Wednesday, February 6, 2019

State of Gambian agriculture from OJ's standpoint

This blog post was first published in December, 2017

Patcharr Rice fields
Hon. Omar Jallow, affectionately referred to by his initials O.J. is Gambia's agriculture minister who had previously served in the same position for over a decade during the Jawara administration.  He is, therefore, as qualified as any to assess a sector of the country's economy that is the single largest contributor to GDP and provides employment to 70% of the country's 2 million inhabitants.

Despite its absolute importance to Gambia's economic well being, and the former dictator professed  commitment to promoting it, the agriculture sector has suffered discernibly in the last two decades.

Faced with steady decline in agricultural production, particularly as it relates to the main cash crop, due to inappropriate policies.  Agricultural land has been expropriated from communities by the former dictator in an agrarian with devastating effect that denied access to communal lands across the country, causing disruptions to an otherwise traditional tenure system, negatively impacting production.
Although exogenous factors have contributed to the general decline in agricultural production, the constant human disruptions by the former regime in the name of food self-sufficiency have contributed to the decline.  According to the agriculture minister, government is in the process of returning communal land to its rightful owners.

In the last two decades, the role of government has increased in agricultural production while its role in extension services in support of the farmer has declined. with the obliteration of the Extension and Crop Protection Services, leaving the Gambian farmer to his or her own devises.  It is encouraging that the agriculture minister recognizes the problem and he's in the process of restoring these very vital support services to the farming communities.

The Cooperative Societies of farmers that formed the Cooperative Union empowered farmers and gave them ownership, stake and control of a very vital aspect of their lives have been disbanded.  Through their societies - owned and operated on behalf of farmers - local farmers were able to channel their agricultural input requirements and ultimate distribution in preparation for the next farming season.

The Cooperative Societies also served as buying points as well as agent for agricultural credit extended to farmers.  The reintroduction of cooperative societies will put the farmer back in the driver seat while focusing government's role more in providing extension/support services.  It will also expedite the process of the private investor partnership with local communities to replace government whose energy should refocus on providing extension services to the sector.

For a very long time, lip-service has been paid to agricultural diversification with a disproportionate time focused on a single cash crop.  The economic value of clinging on to groundnut at the expense of other economic crops like cotton, sunflower seeds and cashew, is increasingly questionable.

Adding value through processing of our agricultural products has also fallen short, more out of lack of a secure and friendly investment climate under Jammeh, despite several government pronouncements and false starts under Jammeh.  The current political environment lends itself to new private investment policy initiatives that will attract serious investors in agri-processing. 

The horticultural sub-sector fell victim of the 1994 Jammeh-led coup d'etat with the expulsion of owners of Radville Farms, the leading exporter of vegetable produce to the U.K. market, as well as to Jammeh's clandestine mining operations and land grabbing binge in the Kombos that saw horticultural land expropriated.  Operators of Radville Farms, at the time of being expelled, were employers to 100,000 Gambians.  It is gratifying to learn that efforts are underway for the company to resume business in The Gambia.

Delay in marketing arrangements for the 2015/2016 groundnut season bad for the farmer and economy

This blog post was first published in December, 20115
A groundnut farmer
The decision of the Jammeh regime to stay silent on the marketing arrangements for this year's groundnut marketing season is not only worrying but downright callous behavior. Equally callous is its decision not to officially announce the 2014/2015 final tonnage purchased by the defunct Gambia Groundnut Corporation (GGC).

The same pattern of silence was displayed last year in declaring the regime's plan to purchase the crop from farmers who depend entirely on this single once-a-year economic activity for their livelihood.

The culture of silence and deception has become a hallmark of the Jammeh regime.  For example, we've come to learn only in May this year, and only through newspaper accounts, that GGC has been subsumed into a new agency that is called The National Food Security Processing and Marketing Corporation (NFSMC).  An Act creating the new entity is not accessible to us.  We hope it exists.

