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Saturday, June 22, 2024

100 SUVs and the OIC disaster

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By Dr Ousman Gajigo

By now, everyone has heard about the government’s decision to buy 100 luxurious sport utility vehicles (SUVs) for the OIC summit. The summit lasted for only two days, with only one day of actual meeting. While the event itself was very short, the monumental and costly blunder involved in buying such a large fleet of luxury vehicles without a moment thought to what useful purpose they could serve afterwards will be felt for a very long time.

Now that the event has ended, we are in a good position to evaluate how well the government did in hosting the event. In assessing whether or not an event is “successful”, it is not sufficient that the delegates arrived, delivered speeches and then returned to their respective homes. For us to be content with labelling such a bare minimum set of activities as “success” would mean the absence of any meaningful standard of achievement.

The criteria for whether an event is successful would critically depend on the budgeting of the conference, timely implementation and the handling of the logistics, among other important considerations. The poor state of preparation we witnessed despite having years to plan was enough to brand the event a failure before it even began. The poor state of preparation led to the event being postponed multiple times, an ignominious distinction that makes us unique among all OIC members. None of the key infrastructure items that were budgeted ended up being completed on time. The signals given by not meeting those milestones was not missed by everyone. It is therefore not surprising that high-profile attendees that would normally be expected to grace such OIC summits were noticeably absent in The Gambia. The fact that numerous heads of state skipped the event was to be expected because the protocol officers of many leaders that are accustomed to certain level of quality service would have done their scoping missions to conclude that this was an event worth skipping.

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Which brings us to the issue of the government buying 100 luxury vehicles. Nothing embodies the failure of the OIC summit more than this massive waste of resources. It is obvious that hosting an important international event would require putting logistics such as transportation in order. So, no one would seriously question the need for transportation arrangement to move delegates around during the event.

However, the decision to buy 100 luxury vehicles is so monumentally boneheaded that it should be a textbook example of bad decision-making. First of all, not every single delegate needed to have their own vehicle exclusively assigned to them. A particular vehicle could ferry multiple delegates since they did not all arrive at the same time. This first consideration should have ruled out buying anything close to 100 vehicles.

It is also possible to rent vehicles that would cost a fraction of the cost of actually buying them. Even the most exorbitant rental rate would be far more cost-effective than the outright buying of brand new luxury vehicles. It says a lot about the incompetence and amateurishness of the officials involved that they expected to be commended for buying these luxury vehicles for a two-day conference. One could see it from the face of Mr. Yankuba Dibba, the CEO of the OIC Secretariat in the country, as he proudly announced the size of the vehicle fleet purchased by the government. He actually emphasized the words “100 SUVs”, probably expecting an applause at that point of delivery.

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As a rule, one could discern the level of incompetence of officials by paying attention to what they believe to be their primary objectives. The beliefs of incompetent officials on what should be prioritized seldom match the reality of what should be considered the most important goal, given their context. If a group of serious officials were put in charge of running the OIC conference, they would have focused on factors that are really critical to the success of organizing a conference. These would include focusing on what the substantive outcomes of the conference are supposed to be and how that would be useful for the country’s long-term interest. More specifically, they would focus on conceptualizing a well thought-out plan, executing it well and on a budget that is commensurate with the nation’s current capacity. And we would have had some indications that these officials knew what they were doing by seeing some key milestones being achieved even before the arrival of the actual summit date.

But that’s not what happened with our Gambian officials. It quickly became obvious that the prime goal of most government officials and those they put in the secretariat is simply to impress people rather than achieving goals. The desire to impress rather than being driven by achieving some meaningful goal is one of the biggest signs of an official who is either incompetent or does not care about substantive work. Once an individual is consumed with the desire to impress, it is almost certain that would get sidetracked by the most meaningless of acts. More often than not, what these officials assume would impress people is laughably insignificant.

In the eyes of our incompetent officials in charge of executing the OIC summit, they most likely believed that they would be making indelible impressions in the minds of foreign leaders by having them ride in luxury SUVs from the airport to their hotels or the meeting venue. In their small minds, it escaped them that most of those foreign officials get ferried around every single day in vehicles far more luxurious than anything we can afford. They also failed to realize that it is actually laughable to attempt to impress a visiting official with a few minutes ride in a luxury vehicle when the very road they will be traveling on is sub-standard and incomplete.

To drive home how bad the decision is to buy 100 luxury vehicles for a two-day conference, let’s consider what else the government could have achieved by spending just a fraction of that money and still end up with significant impacts on the lives of Gambians.

Let’s start with urban transportation. As we know, one of the biggest problems in the Greater Banjul Area is the lack of mass transit system. Each of these luxury SUVs could buy several minivans or large buses. In other words, a fraction of the money wasted on these luxury vehicles could have bought a whole fleet of buses to address the mass transit problem in our main urban area. The time-savings from those additional buses through lower traffic congestion and shorter commuting times would have had more significant economic and social impact on citizens than these useless luxury cars.

Another area that could have benefited citizens would have involved buying extra patrol cars for the police. We live in a period of rising insecurity in the country, and therefore improving law enforcement would have entailed achieving a significant component of the forgotten security sector reform. Most police stations in urban areas do not have any vehicles. And despite the baseless claim by the new Minister of Information about the Gambia having low crimes, the fact of the matter is that crime rates are increasing mainly because the government has not invested in reforming the police and allocating them the appropriate budget for better training, transportation and equipment. A fraction of the money wasted on the fleet of luxury vehicles for a two-day conference could have ensured that all police stations in urban areas have multiple patrol cars. This would have undoubtedly resulted in more important improvement in the quality of lives of Gambians.

One could go on and on about alternative ways in which the wasted money on 100 luxury cars could have been better spent. But instead, we now have 100 SUVs that the government cannot put to much useful service. After all, these luxuries vehicles cannot be easily converted into ambulances or public buses, school buses or patrol cars. Most of these vehicles will likely end up with officials that the government had no need to purchase vehicles for in the first place. Which means the vehicles will end up generating further costs for the government in the form of maintenance and fuel expenses, on the top of the original massive waste.

Another way in which the purchase of these luxury vehicles led to further waste would be through their initial procurement process. Whenever there are questions surrounding the nature of the government’s acquisition of goods or services, the first avenue in which improprieties occur is through violations of standard procurement processes. For instance, instead of competitive bidding, there would be single sourcing, with no explanation or need for the deviation from standard practice. As a result, we get saddled with inflated costs for items or services than could be acquired for far less than the declared amounts. So when the day comes for the proper auditing of the purchase of these 100 luxury vehicles, do not be surprised if further improper acts are uncovered.

Last but not the least, we need a proper auditing of how much money was allocated to the government for hosting the OIC summit and how that amount has been spent. When this accounting has been carried out, do not be surprised to learn that the waste of public resources did not stop at the buying of luxury vehicles. We are yet to fully appreciate how expensive it can be to have a government run by incompetent officials.  

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