Thursday, April 19, 2018

MGI Gateway contract promises to be another SEMLEX saga, if improperly handled


The government of Adama Barrow notified Gambians and the world last July that it has taken direct control of the country's sole international voice gateway from Multimedia Gateway International (MGI) - a Swiss-based company - which has been managing the gateway operations on behalf of The Gambia for a number of years.

The decision to reverse a lopsided business arrangement that personally benefited the former Gambian dictator and MGI at the expense of the Gambian people was one of the new government's most consequential decision in its brief tenure.  The decision reverses the revenue generated by the termination fees away from the MGI and Yaya Jammeh back towards the Gambia Telecommunications Company (GAMTEL) and the public treasury. 

The move also enabled GAMTEL to directly collect 100% of international call termination fees from other operators thus giving the government direct control of its telecommunication facilities and the revenue stream. 

The decision also returned the line ministry function from the Office of the President to the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure (MOICI) under current minister D. A. Jawo who also informed us that it was "the task force that recommended that GAMTEL be assigned the management of the gateway for a period of six months pending the...liberalization of the voice gateway." 

The World Bank had recommended the opening up (liberalization) of the gateway to the different GSM/ISP operators.   
 
However before the liberalization exercise is complete - the Public Utilities and Regulatory Agency (PURA) - is in the process of procuring the necessary equipment that will allow it to monitor a liberalized gateway, the Office of the President proceeded by deciding to restore management of the gateway to MGI.

Why would such a decision be taken, apparently unilaterally, by President Adama Barrow against the advice of a task force set up by his office, and at a time when the Commission of Inquiry into the finances of Yaya Jammeh has revealed some criminality and highly irregular use of the revenue generated by the gateway.  The decision was ultimately rescinded. 

The move to rescind the decision came at the heels of public outcry but, in the view of the Information minister, the realization that "going ahead with restoring the gateway management to MGI would tantamount to executive interference with the work of the Commission." According to the Information minister, "the position [of the government] now is that Gamtel will continue to manage the gateway pending the completion of the process to liberalize it."

Meanwhile, the Managing Director of GAMTEL has been sent on leave pending an inquiry as to why GAMTEL has not performed as expected in the management of the gateway since his agency took charge last July. 

While we continue to monitor the situation as we try to understand the dynamics and special interests at play in yet another procurement saga, we must also keep in mind that release from the Information ministry taking over the management of the gateway also announced an 18% reduction in the international call termination rate, as well as promising that government "will continue to work with Gamtel and operators to further reduce the cost of communication" to the general public.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

President Barrow at Chatham House: "Shaping The Gambia's future: How to build a path to sustainable progress."



Mr Chairman,
Your Excellencies
Honourable Ministers
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Fellow Gambians
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is both a pleasure and honour for me to be invited by Chatham House, an internationally renowned institution, to speak on the topic “Shaping The Gambia’s future: how to build a path to sustainable progress”.

Mr Chairman, the socio-economic and political context of The Gambia has been characterised by over two decades of dictatorship.  The country lost its friends and status in the community of nations and respect as home of human rights in Africa. 

The peace and stability it nurtured since it attained independence in 1965 eroded in the 22 years of dictatorship. This affected the economy, and disintegrated the social fabric of the society.  Many of the youth left in search of a better life; in most cases through dangerous means, to reach Europe and other parts of the world.  The political environment was dangerous for freedom of expression and respect for human rights.  Thus, a serious brain drain followed.  

The business environment was risky, because the rule of law was not respected. The institutions have been destroyed, systems and procedures were not respected; thus instilling care-free attitude in the public service.

This unfortunate scenario forced Gambians to take a decision to define their destiny.  In 2016, eight stakeholders in the political arena came together to form a coalition and, on the 1st December 2016 Presidential election, Gambians went to the polls and voted me as President.

Immediately after the Coalition government came to office our first priority was to re-open The Gambia to the world, promote human rights and restore freedom of expression.  We had to build confidence amongst our partners and prepare a strategy to put The Gambia on the path of sustainable development.  In short, we had to right the wrongs in our institutions, systems and procedures.  We had to engage in institutional and legal reforms to ensure efficiency in the public service, good governance and progress in national development.  My Government’s strategy is now clearly outlined in the National Development Plan 2018-2021.

One of the first steps undertaken was to establish the rule of law by releasing all political prisoners, set up a review panel on wrongful dismissals and de-congest the Office of the President.  All the portfolios were decentralised to their line ministries.   This was to allow the experts and technicians to deal with issues in a professional manner and provide technical advice to the Office of the President. 

