Shelly Seaver, a career Foreign Service Officer, is the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Banjul, The Gambia. Ms Seaver most recently held the position of public affairs officer at the US Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic where she frequently served as acting deputy chief of mission. As public affairs officer, Ms Seaver managed over US$6 million worth of programming related to educational exchanges, American Corners, youth outreach, media and culture. Over the course of her 14 year State Department career, Ms Seaver has served as information officer in Sofia, Bulgaria; vice consul in Frankfurt, Germany; and public affairs officer in Podgorica, Montenegro. She has received numerous State Department awards, including Superior Honour Awards and a Meritorious Service Increase for her work in public diplomacy. Prior to joining the State Department, Ms Seaver worked at the Library of Congress and Woodrow Wilson Centre administering educational and professional exchange programmes. A native of Orlando, Florida, Ms Seaver is a graduate of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and is professionally proficient in Russian. She is the proud mother to three young children who share her avid interests in skiing, hiking and swimming. On Wednesday afternoon, the chargé d’affaires sat down with The Standard managing editor, Sheriff Bojang and editor Lamin Cham for an interview about US diplomatic engagement in The Gambia and related matters.
The Standard: Thursday 22 November is Thanksgiving Day in the US. America has a lot to be thankful for as the global hegemon, but what exactly is the origin and the significance of the day and how are you going to celebrate it here in The Gambia?
CD Seaver: Many Americans would say that Thanksgiving is their most important holiday each year. It actually began to be celebrated with our first president George Washington who gave the day as thanksgiving and it became a holiday under President Abraham Lincoln. It is considered a family holiday where families come together and they travel from far to be with their extended family. Personally, my family has a tradition of gathering at my aunt’s house and that’s about three hours away from my mother’s house where we bring the entire family to a grand buffet where everyone brings their favourite dishes and join together for a communion and fellowship throughout the afternoon. Here in The Gambia, we are going to mark it with our colleagues from The Gambia because here we all consider ourselves as a wonderful family of Americans and Gambians who work together and so on Friday [today], we will be having a community lunch to celebrate our partnership and our friendship and the fact that we work together as a family.
You are the US chargé d’affaires in The Gambia, has President Donald Trump nominated a successor to the outgone ambassador Alsup? Who is s/he and if confirmed, what will s/he bring to the office of ambassador?
CD Seaver; Yes, in August President Donald J Trump announced he has nominated Richard C Pascal III to be the next US ambassador to The Gambia and Ambassador Pascal has had his hearing at the senate last week. Mr Pascal brings over 27 years of experience in diplomacy to the US Embassy here and he has a great deal of experience from embassies in Iraq and Chad in addition to working in Washington in a variety of leadership positions both in the Bureau of African Affairs and the Counter-Terrorism Department. He is expected to arrive early next year after senate confirmation. We are eagerly awaiting his arrival and he is very excited to come to The Gambia to continue to promote the great ties that exist between the US and The Gambia.
The Standard: US-Gambia relations deteriorated significantly during the Jammeh era. There is a new government in The Gambia now. The EU, China, Japan and others have given significant multilateral and bilateral aid and support. What exactly has the US given or done for The Gambia in the past 20 months?
CD Seaver: Well you are right, we have seen a great change in our partnership with the change to democracy and since the change in the past 20 months, our assistance and programming has increased ten-fold and I can tell you just a few examples of that partnership. We are giving US$1 million to civil society organisations to support the work of the TRRC and we have also expanded our education programming and exchange opportunities and we have over a hundred on the alumni exchange programme, and we are also working together across the country with our Peace Corps volunteers to support schools, agricultural and health projects throughout the country. We also have the Ambassador’s Self-Help Funds which also help a variety of small communities. We also provide advisers and training to different sectors of the government. For the government, we believe that where we can best bring our assistance is in capacity building, for example, we have brought an adviser for the security sector reform and we also have training for parliamentarians, and we are working closely with a variety of different government actors in order to promote what the government’s top goals are and help and engage with key people in government.
