By Yusef Taylor, @FlexDan_YT
According to the latest audit report issued by the National Audit Office (NAO), thousands of Gambian Diplomatic Passports (DP) have been issued without following due process. The Auditor General’s report titled “Administration Management of Diplomatic and Service Passports” revealed that “the Gambia Immigration Department supplied 6,500 machine readable passports to the MoFA in 2014. However, officials at the Ministry were unable to account for 5,395 passports”. This means that only 1,105 passports were accounted for.
Unfortunately, the President’s Office (OP) also joined into the fraudulent act and issued at least 70 DPs without supporting documents. Although the OP is indicted by the report the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) crucially ignored instructions from the OP to develop an eligibility guideline for the issuance of DPs since December 2018.
Investigations by the country’s apex auditing institution have unearthed that “correspondence was received from the Office of the President in December 2018 requesting the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Foreign Affairs to develop an eligibility guideline for the issuance of diplomatic passports but no evidence of such policy guidelines was provided by the officials at MoFA”.
After President Adama Barrow defeated former President Yahya Jammeh in the December 2016 Presidential election, he instituted his Cabinet in 2017 and appointed Hon Ousainou Darboe as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The party leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP) maintained this position until June 2018 when he was succeeded by Hon Momodou Tangara who has maintained this position to date. This means that the instructions were received by the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon Tangara.
To address this the Auditor General has instructed that “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should provide [an] explanation for their failure to develop a policy guideline as requested by the Office of the President”.
70 DPs Issued by OP Without Due Process
The NAO report revealed that at least 70 DPs were issued from April 2017 to August 2019 by the OP fraudulently. The list compiled by auditors is included in Appendix F of the Report and includes individuals who “were issued diplomatic passport through a directive from Office of the President (OP) without following the” due procedure to be issued DPs.
Included in the list are well-known Gambians such as the party leader of the Gambia Democratic Congress, Mama Kandeh, Imam Baba Leigh, a Commissioner for the National Human Rights Commission and four family members of the former Minister of Justice amongst others.
Auditors say that “there is no policy or guideline for the issue of diplomatic passports and the Office of the President approves applications without recourse to any regulation”. The fraudulent issuance of DPs means that “there is a very high risk of issuing a passport to ineligible persons” noted the report.
In fact, the practice is so endemic that “in some instances, protocols at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are bypassed and approval was sought directly from the Office of the President,” said Auditors.
During the investigation, the Management of the MoFA provided a list of positions within the public services that are eligible to be issued DPs. Auditors highlight that “discussions with officials at MoFA revealed that the only direct dependents of the President, Vice President, Ambassadors and Diplomats at missions are entitled to hold diplomatic passports even though no documented evidence was provided to support this claim”.
The list provided by the MoFA and reproduced in the Audit report notes that only the Speaker of the House is accorded a DP amongst Gambian Parliamentarians. However, another list is included in Appendix B of the report which itemized all Gambian Parliamentarians that have been issued DPs.
Fraudulent Issuance Devaluing Gambian Diplomatic Passport
A serious concern raised in the report underlines that the persistent fraudulent issuance of DPs to the highest bidders has devalued the Gambian Passport and made it much more difficult to secure visas. The report states that the practice has “tarnished the image of the country; and although it did not affect the number of countries that we can visit, it has definitely made the rigours of obtaining visas to some countries much more difficult”.
Perhaps the most important recommendation is for the MoFA to “urgently draft policy guidelines for eligibility for Diplomatic and Service passports and engage all stakeholders for validation and implementation without delay”. Failure to follow the instructions from the OP to prepare this since 2018 “has made the system susceptible to abuse and misuse. No wonder that some unscrupulous officials from both the Office of the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs capitalized by dishing out the passports to the highest bidder”.
Included in the list are names of numerous businesspersons such as the proprietor of Atlas, the proprietor of MJ Financial, the managing director of PetroGas, religious scholars, philanthropists and numerous other individuals who shouldn’t be issued DPs.
To address the problem Auditors, say that “effort should be made to repossess these passports from the ineligible holders and sanction those officials responsible for their issue”. However, the officials to be held accountable are working/ worked in the Ministry and are/ were responsible for the issuance of DPs. If the MoFA and the Executive cannot ensure this is done, the National Assembly could investigate the matter through their committees.
The list in Appendix F of the audit report is only one of the numerous lists included in the Audit Report. More importantly, the list demonstrates instances when eligible individuals have failed to provide the required supporting documents to be issued DPs. One such individual is the Minister of Tourism, Hon Hamat NK Bah who is listed as not providing the required “supporting document”. This demonstrates a lack of respect for the regulations in place.
It can be recalled that an Investigative Report was published on the fraudulent issuance of DPs without due process in the past and nothing has been done about it. Now, the NAO audit report is recommending that “all applications for Diplomatic or Service passports, regardless of origin, are subjected to proper vetting or screening by MoFA before approvals”.
Looking at the value of Gambian Passports across the globe, the Guide Passport Ranking Index states that “the Gambian passport currently ranks 76th place” and “provides visa-free access to 68 destinations. This gives it an overall medium-low mobility score. Gambian passport holders have visa-free access and visas on arrival to countries such as Malaysia, Senegal, Singapore and Barbados”.
However, “Gambian nationals require a visa to enter about 161 destinations in the world. Some of the destinations for which a prior visa is required are the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Japan”.
Bearing in mind there is already a list of positions (above) that are to be issued DPs below is a list of the procedures to be followed to be issued a diplomatic passport as listed in the Audit Report.
i. Applicants for diplomatic passports send their application to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA).
ii. The application will include a letter from the institution stating the applicant’s name, position, index form, copy of any nationality document.
iii. The application is verified by MoFA staff as to whether they met the above criteria.
iv. The Permanent Secretary then counter check and if he/she is satisfied with the application together with the supporting documents then he/she signs the index forms.
v. The application is then forwarded to the Office of the President for approval.