Given the opaque governance style of the regime, we can assume that it has abandoned its initial plan to create the Food Security Corporation (FSC) - a proposal we opposed, which would have been empowered to manage "all freed surplus land" presumably meaning virgin land as well as land lying fallow.  In the absence of a blueprint or public debate of this extremely important policy initiative, the citizenry can only speculate as to what was meant by the proposal.

In spite of the scanty information on the proposal outside of the imprecise announcement made by Jammeh's former Secretary General (Momodou Sabally) during a political tour of the provinces, we wrote two Open Letters to the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) a leading investor in the sector.  The first, laying our case for opposing the proposal we believe would have threatened the traditional tenure system that has served the country well for centuries and the second drawing IFAD's attention to Jammeh's unethical methods of acquiring land from rural communities. We will continue to monitor the situation to see whether the new corporation will be given similar mandate.

Back to this year's marketing arrangements - why are the farmers not being prepared for the season? Senegal is expected to produce one million tons and has guaranteed its farmers a producer price of CFA 200 per kg.  SONACOS, the government buying agency is expected to purchase a third i.e about 300,000 tons with the remaining 700,000 to be purchased by private buyers including Chinese buyers.  These announcements were made over a month ago and the marketing campaign in Senegal has already started while the Jammeh regime procrastinates.

What is incomprehensible is the lackadaisical approach adopted by the Jammeh regime in managing a sector that is the single biggest foreign exchange earner, at a time when the economy is already on life support and needs resuscitation.  What is likely to happen instead is the meager groundnut crop will find its way across the border where the market condition are more favorable to the Gambian farmers, including the payment of their crop in cash as opposed to the credit buying that is the standard practice of the bankrupt GGC now NFSMC.  This scenario will only exacerbate and already dire economic condition.

We hope the Minister of Finance will use the occasion of presenting his 2016 Budget to include in his speech the mandate of the new NFSMC, inform the farmers the producer price they should expect from their toil as well as the marketing arrangements for the upcoming season.  The regime owes the Gambian farmer, at least, that much.

Gambia's groundnut sub-sector in rapid decline - Re-publication

Groundnut farmer in The Gambia
We've decided to re-publish a series of blog posts on the state of Gambian agriculture in general and, the groundnut sub-sector in particular, given recent developments in the plight of the Gambian groundnut farmers who cannot sell their groundnuts for cash.  And those who have "sold" their produce have done so on credit with little hope of receiving their money from the GGC.  This blog post was first published in November, 2016 

Groundnut production in The Gambia took a nosedive during the 2013/14 season, from a projected tonnage of 40,000 to a little over 30,000 tons, which resulted in the Gambia Groundnut Corporation (GGC) coming under heavy criticism for its overall marketing strategy.

With the increased scrutiny of the GGC and its financial viability put into question - it's considered a financially bankrupt entity by many -  the 2014/15 groundnut tonnage purchased by the agency has not been made public despite many requests.

The guesstimate is that less than 20,000 tons was purchased due to lack of adequate financial resources of the GGC.

Indications from farmers are that this year's harvest will be poor due to equally poor rainfall patter, and if the prediction holds, it is going to add to the financial woes of the Jammeh regime.

If the bad harvest prediction holds, it will be coming at the heels of another bad season projected for the tourism sector which is the second foreign exchange earner, after agriculture.  Tourism is beginning to recover after the EBOLA scare that devastated the sector resulting in 60% reduction in tourists visitors.  This is further bad news for a regime that is already on the ropes for its poor human rights record, persistent mismanagement of the economy and a high level corruption.

As the principal groundnut marketing agency, the GGC's absence from the 3-day stakeholders' workshop held in Jenoi in preparation for the buying season expected to start in the next few weeks.

The absence of the GGC, now subsumed, according to official announcement, into a new agency called the National Food Security, Processing and Marketing Agency is instructive of the lack of direction and the general state of flux of the Jammeh regime that is drowning in corruption and incompetence.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The consignment of arms imported by Abubacarr Jawara are deadly semi-automatic rifles, the pistols are real, not "blanks", as claimed

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Abubacarr Jawara, GACH

The recent shipment of deadly arms and ammunition into the country has raised alarms in the country, as well as the sub-region and other agencies whose work it is to monitor the trafficking in arms and humans, regionally and across the globe.

