Mr Karamba Touray just completed a long and distinguished public service career as a government auditor including the last 10 years as Auditor General. He earned himself a reputation as a candid worker reflecting the unbending virtues of the traditional professional civil servant now in rare supply. His colleagues and observers said Karamba is immensely skilful and ramrod straight in his work.
Over the last two years of his contract, his fame spread like bush fire with his damning report on government’s malmanagement of the public purse and other projects. He won The Standard Newspaper’s prestigious Gambian of the Year Award for 2022.
In this special interview with Editor Lamin Cham, Mr Touray talks about his professional life and future direction of the management of public funds.
Mr Touray, congratulations on being named Gambian of The Year 2022. Let me begin by asking you how and when did your career as an accountant/auditor start?
I first want to thank The Standard for this award. I am honoured by this and I think it is a recognition not just for me but the role the National Audit Office plays in the management of public finance of the country. I am sure this will be an inspiration for my successor and other colleagues to continue the hard work we started together and ensure that the path that we have paved together is maintained so that the accountability that is required in the management of the public purse is achieved in accordance with the regulations.
So now, how did your professional journey start?
Actually, I think I became an incidental auditor. I did not even know the audit office when I was posted there and had to ask people for direction. Then it was called the Auditor General’s Office. It was in 1981 and that time public office job was not difficult to get. You just wait for your results at the Ministry of Education and you are posted to a school or take the Government Clerical School and you are posted to an institution. That is how I got posted to the Auditor General’s Office after collecting my appointment letter from the Public Service Commission, PSC. I had to ask people where the Auditor General’s Office was, then it was headed by Mr EG Evans, the last white man to hold that position.
How was the climate and state of work at the time?
It was satisfying in the sense that our work was cut out for us then because there was the Financial and Audit Act that clearly state what we needed to do in our functions and all what we do is guided by regulations and law. And that helped us. So that is why up until I left, I always told people who complained, to go and change the regulations first.
You served under Jawara, Jammeh and Barrow regimes. Which period proved the most challenging for your office?
I think that must be the last 20 years under Jammeh and that’s the time I came to the administration of the office under Mr Sankareh. But ironically, that is the period also the National Audit Office was created to be an independent entity with freedom to work independently.
Until then, we were a government department but the 1997 Constitution provided for an independent National Audit Office but the executive was not receptive to that idea. Maybe they realised that independence to the NAO would take power from them to control it. So it was all about power play. People don’t give up power easily and making the NAO independent means giving it power to act independently.
So there was interference?
A little bit, yes, in terms of assuming and asserting that independence yes, though I was not the AG then. It was the time of Boubacarr who took over from MI after the white man. Then Fatoumatta came and you know the history (there was tribunal and she was removed); then Boubacarr was also removed in similar circumstance though for him, there was no tribunal as he was simply dismissed with just one-paragraph letter as was common under Jammeh.
When I took over as AG on the 26th June 2013 after Boubacarr left, it continued and even our attempt to get a board was not receptive by government and that is why there is still not a board. So I had to get support on the independence of the office and one of my key supporters in government actually were Bala Garba Jahumpa and later Abdou Colley, both were finance ministers and chairmen of the cabinet committee on finance at different times.
They helped a lot supporting the office to assume its independent role especially Abdou Colley. That is why I often say the NAO is very much Abdou Colley’s creation.
So apart from that issue of trying to establish the office’s independence the only time a challenge came was our work on the drug seizure at Bonto when Ben Jammeh was director general of the DLEAG and overseeing the NIA too.
What does audit have to with drug seizure?
Well drugs or what it represents in monetary value has financial implications in case it gets into the country’s economy. So we got to know its weight, money value and needed to verify this and it was our duty to make sure that it is destroyed and did not find its way into our economy. But the government would not give us access to the drugs and Ben also wrote and made some allegations and I was called to explain. But in the end, Ben was asked to cooperate with us and do our work. However, when the locks were being removed, we were not there and by regulations we should have been there. So that’s how it ended. We never got to know the fate of the drugs.
Let us talk about the current realities and your recent reports on the Covid-19 response funds, Securiport, the unauthorised State House account and the Banjul rehabilitation project, all of which caused a public outcry. Did you come under pressure from government after that?
Of course, especially when you have your employer, in this case the government, complaining themselves. So instead of focusing on the recommendation we made, we, ourselves, became the subject. But we stand by the report and those recommendations because the good thing about our job now as opposed to the past is that we give you (the subject) of audit our report and ask for your response and when you react, we put that too in the report whether you agree with us or not. So we highlighted all what we have come across and we found the whole Covid -19 expenditures to be chaotic. What is more, we have indicated by writing to the Secretary General the best practices to go about things and what was needed to be done but those were not heeded. They often cited emergency situation and we have stated that that is the time we needed to be even more prudent about the public purse. And I think we are vindicated. But the saddest thing is the government refused to implement the recommendations. But our role is to report accurately and all these reports are archived and published on our website. That is what our mandate entails and we have done that correctly. In fact, we have been reported the same way in the past only that in the past, we deposited our reports at the National Records as opposed to now when we publish it. If you go to the archive, you will find our reports on Gamcel-Gamtel example and others. So we have always been doing our work according to law.
You have been accused of sabotaging the government with your audit report or giving ammunition to the opposition to attack the government with your reports. Were you ever called at State House or intimidated about your report?
Not in the general case of matters. But yes, we were once called at State House over the Securiport -that’s the airport D1000 levy on passengers.
Was that not interference or intimidation?
Yes it is because it was meant to make us to be careful. But even there, we stood by our report and defended it. We explained to them that if you don’t want us to do it this way, you must go back to the regulations and change them otherwise we do it as provided by the existing laws.
What about the D669M on the unauthorised account run by State House?
That was what drowned the uproar from the Covid-19 audit report. You know, they wanted to politicise it but when they saw the name of the opposition leader as one of the recipients, they know we are not doing anything for politics. Even I myself could have been paid from that account without knowing it and that would not stop us from highlighting it. Essentially, what we have done is to ask for this account to be closed because it is going outside the government financial system and circle and it is illegal. It was closed just to be opened again and monies spent from it. The recipients of monies from the account are not the issue but reopening of the account is what is illegal because it circumvents the accounting system and that is what we reported.
What about the Banjul road rehabilitation project?
That one was a fraud in my opinion. I have said it to our partners. At that time I knew the contractor does not have the capacity. I mean, this is a small country. And what is interesting is that instead of the contractor calling a press conference, it is the government that did so to explain it. It is sad for government to stoop so low as to go and defend a contractor.
You earned a good reputation from all these. Are you therefore surprised that your contract has not been renewed?
No I am not. Normally a two-year contract is renewable up to six years but I am not surprised that mine is not. In fact, a senior government official once told me, “Mr Touray, you have caused us a lot of trouble. Is your contract ending this year?” That I think is a reflection of what the government thinks of me. So I am not surprised that my contract is not renewed.
And what do you have for your successor and colleagues?
I think there are enough guidelines for the NAO to continue its good work, playing its role in the accountability side of the management of government funds. In the recent years, we have introduced many professional and personal incentives for the staff to remain well-motivated and professional and I have no doubt that my successor and team will continue with the path we have treaded together.
Mr Touray, thank you and congrats on your award.