Friday, December 28, 2018

Eulogy for December 30th heroes

Cherno M. Njie 

Eulogy for December 30th Heroes
Cherno M. Njie

If I must die in the forest, let it be a lion which kills me
(Su ma dee chi alla, gayndee ma rey)[1]

The circumstances under which I met these men – and I am speaking of the late Captain Njaga  Jagne, Colonel Lamin Sanneh, and Alagie Jaja Nyass, all men of the military either in The Gambia or abroad– were difficult. Those circumstances—well, a political and social situation in the Gambia, in our country, that was intolerable to us. Maybe it is regrettable that we all could not have come together simply as friends and fellow Gambians, unrelated to any sense of urgency that we all felt about four and a half years ago at our first meetings. Regrettable—maybe, yes—that the horrors committed against the body of the Gambian people for something like twenty-two years were what brought me to meet Captain Jagne, Colonel Sanneh, and Alagie Nyass. But still, the fact is that I came to meet these men as Gambians, with an intense and common concern for the evils Gambians were everyday experiencing as we watched apprehensively from the outside. I think the more important question is whether or not we regret our actions, which is a really a question of whether or not these men, who paid the ultimate price, died in vain. Of whether or not our actions, at the head of which was the failed coup attempt of December 30th of 2014, was a senseless action and just another hopeful expectation, or an act of great meaning and heroism.

The situation in The Gambia weighed heavily upon them—the pressure did not let up with time, because there was always news of some other atrocity from friends and family, if not in the newspapers: disappearances, torturing, jailings, intimidation, paranoia… All of us are familiar with the immense difficulty of managing such a weight when there is no obvious way to relieve it. It weighs, weighs and weighs more seemingly every day—and it may even be that the weight is not more, only that under it, day to day, one weakens ever so slowly.
In the United States we of the Diaspora have always agitated from afar, through advocacy groups, appeals to international human rights organizations, the United Nations, African Union, and ECOWAS, and pressuring the US State Department to act against Jammeh in some substantial way. The urgent need for change, and the lack of its coming was frustrating—the apparently slow movement of advocacy did not satisfy Njaga, Sanneh, or Nyass.
I spoke a moment ago about weight, a weight that, quite literally, pushes one into particular decisions, into specific ultimatums. The load on top of you has, in a certain sense, trapped you, forcing you to move slowly and with utmost exertion. Meanwhile, it often feels that you must keep up the veneer of peace while you are being almost literally crushed. If the weight does not let up, the  regular rules of common sense naturally give way to another sort of instinct, but, still, the shift is a reasonable one. From one point of view, the so-called normal point of view –I mean that view that has the privilege of clarity, safety, security, and plenty of time to think– the decision of these men may seem to be the result of a unique irrationality, that understandingly, but with error, yields to a route of action that is misguided, though perhaps justifiable. But that is, we have to say, unfair—not to mention that these rationalizations are entirely unsatisfactory for those who loved these men, and always had some clue to their inner turmoil.  It is horrible for one who loved Captain Jagne, or loved Colonel Sanneh, or loved Alagie Nyass in any sort of way to think that these men were acting irrationally up to the moment of their deaths. No—the thought does not settle well. Such a privileged rationalization leaves one with an ambiguous uncertainty that relates more to a sense of misunderstanding, or of incomprehensibility than to any fault in the decision-making of our loved ones. That incomprehensibility I think comes from the situation itself, the circumstances that in the first place pushed these and other men into a radical decision. The behavior of Jammeh and the state of things in The Gambia were always more surreal to us than our decision to act against him. It was always very natural for us to recognize that forceful removal was our only option. Those of us involved in the decision were looking at a set of unusual circumstances that called for a different sort of consideration. We must not blame these men if we are to call them heroes—we may lament their deaths, but we must blame, above all, the situation in The Gambia at the time, we must blame a regime that was repulsive to these men, and the fact that evil had taken root in our homeland. Their deaths in the line of fighting betray a passionate commitment to the routing of that evil, an attempt to wrest free the government of The Gambia, its institutions, and above all its people from a repressive state of affairs that at every point made impossible a safe, healthy living and the basic freedoms to make that living. The attempt was a selfless act, and we have also come here to commemorate that act, even while we grieve their loss.

It is not fair that I stand here speaking rather than one or all of these men. It is not fair that the world that we know, that The Gambia, the country that we know had, at the time, come to such a state that pushed these men to a drastic action. It was not fair that the body of the Gambian people should endure terror while these men at a distance felt a nagging and impenetrable sense of guilt— that they, because of that distance, were out of the way of Jammeh’s violence. They were, are men, who then, in 2014, saw that the world, our country, could be another way, so they declared “no.” At the bottom of their actions, which many may still have a difficult time understanding, was a fundamental decision to utter “no” and to begin to practice the meaning of that “no.”