The consignment of a single container of arms that landed at the Banjul port comprised of 252 boxes containing 1,263 pieces of assorted arms and ammunition has caused great concern and has left a country emerging from 22 years of dictatorship on tenterhooks, particularly the security establishment.  This event could not have come at a worse time when the state's institutions are weak and the coalition that formed the transition government in disarray.  The security sector is in no better shape.

The Inspection Report from the Turkish port from where the weapons were shipped shows that the 1,263 pieces were shipped, made up of 900 pieces of Crossfire Single Barrel Model BR-32 (Wood Forend), 300 pieces of the BR-33 with crossfire pump action Model BR-0, BR-18 and BR 21 for a total of 60 pieces.  For the pump action, the End User Certificate shows 50 but the Inspection Report from Turkey indicates that there were 60 pieces.

The BR-32 and BR-33 are semi-automatic that can be equipped with the BR-01 and BR-21 Crossfire Pump Action to convert them into fully automatic rifles.  So contrary to the press release issued by the GACH Security company, these riffles are far from being hunting riffles.  In the words of the weapons expert  we consulted, these weapons are "more suited for security detail than hunting boar or chasing predator animals off one's farm."

What is missing from the End User Certificate but is in the Inspection Report are the following: 5 pieces of Crossfire Mezine Fed Shotgun + semi-automatic and 8 pieces Sentetien (or Ententien) F-98T and F-99T pistols. The weapons on video display plaid on online television stations did show pistols as well as riffles which are all semi-automatic that can be converted into fully automatic mode.

In the GACH press release explaining the circumstances surrounding the consignment and what they characterize as "the the heart of this whole saga is the free samples... which included Blank Pistols."  The release further claim that these blank pistols utilize a blank ammunition which only makes a loud bang and does not have the ability to cause harm."

The pistols described in the GACH press release may exits but they are certainly not the ones listed in the inspection report confirming all of the items shipped from Turkey.  The pistols shipped were Sentetien or Ententien F-98T and F-99T pistols are real and not "blank pistols", as claimed by the importer.

GACH is also claiming that the BR-32 and BR-33 are "hunting riffles".  The weapons expert we consulted concluded that these type riffles are suited for security details and not for hunting.  We have total confidence in the expert we consulted who is a retired military officer who knows a thing or two about weapons.

This is the first in a series of blog post about this and related matter concerning our national security


Monday, January 7, 2019

Public anxiety persists over selection of privately-owned television station in spite of assurances from Truth and Reconciliation Commission Executive Director

The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC), scheduled to start its work today finds itself having to issue a lengthy press release explaining the procurement process it employed that resulted in the award of the contract to QTV, a privately-owned and operated, over GRTS, the government's own national radio and television service  to cover the proceedings of the TRRC.

To calm the nerves of those the Executive Director of the TRRC ascribed responsibility for the "erroneous and wild speculations especially on social media", he assures the general public that the contract is for QTV "to provide technical backup for the TRRC media team by providing the technical capacity to record, edit and process the proceedings as necessary."  According to the Commission's press release, the Commission's own media team will be responsible for the supervision and distribution of the audio and video footages to all interested parties.

One of our fears was allayed with the assurance from the Executive Director that the contract with QTV did not grant the company exclusivity as it concerns coverage of the TRRC's proceedings which we take to mean that other media outlets, specifically the online radio and television platforms, will be granted access and authorization to cover the Commission's proceedings for their respective audiences.

We learned from the press release that a total of   media houses responded to the Commission's Request for Proposals (RFPs).  These were Impact Palace (EyeAfrica TV), QTV, Mediamatic (Paradise TV), GRTS and State of Mic.  Their proposals were based on the technical envelop comprising of four components on which they were evaluated: (a) capacity to record live proceedings (b) capacity to facilitate video conferencing of witness outside the Gambia (c) capacity to distort voices and images for witnesses who request anonymity and (d) capacity to develop a mobile App for the TRRC so the public can access proceedings.