The Standard: But what about at the bilateral, government to government level. You don’t see the need to give money to the government directly as other countries do?
CD Seaver: We in fact have the Millennium Challenge Corporation which has already been active in The Gambia for over a month and they are putting together their assessment in order to start programming and start next summer and that will have a good deal of money and they will help with government-led activities. So the MCC as it is well known, works hand-in-hand with government to understand what are the government’s priorities and where the government wants capacity building, advisers et cetera and that programme will kick off next year.
The Standard: Figures show that more than 75% of all visa applications by Gambians to the US are rejected. Why the inordinate high rejection rate?
CD Seaver: Well for a start, I can safely say that our consular section has been up and running now since September so it is possible to get an appointment for a visa usually in less than a week’s time, maximum one week and each individual or booking is evaluated on its own merits. So everyone who comes in has an individual interview and their cases are looked at individually by the consular officer who has to follow US law and which does have a rather high bar and it can be challenging in some circumstances to receive a visa. But every single person is given the opportunity and their cases are looked at thoroughly.
The Standard: How many Gambians have been deported from the US in the past 20 months and how many are on ICE’s return list?
CD Seaver: We have approximately 60 Gambians who have been deported under ICE since 2015 by the Department of Homeland Security and these are individuals who have been out of status in the US. They may have violated some immigration policy or laws of the US and have found themselves to be out of status in the US.
The Standard: How many are waiting to be deported?
CD Seaver: That number differs and it depends on a number of factors so I don’t have that information to share with you now. So we cannot talk about specific cases.
The Standard: The question of the former president is the elephant in the room politically speaking, what do you reckon The Gambia Government should do about Yahya Jammeh? And what support, if any, are you willing to give in this regard?
CD Seaver: Well first thing, I congratulate the people of The Gambia for moving and taking the steps towards democracy and also I know there are lines of institutions that are currently in place in order to analyse and get full information regarding what happened under Jammeh’s rule and of course this includes the TRRC which gives the chance to victims to share their information. There are judicial and investigative activities that are taking place there and there is also the Janneh Commission and so the US is waiting and looking forward to the results of those commissions that are fair and transparent and what actually comes out from those.
The Standard: Now looking abroad, what is your take on the recalibration of US foreign policy under President Trump? With his so-called ‘America First’ agenda, he is trying to rewrite all the rules of international engagement.
CD Seaver: President Trump has been very clear during his speeches, et cetera. As you know, every president is elected by his constituents and what I want to note is that there is in the economic and trade areas a lot of opportunities between the US and other countries and one example of that is that The Gambia is eligible for AGOA which enables Gambian businesses to export products to the US duty free, mainly agricultural products, and this is to promote additional economic development which can benefit both our countries. We also have some individual projects that will help both people here in The Gambia and other countries, like a cashew growing project, in addition to promoting different engagements and activities that will support the economy in The Gambia. This includes the works that the MCC and our Peace Corps volunteers are doing. We believe that strong economies around the world will benefit both the US and other countries and so we are committed to maintaining the partnership that we have with The Gambia because we think that it is of course a global economy and the stronger the economies around the world, the better.
The Standard: Decent people all over the world including top US politicians have condemned President Trump for his “shameful” and “immoral” reaction to Saudi Arabia for the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi. Don’t you think in behaving the way he did, the US is being divested of any moral authority it has left as the “leader of the free world”?
CD Seaver: There are still details of this incident which are still under investigations and details that are not clear. And so until those details can fully be flushed out its too early to make a final decision or comment on that matter. But what I can say is that around the world the US of course works with our partners to promote democracy, human rights and prevent trafficking in persons. We have a variety of programmes and projects that highlight injustices around the world and the protection of democracy and human rights is a basic tenet of the US policy and we remain committed to that.
The Standard: Is it a question of ‘America first’ and justice last because even the CIA said the Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman ordered or knew about the plan to kill Kashoggi?
CD Seaver: Well as I have just stated there are still things that are not one hundred percent clear and things that are under investigations and so what I can say is that it is still too premature to say until all of the details have been worked out.