Gambia: The Ministry of Finance and economic affairs Thursday September 27th released a government memo sent to all departments temporary banning nonessential travel amid outcry over excessive travel expenses. The memo came during President Barrow and his delegation’s visit to New York to attend the 73rd United Nations General Assembly. The high powered Presidential visit attracted widespread condemnation from Gambians after it was learned that the President chartered an expensive private Vista jet to fly him and some members of his delegation to New York. The Jet is estimated to charge up to $15,000 per hour according to the Company’s website.
Preliminary reports and financial estimates indicate that it could cost the Gambia up to $250,000 over Eleven and half Million Dalasis (D11,500,000) for roughly about ten days. This is different from cost of accommodation, per diems and other travel needs of the President. It was also reported that several members of Barrow’s delegation flew commercial because the Jet could only carry sixteen people.
Few days prior to the President traveling to New York, the Minister of Finance Mamburay Njie during a Question and Answer Session at the National Assembly in Banjul revealed that the Barrow government has spent over Two Hundred and Thirty-Million Dalasis (D230,0000) from January 2018 to July little over Six Months. The minister indicated that the government has almost exceeded its travel expenses that were allocated in the 2017/18 Budget. The exorbitant travel expenses attracted widespread condemnation by many Gambians both on the ground and the Diaspora. Many pointed out to the fact that the Vice President Alhagie Ousainou Darboe just few days prior reported to the same National Assembly that the Gambia faces imminent food shortage in the next year due to expected poor rainy season harvest. It therefore did not make sense to many for government to continue to spend lavishly on travel while the country continue to face challenges economically.
The Finance ministry’s announcement banning nonessential government travel is believed to be in response to the mounting criticism from many quarters especially from the loudest constituent – The Gambian Diaspora noticeably on Social Media and online Radios. However, readers may recalled that exactly one year in October 2017 the former minister of information Demba A. Jawo announced that the Barrow government was instituting a first class travel restriction on civil servants to cut cost. The minister said in response to a question during an interview with Freedom Newspaper“Well, when the government found out that the coffers were almost empty; when the government came to power we realize that it is very important to minimize government expenditure. The Minister of Finance decided to bring a proposal to cabinet, which says that there will be travel restrictions on First Class Travels, especially for Permanent Secretaries, Director Generals, Chairmen of Management Boards,” Many Gambians applauded this move and additional austerity measures that were being recommended by the former minister of Finance Amadou Sanneh including transportation and vehicle restrictions. In fact, Finance Minister Sanneh’s austerity measures were met with stiff resistance within the government and allegedly this may have led to his removal as Minister of Finance to Economic Affairs.
The debate about government expenditure and lack of serious attention to unnecessary expenses and cost cutting intensified during this UN week. While government critics believe the funds can be better utilized to improve the standard of living of Gambians through improvement of medical facilities, schools, treatment of victims of the Jammeh regime etc, government supporters are quick to point out the reciprocity benefits that the government is bringing from all the travels. Many who exchanged information with Gainako indicated that the government brought millions if not billions including the $1.7 Billion pledge at the donor conference held in Brussels few months ago.
A brief conversation between Gainako Editor and the minister of information Mr. Ebrima Sillah revealed that government did indeed bring millions of dollars from a trip to Saudi Arabic on the impending OIC Summit to be hosted by Gambia; the President’s trip to China, Nigeria and other high level visits. The minister referred our editor to contact the government spokesperson to grant us an interview. The editor however asked why the government was shy about sharing such information with the general public. He acknowledged that such information in the public domain could defuse some of the tension, but also pointed out that “some people may have their hidden agenda and that you cannot run a government base on social media” He emphasized that we should speak to Ebrima Sankareh whose role it is to discuss government matters. Our editor made several attempts to reach out to Sankare by leaving voice and text message but no response as of the time we go to press.
It is essential that the Barrow government recognized that they have had and continue to have challenges sharing information with the general public. This has been a chronic problem from the inception of the Barrow government and for whatever reason it is hard to comprehend. When citizens are informed of government activities; financial dealings, personnel appointments etc it leaves little room for speculation. The Gambian media though still lacking in many areas has wider readership especially on social media, online and print. The Barrow government must take advantage of the 24 hour news cycle and inform citizens of vital information especially as it relates to government finances; grants, loans, and awarding of contracts to international companies.
As we go to press FAR Limited an oil giant is three days away from starting a major oil drilling offshore Gambian waters. According to the company there is estimated to be over 825 Million Barrels of crude oil almost $60 billion dollars of oil money. The government has little or no information about the terms surrounding this oil drilling and how much would be allocated to FAR and or the Gambia government. It is inconceivable that such a multi-million dollar project would be started on Gambian soil and yet there is scanty information about it and the issue has not been debated at the National Assembly. What has the government got to hide sharing such information with the general public? An informed citizenry is a strong and productive citizenry. All eyes are on this government and how it moves from here will determine how the Gambian people will response to the government. Recent activities of anonymous donors depositing millions of dalasis into the First Lady’s foundation has raised more questions about why this government is not comfortable sharing information. The government must note that information vital or not will come out into the public domain so it would be prudent for them to start sharing as much as they can.