By Saul Saidykhan
When I was a youngster, I read something the Great Mwalimu Nyerere said that has stuck with me ever since. It is a simple statement, but it’s very profound: “The Musungu (Europeans) go back and forth to the moon, but we cannot even go to our villages!” Recently, one of my Facebook friends, Cherno Baba Jallow, -himself one of our brightest stars, posted some photos from location while on a pilgrimage to his ancestral home in rural Guinea Conakry. In some of the photos, we see bountiful fruits that would go to waste for two reasons – lack of labor to harvest the fruits, and motorable roads to transport the produce to the market.
Less than a week ago, on a GRTS newscast, I saw village women from Nuimi complaining about how much of their bumper harvest of perishable vegetables like onions is going to waste for lack of storage and means of transport to market. Consequently, they’re left with no option, but to surrender their produce to predator middlemen at give-away prices. Yet, in a matter of only few months, Gambians will be importing onions and similar vegetable products from Europe at exorbitant prices. Seriously! How hard is it to build modern silos to store farm and garden products around the country? Or process the produce into condiment in more durable forms. We had a leader who for two decades threw millions at praise singers and kept bragging about how he has developed the country. Yet, this is still our collective reality. I can’t help but wonder why we are so unimaginative.
Close to forty years apart, The Great Mwalimu’s quip and Cherno Baba’s photos combine- unwittingly, in many ways to tell the post-colonial African story: a continent that continuously squanders its most precious gifts (both human and natural,) only to turn around and cry for outside help. We train only a minority of our youth to High School level, and then abandon most of these youths to fend for themselves while Western concerns openly poach the best and brightest among them to serve their commercial and other interests. In the last sixty years, the successful African is often portrayed as one who has finished high school in Africa, attended university in the West or “polished” his/her African university education in the West, and works as a professional in the West – no matter how unfulfilled he or she may feel personally. I know from first-hand experience, being an adequately paid African professional in the West is very different from being fulfilled. As long as this remains African reality, we’ll continue to be in trouble.
In the case of The Gambia especially, we have now seen two models of development in the past fifty-two years. We can learn a lot from both in our bid to chart a new beginning in this Third Republic. Until 1984 or thereabout, the PPP government invested heavily in the Public Works Department (PWD) equipping each Divisional Headquarter (Brikama, Mansakonko, Kerewan, George Town, and Basse) with construction machinery like Graders, Excavators, Backhoe Loaders, Multi-terrain Loaders, Compactors, and Highway Trucks. The PWD of every Division (now Region) of The Gambia had a permanent Civil Engineering team that built public infrastructure (public buildings, roads, culverts, drainages,) and maintained them all on an ongoing basis. The PWDs also had an Auto-Mechanics team that repaired and maintained government vehicles, plus a section that oversaw supplying petrol to government; and a Carpentry section that made furniture for government. Given its size, government could import things – from cement to steel, to spare parts, timber, plywood, and other development materials cheaper than private entities. That was the good news.
The unwelcome news, which will be no surprise to any honest Gambian or astute observer of Gambians is, the very set-up of PWD was a recipe for disaster. The Checks or Management Controls put in place at the PWDs as far as access to, and use of public resources are concern were jokes. The truth is, to this day, the predominant Gambian mentality is this: “what belongs to the public doesn’t belong to anyone, therefore whoever is entrusted with public property can do whatever he/she wants with it.” Case in point; very few Gambians are willing to acknowledge that 9 out of 10 of those Yahya Jammeh accused of theft are probably guilty going by circumstantial evidence. Many argue forcefully that Jammeh lacks the moral authority to prosecute anyone for theft. There’s nothing to disagree with in that argument. However, the fact that Jammeh is a bigger thief is irrelevant if one genuinely cares about the national interest. Yaya Jammeh waking up and stealing a million US Dollars from Gambians daily gives not a license to any other Gambian to also steal from a people already abused enough. Yet in the current environment we’re in, there seems to be a presumption that everyone Jammeh locked up for or accused of Economic Crimes is innocent. This is NOT the case. We need to stop confusing trees for the forest. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be taken for a ride by con artists and leeches of all sorts. In the era of the PWD, from cement, to steel, to timber-plywood, to fuel and spare parts, someone was always pilfering from the PWD. Over time, that ceaseless theft took its toll imposing an unsustainable financial burden on the state that ultimately forced the PPP government to scrap that valuable institution based on World Bank-imposed conditions. And PWD had a wonderful impact on bridging the gap among Gambians and bringing people together.
For instance, Jarra Soma owes its prominence almost entirely to the PWD’s siting in Mansakonko. Prior to the PWD, Soma was just a tiny four-compound village (Jarjuseys, Darbos, Saidy-Bahs and Sannehs) at the crossroads of Lower Gambia-Upper Gambia and Northern Senegal-Southern Senegal. Everyone else was drawn to Soma by Mansakonko. In 2007, I met some northern Senegalese living in Soma who are more Jarra than I am. Some PPP government para-statals also had active seasonal hubs in places like Kuntaur, Jakali-Pacharr, and Tendaba that saw bee-hive activity due to seasonal employment opportunities. In essence, the PPP had Divisional Headquarters, and several employment nodes around the country.
