The SIS And The Dire Need For New National Standards In The Gambia

By Saul Saidykhan

We Gambians love our one line labels. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if there’s any substance to them. Last week, President Barrow through executive fiat, changed the name of the notorious secret State outfit from the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) to State Intelligence Service (SIS).

Understandably, the reaction is mixed. Some who merely want to forget everything NIA and start afresh welcome the flip without much ado. Others pooh-poohed the legality of the Barrow order base on the 1997 constitution currently in force never mind that constitution was designed and tailor-made by a crooked and murderous autocrat to suit his selfish interests. It bars experienced Gambians from running for or holding certain public offices based on age – no matter how capable they may be or some other exigency. Tellingly, the constitution is silent about the real problem – criminals, misfits, and wholly unqualified candidates running for public office. Why any genuine democrat would want to maintain or defend much in such a constitution boggles the mind. Granted, it is in our collective interests to make sure that no president beginning with Adama Barrow gets used to the idea of issuing executive orders by bypassing the seeking of the people’s consent through their representatives going forward.

There are numerous reasons why most Gambians are celebrating the burial of the old NIA because its sins are as numerous as they are horrendous. However, this shouldn’t surprise anyone because from the onset, the signs of this potential catastrophe were there. For the record, from its very inception, many NIA employees confused the word Intelligence in the name of their employer for the evaluation of their individual cognitive ability even if when they lack a 11th Grade education as many of them do. It is incontestable that low educated people have lower analytical skills relative to higher educated people. In serious countries, or at least in countries that are determined to progress, Intelligence Agencies are manned by competent people trained in areas like Law, Criminology, Audit, Accounting, Forensics, and general Detective work. These are Professional people. Such people don’t need to beat every suspect bloody or almost murder every suspect to solve a case. On the other hand, when our political leaders breath down the neck of our non-professional Intelligence Agents who often possess low analytical skills demanding closure to certain cases, in my view, they bear both moral and legal responsibility for the unholy short-cuts these Agents take to get the answers they want. In the minds of the Agents, the ends justify the means. How else are the Agents supposed to solve cases that are beyond their level of thinking? If they cannot out-think the people they’re up against, what other option do they have in their corner beside coercion?

Bottom line, changing NIA to SIS is only the beginning of the profound transformation needed to take Gambia to the next level in terms of Intelligence-gathering. The name change will not amount to one hill of beans unless the entire standard for admission into the SIS is upgraded. Going forward, no one who is NOT a professional should be hired by the SIS agency. The agency itself should be merged with the National Drug Enforcement Agency and the anti-Child trafficking arm of the Gambia Police Force for Cost Savings and greater efficiency. A poor country like ours that depends on donors for survival should not only use its resources judiciously, it should demonstrate its appreciation to its partners in such practical ways. This would help engender confidence that we are a people who are sensitive to our own condition. There have been enough headlines in Western papers about officials of African governments that routinely seek development aid staying at $500 per night hotel rooms when the Western governments they seek aid from don’t allow their officials to lodge anywhere more expensive than $170 per night. Our new government should be cognizant of this, and avoid embarrassing us!

The SIS would need trained dedicated Detectives, Lawyers, Accountants, Auditors, Scientists, Medical professionals, Specialized labs, and Technicians. Where necessary, the Service could hire consultants with specialize skills in areas it lacks In-House talent. The SIS should use the same template serious crime- fighting agencies in modern democracies around the world use. There’s no need for any special creativity. We should seek help from partners to train our personnel in the pertinent areas.

As for the current staff of the NIA, many are either criminals, murderers, rapists or accomplices of such unsavory characters. Without exception, the entire current staff should be suspended with pay with immediate effect and every Agent subject to scrutiny. Of all the criminal organs of the Yaya Jammeh tyranny, the NIA was the most flagrant violator of Gambians’ civic rights. Regardless of the political semantics, those found culpable -in terms of serious crimes, which is likely to be the majority, should at the minimum be fired, and barred from holding public office in the future, and the few that are clean can be allowed to apply for positions in the SIS base on the new criteria. The NIA is simply a cesspool that’s crying out for thorough cleansing. However, if truth be told, what has happened thus far is, we have placed foxes in charge of our chicken coop. This is very unsettling. What we really need are people who shunned the brutish autocrat Yaya Jammeh or tried to take him out by whatever means, not those who cuddled him and remained loyal to him till the very end even as he committed all the horrible atrocities against Gambians. How in the world are the accomplices of a murderer supposed to clean up his mess considering they were part of its creation? Only an outsider can do a clean and thorough job of sanitizing the filth left over by the vermin that is Jammeh. Every single one of our Service Chiefs is dirty – from the police, to the army, navy, Para-Military, and prisons, it’s the same story. We need people who had nothing to do with the criminal killer gang to clean our security system.

