Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jammeh's Gambia: A state of deliberate incompetence

The Gambia under Sir Dawda Jawara used to pride itself as a state that was striving to achieve a level of, what can term as, functional democracy that  required the building of new institutions as well as the strengthening of the old.  Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation (SSHFC), Gambia Ports Authority (GPA), Gambia Commercial and Development Bank (GCDB) and its offshoot the Agricultural Development Bank (ADB), all belonged to the former category.  

The Gambian Civil Service, the Judiciary and Parliament were inherited from colonial Britain and thus belonged to the latter category of institution.  What the two categories shared in common was they were all considered by the administration as "work in progress" - trying new approaches in response to a ever changing economic, political and social environment while not hesitating to change, re-orient or disband institutional structures that proved to be inappropriate, inefficient and/or duplication of existing ones.  

The GCDB and ADB come to mind as institutions that were not performing as well as expected which resulted in the privatization of the former and the liquidation of the latter, suggesting a significant difference between the Gambia of old and the Gambia under Jammeh.  Jawara will not hesitate to make a mid-course correction if he sees things aren't moving in the direction that will maximize output for the economy or benefit the people they were meant to serve. 

Jawara's Gambia was a state of constant motion in search of appropriate solutions to emerging challenges facing a young nation trying to respond to the needs of a young and growing population.  Naturally, the agriculture sector saw a  mixture of the creation of new institutions and the strengthening and rationalization  of old.  Ministries of Agriculture and Water Resources and the Environment were created in response to a persistent drought condition that plagued the Sahel, and its impact on the environment.  

Other technical departments sprung from the Agriculture Department, including the annexation of the livestock extension services to the veterinary services to form the Animal Health and Production Services. Specialized divisions were created for seed multiplication and production, horticulture, agricultural engineering and mechanical services, soil and water management services among several other services dedicated to servicing the most important sector of the economy that provided, to this day, 70% of Gambians with employment.  It is also the sector that was and still is the single biggest foreign exchange earner to date.  

The cooperative movement initiated by the Department of Cooperation was further strengthened with the creation of the farmer-based and farmer-owned Gambia Cooperative Union (GCU) which assumed the marketing of its members produce, the distribution of agricultural inputs, and also served as credit union for farmers.  The GCU was dismantled by the military junta that seized power in 1994 for reasons best known to the Revolutionary Ruling Council under the then 29-year old Yaya Jammeh.  

The old Gambia Oilseeds Marketing Board (GOMB) inherited from out colonial past was restructured and renamed the Gambia Produce Marketing Board (GPMB) primarily responsible for the marketing of agricultural exports only to fall victim of the Structural Adjustment Program of the Fund and the Bank. through privatization that hasn't worked as well as hoped.  In fact, the Gambia Groundnut Corporation is an attempt at replicating the GPMB without its managerial and technical expertise nor the financial resource capacities.

Under the current regime that has been in power for nearly 20 years, the institutions they inherited soon proved to be nuisance because of the transparency and accountability measures built into them as normal course of doing business.  For instance, following the privatization of the GPMB and the acquisition of the Denton Bridge facilities by Alimenta, the junta found the independence with which the processing and export of the groundnut crop was being conducted to be too independent of central government even though it was a purely a private business owned by a private business concern, and a foreign one at that.  The facilities were seized in broad daylight and owners sent packing.  Gambia Public Transport Corporation (GPTC) was mismanaged by the junta and had to close its doors with hundreds of Gambians joining the unemployment ranks.  Most other institutions met the same or similar fates.  

The Gambia Ports Authority operated a highly competitive operations, and a profitable one at that.  It financed its own operations and serviced its external loans in a timely fashion that led to the development of its facilities to regional, if not international standards.  All that is gone to the point that the GPA cannot operate its ferry services, and struggles to meet staff salaries.  Gambia Telecommunications Corporation (GAMTEL) was listed as having the best telephone services anywhere in Africa, outside of South Africa.  Jammeh and his wrecking crew managed to destroy a company that was once the pride of The Gambia.  Again, because the accounting system they found in operation there was too transparent for a corrupt bunch of soldiers who came to loot the treasury and anything in their path.  The list goes on.  SSHFC is now on the road to putting the entire Pension Fund at risk because of bad investments forced on its Board by the dictatorship.  No wonder Social Security was unable to meet is December staff salaries on time.  They were paid in the New Year.

The damage done could not have occured so rapidly and comprehensively if the civil servants and managers they inherited together with institutions these managers painstakingly helped build were not systematically harangued,  humiliated, paraded in the back of trucks around town, thrown in jail, exiled and some killed - all in the name of "transparency, accountability and probity" military-junta style.  Once they got rid of the competent, the junta immediately instituted what has now evolved into a state of deliberate incompetence.  Former taxi drivers with little or no education are brought into these vital institutions at senior management level.  The only qualification that matters in The Gambia now is tribal affiliation and a recommendation from the dictator's mother or a close associate.  Nothing else seem to matter.  And some of us wonder why we are where we are, and how we got to this state. 

One of the biggest challenges facing a successor government in Banjul is the re-building of the institutions damaged by the current regime.  Although this particular blog did not focus on rebuilding the judiciary, it should be one of the top priorities, including the restoration of the dignity of the legal profession that has been one of the first casualty of the so-called 22nd July Revolution with the conduct of a Judicial Inquiry into the behavior of past and present judges and magistrates, as proposed in some quarters.   An immediate staff audit is required at both levels of the civil service and the parastatal sectors which could run concurrent with the rationalization of the entire public service to bring them in line with the new economic development policy objectives under a new political dispensation.