Thursday, April 17, 2014

GPTC: The sad story of an iconic bus company - PART I

The mere mention of the now defunct Gambia Public Transport Corporation, popularly referred by its acronym GPTC, generates nostalgic references to an iconic symbol of the First Republic.

The initial name was The Gambia - Libya Jamahiriya Public Transport Corporation.  When diplomatic relations between the countries soared over what Sir Dawda Jawara saw as Gaddafi's attempts to subvert Gambia's sovereignty by training Gambian dissidents, the partnership was dissolved and the Gambia took sole ownership and renamed it Gambia Public Transport Corporation.

GPTC in spite of managerial deficiencies of its own, symbolized a relatively efficient management, as African public transport companies go.  It hauled in decent profits year in year out since its inception in 1975, up until July 22nd 1994.

The company's first Managing Director brought to the job the managerial and technical prerequisites expected of managers of public corporations which helped put the new corporation on a trajectory that his successors built on to make it a success story. Gambians were able to travel to Basse and back the same day if they so chose.  The services covered both the North and South Banks of the River Gambia, express and local services.  Banjul-Dakar and Dakar-Banjul daily services were also available.  All of these services started to deteriorate and finally came to a grinding halt with the advent of the A(F)PRC regimes where competence was less important than your tribal or party affiliation - never mind that you may be a certified illiterate.

Fast forward to November 20, 2012, at the direction of Yaya Jammeh, the Speaker of the National Assembly called an emergency session to table a Bill to repeal the GPTC Act of 1976 that will dissolve the GPTC as a corporate entity.  The convening of the session came as a surprise to many parliamentarians, and the Bill before them politically sensitive enough to warrant the Speaker to start off the 'debate' with the following opening statement: "I do hope members of both sides of the House will understand the reason for the short notice given, especially since it is also within Standing Order 26(q).  I hope that the Bill, not being controversial, will be dealt with as soon as possible, but of course, without compromising, in any way, the public interest this Bill deserves."  It is obvious from the Speaker's words that the National Assembly is being blind-sided by Jammeh for springing a surprise that appears to betray the public trust.

In laying the Bill, the then Minister of Works, Construction and Infrastructure, Francis Liti Mboge, recounted the story of how, "in the 1990s, the GPTC slid into serious financial and operational difficulties when management was faced with aging fleet, declining revenues and investments aggravated the situation."  The exasperated sounding Minister continued : "A business entity must either maximize revenue or cut costs to remain solvent, with GPTC, neither option was possible.  The decision was therefore made to disband the Corporation."  Conveniently ignored by the Minister was the fact that in November 2003, Yaya Jammeh admitted rescinding GPTC's management decisions to cut cost by retrenching excess staff with the excuse that "why should the staff suffer", because they were mostly relatives or supporters of his ruling APRC.

So when Jammeh acquired 31 buses six months after he had asked his rubber stamp parliament to repeal the law that gave birth to GPTC, revenue enhancement was furthest from his mind.  He was paving the way for his own bus company using the remaining assets of a publicly-owned company, to supplement the resources of yet another public company in Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation (SSHFC). During the official inauguration of the buses, Gambians were told that Jammeh acquired the buses through a "joint Gambia government and Transport Metropolitan de Barcelona" with the fingerprints of one Kassim Njie Dampha who was described at the same ceremony by Jammeh as "Gambia's Liaison Officer in Barcelona." Whether he is still acting in that capacity on behalf of the regime is unclear.  What is clear, however, is the fact that Jammeh had used public investments and Social Security funds to form the Gambia Transport Service Company (GTSC).

It is  important to note that during the June 8th 2013 re-launch with the unveiling of 50 Ashok-Leyland buses from India, Isatou-Njie Saidy, standing in for Yaya Jammeh, read a statement prepared for him which she said because "the government is ever committed to the welfare and well being of Gambians requested the Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation to work with my office (meaning the office of Yaya Jammeh) to establish a public transport company that is efficient, reliable and offers affordable services." This is further confirmation that the Office of the President under Yaya Jammeh has become an omnipresent, one-stop-shop office for private-public partnership where the private is Yaya Jammeh and the public is government and parastatal agencies.  Where the public treasury ends and where Jammeh's pockets begins is a tough call.  To destroy a public corporation only to set up another one in its place with Jammeh holding equity is mind-bending.

The GTSC has failed in its mission, as stated by Jammeh, of providing "efficient, reliable and affordable series."  The services provided by the GTSC are poor compared to the services that were provided by the now defunct GPTC that was killed by Jammeh and his rubber stamp National Assembly to make way for his private bus company using public funds.  School children are major casualties of this new transport company which does not provide services for school children in contrast to GPTC that received subvention from government to run an efficient school bus service.

End of Part I

Part II will look at the human cost of repealing the GPTC Act establishing the transport corporation causing sufferings of former staff of GPTC, most of whom were left stranded without compensation, pensions and even outstanding wages and social security contributions, in spite of government promises that former GPTC employees will be paid their outstanding dues.