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Friday, April 19, 2024

Arrested and incarcerated at the NIA for awardingthe UTG Faraba Banta campus project to Hsapoorji Pallonji

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry

I was on the phone pouring my disapproval and frustration to the Permanent Secretary on the other line over the extension of a contract to a corrupt official, whiles a very angry president was practically yelling at the Cabinet meeting on a subject of corruption. All the ministers, seated in complete silence and throwing furtive glances at their other and their furious and ranting President, listened as Yahya Jammeh kept banging on the table, froth coming out of his mouth, as he narrated a perceived and concocted scheme of corruption against very respectable people including a Gambian business mogul, a Minister of Petroleum, several Permanent Secretaries and Deputy Permanent Secretaries and other staff of GNPC, GTSC and the Secretary to Cabinet. These people were accused of Economic crime for not following due process in contracting March Trading of Dubai to provide fuel to The Gambia. The President swore that he would never allow any corruption act in the Country to go unpunished, and he was going to have many other heads rolling in the coming weeks. Either the President felt this was a good election point to sell and decided to sacrifice the lives and freedoms of innocent Gambians to achieve his goal at the polls, or he was hallucinating. It was later apparent that due process has always been followed. It seems it was as a result of a complaint made by one Muhammed Bazi, a close friend of the President, against his company’s exclusion in the bidding process, that the President, who was believed would earn himself a huge profit if Bazi were to win the contract, decided to advance those accusations and have the unfortunate mentioned above charged with false charges of economic crime.
The Minister of Higher Education, trying to assure the President his ministry made great strides in a project under him and proving that due process was followed, made an innocent observation which was later to be an expensive mistake. He said that at least for his Ministry they have completed the initial processes in the international Competitive bidding process and will award the contract for the construction of the UTG Faraba Banta Campus to the best bidder, selected after a rigorous vetting process. When the President asked who the lucky bidder was, the Minister said it was Shapoorji Pallonji. All hell broke loose!
My Minister didn’t know that the new National Assembly complex in Banjul was a project awarded to Shapoorji Pallonji, an Indian firm of international repute. The initial construction cost was estimated before knowing the land was practically marshes and would need serious excavation before the building could be erected there. As a result, the original cost had to be revised and ended up being higher than initially negotiated. This did not please the President, who knew little of the challenges faced by the contractors and felt that Shapoorji Pallonji might deliberately be inflating the cost. He, therefore, would not trust them with the UTG project.
The President asked how the Ministry awarded the contract to Shapoorji Pallonji; the same question, it seemed, was his contention over the fuel contract award. My Minister, intending not to make things worse, decided to be quiet, which infuriated the President more. The President, in his fury, demanded that my Minister submit a comprehensive report detailing the whole process and who signed the contract with Shapoorji Pallonji. The President promised to deal mercilessly with the culprits. Even though my Minister knew that we had just submitted our last progress report on this process to the President that Thursday morning for his approval, as has always been the custom and tradition with President Jammeh regarding all projects from all Ministries, Departments and Agencies, having been signalled by his colleagues, my Minister decided to be quiet. He felt that once back at the Ministry, a better strategy would be taken to minimise the damage caused.
The second phone call that evening came from a female Minister, who had high regard for me. I called Mr Yunus Hydara, the Project Manager of the Project Coordination Unit (PCU) of the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE). I informed him that I would need him to quickly assemble his team the following day for an emergency session. I gave him a hint of the work to be done. I also called my Director of Planning and asked him to join us.
The following day, Friday, June 24th, 2016, we converged at the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education Project Coordination Unit in the morning for a long work session. The draft report, because we intended to make it comprehensive, took us two days. However, on the second day being Saturday, once the final draft was completed, the Minister was asked to contact the Secretary-General (SG) and the Head of the Civil Service, Mr Sulayman Samba, to submit a copy for his perusal and comments.
On the morning of Monday, June 27th 2016, the SG gave us a few tips to include in the report and promised to update His Excellency the President. We spent the day reviewing and revising the draft and completed a clean copy all of us were satisfied with by 5 pm. All through this period, my Minister was with us. He was tasked to submit the final copy to the SG. As the Office of the President (OP) was across the street, he walked, accompanied by his orderly, to the SG’s office. We stayed at the PCU offices, making jokes about the situation.
Then, the third phone call of this drama came.
When my cell phone rang, I recognised the SG’s number. My heart skipped a beat. I answered, and he asked me to go see him.
I turned to Mr Yunus Hydara and the team and informed them I had a bad feeling about this. My heartbeat suddenly accelerated, and I told them I would leave my bag and other belongings in his office. I told him that if I were to come back and look funny or never come back, he should send my belongings to my wife. Nothing was special about my bag, but I wanted that to be a sign to my family that I might be gone for a long time or forever. I had always expected that call one day. Mr Hydara, in trying to reassure me, told me that I was taking this too seriously and I might need to explain a thing or two from the report sent.
Like my Minister, I also walked over to the OP with my heart thumping so loudly that I thought everyone could hear it. As I arrived at the SG’s office, I saw my Minister coming out of the waiting room, flanked by two unknown people. I greeted him, but he only replied with a grunt. I cannot explain how I felt then. I arrived at the waiting room and was quickly ushered into the SG’s office by his orderly. I found the SG in his chair; the office was beginning to get dark as it was a little after 6 pm. He asked me to sit down, which I did. He had a small A5 size brown envelope in his hand, which he handed me without a word. Once I took it, he said softly, “I am sorry, but the President asked me to relieve you from your position immediately. I am sorry to have to do this.” He added with much sincerity. “You will have to be accompanied by the NIA officers outside to your office to write your handing over in long hand and hand them the keys of both your vehicle and office.”
“You have been an excellent SG, and I appreciate your concern,” I replied, “but our destinies are in Allah’s hands, and I am sure this is when my humble contribution will end, and both of us can do nothing about it.”
I thanked him and left his office quickly, especially when I noticed his uneasy posture. Once outside his office, two young gentlemen in mufti (normal clothing against military attire) flanked me and asked me where I parked my car. I informed them that it was parked at the MoBSE car park. They beckoned an unnumbered vehicle and instructed me to enter. I was sandwiched at the back, with each sitting on either side and a third sitting in front with the driver. The driver drove out of the State House grounds towards the MoBSE. I watched, as uncertainty dawn on me that I might never see my family again.