After what was described as extensive deliberations, the Contracts Committee and the Communications Unit, it was decided "in terms of the TRRC's needs, QTV and GRTS were ranked as "the best qualified bidders."  When the financial envelops were considered the "balance tipped in favor of QTV."

The privately-owned and operated television station quoted D150,000 for every month of filming regardless of the number of proceedings or location where they take place.  The publicly-owned and frequently sub-vented GRTS television station on the other hand quoted D30,000 for a month's filming, D200,000 for a week's filming and D800,000 for a month's filming.  There appears to be no price variation due to the number of proceeding or location in the GRTS price quotation.

The Executive Director sees the TRRC's decision to award the contract to QTV as nothing more than renting the station's equipment and its personnel for lack of television equipment and personnel of its own.  And as regards accessibility of the audio and video transcripts of the proceedings to the rest of the media companies, he assured "every media house, including QTV and GRTS, will receive footage and audio recordings..."

Although the issue of media access to the venue has been addressed and their ability to cover the proceedings appears to be limited to note taking, the larger and more thornier issues such as copyrights, intellectual property and distribution rights issues are less clear but where the potential to generate substantial revenue is greatest to supplement government's subvention, especially to the Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations.

We have reached out to both the Information Minister and the Executive Director on these outstanding matters and any further information are ready and willing to share with us.  We will keep our readers informed including, of course, those following us on social media.


Sunday, January 6, 2019

The transitioning of the online press

Sidi Sanneh 
We drew a lot of flack for our December, 16th, 2016 blog post entitled "The online press must also transition", especially from proprietors of the media platforms, that prompted by the unexpected defeat of the 22-year dictatorship of Yaya Jammeh by a political newcomer named Adama Barrow.

We postulated, then, that since most of the Gambian online press, at least, its proliferation and popularity, was in reaction to the brutality of the Jammeh regime and its attendant muzzling of the local press, realignment of the mission of the online press was inevitable as the next logical step.  In fact, we appropriately couched the choices facing the online press in business terms because they are businesses that rely on advertising revenue from Google and local advertisers.

These media outlets shared the following in common (i) they all served as platforms, outside the reaches of the arms of the dictatorship, for political activism in an otherwise hostile press environment and (ii) they were all foreign-based and almost exclusively operated by Gambian exiles.  With a laser-focused Jammeh agenda, their programming reflected their primary mission of defeating the dictator.  The defeat of Jammeh at the polls and the ushering in of a Barrow-led transition government led us to further argue that the new political dispensation will force the proprietors and operators of the online press to revisit, with a view to, revamping their business models and programming models that will focus more of hard news, educational and entertainment.

The rationale for a change in focus and programming was based on the need to turn a new page - away from the temptation of starting to focus on, and the bashing of the incoming transitional government of Adama Barrow "that will be trying to dig the country out of the hole dug by Jammeh..." and into addressing obstacles to a coherent public policy that the interim government is expected to face.  Although Barrow failed in this mission, the need for a programming that will provide the intellectual content and impetus to help find solutions to a myriad of problems created by the 22-year dictatorship of Yaya Jammeh exists and urgent as ever.   

In spite of stating that "the new business model does not preclude investigative reporting designed to keep any government - including the Barrow government - honest and as corruption-free as realistically feasible", the blog post drew the ire of critics, especially proprietors of online press who saw it as a feeble attempt at interfering in the freedom of the press at best, and at worst an attempt at advocating their outright closure.  Needless to say, neither was the intent of the December, 2016 blog post.

Fast forward to December, 2018 - we are witnessing precisely what we've predicted at the time.  The commencement of the evolutionary cycle has commenced with the online press adjusting to the new political realities in the Gambia that will determine the viability of very online news outlet.  In response to demand, program content for the different audiences carved out of the realigned Jammeh-era audiences is now undergoing profound transformation, led by the new Banjul-based entrants into the media market dominated by government and state-owned-enterprises (SOE) and a few private sector firms.

