It was great relief and an indication that the Gambia was heading towards system change when Pres. Barrow demanded that his ministers declare their assets. But to the surprise of many not only did some ministers failed to declare their assets, but also those who declared their assets were also not made public. This raises the question as to what therefore was the rationale for the declaration of assets by ministers.
In the first place one must highlight that assets declaration is a growing governance and management issue that is fast gaining momentum worldwide. This is because it is seen as one tool that is effective in combating corruption, bribery and preventing conflict of interest by public officials. Assets declaration also serves to make the citizens have trust and confidence in the government and public officials. It therefore improves the integrity of public institutions and officials. Assets declaration also helps to dissuade public officials from misconduct simply because there will be noticeable variations in their wealth acquisition. Thus assets declaration saves public officials from unfounded rumours and accusations of corruption.
In light of the above reasons, assets declaration must therefore be made public so that citizens can see and know what is the level of wealth of ministers so that they can track any changes in their wealth. Without being made public, the value and purpose of assets declaration is therefore defeated. This is because at the end of the day, citizens cannot know if a particular minister has increased his or her acquisition of wealth or not during his or her term of office.
In that regard, Pres. Barrow must realize that an assets declaration in the Gambia must be perceived from the point of system change. Since independence, assets declaration has not been a major public policy and governance issue. Because of its absence, it has been one of the reasons why corruption and bribery has been rife in the Gambia for which the country has been ranked among the most corrupt societies in the world. The question is; is Barrow prepared to introduce a new system that will cleanse his government and future governments in the Gambia as his lasting legacy?
In my view, Barrow needs to draft a new assets declaration bill so that in addition to the constitutional provisions, we would also have a substantive law on this issue. In this law, assets declaration must be institutionalized and to expand it to also cover members of the Executive and its departments and agencies including public enterprises, parastatals and local government institutions as well as the Legislature and the Judiciary. Furthermore officials of statutory bodies such as the IEC, Ombudsman and NCCE are all public officers who must also declare their assets. This is one fundamental measure to cleanse the government and the entire society from corruption and bribery.
A separate institution other than the Ombudsman must also be created to purposely concentrate on assets declaration. The law could also determine at what level or rank should public officers declare, and what kinds of assets are to be declared and made public. If Barrow were able to create such a law and institution, he would have made the Gambia a champion in the fight against corruption in the world.
Furthermore, in creating this law, it is also necessary to create a freedom of information law so as to further empower citizens to demand public information from public institutions. Such a law serves to further curtail corruption and promote the integrity and transparency of public institutions and officials. Freedom of information law in the context of assets declaration is instrumental in institutionalizing good governance in this country. The current revelations at the Janneh Commission are clear evidence that we need an assets declaration law and institution backed by a freedom of information act.
Since coming to power there have been rumours of corruption and bribery levied against various ministers and top government officials. Mama Kandeh once said that loans contracted by the government are being shared among ministers. He is yet to give any evidence on that. Others have also said that the Interior Minister had bought a D10 million house. No evidence has yet come out on that too. But the incidence of frequent travels by senior government officials and ministers is rife with the president himself was reported to have taken along more than 50 people to New York for the UN General Assembly meeting.
These rumours and facts all point to the need for a freedom of information law as well as a more serious approach towards assets declaration. We do not wish to see our Government continue to be a free basket where everyone just picks whatever they wish to satisfy their desires. We do not want to have our public officials use official travels as a means to buy cars and compounds and stash their bank accounts while Gambians die for lack of electricity and good health facilities. Therefore let Barrow tell us how serious he is about assets declaration by stating clearly what was his intention to call for the declaration in the first place. Where does he want to go with this matter?
Public office is a right as well as a duty and also a privilege for all citizens to serve their country. But any citizen who wishes to work in the public sector must be prepared to submit to the laws, regulations and instructions that maintain efficiency, transparency and accountability. It is these values and standards that underpin the checks and balances that restrain the state and its officers from abuse and to confine themselves to the rule of law and service to the nation. Hence our public service must be clean and fair as well as justly rewarding for those who work in it. The public service should be a work place for the best sons and daughters of our land hence public servants must be individuals with integrity and discipline. To achieve that kind of a clean public service, assets declaration is one fundamental tool for that purpose.
God Bless The Gambia