In the meantime, my Government continues to build on its diplomacy to return The Gambia into its rightful place in the community of nations and organisations.  One of these is the Commonwealth and we are delighted by the re-admission of The Gambia into the Commonwealth of Nations. 

Building the path of sustainable progress in The Gambia cannot be isolated from the global trend of events.  It calls for working towards a “Common future”, the theme for this year’s Commonwealth meeting.  The spirit of togetherness is key for effective change.

This has been demonstrated when Gambians came together to change a dictatorship, which for two decades, rubbed the country’s resources.  My Government inherited just over one month of import cover, thus its dependence on international support to revitalise its economy.  Therefore, developed countries should provide improved access to their markets; introduce and promote measures to liberalise trade, particularly in processed agricultural and manufactured goods. 

The reality of climate change has subjected our people to abject poverty and driven our youth to illegal migration.   To address this unfortunate situation, youth employment is a key priority of my Government.  Particularly important is their participation in socio-economic activities, training and entrepreneurship. 

My government is working to introduce and implement action-oriented measures designed to fight poverty.   These measures include effective promotion trade and investment, given their importance and potential in generating employment for the youth and economic growth.  Modernised agri-business, processing and packaging of products for the export market will all open The Gambia to regional and global markets.  It has the land, water and human resource to curb hunger and ensure food security.

When we came to office, we instantly faced formidable challenges because of domestic and foreign debt and widespread economic mismanagement. Therefore, my government has embarked on the effective implementation of macroeconomic policies that are supportive of the sustainable development goals. 

Priority will be given to decentralise economic activities throughout the country.  The rational use and allocation of resources have so far been employed without sacrificing the quality and standards of services.  Conscious efforts have also been made to strengthen and improve institutional, technical and managerial capabilities of public sector agencies, and the institutional framework for macroeconomic planning and development is fully operational.  Sector programmes and projects have been aligned to the National Development Plan 2018 – 2021. 

Special focus is also being given to improving the economic and social status of women. Policy decisions and projects are designed to promote gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. 

Efforts are being made towards diversifying The Gambia’s economy, through agriculture, tourism and fisheries. 

This requires knowledge transfer and skills development for the youth and to improve the livelihood of rural families. All these are meant to put Gambia on a sure path to sustainable progress.

As part of the effort to promote trade and enhance private sector initiatives designed to increase employment and promote the diversification of the Gambian economy, special focus is put on accelerating the growth of Small and Medium Enterprises.  The enabling environment has been created to attract both domestic and foreign direct investment. 

The initiatives include the improvement of the institutional credit support system for small and medium enterprises, as well as improving the regulatory environment for business. 
Mr. Chairman, my government’s strategy on education focuses on providing quality of basic education, improving the qualification and quality of teachers, strengthening science and technology in higher education and developing coherent and sustainable systems for technological skills acquisition and development.
 
Also, improving women’s level of education and literacy is part of gender responsive development.    Where necessary new schools will be built and existing ones upgraded.   

Given the importance of ensuring quality health services, due emphasis is put one stablishing an integrated primary health care system, reducing mortality rates, ascertaining  food security and the provision of safe drinking water.  Other activities promote reproductive health rights and environmental sanitation.  My government will also improve the efficiency of hospitals and other health facilities.  

Mr Chairman, to be successful in all our endeavours, The Gambia would certainly need the continued good will and special assistance of developed countries.  In the same vein, I recommend that the International Financial Institutions recognise the special circumstances of The Gambia and significantly increase the amount of concessionary loans provided to the country. 

Mr Chairman, now that The Gambia has been re-admitted into the Commonwealth of Nations, we can look forward to a strong diversified support from the Commonwealth. 

The Gambia cannot build the right path to sustainable progress without ensuring that there is peace, stability and justice.  In this regard, my Government has embarked on transitional justice for legal and constitutional reforms to entrench human rights, peace, justice, freedom of expression and the rule of law. 

The political will is to ensure that democracy thrives and citizens effectively take ownership of the development process.


In conclusion, the NEW GAMBIA is determined to overcome obstacles along the way in building a path for sustainable progress.   As President, I feel humbled the delivering of good governance and accountability, social cohesion, and a revitalised economy for the wellbeing of all Gambians, as stated in our National Development Plan 2018-2021.

I thank you all for your kind attention.