The influence of government in apportioning the media market in exchange for overt or tacit support of its programs is beginning to be felt in the form of government/SOE advertisement and representational contracts, preferential treatment and other fringe benefits accorded to the most favored outlets.  Because of distortions in the media market, resulting from government's influential role in who gets government contracts, the most favored media outlets who are seen to be more in support of the government will thrive at the expense of those who are viewed as 'opposing' the government.

Therefore, online media outlets that can successfully adapt to the highly partisan political environment by being closely aligned to the government will survive an equally partisan political media market environment.  As we say, in these parts, that's just the way the cookie crumbles.  Those who fail to fall in line by toeing the official line will either be driven out of business or face program interruption and/or censorship as evidenced by the recent spat of cancellations of television interview programs deemed critical of the government and thus ill-suited for public consumption. 

Access the Dec. 16th, 2016 blog post here: "The online press must also transition"

Friday, January 4, 2019

A Moment of Clarity for Vice President Darboe

Cherno M. Njie
A Moment of Clarity for Vice President Darboe

By Guest Blogger, Cherno M. Njie*
Austin, Texas
January 4, 2019

Please, pardon my naivete: I have been insufficiently cynical of the UDP-controlled National Assembly and the Barrow administration.  The recent shenanigans surrounding passage of the 2018 Supplementary Appropriation Bill (SAB 2018) and the contents of the 2019 budget have confirmed my worst fears about the erosion of democratic accountability.  Whether inducements played any part in this travesty, we may never know.  But a legislature open to strangers bearing gifts will be difficult to wean off.

While attention has focused on the late-night parliamentary maneuvers and the credible questions raised about the legality of SAB 2018, the real questions continue to be the unknown or unstated position of UDP, the dominant party in the National Assembly, and that of Vice President Darboe.  The Vice President is not an ordinary cabinet member, for he occupies a position of influence in  the executive branch, and, as head of the UDP, influence in the legislative branch as well.   The UDP’s dominance ensures that no legislation is enacted  without the support of its members.  The division within its ranks in the National Assembly concerning the passage of SAB 2018 was not a sign of nascent parliamentary democracy, but that of policy incoherence and disarray within the party.   

Which brings me to the specific issue of the Vice President’s position on the SAB 2018 and the national priorities reflected in the 2019 budget.  While we have heard statements from the Vice President extolling his judicious use of state resources in recent days, and it is reassuring to know that he conducts party politics after office hours using only party funds, the public has a right to know where he stands on the SAB 2018.  Did the Vice President have reservations about SAB 2018?  Was he consulted about budgetary priorities? If not, how does he justify continued service in a government that disregards his views on the most consequential matters affecting the nation?  The Vice President’s remarks,  which have been interpreted as veiled criticism of the fiscal profligacy of President Barrow, are simply inadequate in addressing the misguided priorities of the Barrow administration.  To have any credibility, his rhetoric must be aligned with concrete action on his part and that of the party he heads. This means that he must salvage his legislative majority and deploy it as a bulwark against the President’s misplaced priorities. 

As a heart-beat away from the Presidency, the Vice President, absent evidence to the contrary,  is presumed to endorse the SAB 2018 and the 2019 Budget which his party enacted.  He simply cannot signal that he stands apart from an administration in which he is a key member, indeed second in command, yet credibly maintain his position within that same administration.  He cannot have it both ways.  There is a fine line between distancing yourself from the President’s excesses to enabling and validating them.  The corruption and misplaced priorities of the Barrow Presidency are in full view.  They will not lessen.  We have seen enough to know that President Barrow represents infinitely more peril than promise to the Gambian political culture and national well-being.  By serving dutifully, the Vice President becomes inextricably linked to that legacy.  If we are to believe that his positions are at odds with the President’s priorities, chief among which is to elevate his reelection above all national concerns, and he cannot in good conscience serve the President’s agenda, he should do the honorable thing and make a clean break now.  This is what I mean when I say that the Vice President has reached a definitive moment of clarity.  I have a suggestion: Resignation.  This is the strongest rebuke he has at this disposal.  But, are the perquisites of power too  great to give up? The Gambian people deserve better. 

 ___________ _____                                        ####                                                       

*NB:  The views expressed in this blog post are those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily represent my views or those of the