BANJUL, Gambia — UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited The Gambia on Tuesday, where he hailed the arrival of a new government and its bid to rejoin the Commonwealth group of former British colonies.
Johnson met President Adama Barrow and Interior Minister Mai Fatty to reset ties with the impoverished West African nation after years of tension with former president Yahya Jammeh.
The visit was his first to Africa as Britain’s top diplomat, becoming the first British foreign minister to visit The Gambia since it gained independence in 1965.
His talks with Barrow cemented moves by The Gambia to rejoin the Commonwealth, Johnson told journalists.
"President Barrow is determined to take Gambia back to the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth is ready to welcome Gambia back," Johnson said, vowing to do whatever possible to "speed up" the process.
In a video message posted on Johnson’s Twitter account after the meeting, he celebrated the British embassy soon becoming a High Commission to reflect The Gambia’s return to the Commonwealth fold.
Jammeh frequently railed against Britain’s colonial rule of the tiny nation and withdrew his nation from the Commonwealth in 2013, calling it "an extension of colonialism".
By contrast, Barrow worked as a security guard in Britain when he was younger and has made no secret of his wish to rekindle ties.
The foreign secretary has hailed the December elections that saw Barrow unseat Jammeh from 22 years in power, saying they "highlight the continuing strengthening of democracy in West Africa".
In his video message, Johnson praised the arrival of the Barrow administration: "They got rid of a guy who was really holding things up, and they will take the country forward."
Britain to support justice reform
During his visit the foreign secretary also said tackling the migration crisis was "something that is absolutely vital for Europe as much as Africa," in a nation that accounts for more citizens per capita taking boats across the Mediterreanan to Italy than any other.
Johnson additionally promised support for justice reform in The Gambia, after the new government declared it would overhaul its prisons after shocking footage was released of conditions inside.
A British special advisor will be appointed to aid the justice ministry and attorney-general as The Gambia reforms a sector tarred by allegations of rights abuses, a diplomatic source said.
Fatty led a tour of The Gambia’s Mile Two prison on Monday for local journalists that revealed concrete cells in almost complete darkness where prisoners were living in squalor, and apologised on camera for the conditions.
The Gambia has just notified the United Nations it will rejoin the International Criminal Court (ICC), reversing another controversial Jammeh move from last year.
Johnson’s trip to The Gambia followed his history of controversy with Britain’s former territories in Africa.
In a news column published in 2002, Johnson characterised the Commonwealth as having "crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies," to welcome Queen Elizabeth II, using a derogatory term for black people that caused outrage.
He also parodied reaction to Tony Blair’s arrival in Congo saying that "the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down".
The comments came back to haunt him when he ran for London mayor in 2008, and then again when he was named foreign secretary last year after Britain’s shock Brexit vote.
Gambian journalists had questions vetted for a brief press conference with Barrow in The Gambia and could not question him about the comments, they said.
In a show of confidence in the Gambian tourist industry, which is dominated by British sunseekers, Johnson took a commercial flight to Banjul, and also met with Tourism Minister Hamat Bah.
Britain could help develop the tourism sector to help give Gambians greater economic security with Britain’s help, Johnson said.
Tourists were flown out of the country en masse in January after Jammeh declared a state of emergency when he lost the election to Barrow but refused to stand down.
On Wednesday morning, Johnson will head to Ghana to meet President Nana Akufo-Addo and visit the Blue Skies company, a juice-maker which has received financial support from Britain. — AFP