipper that had broken down two days earlier with the entire stench hitting the neighbourhood with all its might. He was quick to remind us that because the tipper had broken down in a poor neighbourhood, nobody would collect it until Monday; the next working day that was two days away. However, he was quick to remind us that had the incident occurred in an affluent neighbourhood, one phone call from a big man would have seen it collected even at midnight!

The Gambian society has a very high potential of being an African example if only President Jameh could moderate his style of political operation. Having come to power through the barrel of the gun, he seems to have retained all the trappings of military behaviour more than a decade later. His successive civilian elections not withstanding, the only thing civilian in his rule are the emperor’s new robes.

The power and might of President Jameh can easily be felt to the bone when his motorcade cruises across the city to his villa or to the airport. He has some of the most expensive state of the art limousines money can buy. Compared to Kibaki, Museveni or Kiwete, East African presidents are driven around in ramshackles!

Talking of limousines, I have been to America, the home of stretch limos. I have seen ordinary limos used by ordinary Americans. I have also seen those types used by American Presidents. But, what I saw in Banjul was a spectacle to behold. At first I thought they had been flown in by Africa’s most notorious braggart Muamar Gaddafi. I was wrong this time. The Libyan strong man had chosen to fly in his stuff in six plane loads; limos, four wheel drives, food, tents, bodyguards and all to Dakar Airport from which his entourage took to the road to Banjul in style and drama. His aim was to make his entry into Banjul as dramatic as possible if for nothing but to steal the thunder out of the rest of his colleagues.

As if some one had informed him that the Iranian President would ride in black limos provided by his host, Gaddafi chose the cream and white fuel guzzlers to dazzle his colleagues. And judging by his choreographed entry into the Kariaba hotel when Obasanjo was winding up the NEPAD/ APRM session, Gaddafi seemed least interested in the proceedings. He was more interested in holding court with onlookers and journalists while enjoying the spectacle of watching his mad dogs push and shove members of the public including Gambian security men as if they were of no consequence!

Watching these unnecessary theatrics on display at the AU Summits, one wonders what message this continent is sending to the rest of the world; more so the so called developed nations that must be pestered from time to time to write off our debts while at the same time increase aid to fight poverty, ignorance and disease among us.

Why would the AU put up with such useless arrogance, such display of opulence, the arrogance that is not keen on sharing its wealth with the rest of Africa- except with a few selected satellite states they bribe with token mosques to parrot their opinions from time to time?

Why can’t the AU produce a code of conduct for its Heads of State and Government during AU sessions that should include standard residential facilities, security and transport system? Why make the AU a circus with uncalled for intimidating security detail for others and not the rest of heads of delegations? Why should some heads of state be allowed to flout the national security protocol by behaving as if they were also rulers of the host country? Why did the Gambia forego its sovereignty to Gaddafi by allowing him to display his life size portraits all over Banjul? Was this normal? Is Libya considered an African super power of some sort by some African countries?

Where did the Gambia get the cash to host such an extravagant AU Summit?
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