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Monday, May 23, 2022

Lamin Dampha, executive director, CepRass

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Twice in the period leading to the December 4 presidential election, the nation came to a standstill as a little known group calling themselves CePrass published opinion polls predicting victory for Adama Barrow and his National Peoples Party (NPP). The polls were greeted with doubt and palpable anger by the opposition, and of course a massive rejoicing by the president’s supporters. But even the doubters could not resist admiring the seemingly professional nature of the analysis and presentation. As it turned out, CePrass’ predictions came to pass with Barrow winning in almost all areas in the country and this pioneering local election poll research group is revelling its vindication. When Bantaba anchor Alagie Manneh met CePrass founder and CEO Lamin Dampha, he began by asking him about his origins, organisation and its work.

Alagie:You came into greater prominence following a survey by your organisation CepRass that left many tongues wagging, but not many people know you. Can you tell us about your origin, education, and work?

Lamin Dampha: I am Lamin Dampha. Currently, I am a lecturer at the University of the Gambia, and I also serve as executive director for the Centre for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, (CepRass). I was born and raised in The Gambia and did my studies there, both undergraduate and post-graduate. My specialty has been the area of accounting and finance which I lectured at the UTG. It is also interesting to note that Mr Dampha [is in the limelight today] because of the work we have done at CepRass, which was launched in 2016.

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Let’s go straight to CepRass. What does it do?

CepRass was initiated by a visiting Swedish professor who frequented the school of business and public administration at the UTG. He felt we need to have a centre to specifically engage in academic research. That was the whole idea. And we have tried to register the organisation as an independent entity and for the school of business to use it as a vehicle to launch their research activities. When we started out, we couldn’t do any meaningful research at the time because of the political environment. When a change of government came, we were able to start doing research activities. Notably, we started with the Afrobarometer research because when the people behind it came here, the first institution they approached was CepRass. After a rigorous screening, they selected CepRass as their national partner. Afrobarometer is in over 35 countries.

To embark on such polls require massive capital. Who paid CepRass and why was it done?

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At CepRass, we have worked with lots of partners. I am going to be brief here before I get into your question. We have worked with In Depth Research Centre in Rwanda and in Kenya; we have worked with UNDP, IRI, the National Endowment for Democracy, NED, and many others. One of our thematic areas are politics and governance. Under our thematic areas of politics and governance, we work with both the IRI and NEDI on the draft constitution even though it did not pass. We went round the entire country and gauged perceptions of people. We ended up realising that people were well informed regarding politics. It was then that we asked ourselves why not we do an opinion poll. We wrote a proposal and shared with NED and without hesitation, they accepted and funded this opinion poll at over $60,000. We have looked at a lot of issues because we have seen some polls organised in the country which are not scientific but arbitrarily done like that. We said as a centre, with the kind of prerequisite skills that we have, coupled with the proven track record and experiences… (we are talking about university lecturers who have quite a tremendous amount of experience) quickly, we formed a team that consists of myself, Dr Hamidou Jawara, Dr Mustapha Jorbateh and of course Mr Yusupha FJ Dibba who has also worked on similar projects with the UN. That is why when we presented this to the NED, without hesitation they approved it.

Can you talk a little about your methodology? How were the polls conducted?

I have to say to those who criticise the results when they were first released that I doubted whether they have read the full report. Because if you look at the report, we put every question into context and an introduction to it. We also wrote clearly on our methodology even though we cannot share our entire methodology, otherwise anybody can just pick up and want to organise another poll. But I can tell you that the methodology is quite scientific and quite robust.

You prophetically predicted NPPs victory twice and came under fire for biasness. How do you feel now that the election results appeared to have validated your work, and vindicated you personally?

Personally, I don’t blame them. In The Gambia, in the absence of any data, people rely on the popularity of parties based on crowd counts, applauses or personal contacts. But over the years we do not have a scientific data to measure the popularity of parties. That is why an opinion poll like this, I think it came at a time when we are trying to build on our democracy. If you don’t know research, you don’t know research. People are talking about only the likely candidate to win, but there were a host of issues the research has revealed. From our data, we have interviewed more Mandinkas than Fulas, and Wolofs. It was never factored, but the data has revealed that. The data was quite credible. Regarding our predictions on NPPs victory, you know, it was never our making. These are perceptions from people. It was quite interesting that in the second poll, people would openly tell us who they would want to vote for, even though our first poll a lot of people were not comfortable telling us who they would want to vote for. In The Gambia now people are free. We are not in that era where you would say people do not speak their mind. That was my response initially to those who doubted our poll. Unless we believe in science, in research, we will always be suspicious that these polls are never conducted fairly. But the good news is after the election, I have received tremendous… in fact I was inundated with lots of messages from even those who criticised us. Our funders were equally quite happy. It is the first of its kind, we cannot afford to have it wrong.

