The centres were a source of livelihood for thousands of Gambians, but some poor managerial systems and exiguous government supervision paved the way for catastrophic failure
With Alagie Manneh
GAMBIA– About 35 meters away from the Atlantic Coast of the small town of Bakau, Saikou Salla rests on a traditional African hand-crafted chair under a shade, clutching prayer beads. A stone’s throw away from the town’s fish landing site, Saikou watched a group of fishermen, fish-sellers and local dealers scramble for ice for their fish.
Saikou watched them push and pull and wriggl to get their monies taken by the ice seller, who comes every evening in a truck to the Bakau Fish Landing Site to provide ice for the fish. The town lies West of the country’s capital city of Banjul.
Saikou, a veteran fisherman, told me he was “terribly uneasy” at the sight of people scrambling for ice for their fish “everyday”. And understandably so, since the 57-year-old was once the head of the fish landing site’s Management Committee, tasked to end those daily struggles under a project dubbed Community Fisheries Project (CFCs). Although the project has largely failed now, and is no longer operational in three of the four main fishing centres where it was implemented. The centres are; Bakau, Tanji, Banjul and Gunjur.
“They [the governments of Yahya Jammeh and Adama Barrow] damaged our project, that’s what angers me,” Saikou said looking at the scramble for ice.
The country’s main fishing centres were funded through grants provided by Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) and other donors including Taiwan and the city of Oostende (Belgium). A staggering $17.8 million went into the project, reportedly providing the centres modern fishing amenities such as ice-making machines, boats, out-boat engines, cold-room, mechanical workshops and other fishing gears.
The aim was to create employment for the locals, boost income generation, contribute towards food self-sufficiency and national economic growth. CFCs were first established in 1979 by the Artisanal Fisheries Development Project (AFDP), with a total of 18 fishing centres across the country.
The Ministry of fisheries handed over the centres to the communities where they are established. The activities of these centers were to be supervised, monitored, and coordinated by the Ministry of Fisheries through its extension unit at the Department of Fisheries
The Ministry was to offer support to the CFCs in the form of technical advice through its regional fisheries officers. Assistants to these officers operate daily with the fishing communities such as fish mongers, fish dryers, fish smokers and other daily centre users. They sensitise and advise centre users on the processes of handling fish and preservation methods and report back to the regional fisheries officers. The regional fisheries officers report on a monthly basis to the head of the extension Unit at the Department of Fisheries.
At the level of the communities, committees were formed in consultation with the fisheries ministry to take responsibility of coordinating and operating the centers. These committees were referred to as Fisheries Community Management Committees (FCMC). Structurally, they were in three categories, namely: Central Management Committee, Sub Committee, and Management Committee
What happened to the main CFCs?
CFCs in The Gambia have almost all collapsed, leading to greater concerns in one of the most important sectors of the Gambian economy – fisheries – which employs about 200,000 people directly or indirectly.
A performance report which covered four financial years ending 31 December 2013 – 2016, by the county’s National Audit Office (NAO), said the four main centres – the beneficiaries of the $17.8 million – failed mainly because the Ministry of Fisheries and Water Resources was not engaged in coordinating or monitoring the centres’ activities. It said this resulted in “serious anomalies in handling centers’ financial resources and assets”.
“In other words, the centres were not provided with guidance such as policy, financial manual and asset management manuals to direct, control and regulate the activities of the centres,” the report highlighted.
“Due to the absence of this guidance,” it continues, “there was no control put in place resulting to financial management problems such as improper records keeping, unaccounted cash collections and inability to account and trace some assets.”
In an interview in his office, the Auditor General, Karamba Touray, said unskilled and inexperienced personnel at the helm eventually failed the project.
“We noted that the assets of the centres were not properly handled by the centres and the Ministry. The Ministry did not provide the centers with assets management manual, regulations or instructions to provide guidance on assets management techniques such as vehicle and assets register, tagging of assets etc,” he said.
The infrastructures at the centres were dilapidated, almost beyond repair, but for Saikou, “too much of politics” destroyed the project.
“During Jammeh’s government, his party members demanded that we, the Management Committee of Bakau Fish Landing Site, be removed. One day men whose leader was the former alkalo [village chief] of Bakau, came here with the NIA officers [now disbanded National Intelligence Agency], and ordered us to vacate office. They didn’t even write to us,” Saikou recalled.
Saikou said there was enormous success during his period in charge.
“We had four bank accounts. Business was booming and we were making a lot of money. Everybody was happy. Youths had jobs, we had our trucks that sold fish, we had our petrol station and locker rooms, boats, generators. Everything 24/7,” he said.
He dismissed as false assertions that the people managing the CFCs were not qualified enough and that’s why the project failed.
