By Saul Saidykhan
To close out this series, I circle back to my initial allusion to what I deem the bane of contemporary Gambia: lack of any enforcement of Regulations or Standards (where they exist) in Gambian social or public live. I’ll present the reality by segment.
First, my initial night in Kotu was rough. Some discotheque in the area plays loud music all night. Clearly, wherever the music plays from lacks sound-proof material. Or they simply don’t care. In no sane country would this be legal. Those who want to go to a night club and enjoy themselves should be allowed to do so as long as they don’t create noise pollution or become a nuisance for the entire neighborhood (a health hazard.) In the ‘80s, the late NA Speaker, A.S Jack filed a complaint with the Police and succeeded in stopping a Bukarabu group from playing into the wee hours every weekend in Churchill’s Town because he couldn’t sleep due to their noise. Mr. Jack was right! This obnoxious loud music kept me up way past my normal bedtime. (Someone told me it’s a Nigerian place, but I couldn’t confirm that.) To exacerbate matters, my sleep was rudely interrupted by a muezzin at an odd hour. I woke up with a fright after only a few hours of sleep. When I looked at my clock, it wasn’t even 5:00 am. I kept wondering what the heck that was all about. Before I could go back to sleep again, the more familiar 5:30 am call went out from multiple mosques. It turns out, it’s the Pakistani-led cult named Marakass who wake up the neighborhood by 4:30 am because apparently the way our people have been practicing Islam for hundreds of years is wrong! So unless you’re accustomed to loud noise, you can kiss the idea of peaceful sleep in parts of Kotu goodbye. If there is a Regulation against such nonsense, nobody is enforcing it.
Second, Flashback to July 1994. If you live in Brikama, you can take a taxi cab to Banjul or SerreKunda for a fixed D5.00 or so fee. And the cab will take you all the way to the S/K Market if need be. Today, that same distance requires taking a minimum of 3 cabs (sometimes paying the same cab twice or more!) Here is how the scam works: you want a cab in Brikama to get to SerreKunda. The cabbie says he’s stopping in Lameng. When you get to Lameng, you disembark. Miraculously, the same cabbie is now going to Latrikunda (Kaw Junction or Buffer Zone.) Then, he’s going to Tallinding Bantaba, Churchill’s Town/SK junction, or Westfield as a final stop. Each of these stops will cost you a minimum of D8.00. One of my cousin-sisters lives in Tabokoto, a place they now call Sinchu, and works near the US Embassy on Kairaba Avenue. She takes 4 cabs every weekday either way. You do the math. How did we get here besides Yaya Jammeh’s recklessness? Senegalese drivers – pure and simple! They’ve found a meek and docile people and are taking advantage of Gambians. Sorry to the PC or truth-allergic crowd but this is the reality. Again, If there is a Regulation against such nonsense, nobody is enforcing it.
Third, in telecommunications, the idea of PURA as a Regulator is a joke! Two days after I arrive in January, I couldn’t use my US phone though I was assured before leaving that I could. So I went to the S/K Market to buy a phone to use. I asked which carrier is best and was told Africell is better than the rest. Well, D600 ‘credit’ didn’t last me long at all. First, I found to my chagrin that once you switch on your phone, the credit runs irrespective of whether you use the phone or not. This is an outrage! But it gets worse. My number was 7061737. Three days after I started using the phone, I went to a Guinean shop in Kotu and bought an extra D200 credit. The Guinean teenager punched in 7610737 instead of 7061737. Normally, the confirmation is texted to your phone within minutes. After 5 minutes of waiting, I asked him to review the transaction. We quickly realized the issue. I ask that he call Africell and have them correct the issue. The lad said something about Africell never agreeing to that. I thought he was joking. When I took the phone from him, I spoke to a Yama Jatta, explained the issue, and ask that she resolve the issue. She said it’s not their policy to do that.
‘Can you see my phone number in your system’ I asked.
‘Yes I can’ she answered.
Can you see the 7610737phone number in your system,?’ I ask again.
‘Yes I can’ she answered.
‘So why can’t you debit or move the D200 credit from that number to mine since both are your assigned numbers?”
She said “my brother, if the amount is less than D250, we don’t do that (make corrections). You have to call the owner of the number and ask him/her to give you back your credit.’
I said, ‘you kidding me? Please give me your Supervisor.’ The woman hung up on me!
