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Monday, October 2, 2023

Is Dr Bamba Banja just a victim of political vendetta?

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On Wednesday, 08 March 2023, the High Court in Banjul sentenced former Fisheries Permanent Secretary Dr Bamba Banja to two years in jail and a fine of D1.15 million. The ruling was the culmination of a bribery case that has been running for the past five (5) years. Dr Banja had been charged with receiving a bribe of D100, 000 to secure the release of fishing vessels confiscated by the Gambian Navy for illegal fishing (Bah, 2023). The vessels belonged to a Chinese company called Golden Lead Company Limited. The key evidence against Dr Banja was an alleged recording of a telephone call between Dr Banja and the proprietor of Golden Lead Company Limited on 27 September 2018 while at Batokunku Village located in the West Coast Region of the Gambia. It is alleged that Dr Banja had been overheard and recorded accepting to share the bribe with the Minister for Fisheries and Water Resources James Furmus Gomez. Dr Banja was subsequently suspended from his duties and corruption charges opened against him on the advice of Justice Minister Dawda Jallow after investigations by the police, which followed the expose by the Malagen media platform. Unless he appeals successfully, Dr Banja is set to serve two years in jail and the conviction also spells the end of his long and illustrious career in the public service. While a cursory look at the case suggests definitive intolerance to corruption, a closer examination reveals that Dr Banja was sacrificed for public relations motivated by a political witch-hunt.

First and most importantly, it beats both human and legal logic why is the Minister for Justice the Hon. Dawda Jallow chose to prosecute Dr Bamba Banja alone in a case that should by all means included the minister. The call recording formed the key evidence against the permanent secretary and the court allowed it to be adduced in evidence (Bah, 2022). The call recording includes a statement in which the person alleged to be Dr Banja said clearly, “I will share with my minister. I will give him half and I take half.” Dr Banja being the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Fisheries and Water Resources at the time, “my minister” in that statement unambiguously referred to the then Minister for Fisheries and Water resources, one Hon. James Furmus Gomez. On 24 February 2022, the court admitted into evidence the transcriptions of the audio recording of the purported call (Bah, 2013). Justice BA Bakre in his reading of the sentencing made it very clear that the court relied on the evidence of the call recording to rule that the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of Dr Banja (Bah, 2023). It is inconceivable how the courts used the same evidence implicating the Fisheries minister yet only the permanent secretary was charged. What makes the matter even more absurd is that the very minister mentioned in the recording as receiving half of the payment was the one who promptly suspended Dr Banja (The Chronicle, 2020). There can be no worse definition of double standards than that sad case.

Still looking at the parties involved in the allegations, the Minister for Justice the Hon. Dawda Jallow has never explained why the director of Golden Lead Company Limited was not charged for offering a bribe. The case against Dr Banja relied on the evidence of the recorded call. The alleged call that sent Dr Banja to court was conversation between Dr Banja and Mr. Ming Ning, the proprietor of Golden Lead (Bah, 2022). Ming Ning was the person offering a bribe to the government official. His fishing vessels had been seized and they were released under mysterious circumstances after paying a fine of only D1, 000, 000 instead of the usual D5, 000, 000 imposed on such vessels. If the Minister for Justice was genuine in his prosecution of Dr Banja, then the proprietor of Golden Lead would have been charged alongside him even if he would be charged in a separate case. Clearly, Dr Banja was sacrificial lamb for the corrupt government of Adama Barrow that Minister Dawda Jallow was acting for in the case.

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The political witch-hunt of Dr Bamba Banja becomes even clearer when one looks at how the government has handled other cases of corruption since Adama Barrow came into power in 2017. First, when barrow took over the leadership of the Gambia, he had promised to make a clean break with the past of Yaya Jammeh. Instead, he retained the identification contract with the corrupt Belgian firm Semlex Europe SA (Sharife, 2018). Barrow had been at the forefront of leveling complaints against the company before he became president. The government established and strengthened anti-corruption agencies and offices in line with the 1997 constitution, but no corruption case has ever been prosecuted successfully except the case of Dr Bamba Banja (Transparency International, 2021). How the government singled out Dr Banja’s case as the most serious with the most far-reaching consequences remains known only to Barrow, Dawda Jallow and Gomez. There is no doubt that Dr Banja’s prosecution and conviction is a political witch-hunt.

Last, Dr Bamba Banja’s prosecution and conviction cannot be distanced from his perceived support for the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP). President Barrow ascended to power in his first term under the wings of the UDP having promised to deal decisively with the past cases of poor governance and corruption (Janko, 2020). Barrow quickly reneged on his promise of staying in power for three years only and instead, he even went ahead and formed a coalition with Dictator Yaya Jammeh’s own APRC to retain power fraudulently in 2021. From the days leading up to the election, Barrow became increasingly intolerant to opposition. Anyone associated with or perceived to be supporting any other party or coalition became Barrow’s enemy. Dr Bamba Banja has been associated with the UDP in government quarters, a compelling reason that could attract the ire of Barrow and his cohorts in government (Marong 2021). That the justice minister chose to prosecute Dr Banja and leave out the Fisheries minister is therefore nothing but vendetta because of the former’s perceived political position.

In conclusion, the war against corruption is welcome by all patriotic peoples of the Gambia. On the other hand, it cannot be used as a platform for settling political scores. The government of Adama Barrow is keen on demonstrating to the world that it is fighting corruption and Dr Banja has paid the ultimate price as the sacrificial lamb.  His prosecution, and conviction serves the two purposes of demonstrating government seriousness with corruption and punishing a diligent servant perceived to be a supporter of the UDP. President Adama Barrow has successfully used his stooge the Justice Minister to get rid of Dr Banja.

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Musa Val Banja

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