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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Inside the Securiprofit deal

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A story of how the Office of the President appeared to have violated the laws on tax, procurement and public finance in pursuit of a contract with Securiport, a US company. The introduction of US$20 cash payment as security levy for every departing and arriving passenger at the Banjul International Airport has triggered not just a public outcry. Tourists would cancel trips because of it. There is also a possible financial loss of D274.9m to the state. And it is just been three years, 11 more to go. Per the contract, if inflation goes up, the fee follows. The Office of the President had rejected advice from competent authorities. What is in it for them?

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By Mustapha K Darboe

Ebrima Dampha was all cleared to fly out. Or, so he thought. When stopped at a booth placed en route the terminal and asked to pay US$20 or its equivalent in dalasis, he put up a protest, questioning the legitimacy of the payment.

“I told the guy collecting the money that I have never seen a robbery scheme of this nature,” he told Malagen.

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But Dampha could not have been surprised. As human resources officer at the Gambia Civil Aviation Authority, he knew the levy existed. Truth is, at that point, he was cash-trapped.

He was not alone. Frustration and anger was quite visible as travellers reluctantly queue up to pay the levy. The man sitting in the booth collecting money did not seem bothered. Commotion is not an uncommon sight here, many said.

 “I went back and took money from my wife who was at the terminal entrance and I gave it to them,” he said.

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The US$20 security levy, imposed since September 2019, is the result of a contract signed by the government and Securiport, a US-based company. It is to provide security for civil aviation and immigration and introduce an e-visa system.

But there are issues. And it is not just about the outcry from penniless travellers like Dampha or Western tourists who would cancel their trips because of it.

The deal has left the government deeply divided. But with the presidency pushing, the contract was awarded in a manner queried that have violated procurement and tax laws.

When probed, the company did not come out clean on its contractual obligations. Securiport shut out the government on key decisions, including appointments and management of finances while unable to account for millions of dalasis.

Malagen investigations revealed that the Securiprofit deal has caused possible financial loss of more than D274.9m to the state. And it has been just three years, 11 more years to go as the contract has now been extended for five more years. 

Unpacking the Securiprofit deal

Securiport LLC was incorporated in The Gambia in October 2018. Registration details indicate a Dr Enrique Segura as the president and CEO of the Securiport LLC and Denise Fancio is corporate secretary of the company.

Official records show that the company made contacts with the government back in July 2016, barely five months before Adama Barrow was elected president.

Details of how communication was restored are sketchy. Malagen has gathered though that the company had submitted an unsolicited proposal to the Office of the President in 2017. Several official sources said the officials of the company also paid a visit to President Adama Barrow the same year.

Evidence gathered suggests that at the heart of efforts to establish and operationalise the Securiport contract is Yankuba Saidy. He was the permanent secretary for investment at the Office of the President.

Saidy is a trained economist. He was removed from the presidency and deployed as deputy ambassador to Russia in November 2019. He was recalled later for being reportedly involved in a sex scandal. Then, in June 2022, he was appointed as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Information.

The government claims that the contract is necessary because of “security threats in the subregion”. But details of the specific security threats that could not be taken care of by the current aviation and immigration systems in place are not clear. The technical proposal, which is supposed to contain such information, if it exists, is being secretly guarded.

“Even the auditors do not have access to it,” a source at the audit office said.

The Gambia is susceptible to dishing out contract deals through unsolicited proposals. Those that are cooked and served from the presidency are not uncommon despite criticisms.

The Banjul Roads Project aside, Malagen has uncovered and exposed several such contract deals that not only flout rules of procurement and public finance but also cost tax payers millions of dollars.

The Securiprofit deal would not disappoint. Malagen investigations uncovered that the contract was single-sourced in that contrary to public procurement rules, it was not subject to competitive bidding. Nor was the contract submitted to the Public Private Partnership Directorate, the state department responsible for vetting unsolicited proposals received by the government.

