When the regime of The Gambian dictator, Yaya Jammeh, embraced biometrics technology in 2009, neither he nor his Interior Minister, Ousman Sonko, understood the technology the Touray brothers, Hassan and Abdou Draman were introducing in their country of birth.
The brothers are Gambians who studied and worked in the United States, returning to their native country to invest their own funds in what became known as the GAMBIS (Biometrics) project which, with the expected cooperation of a willing partner, would have placed The Gambia in an enviable position by ushering in transparency in future elections.
The financial sector and particularly the banking and insurance sub-sectors, would have benefited in more ways than one. The country would have been – although in a sense, it still is somewhat – the first country in the ECOWAS region to have embraced the new technology had the regime not broke the conditions of the contract with Pristine Consulting headed by Hassan Touray.
Biometrics technology allows one to measure and analyze the physical attributes of a subject’s facial and voice features. It can also scan retinal features, all of which can be stored in the chip and once stored the data cannot be altered or manipulated in any form. It is this high degree of transparency that biometrics technology provides that troubled a notoriously opaque regime.
The project introduced a centralized accounting platform making it possible for revenue data collected by the Gambia Revenue Agency to be easily accessible to authorized personnel. It eliminated the need for government departments to collect cash for issuance and renewal of passports, driver’s licenses, national IDs or similar official documents.
The effect was instantaneous. But so was the reaction of the Inspector General of Police Ensa Badjie who stormed the Pristine Consulting offices to register his displeasure at the new system because revenue is not being collected by his officers. IGP Badjie may have been expressing the sentiments shared by many of his colleagues in the government.
After the IGP Ensa Badjie’s incident, it became increasingly evident that buyer’s remorse was beginning to set in, resulting in the regime framing charges against the company which resulted in counter suit that ended up with the government dropping the charges.
The financial and legal implications of the regime’s decision to discontinue the biometrics project are grave in the midst of an economic crisis that is of the doing of Yaya Jammeh who continues to ignore advice of the IMF and other donors to be prudent in his spending.
Legal liabilities resulting from the breach of contract which led to Pristine Consulting suing government may result in additional financial cost to the public treasury. The regime’s reaction to the company’s legal action was to frame the Touray brothers. Even though the false charges were eventually dropped with the promise to financially settle, the regime failed to fulfill in its promise.
Abandoning the biometrics project that was being 100% pre-financed by private investors were to recover their investment costs over 5 years means additional financial burden of the public treasury resulting from litigation.
It also means that the country is returning to the old system of laminated national ID and driver’s license that are susceptible to forgery and manipulation. 2016 is presidential election year which is an inopportune time to abandon a system which would have made voter registration more fraud-proof and thus a more transparent electoral process.
It should be noted that while the Jammeh regime has abandoned the biometrics system, ECOWAS’s protocol requiring all of its 16 Members State to adopt the biometrics ID cards effective this month, January 2016. The Gambia thus has the dubious honor of being the first to have adopted the system, the first to abandon it and will be the last to adopt it. It is not surprising because this is a regime that is confused and lacks both direction and resolve.
By Sidi Sanneh