By Morro Gaye
They say history has a bad habit of repeating itself. I will not hesitate to add that not when that history is punctuated with fraudulent mismanagement of state resources, hijacking of revenues that belonged to state enterprises, and the creation of phony bank accounts at the nation’s central bank to fund the lavish lifestyle of a dictator. Repeating those past mistakes which naturally should have been confined to the dustbin of history, is the biggest mistake that the government of Adama Barrow will live to regret. Those committing these crimes are the very people who were doing the same for the former dictator, they have now regrouped and borrowed from his playbook.
Transferring the operations of the Senegambia Toll Bridge to the accountant general’s department circumventing the financial regulations and the constitution to continue micromanaging the resources of the public enterprises may be in violation of the laws of this country. The transfer is being done without the approval of lawmakers. It is not included in the duties of the accountant general to manage a public entity that is engaged in the delivery of public service. As the custodian of all the cash transactions and bank accounts of the government, the accountant general also supervises the accounting transactions and prepares financial statements of the government for audit.
Being made a receiver-general, paymaster, and chief accounting officer of the government based on section 6 (3a) and (3b) of the Public Finance Act 2014, and the Financial Regulations 2016 does not make it legal to handover the operations and management of the Senegambia Toll Bridge unless there are other hidden motives. A similar move was made in 2018 when this government directed GAMTEL to immediately transfer all the revenues from the international gateway to a special account at the nation’s central bank
It could be recalled that the gateway was taken from the national telecoms company in 2013 and given to MGI. That executive decision was later reversed but the revenues continued to be paid into a special account at the central bank while GAMTEL was still bearing the cost of being the gatekeeper of the international gateway traffic. A transfer of $2.5 million was made from the gateway account in 2018 ordered by the former finance minister, Amadou Sanneh, to GAMTEL. That transfer is still not reported in the government accounts neither in the books of the telecoms company.
In a similar move immediately following his appointment as finance minister in 2018, Mambury Njie directed, through one of his principal officers vide ministry of finance letter referenced: MF/C/17/(13) dated July 12th, 2018, conveying approval to give GAMTEL a loan of $410,000 at 2 percent interest to buy 12 pickup vehicles. In the same letter, the nation’s telecommunication company was also ordered to open a ‘special account’ at the central bank for the repayment of the loan. Again, there was no indication whether this was approved by the lawmakers or cabinet. That loan is not reflected in any of the government budget reports. GAMTEL has been advised by the EY auditors not to account for the gateway revenues since they are no longer responsible for it by the directives from the government.
It took the Janneh Commission of Inquiry two years to unearth how former president Jammeh was pillaging the resources of this country aided, of course, by his enablers most of whom are still occupying key positions in the Barrow administration. As President Barrow told the international journalists in 2017 that Jammeh may have stolen about 4 billion dalasis ($90 million) from public coffers, the way his finance minister is going about seizing and diverting bank accounts of public enterprises, it could take less than a year before all the coffers of government and the SOEs will be emptied under his watch. The same techniques that Jammeh was using to siphon off over $ 900 million from the central bank, social security, GAMTEL, and GPA, are the same being applied today in Barrow’s administration.
Despite laws that require parliamentary approval for ‘off-budget’ ‘payments, neither the $2.5 million nor the $410,000 made from the international gateway account now under the receiver general. Paymaster and chief accounting officer of government; had been tabled before parliament for approval.
Transferring all the revenues from the Senegambia Toll Bridge account to a special account at the central bank, similar to the way the Special Vision Account was created under Jammeh funded by revenues from GAMTEL -$93 million was diverted from that account before he left for exile to Equatorial Guinea- the revenues from the Toll bridge could suffer the same fate given the lack of public accountability and transparency over this quick arrangement that was deliberately omitted from the budget speech made two weeks ago by the finance minister to lawmakers. How many ‘special accounts’ have been created at the central bank under the present finance minister and not reported to parliament?
Managing the Senegambia Toll Bridge is not the business of the accountant general. The bridge project proposals went through a rigorous assessment before it was approved by the African Development Bank. There were a series of environmental concerns that were raised also the cost of maintaining and recouping this massive investment from the revenues to be generated were all addressed and documented.
To turn around now and do the unimaginable could be catastrophic not only for the maintenance aspect, but the accountant general has too many things on his plate to try to include taking care of the revenues of a bridge that could have been well managed through a joint private partnership.
GPA, through the Gambia Ferries Service, and the National Roads Authority have been fighting over who should manage the revenues at the Senegambia Bridge. Even though both agencies are under the Ministry of Transport, Works and Infrastructure. There was an interim arrangement between the two agencies to jointly collect toll fees for crossing to generate revenue to fund the maintenance of the bridge and keep the infrastructure as passable as possible.
It would have been very ideal to involve the private sector with its perceived quality management techniques driven by profit to provide leadership in this consortium. GPA has other challenges to focus on especially the congestion at the port resulting in the long delays in ship turnaround time. Even the ferries are also becoming a challenge for the national ports authority. A careful divestment strategy could be put in place to privatize the ferries for better service delivery and potentially to generate massive revenues for the government.
Diverting the revenues from the Senegambia Toll Bridge less than two years after it was inaugurated to boost government revenue is economically and socially damaging to a facility that is supposed to provide a corridor for regional trade expansion and useful avenues for petty traders and local businesses to thrive. This strategy should have been thoroughly studied and allow the people’s representatives to participate and give approval before the diversion was effected.
The types of unauthorized and illegal transfers directly copied from the authoritarian playbook when we thought such mistakes will never happen again, should not be normalized in this new dispensation even if it means to forego certain hefty payments falling due early in the new year like the D450 million due in four weeks for the Banjul Project and the cost of constructing all those roads promised by the president during his provincial tours all to be self-financed by government.
It now remains to be seen where this government will get that type of money apart from diverting and seizing revenues from the public enterprises. Yaya Jammeh used to refer to ‘Allah’s Bank’ to fund his development activities when we all later learned from the Janneh commission that those funds were looted from the state enterprises as well as the central bank under a variety of white-color crime techniques. That terrible history should never be allowed to repeat itself!
There is old African proverb which say “the greedy fly shall follow the corpse to the grave and be buried together.” President Barrow should take a cue from the revelations at the various commission and know that one day, just one day, he will have to account for all his actions.