With Alagie Manneh
When Edrissa Mass Jobe was three, his father, a Banjul cadi, died. But that did not deter him. At 19, Mr Jobe was already the breadwinner of his family. He went to university and studied mechanical engineering but opted for a career in business and established Elton, EMJ holdings and Empas Poultry Production Company. In 2015, Mr Jobe founded Atlas Energy Ltd becoming its executive chairman. In this edition, the popular businessman who was last year elected as GCCI president talks to Alagie Manneh about his troubles under Jammeh, the business sector, three years of Barrow’s administration and related matters.
The Standard: To begin with, despite your background as a mechanical engineer, you veered into business setting up Elton, EMJ investments which spawned Empas and now Atlas. How did you get to where you are today?
Engineering is my profession; it means that’s what I have studied as a young man. I studied mechanical engineering. I had a scholarship to study biomedical engineering. I went to the UK on a British government scholarship and during uni and post-uni, worked in hospitals. I came back to The Gambia and was lucky to be our hospital’s first engineer. At a very early age I was responsible for the maintenance of all hospital facilities and equipment. That is my profession, but my occupation is business and finance. Since the age of 29, I have been working in the petroleum industry as a businessman.
How would you describe the state of business in the country after Jammeh?
I think the Gambian business is not very innovative because it is not very competitive. The business space is very narrow. It is narrow because all of us have been doing what we have been doing for the last 20 to 30 years. I always tell people that it is business that creates prosperity; it is business that creates employment, creates value by taking one seed and putting it in the ground and it becomes hundred, that’s how value is created. But over the years, we have remained basically a colonial economy whereby we have very few raw materials, agriculture and groundnut. We tend to export, but we don’t tend to add a lot of value. The second thing is our economy and business is increasingly dependent on some very external factors. The external factors that represent 50 percent of the industry are tourism and remittances. Of course, the business has expanded, but has become increasingly more fragile. Fragile in the sense that those important components of our GDP are basically out of the control of The Gambia; that is, tourism and remittances.
You have been GCCI president for one year now having taken over at a time when the business sector was recovering from regulatory uncertainty and arbitrary practices under Jammeh. What efforts have you made to engineer a course correction as far as the situation for business people is concerned and what are your achievements?
We were coming from an autocratic system where the license to operate your business was issued by the political system and that type of system, businesses grow or collapse based on political favouritism.From the onset in my manifesto, I recognised that while our main objective is to strengthen business and the private sector, we must also strengthen government and the communities.To strengthen government it is important that GCCI encourages and rewards its members for tax compliance. This is not only altruistic because tax compliance is important to level the competitive playing field and engenders innovation and employment. To strengthen the community, we believe that the principal indicator would be employment indicated by the payment of social security programs of the state. I organised the first ever SeneGambia Economic Forum bringing together the private and public sectors of the two countries to discuss the issue of AcFTA and to encourage more trade with Senegal.
The world has seen the outbreak of Covid-19 with devastating consequences, how has this impacted commerce in The Gambia?
The prescription is very expensive for most Gambians. The prescription first, is that we should social distance. Gambians by the way we live, social distancing is problematic and, we have to go to the markets to do business. I am talking about the people on the lowest scale; the people who go to Bakau and Serekunda to sell vegetables. Those people have to sell. In that way, business is very much impacted. A lot of people are also dependent on tourism. The tourism market represented 20 percent of GDP but it disappeared overnight. In the bigger sense, the cost remains the same with revenue disappearing.
How will the over D28M project you recently launched with the EU help mitigate the effects of Covid-19 on micro, small and medium enterprises in one of the most affected sectors such as the tourism industry?
This project with the EU is going to engender innovation and when people learn to innovate in one area, they can use it to innovate in other areas. This project is going to encourage innovation, ability, skills to be able to get things done. This action pursues a threefold objective: the first is to support the production of innovative handicrafts and promote fair labour conditions. Local artisans will work with EU artisans and be linked to the EU market and local tourist industry. Also, we will promote traditional wrestling as cultural heritage with the creation of a network of wrestling training clubs and use wrestling as a tool to create solidarity among communities; and the third will be about developing a new regulatory environment to promote arts, culture and sports. This will create jobs and enhance social cohesion.
When Empas came into being, you credited Jammeh for being the motivator behind the initiative, how close were you to him?
Not politically close. We didn’t share that… but then we went to school together. I was his senior, so I know him as a person very well. I was relatively very good in school. He had high regards for my input.
You were a staunch advocate of Jammeh’s Vision 2016 agenda, which turned out to be a dismal failure. Do you have any regret for your public and unalloyed support of the agenda?
When the food security agenda started – and I still believe in that agenda – I was one of the people who were propagating local production. For me, production is everything. The food security agenda was not a Jammeh agenda. I mean, Halifa Sallah has also been talking about that for a long time. But unknown to most of us, Jammeh was not committed to that agenda. The agenda of creating industrialisation of agriculture, I started that… We have to industrialise and create centres. I still believe in that agenda. I have invested a lot of my money, my time into that. I hope we will be able to collectively as a country, go back to the food security agenda. Why can’t we produce our own milk? The food security was not a Jammeh agenda. I think it was pan-African, and very socialist that Halifa also promoted.
