By Tabora Bojang
Since 2002 Riders for Health (RFH) was the body contracted by the government to supply, manage and operate the Ministry of Health’s fleet of transport including ambulances, motorcycles and generators.
This was to ease mobility and service delivery across all public health facilities in The Gambia.
The contract is renewed every five years. The latest contract signed in 2018 expired in June 2023 and RFH has not yet been given an extension. Negotiations for a new contract remain stalled for seven months now.
Currently some major health facilities such as Faji Kunda Health Centre and Bundung Maternal and Child Health Hospital, face ambulance crises.
“In Bunding they have to bring the Latrikunda Sabiji community ambulance to replace the old ambulance that has since been grounded,” an anonymous health official told The Standard.
According to the RFH country director, Theresa Drammeh, the Bundung Hospital ambulance has been taken off the road because it has reached the end of its economic life.
She said RFH intends to purchase new vehicles by providing 40 ambulances to replace the old and dilapidated fleets. “But this can only happen if we have a new contract,” Director Drammeh stated.
“We are waiting for a new contract that will include new ambulances as well as the other vehicles that we may continue to run. But right now, it does not make sense for us to borrow millions [of dalasis], buy a new fleet and put it into a service when we are not sure if the contract will be renewed,” Drammeh, who is also the vice chairperson of the Bundung Hospital Board, explained.
She said even though the government owes them “large sums of money and the arrears keep accumulating”, RFH continues to render its services.
Drammeh declined to disclose how much money the government owes them.
Asked what she thinks is responsible for the delay in renewing the contract she said: “We cannot say why. It is up to them [Ministry of Health] to decide. The contract between us provides for a negotiation period. It also provides for either party to give one year notice before any termination. And in this case neither party issued any termination notice. So, we presume they want the contract. Maybe there are things they are now looking into that will eventually come to us. So, we are at the last stage of the extension and we are still waiting. As far as we are concerned, we have completed our side of the bargain and all we want to know is for them [the ministry] to come out and either sign or issue us notice that the contract is not going to be renewed.”
The contract requires RFH to submit to the ministry a budget estimate for its annual operation.
Director Drammeh said D116 million was estimated for 2024 and it was submitted to the ministry but the funds are yet to be disbursed.
“Last year we submitted the same D116 million estimate. And from it we maintained all the vehicles, ambulances, motorcycles, generators, procured spare parts, paid generator operators, drivers, protective gears, fuel, lubricants, salaries and administration.”
Asked whether D116 is enough to cover RFH’s operations, Drammeh said their vision is to see a world where no one dies of preventable diseases because of lack of transport.
“We don’t look for profit. So, we fundraise for all other issues that we cannot get from the monies we get from the government.”
RFH programme director, Cherno Jallow, said they plan to make orders for the 40 new ambulances as soon as the government agrees to renew their contract. “Buying an ambulance can be tedious. You have to pay in advance then they convert the vehicle into an ambulance and that process and the shipping may take about six months.”
After many attempts to reach out to the Health Minister Samateh failed, The Standard contacted the new permanent secretary at the Ministry Health, Dr Omar Jah, to know why the government is yet to renew the contract.
PS Jah he said he was new in office and was familiarising himself with the issue.
“I personally attended the RFH meeting and I was briefed. So now I am back at the ministry to discuss internally to know what is holding the contract. I hope things will be fast-tracked as soon as possible and I will do my best to comprehensively look into it with all stakeholders to see the best way of solving it,” Dr Jah added.