However, when it comes to establishing standards, the SIS is just the first step. The Barrow administration need to set Standards across the board for ALL professions beginning with those that are critical to public safety like Healthcare and Civil Engineering/Architecture. Again, this is what serious countries do. Our current lack of standards is costing us an unquantifiable amount of loss in terms of human lives and material resources. I’ll just cite a case that shows how a serious country handles its business relative to how we do so. Over ten years ago, a friend of mine in Maryland hosted a Gambian medical doctor who was hoping to relocate to the US. He had studied medicine in eastern Europe and had all his diplomas, transcripts and English translations. The Gambian brother’s papers say he is a qualified medical doctor. However, being a serious country that values the lives of its citizens and residents, no American State will issue a license to any doctor unless that doctor is evaluated and Passes certain basic competency tests. And that’s where the problem began. My friend drove this man to THREE different places where he would fill out numerous forms only to eventually fail the basic competency test he was given for admission to their Internship/Residency program. Frustrated, the brother packed up and returned to Gambia. Today, that “doctor” is world-famous for the wrong reason: As Gambia’s Health Minister, he claimed to have seen “with my own eyes” how Yaya Jammeh cures AIDS patients with his green leaf BS concoction! Even after Yaya Jammeh fired the brother, he was allowed to continue running a private clinic where scandal and incompetence are the norm. Why that should surprise anyone, I don’t know. The key lesson here is our government didn’t care about the safety of our people like governments in the US do for their citizens and residents. The contrast couldn’t be clearer. As far as I know, it’s a matter of choice. We can choose to do something about such things or we can keep marveling at how super-human the Toubab are. Easy fix really!
The danger in the lack of standards is just as bad when it comes to pharmacies and the supply and sale of medicine to the public. People like myself with very limited knowledge about medications or in some cases people without any formal education at all can sell some powerful medications to whoever has money to buy their product especially in remote areas of The Gambia. The Barrow administration needs to quickly set standards to ensure that ONLY qualified Pharmacists are licensed to operate drug stores in the country. A grace period of a certain number of years could be given if need be, but for public safety, this needs to be implemented for public safety.
Another area that requires stringent standards is in the Civil Engineering/Architecture area. As a middle-aged Gambian who has spent most of his life in America, the tragedy of frequent building-in-progress collapse I read online in African papers almost weekly is something I find inexcusable. These building collapses are avoidable if: 1. The government ensures that ONLY qualified Civil Engineers and Architects are licensed to plan and build modern houses, and 2. They follow required specifications to the letter! These are the reasons these needless tragedies don’t happen here in the US because the governments from local to State levels have set Engineering/Architecture standards and there are clearly defined sanctions for ALL violators.

The lack of Standards in other professions and areas of Gambian public life is self-evident. In law, currently, all anyone needs to do is show up with a diploma and transcripts from any college anywhere in the world, and besides some routine checks that are NOT fool-proof, one could get admission to the Gambian Bar within a matter of months. Unlike serious climes where every applicant is required to sit for and pass a rigorous exam regardless of which law school he or she graduates from, the Gambian Bar merely admits applicants based on the basic four-year law degree. It is imperative that the Gambia government require the Gambian Bar to adopt the same professional quality standards as obtain in civilized climes around the world. This will help bring Gambian lawyers in line with international standards. Currently, despite all the noise and chest-pounding some make in Gambia, most Gambian lawyers are considered nothing more than Law Clerks outside Gambia because they lack an internationally recognized credential. This needs to be fixed. The most glaring deficiency of the standards issue is in the area of ethics. This is no accident. You see, the one feature ALL professional licensure exams – be it Law, Medicine, Accounting, and so on, have in common is, they COMMIT the professional to uphold certain moral and ethical standards as a fiduciary responsibility to the public. And they have two invaluable benefits to society: 1. They separate the grain from the chaff -thus upping the ante in terms of the overall competence of the profession’s practitioners, and 2. They keep the professional honest by specifying the disciplinary action he or she will face in case of professional misconduct after passing the exam.

Any conscientious person who has observed the Gambian legal profession the past twenty-two years can’t help but indict the generality of its members for gross dereliction of responsibility to Gambian society. Except for a few lawyers, this is one group of professionals that kept quiet when tyranny reigned that shouldn’t have. We have seen what their colleagues in authoritarian climes like Pakistan do. Worse, many Gambian lawyers took advantage of the Jammeh tyranny to prey on desperate Gambians by charging unconscionable fees for cases they KNOW they’ll lose! So, the victim’s family loses their money or land to the lawyer and their loved one goes to jail anyway. No surprise, most Gambians are too intimidated to complain. We need an International Standard Bar Exam that will exempt ONLY those that already have equivalent credentials from overseas and Gambian lawyers with experience over a certain number of years. Again, if we want to progress, let’s do what serious countries do.

In education, we should be looking eastward for models in Asia where the best school systems are in the developing world. Given that our public-school system has all but collapsed, and been supplanted by an anything-goes system that is purely profit driven, we need to copy the template used by the Malaysians, Chinese or Indian Public School Systems and implement it fully. It’s good for Jammeh to build school buildings in places where there were none, but it takes more than buildings to make a school. The teachers themselves need to be adequately paid and trained. Lack of books, stationery and furniture which have all been problems in the past should be addressed.



  1. Saul,
    This is a very well written and thoughtful article. No one could have laid out a better way to handle the former NIA or the current SIS.

    Thank you.

  2. Saul , you made excellent points. Lack of standards in every fabric of Gambian society or its professional entities can be atttributed to substandard education system we currently have . Our education curriculum is based on 20th century socioeconomic needs. The curriculum needs to be changed to suit 21st century learning goals gear towards global economic competitiveness and technological innovations if we want to be successful as a country.
    In every fabric of our society, there is a sad story to tell about lack of standard . I think we need cultural shift in the way we think and do things. Recently we have succeeded to remove the tyrant because diaspora used social media to educate citizenry about human rights violations and economic deterioration in the country. I think diaspora should lead the country to build in standard in professional services. Those in diaspora who have knowledge and expertise should embark on such missions. This is where standard of practice and cultural values Such as morality and corruption free are transfer into our society . I absolutely believe that Dictator Jammeh has morally bankrupted our country to the extend that people careless about what is wrongly right. Having standard of practice which is recognized at the international level will ensure that our professional services improves the lives of the people. Can we imagine in a country where it’s medical practice comprise of Doctors who practice general medicine and there is no or very few specialists. The Gambia has long way to go . I think our health sector is the worst because we not have many specialists such as cardiologists , neurologists or even psychologists/ psychiatrists in the country. Our primary health care system is run by people with fifth grade education just like our national intelligence services are run by convicts.

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