Analysing the President’s Address to Parliament

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I received with great delight excerpts of the Presidential address to the nation delivered at the State opening of Parliament in Banjul. The speech itself touched on so many areas across the development spectrum spelling out the administration’s triumphs & vision for the future, which we shall explore shortly. For a start, the speech was a major victory for democracy honouring a constitutional requirement in a State of the Nation address. Equally pleasing was that the speech highlighted FACTs pertaining to the state of preparedness in terms of the overall economy, rather than imaginary tales & fictional politics the Gambian people had been subjected to.

After the usual niceties and protocol recognising his esteem audience, the President pointed out the hope and optimisms prevalent in this new-Gambia stating emphatically that ‘’never again shall the Gambia return to those dark days of impunity, or disregard of constitutional order. That was a bold opening statement reminiscent of our troubled past. An audacious attempt too, and one the public needed to hear. The President went on to describe his administration as ‘’a government of action’’ adding that ‘the immediate priority is to fix the continuous energy problem as well as revive the economy’. But I am baffled as to how he plans to do that with no clear-cut energy plan unveiled thus far. For an economy heavily reliant on tourism, I could not understand why China is building a $50 million Conference Centre when the country’s immediate needs are energy independence & food self-sufficiency. That cash should have been invested in solar-panels manufacturing plant to light up the whole country – schools, hospitals, street-lighting, Real-Estate, factories, poultry, irrigation – creation thousands of jobs across the country.

I welcome the fact that the President took time to recognise regional contributions to our new-found freedoms heaping praise on Senegal, the contributions of ECOWAS and AU respectively. The EU continues to be instrumental, the President noted, and if I may just point ambassador Lajos, welcoming new UK ambassador to Banjul, Sharon Wardle, in terms of the country’s desperate energy problems, and a rising national debt.

On Security, the President wasted no time stressing emphatically that gone are the days when armed security personnel represent the face of government. It is a welcome change, normalized internationally to separate the military from public spaces. A sure way to confront indiscipline within the force, and to consolidate & advance democratic gains. The government was timely with plans for a military academy to train officers and other personnel in all aspects of military science.

On the Judiciary, the president had this to say: The pursuit of justice remains a high priority for my government, adding that ‘our Judiciary has been Gambianised with the appointment of a Gambian Chief Justice and six Superior Court justices. The President further reflected on the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry to look into financial and business-related activities of Yahya Jammeh & his associates. A smart move indeed, but the administration ought to be careful not set-up far too many commissions of enquiry. For starters, we have no money to fund them. And whilst that work goes on, government ministers must separate themselves from all identified business persons associated with the tainted APRC regime avoiding conflict of interest.

I was rather unconvinced with the President’s take on the energy sector. The Minister of energy has got to toughen up and be counted because the country cannot afford to have a low-energy person leading such a vital industry. Mr President, the world is moving away from fossil fuels & such pollutants towards renewables. Folks, diesel and petrol has been a huge drain on our economy, so I was disappointed not to hear any plans on solar and wind power, and plans for irrigation to revive barren lands turning the entire country into an agricultural forest. I know all these projects cost money, but the administration has got to be ambitious. I therefore challenged the Ministry to clarify – how & when The Gambia is expected to supply full capacity nonstop electricity. Last year Senegal secured €500 million investment for a solar farm megaproject. No wonder Senelec is positioned to patronize NAWEC.

On international affairs, the President reminded the country that Banjul & Dakar has signed several key agreements from defense and security, tourism, fisheries & consular assistance. Certainly, we welcome the moves but did Parliament had look at the details beforehand? The President went on to say that ‘’National Assembly has ratified a crucial World Trade Organization trade facilitation agreement’’; plus the administration has signed a letter of agreement with China for duty free trade between the two nations. He added ‘’this will remove the need for costly trans-shipment of Gambian exports to China through a third country’’. I disagree, the Chinese has played us here, and won. Does this mean ‘Golden leaf’ is not only destroying our coastal line, but can empty our sea of fish & export to China without paying a single butut in duties. These are very bad deals for the Gambian tax payer & whoever negotiated the details should be fired. The Gambia should never entertain free tariff deals with any nation apart from Senegal because we will always be disadvantaged due to size and population count. You know China and the rest of the world may flood our markets with cheap imports out-competing local producers and manufacturers. I call on parliament to block it, to be renegotiated. Clauses must always be inserted to be reviewed every two years, and for China, and US, and EU countries to pay annual fees in trade imbalance. Ambassador Jiming will understand this is not an attack on Beijing, but for the fact that the Gambia is a poor upcoming country & only looking to protect its national interest.