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Parliamentarians and civil society ask legislature to open inquiry into the SEMLEX affair






                                                FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Gambia: Parliamentarians and civil society ask legislature to open inquiry into obscure contract awarded to Belgium company-  

Banjul, 19 April 2018- The decision by the Gambia government to award a single-source contract to produce national biometric IDs, passports and voter IDs, to Semlex, is being questioned by two of Gambia’s parliamentarians and Right to Know Coalition.  And we maintain, as we did in our letter to the National Assembly leadership, on 21st March 2018, through the Clerk, (which we have not received a reply), ‘that Gambians are eager to know the facts and assumptions on whether due process was followed in awarding our vital social possessions (passports and IDs) to an opaque company whose reputation is questionable.

Mr. Eric Van der Sijpt, Belgium lead prosecutor, has confirmed to R2K that there is an ongoing investigation into Semlex activities.  Media reports also state that there is a criminal probe into Semlex and its operations, and that a case against Semlex CEO, over money laundering, and other corrupt practices is ongoing. Semlex’s computers, files, and other materials have since been sealed, and confiscated to aid in the investigations.

We further maintain that this a company, that Gambia government awarded a contract, which was immersed in illegality from the onset. The contract flouted all the procurement rules, and was initiated and birthed by corrupt officials of the Jammeh regime.  We are shocked that the current government is now determined to uphold and execute this contract, despite all the evidence of the political exposure and high risk associated with Semlex. We are equally disturbed by the Barrow Administration’s insistence at entrusting our most precious assets to this company- putting at risk our identification documents, our reputation and integrity of our national identities, and the tools we hold dear as citizens to elect and select who governs us and how we wish to be governed- our voters’ cards.

We are further perturbed by contradictory public pronouncements uttered by certain ministers and public officials who were involved in the outsourcing of our individual and collective assets, using an avenue of secrecy to scuttle public scrutiny.

R2K-Gambia, as a collective of over 4,500 members, will test the vibrancy of our new found democracy in the New Gambia, by sending a message to economic predators and corrupt state officials, that the era of state capture, repurposing of state resources for pecuniary gain, flouting of public procurement processes, and disregard for the respect of the rule of law and good governance is over.

And as a result, we make this public appeal to the National Assembly to put a motion forward for an inquiry, pass the motion and get to work for the integrity and security of The Gambia, as the credibility of the National Assembly depends on it. 
Elevating a culture of transparency and accountability depends on it, which is why the NAMS must start entrenching a practice of probity, before it is defeated and overwhelmed by impunity, which threatens our national security.
***END***

                       About Right 2 Know Gambia (R2K-Gambia):

Right 2 Know- R2K Gambia, started its work in October 2016, when it commenced work around elections integrity on the then, now famed Presidential elections, which ousted Jammeh from power.   Our membership/following has since grown to 4,500 people.  The founders are a grouping of individuals with professional backgrounds ranging from geology, demographics, economics, international relations and law, communications, and academia.  All members are human rights activists.  We are located in US, UK, West and Southern Africa. We are a non-partisan entity that focuses on rule of law and democracy, good governance, human rights and the principles of access to information. 

Abuja-Amsterdam-Banjul-Dakar-Johannesburg-Washington DC

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Illegal sand mining continues unabated, while Bakoteh dumpsite poses a serious health hazard


Sand mining was identified in a 2000 Coastal Erosion Study conducted by a Dutch consulting company to be one of the primary causes of beach erosion that is a persistent threat to our coastline.

For a country whose economy is so dependent on tourism, preventative measures would have been in order to ensure better management and the exercise of personal discipline by government officials, after the beach restoration exercise that included beach nourishment, groyne construction and other measures taken that stabilized our beautiful coastline.

Lack of maintenance of the country's coastline and sustained abuse of our environment have resulted in severe beach erosion resulting in the receding coastline at the Senegambia Beach area.

Unfortunately, illegal authorization and the issuance of licenses for sand mining is still going on in Sanyang.  These illegal activities may be going on as well in other satellite towns and villages that may further exacerbate the ecological imbalance that can only wreak is constantly under threat from abuses of the environment.

Gunjur, on the other hand, is faced with a constant toxic waste disposal system from the Chinese fish-feed factory that is not only threatening to deplete our sea resources but the livelihood and the way of life of a people.
Bakoteh dumpsite, cattle rummaging

Land use issues still haunt the Bakoteh, Manjai, Kololi and satellite settlements, including the land grabbing that we have written about in the past and which, we are made to understand, is currently on hold with paramilitary staking the disputed area.

Specifically, the dump site at Bakoteh has been with us for nearly four decades, if not longer.  It is both an environmental as well as a health hazard, especially area residents and orphans who live directly opposite at the SOS Village.