Well, I called back again, and after countless rings, I got hold of one Essa Drammeh. He gave me the same twisted D250 minimum intervention policy circular argument. Drammeh advised me to keep trying the 7610737 number to beg the owner to give me back my D200 credit. The owner wouldn’t pick up when I tried. I asked him to try. Same result – not surprisingly. In the new Gambia, honor and integrity are dying fast. Asking customers to call each other to resolve such issues is a crackpot idea I told him! I chucked it up to experience and moved on. I can afford to write off the D200. How many ordinary Gambians can?
I later found out from some senior government officials that all three private cellular carriers -Africell, Qcell, and Comium, are in the business of routinely scamming and ripping off Gambians. First, NONE of them had 4th Generation technology at the time despite the large billboards they had all over the place claiming such. Worse, they have historically routinely colluded with Senegalese Telcos to divert revenue that ought to be going to the GG. A perfect example is the Roku revenue stream. Before Ebrima Sillah took over GRTS, not one Butut of the revenue that should accrue to GG from the Roku medium’s broadcast of GRTS was getting to state coffers! Folks like myself in the diaspora who have been paying subscriptions to Roku primarily to receive GRTS programs were merely being hoodwinked. It was the blocking of this fraud pipe that enabled GRTS to increase staff salaries by 100%. Again, If there is a Regulation against such nonsense, it’s not being enforced.
Fourth, if you want a Driver’s license in Gambia, you don’t even have to go to the cramped office at the Banjul Police HQ the unit is located. If you can afford the bribe, all you need are 2 passport-size photos, and the fees. No Driving Test on a public road. No Road Sign Test. No Eye Exam, No muscular-skeletal test. Drop your photos and a D1,000 and within days, you can go on the road and do whatever or behave anyhow. Many of our drivers can’t see well, but who cares? A cabbie took us from Kotu to the Gamtel office near Senegambia Hotel on a rainy day this year. He balked at going past the Para sentries at the gate. When I later interrogated him, I found he had been driving without a license for over ten years. Each time, he is “parked”, he ‘dish’ out something and they let him go. Another took me to Lameng in January. When I noticed his erratic driving style, I asked if he isn’t seeing the way ahead well – potholes and all. He swore he is. An easy test confirmed my fear: I was being driven by a vision-impaired cabbie. My question: how many Gambians die because of legally blind drivers given licenses to drive? And when will Gambia get serious about saving innocent citizens’ lives? Starting point? A Motor Vehicle Division of the Police equipped with Vision testing equipment and Computer models that can teach drivers road signs and test illiterates in their native tongue. More, it makes much sense to have this unit in Foni or Nuimi than keeping it bottled up in Banjul in its current dysfunctional state.
Fifth, there is a lack of professionalism among public servants that is as shameful as it is shocking. I went to the Immigration Department’s Passport office four times this year. And each time, I saw the same thing: around midday, some Sierra Leonean shows up with cake, or Ebbeh and work virtually stops in the whole office. An announcement goes out that food is in the house, and most things are put on hold immediately. The diligent ones keep munching on their food even as they continue to serve customers. The cake is ok, but the Ebbeh is served in liquid form. In a sane country, some regulation will ensure that the Ebbeh is kept warm at a certain temperature. Not in Gambia. As for the Immigration workspace, – to begin with, the place is small, cramped and unsuitable for heavy traffic. There is NO parking for either staff or visitors outside. There are barely a dozen chairs inside the office for visitors to sit. Worse, the sitting area outside the office is inadequate, dirty, and unhealthy. This ENTIRE unit should also be moved out of Banjul expeditiously!
In terms of service, the idea of ‘First Come, First Served’ is mere rhetoric. A fellow I met told me he had been going there for weeks in vain. Easy to see why that is so: if you are a VIP or know how to name-drop a VIP, you’re leap-frogged ahead of dozens. I felt terrible having to leave the poor fellow I found there after only a couple of hours. My suggestion?: print a Serialized number of LIMITED tickets each day. And except for Special Cases like State matters, each visitor picks a ticket as soon as they arrive. Service accordingly. (Because the processing is very slow, the Managers should know the upper limit of the number of people they can process each day. Why make 50 people wait when you can only process 20 people max?)