Dismissal, dismissal and the NIA
When I received my dismissal letter from the SG, flanked by the two NIA officers in an unmarked white Nissan vehicle while another sat in front, we left the State House for the MoBSE.
I alighted, and among themselves, they agreed that two should accompany me upstairs to collect my keys. When I saw Mr Yunus Hydara, I asked him to pass me over the keys to my car and office, which were on his table. Seeing the two accompanying me, he understood quickly. Once down, my car was driven by the third person seated in the front passenger seat while driving to the MoBSE. The three of us entered the unmarked vehicle again and I was flanked the same way it was done earlier. Instead of fright, I greatly pitied the NIA officers because they were literary kids; the oldest would not be beyond 35 years.
We arrived at the MoHERST offices, and it was already after 7 p.m. Once I arrived in my office, I asked to pray Maghrib. I noticed that my Minister was upstairs. I also noticed that the Minister of MoBSE was there, for it was to her that my Minister was handing over, just as I will be handing over to the Permanent Secretary of MoBSE.
After writing my handing–over notes—quickly scribbled by hand—which I copied in three copies—one for the NIA, one for the PS MoBSE, and one for me—I handed over all other listed items to the PS MoBSE, including the car keys.
The NIA staff made a call to ask if I should be set free to go home. They were told that there were no instructions to arrest or detain me. I completed the handing over and came down from the 5th floor of the Futurelect Building, where the Ministry was housed. The Futurelect building was believed to be owned by His Excellency the President, and the rent being paid was submitted in one of the numerous accounts owned by the Kanilai Group International (KGI). I had a small bag of assorted things I owed from the office and asked the PS MoBSE to drop me home, which he gladly did. One thing both of us were glad about was that the NIA did not arrest or detain me.
Once I arrived home, I found my wife very confused and worried – for I had called her earlier to inform her about the dismissal – and we spent a very long night discussing this. I was a very happy man because, for once, I felt that I was dismissed and left to walk for free. Now, I knew I could engage in private activities without any fear of having to watch my back every time. I slept that night with a smile on my face and with all my phones off. Little did I know then I was in a dream world.
Early morning of Tuesday, June 28th, 2016, after praying Fajr, making my duas and rejoicing that for once I was not to go to work, I went back to bed for a very long sleep. I was probably snoring when my wife softly woke me and told me that my driver had been trying to reach me. I decided to take the call because he was not informed of my situation. On the phone, he seemed hysteric. He told me that he was called very late the previous night by people he believed were NIA officers asking him where I lived, information he refused to divulge, and he had to put off his phone. He called me on his wife’s phone to inform me that the NIA was looking for me and was asking around where I lived. I shared the information with my wife, who immediately showed grave concern and fear. I told her that I would report myself to the NIA as I would not like them to discover where I lived and come here to create an embarrassing scene in front of my children and neighbours.
I wore a dark grey thick caftan, black trousers, and simple leather slippers. I had about D3500, a small Holy Quran, and two phones in my pockets. I told my wife that I was leaving for the NIA and would not expect to be back that day. Nevertheless, in the event I was not back by nightfall, she should know that I had been detained and might be facing the worst. I could see she was terribly disturbed, confused, and scared.
I took a taxi for a “town trip” to Banjul. Upon arrival at the NIA headquarters, I presented myself at the gate, but it seemed no one was aware of my arrest, so I asked them to find out while I waited in the reception room. Ironically, there was some measure of bravado in me I could not explain then. Still, I seem to have completely left matters with Allah, knowing that I did nothing wrong, and this would quickly be discovered, and I would be released to join my family.
About half an hour later, I was called and asked to surrender my phone and money. I was then escorted into a complex that has had the worst reputation in the whole of the country for the torture, illegal detention, and disappearances of people. I arrived at an office and met one of the directors. I was informed that they had been instructed to arrest and detain me. I asked him to tell me what charges, and they said they were not told yet, but they hoped to receive the information before the end of the day and would communicate it to me. I was again escorted through a winding pathway to a large structure. I entered and found on my right, two people beside a desk. They asked me if I carried anything, and I showed them the Quran, which they asked me to keep. They asked if I had any jujus (amulets), to which I answered in the negative. They then asked me to go to the door of a building close to us and enter there. I will be detained there until further notice. I received nothing, just a mere wave of the hand.
When I entered through the door, I found familiar faces sitting, and one of them exclaimed, “PS, why are you here?”.
“I do not know yet,” I replied, “and you?” I inquired eagerly.
“We are accused of deliberately delaying the Presidential plane for the First Lady who wished to fly to Mecca for Umrah.”
“For how long have you been here?”
“About three weeks now, and no charges yet.”
I must have gaped with my mouth opened wide as I slumped down to the floor on a tattered mattress. We all knew that my going out could be indefinite because I am yet even to know what crime I committed.
The next episode will share the experience at the NIA.

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