The dump site is also a grazing area for cattle and small ruminants that end up at our dinner tables.  Despite the absence of verifiable health data, it would not come as a surprise if the incidence of respiratory diseases are not higher in this area than normal because of the unhealthy environment they are condemned to live.

There must be a better way of disposing our waste and mining sand - in a non-destructive and sustainable way without threatening the health of the population and causing further havoc to our coastline.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

GRTS's Ebrima Sillah: Government has never interfered with our programming or with our private independent producers

The Director General of the Gambia's Radio and Television Service (GRTS), Ebrima Sillah, said in telephone conversation that the government of Adama Barrow has never interfered with the programming of the independently and privately produced television programs such as "Kerr Fatou" of Fatou Touray and "Gis Gis" by Ansu Jack.

Mr. Sillah was responding to recent postponement of an episode of Kerr Fatou's weekly interview program that was to feature some mayoral candidates for the highly heated Kanifing Municipal Council campaign after the CEO of Kerr Fatou took to Facebook to air her frustration at the eleventh hour postponement of last week's installment of her popular interview program. 

Programs similar to Kerr Fatou's are privately and independently produced for television and partially paid for by private and state owned enterprises.  These independent producers are for-profit ventures that rely on sponsors who, in turn, expect their advertisement to enjoy air time.

So whenever the program they sponsor is postponed and not aired, it affects their bottomline.  From the standpoint of the independent producer, it is bad business when they cannot stick to their part of the contract with potentially severe legal and financial penalties.

The Director General of GRTS was unaware of the fact that his staff did not send a written notice, at least 72 hours, as they are required to, to Kerr Fatou notifying her of the need to postpone last week's instalment.  He did not hesitate to assure us that he doesn't have the power to cancel any show for whatever reason and he has not experienced any interference from neither his ministry nor State House.

However, the Director General did say the municipal election season has posed a daunting challenge for the national broadcaster.  GRTS is required by law to provide 10 minutes for airtime for each candidate which will require more than three weeks of airtime to cater for the hundreds of candidates.  Instead, what GRTS has opted for is a town-hall set up for each of the 117 wards and even this compacted formal requires large blocks of airtime.

The pre-election challenges are not limited to GRTS as our inquiries have revealed.  Independent producers like Kerr Fatou are experiencing similar logistical challenges that could easily be construed as being partisan when they cannot get all of the candidates - like in the KMC race when two candidates were not available - to participate in a debate.

During my conversation with Fatou Touray, she revealed that the company's lawyer has written to GRTS.  Although Mr. Ebrima Sillah was not aware of it, he welcomed the initiative and looks forward to a meeting with Kerr Fatou next Tuesday to try and reach an understanding on how to move forward from here on out.  He is confident that an amicable resolution can be found next week - a meeting that will try to resolve all other outstanding matters with the ultimate objective of cementing a durable partnership that will be mutually beneficial to both parties.

Our wide-ranging conversation with the Director General covered GRTS's business model which has transformed the organization from publicly-financed to self-financing.  This important fact is lost in the public conversation.  GRTS does not depend on public resources from the budget but does benefit from a subvention from GAMTEL through its telephone business operations for its revenue.  The other important and growing revenue center is through its business with independent television producers which, according to the Director General.

A synergy does exist between GRTS's business model and a growing private independent television producers whose role, as a source of revenue, can only grow as the public broadcaster transitions from analog to digital before 2020.  When GRTS is digitized, it will not longer be in the transmission business which will be privatized.  GRTS will also be extending its broadcast time to 24 hours.

When these developments are realized within the next 24 months, they will transform the broadcasting landscape beyond recognition, and with it, its core business which will be developing program content.  GRTS will have to rely increasingly on independent producers like Kerr Fatou to feed a national television network that will be broadcasting 24/7.  In preparation for the transformation, GRTS will be piloting a new app and developing five dedicated channels to cover the National Assembly, sports, religious and entertainment.                                                 

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Is TRAFIGURA, the company that dumped 500 tons of toxic waste in Abidjan doing business with The Gambia?

On the 19th of August 2006, an Anglo Dutch company that operated the cargo ship the "Probo Koala" discharged 500 tons equivalent to 20 shipping containers of toxic waste in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire.

The hazardous substance which belonged to Trafigura was discharged at the Abidjan port and later dumped at 18 sites around the city.  It is reported that many other possible remain unknown to date, twelve years after the fact. 