 “This project comes from State House, to be honest with you. All the discussions were held there,” said Abdoulie Jammeh, then head of the civil aviation authority.

 “I did not sign it,” he added. “As a government agency, we cannot refuse to be part of the implementation of it. But we do not agree with it.”

In June 2018, President Adama Barrow issued an executive directive, instructing The Gambia Immigration Department to sign the contract. Enter the deal!

For every US$20 collected, Securiport pockets US$10. The government and the aviation authority take US$5 each. This is until recently when the government announced that it would as well collect GCAA’s share.

It is not clear how much is collected on an annual basis. However, data accessed from the authorities shows that for 2021, the airport registered 102,031 arrivals and 98,442 for departure – a total of 200,473.

In 2020, the figure was much higher, a total of 477, 000.

This means Securiport has generated potential revenue of at least US$4m for 2021 and US$9.5m for 2020. This figure could be a little less considering that children under two years are not required to pay as per the contract.

“For me the cash-cow nature of the contract is particularly problematic. They will collect money endlessly,” Jammeh said.

How much Securiport is putting on the table is not clear. Per the contract, Securiport has “sole discretion” to determine the amount and nature of its investment. They have sole power to appoint managing director. If the government fails to terminate the contract after 15 years – previously 10 years – it would be automatically renewed for another 10 years.

Deal or the door

The Securiprofit deal is controversial, leaving the government deeply divided. At least two ministers – Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou and Tourism Minister Hamat Bah – had advised against the contract, according to multiple sources in the government.

The Gambia Civil Aviation Authority terminated the services of Ebrima Dampha, a human resource office, for speaking up against the security levy.

“This is something I hate more than anything in my life,” a senior government official told Malagen. “Even if you mention it, it makes me sick the whole day. We did our best to stop it. If I discuss this, I would be in trouble. I know how far we went to oppose this.”

Mr Hamat Bah, the minister for tourism has opposed the introduction of the security levy, according to sources close to him.

When the presidency sought legal advice from the justice ministry, the advice was clear: this was not just a bad deal, but it was also not necessary.

Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou wrote a legal opinion advising the government against the signing of the contract.

“We were surprised when we heard the contract was being implemented because our office had advised against it,” a senior justice ministry official told Malagen.

“We were concerned about the process of getting the contract,” another senior official from Justice Ministry said.

He added that the government has an existing exclusive contract with Semlex that contains services similar to the service being offered by Securiport for free.

“We interpreted the meaning of a border within the context of the service and Semlex contract and concluded that it included the airport and Semlex agreed with our interpretation,” our source explained.

“So, both parties to the Semlex contract agreed that that the service should be provided at no extra cost to the government. So, one Yankuba Saidy decided to be a lawyer and gave his own interpretation of the meaning of border.”

Not just the Semlex contract was a hindrance. Those opposed to it also point out that about the time the Gambian authorities were working on the Securiport contract, the Immigration department, with support from Japan through the International Organisation for Migration, had already started a similar programme at the country’s land borders.

“With government investment, we could handle security upgrade at the airport,” a source at the immigration told Malagen.

The Migration Information and Data Analysis System (MIDAS) established at four land borders provides Immigration with the capability to flag persons of interest.

The database is also connected to the Interpol I24/7, a global police communications system that connects law enforcement officers in all our member countries.

“They were obsessed with implementing it,” said Abdoulie Jammeh of GCAA, referring to the Office of the President.

“It is just a computer system. You could have it as part of immigration tools, equipping every border post with it. Even police stations should have it. It is something that could be taken care of without putting an additional burden on a traveller. Buy a system and install it with your immigration.”

With pressure from a presidency “obsessed” with the contract, it is either you embrace the deal, or at least pretend, or you are shown the exit door.

Dampha, a young public servant, knows this more than any other. His employer, the national civil aviation authority fired him for publicly criticising the levy, prematurely ending what looked like a promising career in the public service.

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