The act of resistance led to their deaths. We know the list of deaths at the hands of Jammeh is a very long one. We all gather here as, in some way, victims of his terror of twenty-two years. I stand here with a heavy heart, because I have lost three great friends. My heart is heavy because these men, like so many Gambians, tragically paid with their lives in their attempt to stop the Jammeh regime from reducing human beings to victims. Their humanity would not permit them to stand idly by and watch Gambians denied their humanity.  It burdens my heart that their lives were claimed by an arbitrary and irrational evil that wished only to maintain its hold on power. Nevertheless, we are here today to remember that these men with great effort and purpose challenged that evil. But, exactly because they were men of the good, it should not be forgotten that these men throughout their lives were good men. They developed a sense of purpose and principle early in their lives, and carried these through to the end of their lives. Sadly they did not see Jammeh finally forced from power; as we, collectively, carry on the project of rebuilding The Gambia so that such evil can never again claim the lives of good men, we remember Captain Njaga  Jagne, Colonel Lamin Sanneh, and Alagie Jaja Nyass. It is they who still live with us, propelling in some way the mission of reconstruction, recuperation, and repair in our homeland. We grieve their loss—they will not come back to us. Still, we must remind ourselves that their deaths did not come to pass in vain, for they contributed to the long struggle against evil that eventually prevailed upon Jammeh. I remember each with a heavy heart—but it is uplifted when I look up and see, everywhere, their legacy in this country.

[1] This is an abridged version of what I read  at a memorial service and news conference held by D30 at the University of The Gambia the 13th of January 2018, as a belated eulogy for my friends and comrades Lamin Sanneh, Njaga Jagne, and Alagie Nyass, who died at State House in Banjul, in the early hours of December 30th, 2014.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The supplementary budget fiasco

Mamburry Njie, Finance Minister 
Last week, Gambia's National Assembly went out on a limb by voting down a supplementary budget request from the finance minister in the amount of D1.2 billion.  The request came approximately three weeks before the end of the 2018 fiscal year which, in addition to the large amount of the request, is estimated to be in the region of 6% of the current 2018 budget, drew the attention of a number of parliamentarians. 

The combination of these factors riled up members of parliament, resulted in the defeat of the motion to approve the Supplementary Appropriation Bill which, according to sources, was a historic first, a rarity that could have contributed to the frustration as well as the animated agitation the finance minister. 

The decision to vote down the request, hailed as a courageous act of defiance from the norm, was short-lived and subsequently reversed a few days later through a parliamentary maneuver engineered, according to sources, at the State House and employed by the Finance Minister.  The move was tacitly endorsed by the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker - both members of the UDP and both nominated by President Barrow - and a collection of rogue parliamentarians from the majority party and nominated members from other parties. 

Although no evidence exists to confirm that parliamentarians who changed their positions and voted for the motion the second time around were in cahoots with State House, it did not deter some from making such allegation.  The closeness of the vote - 16 parliamentarians for and 16 against - required a tie-breaker from the Speaker for the motion to pass - a vote that activists deemed unconstitutional and who publicly promised to challenge it in court. 

The dramatic reversal of a short-lived victory by parliamentarians, who thought they had succeeded in holding the line on runaway spending, sent shockwaves across the National Assembly and, among social media activists.  Tempers rose and passions erupted, resulting in some parliamentarians demanding the resignation of the finance minister who furiously declined to accede to the parliamentarian's demand.

Supplementary budget requests are an integral part of the budget process and a very useful tool at that.  However, during the 22-year dictatorial regime of Yaya Jammeh, the procedure has been abused, facilitated in part for lack of a strong and independent legislative arm of government.  The National Assembly under Jammeh was referred to as the "rubber stamp parliament"- a well-earned label.  Members approved whatever was brought before them.  That era appears to have elapsed. 

Supplementary appropriations were routinely submitted on multiple occasions in a single fiscal year with the Office of the President and the Defense Ministry of which the president is the minister were the main beneficiaries at the expense of social sector ministries and agriculture.  The practise helped fuel the domestic borrowing, contributing in no small measure to the overall debt to GDP ratio that has risen from 120% under Jammeh to 130% since the transition government under Adama Barrow took charge of the affairs of the state. 

Fiscal discipline has become the mantra of the government but most of its actions point in the wrong direction and the Gambian people are expecting the National Assembly to play the role of the adult in the room.  Members tried playing that role and almost succeeded by forcing government to reduce its initial request by approximately half - a reduction in both the amount and line items (or sub-heads) - suggesting that the initial request of D1.2 billion was a highly questionable sum, to put it mildly.  The experience also will serve as a warning to the executive branch that the National Assembly is ready and willing to take its oversight responsibility seriously. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

National Assembly imposes an involuntary and inadvertent austerity program on government

National Assembly Building
By a single act of defiance, The Gambia's National Assembly has imposed an involuntary austerity measure on the Transition Government led by Adama Barrow, after successive years of deficit spending that dates back to the dictatorship of Yaya Jammeh whose government was defeated in the December 2016 presidential elections.