Trafigura is reportedly bidding to supply 470 metric ton of light fuel to Gambia National Petroleum Company (GNPC).  The bidding was conducted last November and it is unclear whether the company won the contract or not.  What is of concern to us, to now, is the record of the company as it relates to its toxic waste disposal record which can pose a grave danger to vulnerable countries like The Gambia.

Before finally finding a willing partner in a local company to dispose the waste at a coat of $17,000, a Dutch waste disposal company offered to properly dispose of it for a little over $ 600,000.  Of course, the cost of disposal attracted Trafigura to dispose of it in Abidjan with devastating effect that the city is still suffering from it.

Amnesty International reported that Trafigura tried and failed to get rid of the waste in five countries: Malta, Italy, Gibraltar,  The Netherlands and Nigeria.  The company's attempt to dispose of it in The Netherlands failed when residents complained of overwhelming smell and experienced nausea, dizziness and headache after some of the waste was unloaded.

The toxic waste is produced on board the ship "Probo Koala" as a by-product of refining a dirty petroleum product called "coker naphtha" too mix with gasoline to sell it on as petrol.
 
According to official estimates, 15 people died, 69 victims were hospitalized and over 108,000 others sought medical treatment after the so called "Probo Koala incident in Abidjan."   Following the publication of the long awaited United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report about the incident, Amnesty International said last January that victims are still in the dark about the long-term impacts their health.
Dried toxic waste in Abidjan 
 
While it is estimated that 63% of registered victims received some form of compensation under a February 2007 settlement agreement between Trafigura and the Ivorian government. it is feared that a majority of victims are still without compensation.  Victims' associations appear not to have been consulted before the agreement was signed.  Another 30,000 victims were due for compensation following a September 2009 civil claim against Trafigura in the UK.  The company is registered in the UK and the Netherlands.

The authorities in Banjul must be extra vigilant against polluters of our waterways and our environment, generally.  Companies like Trafigura with a record of disposing toxic waste that threatens the lives of  defenseless and unsuspecting African populations must be monitored closely so as to protect our local population against polluters.     

Friday, March 30, 2018

Is there a new dawn at the SIS (formerly the NIA)?

Director General, Ousman Sowe
The Director General, Mr. Ousman Sowe, of the former National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and now known as the State Intelligence Service (SIS) said at a recent official event attended by President Barrow and members of his cabinet that the security establishment sees " no foreseen...imminent threat to the general well being of both the state and the people of this country."

The statement may be reassuring, not because of the content of the message but because of the messenger who delivered the message.  Ousman Sowe who became the head honcho of the intelligence agency after Jammeh went into involuntary exile last year, is a product of the agency whose existence under the ex-dictator was two-fold (i) secure the state, and (ii) ensure the survival of the regime of Yaya Jammeh.

While some countries use intelligence as tool to pursue military and economic supremacy, the Gambia, since December 2016, places higher premium on "human security and human rights and freedoms as enshrined in the constitution." 

As a long serving intelligence officer, primarily in the external affairs department which he eventually headed as Director, a source familiar with his career at the NIA described him in one word - "clean"- meaning that he was never involved in the human rights abuses of the Jammeh era.  This should come as a welcome relief to reformers as well as human rights activists who'd like to see a thorough house cleaning in the intelligence, military and civil services.

The national security challenges, according to the Director General, in 2018 are not different in any significant way than last year.   He told the audience that government should pay attention to social media activities which "could affect policy thinking, cause social unease and affect security arrangements in 2018."

It is unclear, in the absence of context, what Mr. Sowe meant apart from underscoring the importance of social media in public policy formulation.  But, he also thinks that "2018 will be stretched and stressed by differing opinions that may cause social unease and affect security,' which, in our view, is the nature of democracy - always messy.  The government must adjust to the new realities by taking appropriate measures to secure the public order without compromising the personal and inherent freedoms of Gambians.

Putting on his foreign intelligence hat on, the Director General of the SIS told his august audience that economic activities will pick up in 2018 with more projects to be implemented.  He concluded his forecast of the economy in 2018 by cautioning the authorities thus : "We, in the intelligence and security community can caution that all that glitters is not gold hence the need to identify the genuine from the fake investor."  He added that economic "development could be affected by lethargy, slowness and flat footedness."

Finally, Mr. Sowe promised Gambians with these words: "While our operational techniques of covert collection of information are secret , the rest of our intelligence activities will be open and participatory so as to earn the confidence and full support of the public."  "That might not have been the case before," he continued, "but in any democracy, it is essential that intelligence services behave in an ethical and lawful manner."

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