An Interview with Ned Alford, U.S. Ambassador to The Gambia

gambia Ambassador AlfordA career Foreign Service officer, Edward M. “Ned” Alford was selected by U. S. President Barack Obama to serve as the U. S. Ambassador to The Gambia. Alford was Executive Assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Management until July 2009 when he was named Consul General at the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany. He joined the Foreign Service in December 1978 and has served in Manama, Bahrain; Nairobi, Kenya; Leningrad, Russia; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Windhoek, Namibia. Alford, a Kentucky native, earned a B.A. in Politics and German at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and served in the U.S. Army for three years. He speaks German, Russian, and Arabic and is married with three children.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I joined the Foreign Service because I was interested in international affairs. I was a young soldier serving in Germany as a German translator. I had met some American diplomats; I was impressed by the scope of the job; it was very interesting what they had to do, and I thought I would like to try it. The rest is history.

The Politic: You mentioned you started as a soldier in Germany. Recently you transitioned from your post in Frankfurt, Germany to The Gambia—

I mean Frankfurt was 30 some years after I was a soldier. I joined the Foreign Service in 1978. I have served in 12 countries now: four in Africa, four in Asia, and four in Europe.

The Politic: Would you say that West Africa has any special characteristics? Was your transition a smooth one or were there any issues?

Well, it was a very easy transition. I mean, it was completely different from my job in Frankfurt, but I had served three previous tours in Africa. I liked Africa. Basically, I left Africa in 1998 because my kids were the age where they were getting into high school, and we just ran out of high schools for them. So I’m glad to be back.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one of your policies, and how so?

What most influenced me as a leader was when I was in Pakistan, because we lost some people to a terrorist attack, and it just made me acutely aware long before Benghazi, of the need to keep our people safe. That is got to be our first priority. Not that we don’t go in harm’s way, because that is part of our job, but we do so with full preparations.

The Politic: You mentioned the importance of keeping our people safe. Is that reflected in your role as the United States Ambassador in Gambia? What would you say is the Foreign Service’s current primary concern in the country?

In The Gambia, I spend a lot of time on development issues: education, health. I spend a lot of time advocating for traditional American values: freedom of the press, freedom of speech, a fair election process with a level playing field, for a transparent and fair judicial process — I mean these issues that we Americans believe deeply in — sometimes there appears to be a gap in The Gambia between what the government says and what they do.

The Politic: In the areas that you mentioned, what would you say has seen the most improvement since you arrived?

The thing that I like about The Gambia is the progress they are making in education. They will meet the millennium goal of universal primary education by 2015. Education for girls was traditionally a real issue here because of the cultural prejudices against the education of girls. Now there are more girls than boys in primary education, and we are fast approaching a point where that will be universal. I think that is a wonderful thing.

I think that the government has made good progress on health. The incidence of malaria, which is the big killer, is down 74 percent, the number of deaths down 90 percent. There is a battle against HIV here, but this is not one of the crisis HIV countries, the rates are relatively low, and that’s because it’s a very cohesive and very religious society here, […].

The Politic: You said that the fact that the society is very cohesive and religious has aided in preventing the transmission of HIV?

There appears to be less engagement in risky behavior. Less extramarital sex either among young people or among married people. This is 1.7 million people and everybody seems to know everybody. Village ties are strong. You do not have the large numbers of underemployed young people that you might see in the slums of Nairobi or of Johannesburg.

The Politic: That sounds like a very interesting and unique characteristic of the country. Are there any problems that remain or are more difficult to resolve?

The whole issue of attracting investment — there is corruption here. There is a lack of transparency. Newspapers have been closed. Radio stations have been closed. There is a new law criminalizing challenging the government on the internet. On the human rights front we continue to engage quite often. One of the main ways we’re doing this is on our Facebook page, where we’re reaching lots of young Gambians. In a country of 1.7 million people, we have 16,000 likes; we get a lot of activity when we engage on political themes there. It is sort of our way of communicating with the people outside of a strained media environment.

The Politic: You mentioned the issues of human rights and control in the media, and that social media obviously plays a large role in this country. I was wondering what your opinion was of the current president, Yahya Jammeh?

Well, I would prefer not to comment on that in detail. I mean he has done some very good things — I refer to the education and the health thing — but there are some challenges on the freedom areas. But I do not want to get into personalities.

The Politic: In terms of willingness to work with the United States, have there been issues in that area?

We have a pretty strong relationship. There is a large Gambian-American community in Atlanta, in D.C., in Raleigh. Many Gambians have studied in the U.S. Lots of them have relatives there. I do not see much Anti-Americanism here. Everybody appears to like us; we get along well. No hostility. The biggest issue is visas, because it seems every young person in The Gambia wants to go to the States, and some of them just do not qualify. We sent a young Gambian to the Air Force Academy — first time we’ve sent one to the Air Force Academy — and within a couple of days on Facebook, 800 people liked that. I mean the idea that, you know, young people go to America and get a good education, get a good start in life that is… I think that’s the dream of most Gambians here.

The Politic: Do most Gambians that go out of the country come back and help the Gambia?

