Friday, December 27, 2013

Gambian experiment gone disastrously wrong

They were ill-educated, lacked experience, poor and full of envy. They despised those who lived on Pipe Line and drove their children to school either in their private cars on in government vehicles.  So when they illegally seized power, they quickly move to rectify what they considered to be societal wrongs.  They rounded up every senior-level to mid-level civil servants, paraded them in trucks around town like prisoners of war who have just been defeated in battle, and are being transported across town to prisoners of war camps.  Common criminals, under the government they just deposed, were treated like royalty when compared to their own treatment of public servants of the First Republic.   This was how Gambians were introduced to their first military governing council after nearly 30 years of democratic governance.  As if their demonstration of cruelty towards their fellow Gambians was not enough warning of things to come, the Chairman's late uncle promised those who were 'enjoying' will now experience the better taste of chloroguine.  They did deliver on their promise and many more.  

The 4-man Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFRPC) was headed by one Lt. Yahya A.J.J.Jammeh by virtue of his age.  He was 29 years old, a high school product, unmarried and thus never managed a household budget.  Suddenly, he found himself managing an entire country with a million and ahalf souls.  Two of the three Council members were no better qualified than the Chairman, either educationally or managerially.  The third had university education but nothing else.  Because he was younger than Lt. Jammeh,  he was also disqualified from chairing the Council.  

Gambia in July 1994 was stable politically after a brush with an attempted coup that lasted a week with many Gambians and Senegalese killed and infrastructure and property destroyed.   The economy had reasonably stabilized after the 1981 coup attempt, and growth and development being realized but not before a painful structural adjustment program.  The agriculture sector was on a rebound after a decade of drought that plagued the Sahel region.  Groundnut production was up and government was purchasing in excess of a 100,000 tons in the 5-6 preceding years before Jammeh and his army buddies came into the scene.  And as the saying goes, it has been all down hill.

The Gambian population was highly reluctant to allow the army to settle, as if they knew that once they settle, just like every other military regime, they will not leave.  During the Consultative period of the Transition to civilian rule, indeed the population expressly said they wanted the 'boys' to return to barracks, and that there should be fixed term for future presidents.  Jammeh had decided by then that he was going nowhere.  They conspired against the wishes of ordinary Gambians and did the opposite.  The traded their uniforms for civilian clothes in the form of the traditional white flowing grand boubou which became the signature/symbol of Yaya Jammeh.  By the time he transformed himself into a civilian leader, he had learned nothing in managing a country but everything in pilfering the coffers of government and contracting dubious loans in the name of the Gambian people.  Jammeh and his minions have brought the level of corruption to such a height that I continue to wonder why donors such as the World Bank continue to disburse with minimal or zero sanctions against these cowboys when most of the economic performance measures continue to show signs of mismanagement, corruption and incompetence.

The brunt of the blame still rests with us Gambians.  We allowed the regime not only to continue to mismanage the economy but turned a blind eye, and refusing to protest when our human rights are being violated on a constant basis.  Because the regime went unchallenged, what was a repressive state has morphed into a full-blown police state in the mold of North Korea.  People were and are still being killed, maimed, made to disappear and imprisoned by simply uttering a factual statement about how lousy Gambia's president is and how hes the laughing stock of the world. 

The numbers will bear us out on the claim that the government of Yaya Jammeh is both corrupt, repressive and highly incompetent.  When he seized power, Gambia was purchasing between 100,000 and 150,000 tons of groundnut, the number one foreign exchange earner.  Now, Jammeh is struggling to purchase 30,000 tons. Investment in agriculture that employs 70% of the 1.5 million Gambians has been declining since 1994, and a disproportionate share of the budget goes to the Office of the President than to agriculture.  Jammeh's budget is three times bigger than what he spends in agriculture despite the official mantra "grow what you eat and eat what you grow".  If you cannot grow because you lack the agricultural inputs such as quality seed, fertilizer and extension services, you will obviously find it difficult to eat which is where Gambians, especially the rural population, find themselves.  Of course, these bad policies and misplaced priorities tend to reverberate across the entire economy.   Despite what the government says, all indications are agriculture will perform poorly again this year because the farmers were poorly served by an increasingly dysfunctional system where the civil service is staffed by highly inexperienced and demoralized, terrorized is perhaps a more appropriate description because when they leave their homes in the morning, they may not return in the evening.  The dreaded NIA - National Intelligence Agency -  may have picked them for some trumped-up charges.  Remember, Gambia is a police state. 

If agriculture under-performs, be rest assured that it will drag the other sectors along with it.  If foreign exchange earnings are low, it put pressure on prices because most items are imported.  Government exacerbates the problem by continue spending like a drunken sailor - no offence sailors.   Government borrowing has grown to such a level that 25% of all the revenues collected goes to serving the interest on our loans.  The borrowing that government does locally to finance Jammeh's frivolous projects, crowds out the private sector, meaning that government is borrowing the money that would have otherwise gone to the private businessmen and women in the form of loans to finance the growth and expansion of their respective businesses. With less money to lend, banks charge higher than normal interest which the businesses will eventually pass on to consumers in the form of higher prices.  As I was writing this piece, my attention was drawn to a report from Brazil announcing that The Gambia has the dubious honor of being at the top of the list of 90 countries with the highest interest rate increase in 2013.  Brazil came in second.  Gambia raised its basic rate by 6 percentage points, ending the year with an 18% annual rate.   

On the revenue side, government relies heavily on taxes, and because it has been both fiscally and monetarily irresponsible, Gambians are one of the highest taxed humans on earth.  A Gambian vacationing in the Gambia opened up our conversation this way "Uncle Sidi, life is tough in this country."   In Yaya Jammeh's Gambia this sentence alone is sufficient to land him in prison.  He buttress his claim with actual prices of food stuff - a bag of rice costs  D1,400 per bag, what used to be the cheapest fish called "bonga" that used to be given free at fish landing sights when you buy the choice fish, one bonga now costs D50.  Fish is not available in Bakau because the fishermen would rather sell their entire catch to the Senegalese trawlers out at sea because of the tax they levy on their catch.  The vacationing Gambian went to the Serrekunda market and market-women narrated stories about how the police will confiscate their wares for non-payment of tax, taking the confiscatory take regime of this regime to its literal conclusion, I guess.  Women who sell roast peanuts (groundnuts) and the local 'akara' do so now indoors to avoid the marauding security-cum-tax agents.  This is how bad things have become. 

The Finance Minister had promised again during the presentation of the 2014 budget to the National Assembly that the regime will hold its domestic borrowing to a level that correspond to 2.5% of GDP.   His predecessor made a similar promise last year, and the year before that, and the one before that.   I don't take them seriously.  I wonder when the IMF, World Bank, AfDB and other donors will stop taking them seriously too.  At least, the European Union has finally seen the light, and has started demanding answers to difficult question to a regime that is both clueless and ruthless.  Just look at them.