In  an apparent response to the shock decision by a National Assembly that appeared to be responding to popular opposition to the D 1.2 billion Supplementary Appropriations, the Minister of Finance appealed to the parliamentary body for reconsideration of the vote that fell on deaf ears. 

The voices of frustration echoed around the National Assembly, from one member of parliament to the next, with historical references to the habitual and unsustainable budget deficits that received  automatic endorsements from all quarters.  Members of the National Assembly decided to stand firm in their decision to hold down public spending to manageable levels.

The Supplementary Appropriation Bill before the National Assembly was for a D1.2 billion spending authorization with less than three weeks before the end of the fiscal year on December 31 "of which an additional D 60 million is for the State House", according to Mr. Sal Taal, an Initiator of the civil society group named #GambiaHasDecided.  The Finance Minister's rationale for the request was considered cosmetic as the emphasis on the desirability of cleaning up the deficit mess that he inherited from his predecessors was largely ignored by the National Assembly.

The Minister of Finance was also unable to convince the National Assembly that government was committed to fiscal prudence when additional resources was being demanded from the public treasury.  In fact, an Assembly Member reminded the Minister and colleagues that during the 2017 Fiscal year, the newly sworn parliamentarians were able to revise the fait accompli budget that was passed by the outgoing National Assembly resulting in a deficit reduction from D 4.7 billion to D 921  million.  It is evident that the National Assembly is determined to maintain the same trajectory moving into the next fiscal year and beyond.

The decision to deny the request - the first time, ever - places both the government and the National Assembly on uncharted territory.  It therefore requires some thought in moving forward to avoid making matters worse.  There appears to be a sequencing problem already.  Because the Budget Speech scheduled for tomorrow (Friday), there is no time for the government representatives and the National Assemble to huddle around the problem to decide what the next steps should be - a necessary and important intermediary step. 

The National Assembly's decision is a genuine attempt to break away from a pattern of deficit financing that is deemed unconstitutional because the amount requested is approximately 6% of the initial budget figure which exceeds the 1% prescribed by law.

The problem posed by the D1.2 billion that has already been spent or committed to the end of the fiscal year on December 31st, 2018 and for which there is no parliamentary authorization and thus constitute an illegal/unconstitutional expenditure.  This is a legal matter that requires the attention of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice.

One obvious and highly desirable option that addresses the D 1.2 billion budget deficit is for the Ministry of Finance to quote savings of similar amount from the 2018 Approved Budget.  We have suggested in a Facebook post that candidates for further pruning include but not limited to the Office of the President (including Office of the First Lady), Ministry of Defense, Meet the People's Tour, presidential and other official travels and so on.  The challenge posed by this option is to save D 1.2 billion and still be within budget i.e. with no supplementary budget request for the entire fiscal year 2019. 

The decision of the National Assembly to deny approval of the Supplementary Appropriation Bill has effectively imposed an involuntarily austerity program for a government that has displayed reluctance to change a system inherited from Jammeh's 22-year dictatorship. 


Monday, December 10, 2018

Yaya Jammeh, Zainab and two of their children have been barred from entering the U.S. for corruption and gross human rights violation charges

Mr and Mrs. Yahya Jammeh 
The United States Department of State has today announced a 'public designation' of former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, his wife and two of his children which bars them from entering the United States.

The U.S. Secretary of State under the Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriation Act of 2018 is empowered, where credible information exits that foreign officials have been involved in significant corruption or a gross violation of human rights, those individuals and their immediate family members are ineligible to enter the United States.

The State Department's Notice reiterated the U.S. government's continued commitment to combating corruption, increasing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and promoting good governance globally. 

The Notice continued "[T]he United States stands with the government of Gambia, its people and civil society in support of the Gambia's transition towards greater transparency, accountability, and democratic governance for the benefit of all Gambians." 


Friday, December 7, 2018

Lebanese businessman, Kassim Tajideen, tied by the US Treasury Department to Hezbollah pleads guilty to money laundering conspiracy in US District Court

Kassim Tajideen *
Kassim Tajideen, a Lebanese businessman who operate businesses in Lebanon and Africa, including The Gambia, has been found guilty of money laundering conspiracy charge brought against him in March of last year.

He was designated by the US Department of The Treasury as an important financial supporter to the Hezbollah terror organization.

Kassim Tajideen, 63, of Beirut, Lebanon, pleaded guilty before US District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, to launder monetary instruments.