No, they don’t all come back. That’s how we got the large Gambian-American community there. Family ties are close here, so a good percentage of people do come back. Economic opportunity here is less than in many other countries. Half the population is under 15. There is no real industry here. For jobs, you see a lot of Gambians going to the UK, to the U.S., and to Spain. For some reason a lot of them are working in Spain; I think it’s more menial jobs in Spain and more professional jobs in the U.S. and in the UK. Of course, English is the national language here; it is the language that unites the various ethnic groups, so that is an advantage for people who want to work overseas.

The Politic: Could I get you to comment a bit on the student exchange programs? It seems that they’ve been especially valuable.

Ambassador Alford meeting Gambian soldiers
Ambassador Alford meeting Gambian soldiers

The student exchange programs are one of the strongest things that tie us. I mean, we have a couple of American universities that send people here. We have an outreach program — we try to get the very best high school students every year — we have an embassy-sponsored club, and we mentor them on how to apply to an American university, how to work the scholarship process, what the visa requirements are, and all of that. And a certain percentage go there, and that’s one of the things that ties our countries.

The other thing that is really, really big is our Peace Corps presence. We’ve had that for almost fifty years now. Those volunteers are probably the best ambassadors this country has ever had, because they live in the villages; they speak the languages; they go back to their homes, and they remember this wonderful country called The Gambia, and you cannot buy PR like that.

The Politic: I was wondering if I could get you to comment on President Jammeh’s policies against homosexuals?

Our government’s policy is very clear on LGBT rights. We are for them; in my Fourth of July speech I mentioned this. It’s a hard sell in African society, not just in The Gambia. But when we see actions against the LGBT,we speak out against it; we do so privately; sometimes we do so publicly. We will engage with persistence on this issue, and, I mean, look at how far the States has come in thirty years. If Africa is there in a couple of decades that would be great. We just keep trying.

The Politic: Could I get you to comment on president Jammeh’s various treatment programs on curing infertility and HIV?

The HIV programs… I mean we do a little there. The D.O.D has engaged with the military here to make sure that there are adequate testing programs for HIV, and The Gambia has sent a lot of peacekeepers, and there’s a certain risk with peacekeepers becoming a vector for HIV, so a lot of efforts have been concentrated there.

At our American Corner we worked with the Gambia Family Planning Association and other organizations last week, and we publicized free HIV testing, which of course included counseling, and we got participation there. We are aware of the issue. Global Fund is active here; we support Global Fund. This is not [Lesotho] or South Africa where you have double digit rates of infection – it is just never happened here. But it is still an issue, of course.

The Politic: You mentioned corruption and fair elections. It seems that the recent elections have all been deemed fair by the international community. However, the current president has been in power a long time. What is your opinion on the current state of Gambian elections?

I think the process of the elections — I was the election observer for local elections — seems fairly fair and transparent. But you also have to look at access to the media by candidates, use of the government to push favored candidates, that sort of thing. We can say that the process of the actual election seems to be fair, but perhaps there is not a level playing field for all candidates.

The Politic: Right, one of my colleagues just traveled to The Gambia, and he mentioned that there were pictures of the president everywhere and essentially advertisements—

Yeah. Yeah that’s true. And all the businesses wish him happy birthday with full-page ads in the newspapers.

The Politic: Is corruption an issue in the political system?

I mean corruption is an issue — there are frequent replacements of ministers — and ministers get charged with corruption. If you look at Transparency International or The Economist rankings, you can see that this country does not score well on corruption.

The Politic: Are there any steps that the Foreign Service is pushing for in the country, or any steps that The Gambia should take in this respect?

The steps we would like to see taken are an impartial judiciary, a rule of law that is healing from political influence, a government of institutions rather than of people — we think that is healthy in just about any society.

The Politic: Do you think that the political system ought to undergo any changes or reform? It seems that a lot of power is currently held by the president.

I am an American. I believe in democracy. We all believe in democracy. Now democracy in Germany, democracy in the UK, and democracy in France are all different. Different institutions, different ways. I want Gambians to find the most effective democracy that works for them, for their people to decide what government is most effective for them. I mean it is a country that has had a long democratic tradition. Of all the countries in Africa, they were one of the very last to have their government overthrown by the military.

The Politic: You mentioned that The Gambia was one of the last countries to be overtaken by the military. Do you believe they should go back to the way things were?

All the structures of democratic government are still here. The opposition is very disorganized and disunited, but the constitution is still there. You could use the existing laws. You do not have to change 90 percent to make the system better; you just need to make the electoral process a little more even in the preparations to it, and then you would have democracy again. Well you have a democracy now, but you would have a democracy that might be perceived as more fair for all participants.

The Politic: So is the Embassy working to make the media more balanced, or is it going more the route of social media?

We have given grants to the Gambian Press Union. We interact quite frequently with all media representatives. When journalists are arrested — we have had a couple of young journalists arrested — we quite publically meet with them to show that we are supporting them.

The Politic: There seems to be a dichotomy between the tourism industry, which is quite large in The Gambia, and underneath, human rights abuses and restriction of free speech. Could you speak more to these points and how the U.S. is involved?