On relations with IMF and World bank, the President says: ‘’we are in the final stages of concluding a Rapid Credit Facility Agreement with the IMF who have agreed to a staff monitored program, to include the reform of public enterprises such as NAWEC and GAMTEL & GAMCEL’’. Again, Finance minister Sanneh must not sign up to any more loans, nor entertain painful austerity measures. The rich countries & billion-dollar institutions should help us, not burden us with more loans & more debt. The government must also reject all pressure to privatize or sell state parastatals. Like Britain, Sweden or Denmark, The Gambia shall always be a social-democracy allowing for both state and private sector involvement in the economy.

I noted the President’s remarks on youth unemployment although much is still left to be done. In the first EU pot of €75 million, €10 million was earmarked for youth employment & opportunities related funding. Please, every butut of that money must be directed as intended because at the end of the policy-cycle the public would want to know how many jobs were created. I repeat – The Labour department in Banjul has got to start producing monthly job numbers. This is a great challenge but one to bolster the president’s own legacy as a champion on jobs.

In terms of agriculture, I welcome the initial priority attached towards this vital industry, but details are sketchy with no much meat to the bone for analysts to chew on. The public would have liked to hear the President’s plans as to rice production & mechanized agriculture. The agriculture ministry must come up with its own internal memo to show (a) the road to mechanized agriculture (b) When is Gambia expected to be rice-self-sufficient (c) Intensifying peanuts production & plans for ‘Saaroo’, etc. The administration though deserve praise for providing fertilizer and seedlings to farmers with the rainy season upon us.

On Tourism & the environment, the President had this to say: my government has put in place the right
policies and programs to protect our environment
and combat the effects of climate change
. With due respect sand mining on our shores has to stop if the government is truly serious about the environment. Why can’t we use some of the millions in aid build big burnt-brick factories in industrial zones around the country creating jobs. That is the solution to reclaiming our shores. The line ministry should reach out to the Netherlands through bilateral channels for expertise help to push back the sea for a beautiful coastline. The Dutch are the very best in the world for that. Tourists are becoming disillusioned with the poor quality of our seafront, and Minister Bah must acknowledge if he is serious about an all-year-round tourism industry.

As for civil service reforms. The President says his government has embarked on improving governance & to eradicate waste. Five new governors were appointed, he said, to exercise their portfolios independently away from partisan politics. They are encouraged to follow proper civil service conduct which embodies neutrality and impartiality in performing their functions. He went on to say the ‘Personnel Management Office was tasked to conduct a comprehensive nationwide staff audit for the entire civil service including the security forces – the Army, Police, Immigration, Prisons, Fire and Rescue Service, and the State Intelligence Service’. For a government barely six months into office, these are excellent achievements. Under Jammeh, power was snatched away from parliament and all key decision-making bodies – so we welcome these reforms and the fact that usurped power is returned to various institutions in line with separation of powers and devolution of powers respectively. However, a system consuming forty-percent of its budget on salaries & benefits is unsustainable. The private sector, not government, should be the focal point of job creation as the engine of economic uplift. And why not sell all government cars except for the Presidency and his ministers, members of parliament, and Governors – reduce unnecessary cost to the tax-payer!!!

Critics may rush to point out that ’the speech is late’ given that parliament was sitting for several weeks. But I think we need to be pragmatic here. Unlike Senegal or Britain, the administration did not transition peacefully, inheriting a broken system of government. They need time to steady the ship, which they have done thus far. Remember, even had Jammeh left for Kanilai, the Barrow government would still be faced with extraordinary challenges repairing 22 years of maladministration. But I cannot hide disappointment that there was no mention of the term ‘’National Interest’’ in the entire speech. I would have also liked to hear more on plans for agriculture, fisheries and renewable energy sectors which the speech writers failed to capture. The speech should have also engaged the Gambia Chamber of Commerce in terms of private-sector-government-partnership plans on job creation across the country.

Gibril Saine, LONDON