According to the statement of facts signed by Mr. Tajideen in conjunction with his plea, he conspired with at least five other persons to conduct over $50 million in transactions with US businesses that violated these prohibitions.  In addition, he and his co-conspirators knowing engaged in transactions of as much as $1 billion through the United States financial system from places outside the United States.

The plea, which must be approved by the judge, calls for a 60 months in prison and for Tajideen to pay $50 million in advance of his sentencing which is scheduled for January 18, 2019.   Since his extradition to the United  State following his arrest overseas, Mr. Tajideen has been in detention since March 2017.

When we first reported Mr. Tajideen's indictment in March of 2017, we warned the then newly installed Barrow administration about Mr. Tajideen who was being investigated at the time by the United State authorities in connection with his business relations with the Kansas-based giant food producer, Seaboard Corporation.

The Kansas company was at the time partnering with Mohamed Bazzi and Fadi Mazziggi in the establishment of the Gambia Milling Corporation in The Gambia. We further advised that to foster a free market atmosphere, the new government must encourage legitimate foreign businesses and investors to do business in The Gambia.  You can access the relevant blog post here.
* A reader pointed out that the initial photo that accompanied this blog post was not the image of Kassim Tajideen.  I hope this is the right photo.  Thanks reader.

Monday, December 3, 2018

ECOMIG is not to be used as an instrument of personal power

Adama Barrow :  A dictator in the making? 
President Adama Barrow has been known to commit unforced political errors with such frequency that even some of the egregious ones have been excused, normalized and ultimately attributed to his lack of requisite experience to lead.

Mr. Barrow came to be elected president through the accident of history.  He was the presidential nominee of a coalition of seven political parties plus an independent candidate to contest the 2016 December presidential elections which he ended up winning, unexpectedly.

And when Jammeh, a dictator of 22 years standing threatened to nullify the election results and, ultimately refused to vacate State House, the international community stepped in to enforce the will of the Gambian people by despatching a contingent of ECOWAS mission in The Gambia - otherwise referred to as ECOMIG - with a specific and unambiguous mission of ensuring the security and protection of the Gambian population.  Eventually, Jammeh was forced to step down and forced into exile allowing Barrow to return to The Gambia from Dakar where he sought sanctuary during the political impasse.

The initial mission was to restore democracy which was later extended to include helping the Barrow government initial reform measures.  In a press interview held in Banjul on the occasion of last year's visit of Jean Claude Brou, president of the ECOWAS Commission, to announce the extension of the ECOMIG mandate was quoted thus " I think the security situation has improved but if does not mean that the challenges are not there.  And that is why the ECOMIG and the Gambian forces are here to ensure the safety of the population."

The United Nations Secretary General's representative in West Africa, Mr. Ibn Chambers who accompanied Mr. Brou on the mission revealed that in addition to regional security issues, their mission engaged the Gambian authorities on how the government plans to make good on the pledges made at the May 2018 Donors' Conference in Brussels.

Mr. Barrow's attention since he assumed the presidency in January 2017 has been focussed on how to perpetuate himself beyond the 3-year mandate imposed on him by a Memorandum of Understanding signed by members of the Coalition of 7 + 1 opposition political parties, in his capacity as president.

Barrow's thirst for power and his determination to retain it at all cost, including the risk of putting the entire security of the country in peril, has led him to focus more on political campaign antics than governing a country emerging from 22-years of one of Africa's longest and most brutal dictatorship; an experience that has weakened the country's institutions and has institutionalized a culture of corruption that is well ingrained in the fabric of Gambian society.

The reforms promised, such as the civil service, state-owned enterprises and security sector - to name a few - have fallen victim of the deliberate and calculated decision of President Barrow to focus on his 're-election' bid at the expense of governing.  The pledges Barrow made in Brussels on behalf of his government have also fallen victim because the policy frameworks, including the additional reform measures that will necessarily accompany the programs and projects proposals submitted during the Brussels Donors' Conference will fall short of expectations.

President Barrow's transgressions as a transitional president has reached such alarming proportions that we must stop and take stock of the political and security situation that threatens the peace and stability of a country.  The Mission of the ECOMIG has not changed since it was last modified to include helping government reform its security forces.

Addressing a group of his supporters purportedly from the West Coast Region at State House over the weekend in mandinka, President Barrow boasted of being in full charge of the army, the police, the state intelligence agencies AND ECOMIG and therefore more powerful than Jammeh ever was.

To use Jammeh's name and system as reference, after the suffering his regime inflicted on a defenseless population, is repugnant and an inappropriate system to use as guidance.  And mission and purpose of the state institutions that President Barrow cited i.e the army, police and intelligence agencies being the protection and their institutions is disquieting to see them projected as instruments of personal power.