Who exactly pays CepRass?

As I speak to you now, as head of CepRass, I am not paid directly by CepRass. I am a staff of the university. I am paid by the university for my lecturing service. It’s only when we have projects that I get paid at CepRass. Of course, we do have our small staff on permanent basis. CepRass is not funded by any institution per se, but the resources we get from our donors in terms of projects is what we use to pay our people. People should understand that CepRass is still very young, having been launched in 2016.

CepRass came under heavy criticism particularly after your second poll results. Did you receive any gratitude or thanks from the NPP which your poll favoured?

Just like I would always say, we the researchers especially at CepRass, we always do our work professionally and we do not require, especially with this opinion poll those that it favoured to congratulate us for what we have done. Equally, we are never angry or being bothered by what the other group would say regarding our perceived biasness. Of course, I have seen in the media the NPP endorsing and congratulating CepRass, but they never reached out to us at personal levels. In fact, we don’t expect that. It’s something that we don’t care about. I made it very clear in other media platforms that we do not encourage anybody to endorse us, or even congratulate us. What we are doing, we do it very professionally. I want to make it very clear that this cannot sway us into favouring any party in this county. We will continue to be professional, and we would continue to do our work with utmost fairness.

Moving on, how do you intend to get those naysayers who have casted doubt on your work?

I think this is one of the most thorough research projects ever conducted in this country. This has dominated the newspapers and airwaves because of its political nature. I think generally, after the election, it has changed people’s perception about CepRass. We have received more endorsements than ever before. In fact, we have become more popular than ever before. Even international organisations like the EU, and other interest groups reached out to CepRass. It projects our profile to another level. I think we were also able to manage the criticism very well. We were never sentimental. You should know that we did not only receive criticisms from the politicians alone, even our colleagues in academia also criticised us, challenging our methodology. But at the end of the day, most of them have applauded us. I can safely say that this is one of the best polls that one can think of. We are proud of what we have accomplished.

They also said that CepRass received monetary gifts from the NPP so that they be favored in the polls, is that true?  

I have heard that comment previously, even some of my students would tease me and say ‘can we share the envelope that was given to you’? Sometimes I would laugh about it. Anybody who knows Mr Dampha and the team that works on it, these are people with impeccable characters. So, if they talk about NPP giving us monetary gifts, I will say it is not true. I don’t need to give them any evidence. It is just not true. And that is the fact. We did this with a high degree of integrity. We just rubbished those things and wouldn’t even waste our time to discussing them.

CepRass is now liked and hated in equal measure particularly after your second polls. Would you do anymore poll in the coming elections?

Although our project did not cover the national assembly, it becomes my objective now to try to get funding. Of course, this is not the last. We will do our utmost to ensure it becomes a continuous thing. We should also know that we have another opinion poll coming up, after three months of the new president’s tenure in office, which will gauge the promises he made during the time of campaign and whether he can in fact deliver on them.

You are a researcher, therefore, why do you think that despite the many broken promises, faded hopes and endemic corruption in the country President Barrow still went ahead to sweep the December polls by quite some margin for that matter?

I want to say this now that the election is gone. Clearly, from our data, there was a clear tribal voting, according to our data from the opinion poll results. If you look at our opinion poll results, which I have never disclosed to any media before, that if you look at the ethnicity in this country for example the Mandinka ethnic group… if you look at UDP and NPP it is like two is to one in favour of UDP, but for the remaining ethnic groups, there allegiance was with Barrow. It was clear in our data that there was tribal voting. This is one reason I can say why Barrow has won. Of course, if you also look at it in terms of NPPs campaign because they ran one of the most successful campaigns in the history of this country. And of course, election is always about money. The NPP have committed huge amounts of resources, in terms of cash, to ensure they get to where they are. Tribe played a very important part in the NPPs victory. From our poll, the Mandinka respondents were divided. Clearly you can see it was a massive, massive, probably over 90 percent of other tribes sway to him [President Barrow]. That is the fact, and that is what was manifested in this election. The other issue that I have also identified especially regarding the biggest opposition party UDP, there seem to be that kind of fear factor among voters that the UDP will always… even though we do not have a data that to prove that. But what UDP also failed to do was to convince Gambians that the way they were being portrayed negatively was not true. There was a lot of negativities that was portrayed on the UDP which has no basis. These are some of the factors that helped the NPP to have this kind of victory that they have. This is not good for our democracy. It’s the fact and it has been revealed by our survey. We as Gambians should see ourselves as one people. The kind of tribal bigotry and of course how polarised now our politics is, it is a course for concern. This would also be one of the very first challenges for the new government, to ensure that they try to be on top of things because even from the NPP quarters, we have heard the kind of tribal sentiments that came out during the time of campaign. They should set the example to ensure that we do not have tribe issue as far as politics is concern.

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