Sixth, it takes a car travelling 30MPH about 30 seconds to drive past the CANCER FACTORY call Bakoteh Dump site. Even with the windows rolled up, it’s common to choke up because of the smoke and smell. There is a sickening stench to the odor of the place. No surprise there because everything from plastics, nylon, rotten food, and furniture are dumped at the site. Yet, you see little school children walking around in the vicinity, though I was told the main German school opposite had been shut down due to the foul air. One need not be a scientist to foresee the types of health issues many of the kids exposed to the toxic environment in Bakoteh are likely to develop some decades from now. Though a sign prohibiting fires is posted, there was always some fire burning at the site when I pass. Some of the fires may be set to cover up evidence of crimes. A dead body was found there one day while I was there. I didn’t know Gambians dump their dead at trash sites, but this isn’t the Gambia I grew up in. the one thing that kept baffling me is why police guards are not posted at the site to enforce environmental laws or KMC Ordinances. Anyhow, no big shot lives in the neighborhood nor send their children to a school there, so what’s the hurry in getting this disaster addressed?
Seventh, the Gambia Police currently is way in over its head. This is simply because of the reality highlighted by former IGP Landing Kinteh in his Exit interview with a news media: the GP has been the dumping ground of academic failures. Most of our police officers cannot write a simple accurate Statement of Facts pertaining to any case. Nor can they read and understand material regarding their own rights or Terms of Engagement. This is a very serious problem either way one looks at the issue. On the one hand, police officers ignorant of their rights are prone to bullying by citizens, and on the other hand, officers ignorant of their Terms of Engagement are bound to violate the law by abusing citizens’ rights! Making matters worse, the Gambia is now home to crime syndicates composed mostly of Nigerian and Guinean crooks who open “businesses” in the name of ‘Lottery’ to operate Pyramid or 419 Schemes to swindle Gambians of thousands. There are currently many such scandalous cases from KMC to Basse. And it’s the Gambia Police that apparently issues these foreign crooks licenses! What does the police have to do with issuing Business or ‘Lottery’ licenses? Isn’t that something the Central Bank or some Financial sector Regulator should be doing?
As a start, GP need to set a minimum High School education standard for recruits. Second, the force should stop Commissioning non-degree holders beyond a certain rank. Those currently in service should be availed the opportunity to pursue a degree at UTG if they want to advance. Unless we up the ante in our Police Force, Gambia will continue be at the mercy of criminals and crooks. When even a Six-pence crook can out-think your Police Commanders, you’re in real trouble!
Eight, our Central Bank historically issues Foreign Exchange licenses to foreigners who in turn sub-lease the licenses to dozen others. This needs to be stopped. Part of the reasons for the weakness of the Dalasi is the speculation and currency manipulation foreigners who control our foreign exchange market engage in. Even for Gambian nationals, only NON-TRANSFERABLE Licenses should be issued!
Nine, the one tragedy that jumps at one in visiting most Gambian public markets is the dearth of indigenous Gambians in the commerce arena. If a particular niche isn’t controlled by the Lebanese, it’s the Indians. If not the Indians, it’s the Guineans. If not the Guineans, it’s the Mauritanians. If not the Mauritanians, it’s the Senegalese. Be this Banjul, KMC, Brikama, Soma or Farafenni. The story is the same. This is a very SERIOUS problem. No country can develop securely when its economic lifeline is in the hands of foreigners who can – at a whim, exercise predatory or monopolistic tactics on the population. No need to speculate about this scenario as we’ve seen in the last year alone, such cruel methods being used against Gambians in the bakery, transport, building, retail, and hospitality sectors. The key question for our political leaders and policy makers is: what is so special about the foreigners that are allowed to dominate these businesses that Gambians cannot compete them? Is it in fact because of Gambian laziness that foreigners dominate Gambian business as some claim? then how do we explain the genius of peasants from Baddibu and URR holding up the Gambian economy from the 1960s to 1994? Our leaders need to buckle up and stop blaming our ‘lazy youth’ for not being enterprising enough.
The starting point of this would be to STOP renewing Canteen Licenses for foreigners at our markets when Gambian applicants are denied the opportunity because they either refuse to pay bribes or cannot pay as much bribes as foreigners! This is the current reality of our local Municipal Councils from Banjul to Basse. Corrupt officials and political hacks trade Canteen licenses to foreigners for bribes. The second step is to recruit and train Gambian youth with High School diplomas how to set up and manage a business. In line with the NDP, and the Decentralization agenda of government, there’s no reason why youth cannot be trained by the Trade and Industry Ministry in their native Regions around the country.
Finally, there is no strenuous enforcement of our Environmental laws. In Jarra Soma, Farafenni, and now Kiang Dumbuto, peasants and crooks from Senegal and Guinea Conakry are allowed to chop down our forests to sell land to others for unplanned mud-house settlements. This, at a time when our Environment Minister is promoting tree planting re-forestation exercises during the rainy season. What’s the point in planting new trees when foreign invaders are allowed to destroy existing forests?