We consistently advocate for American values. Just about every speech I make, just about every posting on our website, is about this topic. Freedom of the press. Democratic government. We say freedom of religion, but that’s not really an issue here. This is a very religiously tolerant society. Rule of law is the big one.

The Politic: So you mentioned that this society was very religious, and also very tolerant of other religions?

Oh yeah. You go to a government ceremony, and they always open it with two prayers: one Muslim, one Christian. The society here is about 90 percent Muslim and 10 percent Christian. But this is not Nigeria — the communities get along, they are often related, all the Christians go to Eid, the Muslims come to Christmas celebrations. You just do not see the fundamentalist intolerance you see in a lot of countries. That’s one of the great things about this country. I actually meet with the religious leaders, and I ask, “Am I missing something? Is it really this good?” I have not had anyone contradict me yet.

The Politic: Are there any other, maybe surprisingly, good aspects?

The ethnic tolerance is similar to the religious tolerance. You do not have a majority ethnic group. You have Mandinkas, you have Wolof speakers, and Serahules, you have Fulas, you have Jola. And it seems to be that they have been able to avoid the ethnic conflict that has plagued so much of Africa. Once more, it could be because it is so small, it could be because the various ethnic groups are interspaced — you might have a Fula village and the next village is Mandinka — but it seems to work very well.

The Politic: It seems that the society itself is pretty stable, regardless of what kind of government, regardless of, perhaps, human rights abuses for journalists.

That is my impression. And you know the ex-president was overthrown in 1994. But he is my neighbor — he lives right down the street — and came to our Fourth of July reception. I mean this is not where you get sent into exile or you end up in prison.

The Politic: Is there a difference in terms of the treatment for, for example the ex-president, and for journalists?

gambia ambassador meeting2I mean people get thrown in jail here, but for no reason. There are some real problems about that. We just had a five-month campaign to express concern for a prominent imam who had disappeared from the street, allegedly kidnapped by the local intelligence service, and we just kept a drumbeat on the government. Private meetings, public statements and everything. And he was released about six weeks ago, finally. Much the worse for wear, but that was encouraging. But you know ministers get arrested all the time. People flee.

I will not say that executions never happen. There were nine executions suddenly last August and September. But there was also a hiatus of thirty years with no executions. There have been a couple disappearances of journalists in the past ten years, and people think they are dead. I mean this is not Argentina, when everybody is disappearing, but it is certainly not Switzerland either where nobody ever disappears.

The Politic: And yet there is no discontent among the society in terms of the government?

There is some discontent. There are some online newspapers very much against the government. A lot of them come from the States or Dakar. You hear people unhappy with the government. One of the issues is that the opposition just can’t unite. I talk regularly with opposition politicians. They are in town. Some of them are good people, but there is no sort of common theme among the opposition parties.

The Politic: Are the disappearances primarily the judicial branch, or the executive?

One was Chief Manneh, who was a prominent journalist that disappeared about seven years ago. And then the imam Baba Leigh; when he disappeared, people basically knew he had been taken, but there was nothing released by the government. But eventually he was publicly released by the president, and now, he is free.

The Politic: The Gambia is a developing country and its economy is not very strong — are there special considerations that are given in regards to that?

The economy here just can’t generate enough jobs for young people. Tourism is the big industry, but that is six months out of the year. Industry is minimal, partly because there are no resources here, and the energy is very expensive because it is all done with diesel or heavy oil generators. Farming is the biggest employer. It is not the biggest source of income but it is the biggest source of jobs. We think that one of the best ways to help this country would be to improve agriculture. If you can improve yields ten percent, you have made major progress in the lives of the people here.

The Politic: How are The Gambia’s relations with Senegal, given their unique geographical positioning? The Gambia is entirely enclosed by Senegal and the Atlantic Ocean.

The relations with Senegal are very close in many ways — most people in The Gambia have relatives over there, the borders are porous — but they don’t always see eye to eye. I think sometimes the Gambians may not feel fully respected by the Senegalese; the president is concerned about the presence of large numbers of Gambian dissidents who are active in Senegal. The Senegalese allege support from The Gambia for the rebel movement in the Casamance — this is something that has been going on for thirty plus years. This is one of the world’s oldest and most obscure conflicts, but people are still killing each other there.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad in general? What elements of Foreign Policy do you think we handle very well, and are there any areas in which we could do more?

I am terribly impressed by the caliber of the people I have met in the Foreign Service. I think we are very good at doing our reporting, negotiations, and I think we are learning very quickly to be better at outreach. Traditionally, we would put an American library on a corner and that was our outreach. Now we have a generation of people that is going onto Facebook, on to Twitter, pushing our message out, not to scores of young people but to thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of young people. At least in Africa, the American Dream is very respected. Africans like our diversity. They like the economic opportunity there. America has some wonderful programs such as PEPFAR and AGOA for trade. I think we may have more friends on the African continent per capita than just about anyplace else in the world.

The Politic: There aren’t any areas in which we could do better?

Bureaucracies tend to be risk-averse. Perhaps we should be a little bolder in some of our actions some of the time.


Embassy of the United States to The Gambia:

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