Friday, July 28, 2017

There's no such thing as a free lunch, Hon. Fatty

We welcome the Interior Minister's initiative to start having monthly press conferences to bring Gambian journalists up to speed on his Ministry's programs and projects in the interest of transparency and accountability to the Gambian people.  

The Minister's Permanent Secretary, reading from a prepared text, outlined the Interior Ministry's agenda, highlighting priority areas.  However, in the interest of time, they proposed to limit, unsuccessfully, the press conference to two subjects (1) the Diagnostic and Molecular Science Center and (2) the SEMLEX (National bio-metric ID card)  contract.  A third topic that has gained currency was injected into the press conference by journalists who wanted to know the reasons why the Interior Ministry moved from Banjul to the Kombos and the annual rental amount.

The minister's response made news in the sense that, contrary to popular belief, it was neither the Interior Minister nor his staff who negotiated or signed the lease on the new ministry building located on Bertil Harding Highway. The journalists were referred instead to the office of the Vice President and/or the Finance Minister for answers to their questions.  It is expected that the journalists will follow up with the two offices.

As regards the Diagnostic Center,  the Interior Minister insists that the $ 48 million private investment  project led by a Senegalese national, will cost the local budget "zero bututs".  Cheikh Tejan Sy, the Senegalese lead investor was the only one identified by name.  For Gambians to know who the rest of the investors are, they'd have to inquire with the Ministry of Justice - an unusual proposition but that's the way things are.

The Interior Minister has been facing mounting criticism of the government's decision to prioritize the Diagnostic Center  over what many see as more urgent areas such as crime prevention and equipping and training law enforcement personnel, especially in the face of increase in crime, which, the minister and his permanent secretary  have attributed, at times, as a result of improvements in the reporting of crimes.  But we have also heard the minister, on occasion, argue for more resources for his ministry, citing spikes in criminal activity - a circular argument not uncommon among politicians and bureaucrats.

The $ 48 million investment package has also made Gambians quite uneasy.  To allay their fears, the minister's favorite refrain, in the National Assembly as well as at his press conference, has been "it will not cost government a single butut."  But is the statement factual?  

The land that government will provide aside, the minister let it be known that the center will enjoy a 5-year tax holiday which, if [and it is a big "if"] the center becomes fully operational in Year-3, it will not any form of tax for the final 2 years.  Other concessions normally associated with these type of investments include but not limited to custom duties and excise waivers which can easily run into the tens of millions of dollars.  It is therefore incorrect to say that it will not cost a single butut.

That said, there are still a lot of project unknowns which will make it difficult for us to pass judgement based on available information.  What's the rationale for providing land to a private venture, why is government so intricately involved in project implementation?  The absence of a website for a group of reputable investors as the ones led by Dr. Cheihk Tijan Sy is cause for concern, in addition to the fact, among a host of other concerns, that a list of investors is not immediately available to the public since public funds are going to be involved despite claims to the contrary.

We will do a follow-up in future blog posts on the SEMLEX contract based, in part, on the Interior Minister's responses to journalists' questions at yesterday's press conference.