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Foreign merchants of democracy need humility to understand our struggle

Friday April 21 2017

Gambians celebrate outside of the Statehouse in Banjul

Gambians celebrate outside of the Statehouse in Banjul on January 23, 2017. An article in Newsweek accords disproportionate credit for regime-change in the Gambia to Vanguard Africa. PHOTO | CARL DE SOUZA | AFP  

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Following the change of power in the Gambia, Newsweek published an article titled ‘How an American Consultancy Helped Oust Gambia’s Dictator’.

The piece appeared on January 30, 2017. It refers to Vanguard Africa, a consultancy firm launched six month before those elections and highlights the significance of Vanguard Africa in deposing former president Yahya Jammeh.

The article accords disproportionate credit for regime-change in the Gambia to Vanguard Africa, especially to its co-founder and executive director, Jeffrey Smith.


Yes, Smith did play some role in the homestretch of the Gambian struggle.

In the article, however, this is exaggerated to hype up Vanguard Africa, perhaps to raise its profile among donors in the US.

The article mentions only two other Gambians other than Jammeh.

This says enough for an article in which Smith’s dog merits priority mention.

Frankly, Vanguard Africa’s role in The Gambia is minute compared to the years of struggle by Gambians.

Apparently, the firm ‘provided campaign advice and public relations support to candidates’ and ‘reached out to international journalists to promote stories, circulated the candidates’ names on social media and regularly spoke to news outlets about the Gambian election’.


Some of us challenged this disproportionate emphasis. Smith’s response was mercenary, arrogant and dismissive.

He even mobilised a select few Gambian allies to his defence.

Of course, we responded in kind forcing him to retreat, but not before we warned him against attempting this kind of tactics in Kenya.

So I have watched keenly as Vanguard Africa emerges in Kenya, this time playing host to opposition leader, Raila Odinga.

Not only did Jubilee Party social media activists jump into overdrive, suggesting that Odinga is under “foreign control”, they even attempted to reactivate the discredited ‘evil society’ narrative.

Note, however, that not too long ago, those screaming “foreign interference” now were peddling Tony Blair as an advisor and celebrating the involvement of foreign firms in Kenyan affairs.

The entry of Vanguard Africa into Kenyan politics, like that of Blair before, is sad indeed.

Let me be clear; our struggle for democracy gratefully acknowledges foreign allies who have demonstrated unquestionable, sacrificial commitment to our struggle.

But true allies understand that local agency is the engine of sustainable progress.

Thus, they seek to learn the local context, are humble and don’t strive to be primary beneficiaries of the process.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Vanguard Africa, if my interaction with its director is anything to go by.

What have I learned about Smith? First, he manifests ignorance of the nuances of our local context and history of struggle, as demonstrated by the letter he wrote, circulated on social media courtesy of the Jubilee propaganda machine.

The letter is a classic study in cluelessness coupled with an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

Secondly, Smith seems to believe that anyone who criticises him must be on the payroll of “the other side”.

Is this his big lesson out of the Gambia?

Thirdly, when challenged about his excessive desire to hog the limelight, he goes on the defensive.

In this defensiveness, Smith liberally name-drops, citing local allies in the vain hope of silencing further criticism. He did this in the case of the Gambia.

Finally, and perhaps most damning, his attitude is reminiscent of the colonial missionary, enthralled that his long-awaited arrival in Africa heralds freedom for natives from their autocratic “big men”.

In return, he expects generous genuflection on our part.


He brooks no criticism, even of dreadful assumptions or missteps.

Unfortunately, we are too familiar with such missionary characters and have gone beyond genuflecting before them.

This missionary complex is inherently racist; a subtle racism, apparently sympathetic but whose virulence rests in what it does to our confidence and capacity to believe in our own emancipation.

Smith, as the face of Vanguard Africa, comes as a merchant of democracy with an exaggerated sense of entitlement to our struggle.

Godwin R. Murunga teaches Development Studies at the University of Nairobi