Gambia: Radical reforms needed in the SIS or we risk a national security nightmare

Gambia: Radical reforms needed in the SIS or we risk a national security nightmare

Despite the name change from the National Intelligence Agency to the State Intelligence Services, it seems the attitude and operational mechanism of the Gambia’s intelligence setting remain the same.

Arbitrary arrest and detention, impunity and threatening citizens are not a new thought for agents of the SIS. It was widespread in the NIA and so it is the SIS.

It is evident that intelligence agents feel like they are above the law and can act without any repercussion.

Although President Adama Barrow stripped them of their arresting powers, SIS agents on the orders of its Director General Ousman Sowe proceeded to arrest its legal advisor, Baboucarr Badjie.

Acting with such dispensation, the agents are now with the belief that Solo Sandeng died while they were performing a job in the interest of the state and threatened Badjie that he will suffer the same faith, according to a police complaint.

Just the name change is not a reform. It is not fully dealing with the challenges facing the intelligence community and professional conduct, respect for civil and human rights remains a far cry.

The SIS is anomalous, lacks strategic analysis, and continues to politicize its intelligence, not national security and the threats it faces.

They are critical skills that the SIS must learn and the failure to adapt is leading to intelligence failures. These are all signs that all was not well within the State Intelligence Services.

A series of stumbles have given credence to red flags and long suspicions raised by human rights defenders.

Perhaps the most serious problems confronting the SIS are those related to analysis—the core function for most of its work.

The challenges come from many different directions and include pressures to maintain consensus, a failure to encourage the development of real subject-matter expertise, a neglect of open-source materials, and a strategic analysis gap.

The State Intelligence Services failed to predict the so-called Kanilai revolt, the threat the Gambia faces from two countries within the region that remain allies to Jammeh, the adventurism of the APRC leadership to exploit the fragile situation in Foni and the aggressiveness of Jammeh loyalists within the security forces.

The intelligence failures surrounding the Kanilai uproar were especially important since the SIS had not understood the implications of an entire series of seismic shifts in the strategic landscape, suggesting that there are serious problems with the gathering and analytical side of the SIS.

Clearly, SIS intelligence collection—clandestine and open source—appears not to have focused on the deeper questions of stabilizing security and the underlying causes for the Kanilai revolt.

At the SIS, the focus remains to instill fear in the population and to feel like a super secret agency feared by all security services instead of improving its intelligence gathering and analytic aspects.

“The reform is not yet done and without it the NIA cannot contribute effectively to the crucial role a democratized intelligence service can play in the national security architecture to combat both traditional and emerging threats including terrorism, espionage, insurgency, sabotage, subversion, human trafficking, money laundering and illegal migration,” according to Badjie.

Jammeh had successfully planted a spy in Barrow’s campaign and the spy became trusted and continued to be a close bodyguard to Barrow even during the impasse that followed the election.

The agent is now a senior official in the SIS only answerable to the Director General. It shows how far reaching Jammeh’s powers remain.

It echoes that the need for true reform is made more urgent by the increasingly complex national security environment that the Gambia is facing.

Our national security is dominated by the facing threat of an outsider supported coup, political violence in Foni and external factors with tribal connotations that can see separatist rebels in Casamance armed by some anti-status-quo countries to destabilize The Gambia.

During Jammeh’s rule, there was a weakened and alienated set of allies and partners. The government must put full reform to rebuild the SIS’s reputation to regain the trust of those The Gambia must depend for support in dealing with these threats and challenges.

There are well-grounded fears of a coup and that this situation will be the “new normal” for at least the next decade as long as Jammeh’s loyalist remain in the agency and passing on information to him.

The SIS must, therefore, become the kind of security enterprise—organizationally, analytically, and culturally—that can constantly learn from, and adapt to, this highly volatile environment in order to better support decision makers of the new government.

An oversight body must be created or incorporated into the National Security Council to gain control of the State Intelligence Services.

There is an authority issue, bureaucratic problem, and a personality challenge that must be addressed immediately by an independent-minded leadership.

Of course, the SIS will resent the intrusion of another layer of administration into their affairs and will fight attempts to assert a legal authority over them, must President Adama Barrow must regain control because right now he is not.

Barrow must use his authority to enforce more reform effort and must be supported by the military and the police chiefs in this bid.

The problems created by the anomalous position of the SIS are that: There is no central hub that can enforce change throughout the SIS, make the entire agency more adaptable, and root out and fire bad managers and agents implicated in human rights abuses, and enlisted through corruption and nepotism.

The challenges require a series of deep reforms, not just one or two small tweaks to the community. Overall, the basic concept for reform is to help create a more flexible and adaptable institution that can evolve with the changing national security situation rather than requiring serious reforms every decade or so.

Sam Phatey is an intelligence and conflict analyst who studied at the AMU School of Security and Global Studies and the United States Institute of Peace. He is a Senior Editor at SMBC and Security Analyst for TVC Africa.

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