The Yahya Jammeh model of development is harder to discern because of his tendency to personalize things. This made his policies haphazard and hard to make any sense of. While Jammeh has opened southern Kombo by building a major trunk road near the Atlantic (the so-called Coastal Road) that loops around the main towns and villages in the area, the opacity of the process and his personal involvement cast a long pall over the project. Ditto for the other major road projects he undertook. And beyond the urban Kombo areas, except for the single road arteries on either side of the River Gambia, the four hospital shells, and about ten post- elementary schools he built, Jammeh seemed to have completely confused rural Gambia for his home village of Kanilai. While storey buildings were going up in Kanilai at public expense, everywhere else in rural Gambia were signs of retrogression. In the run-up to the 2001 elections, with his approval, his erstwhile right hand man, the late Baba Jobe bought a multi-million-dollar brown new heavy-duty electric generator that the two installed in Mansakonko to supply W. Jarra electricity. It was a big PR coup for them at the time against some of us who were trying to undermine them. However, shortly after he arrested Baba Jobe, he sent soldiers to move the generator to Kanilai. Since then, W. Jarra has not had its independent electric supply. Instead, the area has been getting its electricity supply from Farafenni in the North Bank.
Worse, from Social Security & Housing Finance Corporation funds, to Gamtel, Gamcel, GRA, and GPA, Jammeh has probably spent billions of Dalasi of the Gambian peoples’ money on upgrading his native village.Making matters worse, extra billions have been siphoned from Gambian public coffers by his senior government and military officials through a daring Fuel Coupon Redemption program that has been going on briskly until recently. The coupons are transferable, non-unique, non-serialized Cash-equivalents that holders can trade for fuel at private petrol stations. The petrol stations redeem the coupons from government. All that is required for payment is presentation at the appropriate government redemption office. Brave crooks simply made photocopies of the coupons and sold them for cash. Many people in government were aware of the scam and the racket behind it. Yet this scam went on for years. It is one of the most brazen cases of daylight robbery I’ve ever heard of in the public sector. Finance Minister Amadou Sanneh has Auditors looking into the damage in this and other Income and Expenditure areas of the Jammeh era. If I were to bet conservatively, I’d say the damage will be in the tens of billions of Dalasi!
The irony is it’s very easy to eliminate leakages like this fuel scam with a combo of simple Professional Standard Controls and readily available technology like Debit Card-like plastic instruments with unique features that leave an AUDIT TRAIL as the Ghanaians, Senegalese, and Kenyans are doing. It’s simply insane for any serious contemporary government to hand its employees transferable, non-unique, Cash-equivalent fuel Coupons. It’s beyond stupid!
Given the two models, my suggestion would be to take the PPP Model but to twitch it by adding several more Magnet towns like I suggested in part A. However, instead of going back to the ancient PWDs, I’d advise government to search, identity, and help form, sponsor and promote, and equip a local engineering company in EVERY Region of The Gambia that The Gambia government will use as its main infrastructure development partner in that part of the country. These partner companies will be deliberately designed to be ultimately WHOLLY OWNED by Gambian citizens. Government’s role at the beginning would be to bankroll or guarantee the initial investment, and to superintend their operations to safeguard the public interest, and to regulate the companies to ensure their compliance with requisite laws in terms of employment. Once the companies are on firm footing, and government recovers its investment, government would pull back and let them be. The Gambia government should strive to ensure that every Region of The Gambia has at least one permanent construction company that can cater to the public infrastructure needs of the Region. This way, youth around The Gambia could be trained and engaged continuously in all facets of national infrastructural development. An added advantage of this idea is, all Regions of the country will feel a sense of ownership in the Gambian Enterprise as making employment opportunities available at local level in every Region of the country will make every part of the country feel like important Primary Stakeholders in the scheme of things.
With this goal in mind, Foreign Secretary Darbo should embark on a mission to aggressively lobby the European countries now host to thousands of mostly unskilled Gambian youth to help us train them in areas like road-building, housing construction, cable installation, solar installation, masonry, carpentry, welding, plumbing, refrigeration, air-conditioning, auto-mechanics, electrical engineering, agro-processing, cosmetics & personal care, and New Technology areas. Unlike the traditional professions, all these are “academic light” occupations that take less than three years to complete or become proficient at. The youth are already in Europe anyway, and currently The Gambia lacks the capacity to train them in these sorely-needed skills area for national development. On their return, these youths could easily help sustain the Regional infrastructure companies envisioned.
The alternative would be for The Gambia to take a huge foreign loan, and award contracts to the “best bidder” regardless of the social agenda of the government. Or worse, to do what many of our people on the continent – DRC, Angola, and Zambia have done. (In the DRC, the government signed a contract amounting to 2 Billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure development with the Chinese in exchange for 22 Billion dollars’ worth of mineral resources! Yet, even this outrageous imbalance doesn’t tell the full story because many experts believe the Chinese are getting close to 30 Billion dollars’ worth of resources in exchange for their 2 billion. Angola’s is just as bad. We really seem to specialize in doing dumb things in Africa. The Gambia shouldn’t follow such path.
My advice to the current government is to pursue an aggressive local talent development regime (as suggested) by taking a page from- ironically, the Chinese. See, less than sixty years ago, the Chinese were themselves not only a laughing stock in the West, they weren’t respected much in the East either. The Japanese, who conquered and overshadowed them for long, treated them with contempt, and regarded their country as nothing more than one giant whorehouse. Well, no one is laughing at them anymore. The moral here? We Africans need to do what the Chinese did to change our condition instead of inviting them to come and take our jobs and resources as if we are a brain-dead people. All we lack are knowledge and skills. With discipline and proper leadership, we can change this.
As such, the Barrow administration should re-double efforts to train enough Gambians to shoulder the task of the heavy-lifting needed in terms of building up Gambian civil infrastructure, skill-acquisition, and education.
We shall look at how following such advice will impact the Gambian economy and the Economics of such an environment in the next segment…