“I think it’s half true,” he said to that assertion. “We taught them [the other centres] how to manage.”
Saikou said his administration was wrongly accused of corruption in office: “But how did the project end up? Everything collapsed.”
The captain of a local fishing boat in the town of Tanji, one of the main fishing centres, about 33km from the capital Banjul, rested with his crew in front of a canteen at the landing site.
He told me why the ice-making facilities in Tanji were not working and how.
“Before, our cold-room was very efficient. But during the Jammeh days, certain people went and lied about the previous committee, which was doing a fine job and got them removed from office,” Assan Jallow, husband of four and father-of-22 said.
“Now,” he added, “as you can see how boring this place is, we no longer make ice here. So, we fishermen and our customers pay the price.”
Fish dumping now common
Ice is an extremely efficient cooling agent for fish, but with its supply quite lower than demand, some fish-sellers in these four centres have admitted to fish dumping, which is illegal in The Gambia.
“That [fish dumping] is very common here [in Bakau],” a fish-seller told me.
“Sometimes we just dig a hole and dump it all in it,” fisherman Mamadi Faye added.
The president of Bakau Fishermen Association, Alieu Saine, said there can be no sustainable fishing without ice to preserve the fish.
“Fish goes with ice,” he said. “We fishermen now have nowhere to take our fish since the cold-room is also not working. We don’t know where to get help. We have dug many holes and buried many fish. We lack trucks and ice.”
Kebba Sonko is a veteran fisherman who has been fishing in Gambian waters since he was a teenager. He remembered the CFC project as ‘one of the best’ in the sub-region.
“Seven to eight African countries, every year, came for training in Gambia to see how our CFC progressed, and how it survived to such a level,” he recalled.
Women fish-smokers feel the heat
In a half-roofed fish smoking building at the Bakau Fish Landing Site, Oumie, a fish smoker of 15 years, struggled to light a fire to smoke her fish. The smoking facility brought by the CFC project is no longer functioning. So, here, the women continue to occupy a half-roofed building sponsored by the West African Association for the Development of Artisanal Fisheries (WADAF), under its Strengthening Fisheries Good Governance and Within the Artisanal Fisheries Professional Organisations project.
But Oumie said government, project managers and donors must all be blamed for the failure of the CFCs.
“…because both sides should have put in mechanisms to fix things if things go wrong. I have been here for a very long time, and I have seen many CFC management committees come and go. No maintenance was ever done—ever. Our smoking centre was destroyed but thanks to WADAF we are trying to manage,” she said.
‘The report wants to implicate us’
The country’s fisheries sector operates under the authority and responsibility of the Ministry of Fisheries and Water Resources.
Two years after the publishing of the auditor general’s performance report on CFCs and the Ministry’s role in the project’s failure, the government claimed it has not ‘seen or read’ it.
The Director of Fisheries, Famara Darboe, who is also the chief adviser to the Ministry responsible for fisheries with regard to technical matters including sustainable management and development of fisheries, initially declined to comment on this story.
When pressed, he stated he had never heard of this report: “There was a diagnostic report about six years ago, about security fisheries centres, but am not aware of this performance [report]. We have not seen this report. I cannot say whether I agree to it or not, because I have not read it. You cannot get stories about fisheries [ministry] that are implicating us. You are saying our CFCs are a failure. They [National Audit Office] are accusing us.”
Baba Leigh Kanyi, a regional fisheries officer for West Coast and the Atlantic Coast Stratum, however, concurred with the Auditor General’s report that there was “no proper management” of the CFCs.
The CFCs have brought about profound social and economic changes to communities, and to the artisanal fish landing sites. Many of the CFCs have been transformed into business points for various socio-economic engagements giving rise to other economic spin-offs such as restaurants, canteens, mechanical workshops, petty trading in basic household commodities, transportation and fuel stations, a report by the African Development Bank reviewing the performance of fisheries portfolio of the African Development Bank, said.
The community largely gives credit to the Japanese for some of the strong structures put up in the CFCs.
Kebba Sonko, from the Bakau fishing site, said any talks of reviving the CFCs must include the Japanese, or be condemned to failure.
“The Japanese gave us the best project and the best ice,” Mr Sonko added. “They also gave us good generators. When fisheries [ministry] said they were reviving the CFCs, they were lying. If Japanese fix things, business will grow again,” he said.
For Karamba Touray, measures should be put in place to regularise the situation of the centres before any further financial investment is given to the sector.
“Failure to fix these issues [which led to the failure of the CFCs] it is obvious that any financial investment will follow the same pattern,” he warned.
Alagie Manneh is a multiple award-winning sub-editor, columnist and senior journalist at The Standard newspaper. This article was supported and originally written for the Network of Journalists for Responsible and Sustainable Fisheries in Africa (REJOPRA).