But that vision has failed, yet you still believe in it. Please explain.
The vision didn’t fail. A vision is an alternative world for the future, that is a dream. The dream does not fail. If you want to go to Mecca and you didn’t go to Mecca, it’s not Mecca that has failed. That vision is still there.
Are you saying the vision is still attainable?
Yes, but we have to first believe in it, and change the ways we were doing things. Jammeh wanted self-sufficiency by owning all the lands, by owning all the farms, by doing it by himself. I believe in the vision of Africa to be self-sufficient. The way was wrong, but it doesn’t mean that we should not want to be developed. Development doesn’t belong to Jammeh. People will always aspire to live a better life. I still believe in the vision.
The proliferation of petroleum stations in the country has raised some serious health and safety concerns. What is your reading into this?
As far as they meet the health, safety and technical standards, I think competition is good. With competition, there must also be control. Without control, you have anarchy. Of late, we interpret our independence to mean anarchy. People don’t respect the regulations by Pura. If you look at some of the places they built stations, they should just go and knock them down. A station ideally, must be in a place where you have roads. Before, that was the case. At least, there must be roads on two sides of a station, but now they are putting up stations right in the middle, there is no road on either side.
Do you think Pura is doing a fine job as regulator of these stations?
The ultimate responsibility should always escalate. I know that the guys in Pura are competent, but maybe they are constrained. For me, I think there are couple of stations that we should be bold enough to stop, to knock down.
There are rumors that a particular petroleum company is being favoured by the Barrow administration. Is that Atlas?
Definitely not. I don’t think we have… we have always been an underdog. When we first came as Elton, we came with a new vision of pan-Africanism, and it was very difficult for the multinationals to accept that. And then there was Bazzi. Now you have another Lebanese, who is controlling the industry. But we have to keep on fighting. We are not favoured in any way. Actually, if you look at Atlas, we don’t have any land allocated to us by the state. Maybe you know the ones that are favoured, but it’s not Atlas.
You were a major investor in the Mandinari fuel depot project and later fell afoul of Yahya Jammeh and got prosecuted.Can you expound on your clash with the former president?
No, I was never prosecuted. Jammeh investigated me. I don’t know what happened. You never know with Jammeh. But I think I did two things; I wasn’t importing using the sole importer. Everybody was importing through one… like I was saying one Muhammed Bazzi. Jammeh had a right, I always tell people the government has a right to investigate you. But they didn’t charge me; I was freed. The Mandinari depot… the depot that was in Banjul, was only about one day of supply to the Gambian market. So, I thought there was a need, and I came and structured – they call it project origination –I structured it in a good location. I am very proud of that depot. I am also very happy that I was investigated thoroughly by Jammeh. I was not involved with the former regime in a financial way. The former regime was never my customer. In the end, I know Jammeh was only trying to intimidate me to buy from Muhammed Bazzi.
How would you describe your experience and would you change anything with the benefit of hindsight?
No, no, I cannot. I have to live. I have to work hard and self-actualise. I grew up as an orphan. My father died when I was three. By the time I was 19, I was taking care of my mom and my family. An accident in life doesn’t change anything.
Have you forgiven Jammeh?
I was never angry with Jammeh; I am angry with injustice. I am the fortunate one; I went to NIA for almost three weeks and I was released. I cannot be the victim. Imagine those that lost their lives. The biggest problem in The Gambia, we don’t assume somebody is innocent. Anytime somebody is accused, doubts are cast over you. Even some journalists were trying to… Once Jammeh pointed fingers at you, the system will start. The system was rotten to the core. We were all players, everybody.
It’s been over three years now since the defenestration of the Jammeh regime, supplanted by the Barrow administration. How do you rate Barrow on a score of one to ten?
To rate him, on a score of one to ten, would be very difficult. I think the space of freedom has expanded. But we have to sit down as a people and restructure because this way of governing that is here, was over 20 years influenced greatly by Jammeh. So, we have to dismantle the socio-economic system and build a new one.
Barrow’s government has been accused of retaining Jammeh acolytes and failing to make a marked departure from Jammeh’s modus operandi by combatting corruption. Is that a fair assessment?
I don’t know. For me, what is very clear is that it’s the community that can fight corruption. If a society celebrates materislism, that society is going to be corrupt. If a society celebrates what I call cronyism whereby somebody would be given something that belongs to all of us, and we still celebrate that, then why do you want to blame Adama Barrow for that? Confucius said in a poorly governed society, you should be ashamed of being rich; in a well-governed society, you should be afraid of being poor. What it means is that we have to change our value systems. What I am trying to say is that, it’s not Barrow. It is very unfair, after the system that we have collectively built, we blame Barrow for not dismantling that system. It’s everybody’s job. I think it’s everybody’s responsibility to try to abhor bad behaviour. We have to look back at our core values. I think it’s just escapism when we sit down here and expect that Barrow can change that. All of us have our voice in this.
What is your political leaning?
I’m a socialist, that’s my political leaning. I lean towards socialism. But honestly, I don’t support any party. Not yet. I am waiting for the debates to start to choose which party to support.