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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Lamin L Dampha, sacked for speaking against $20 airport security tax

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With Alagie Manneh

Alagie Manneh: The name Lamin Dampha came into prominence in recent times following an expose you made while at the GCAA, but not many Gambians knew you before. Tell us about yourself?

I’m from New Yundum village. I started my advanced education at the Gambia College, where I studied HTC and specialised in English and mathematics. I later taught at various secondary schools across the country before eventually ending up at the GCAA. During that time, was able to plan and got enrolled at the university. Luckily for me, I became the president of the faculty of business and public administration at the university. I also became the president of the main university – the University of the Gambia’s Students’ Union. Further luck again, I graduated as the overall best student at the faculty of business and public admin, and the second overall best in the entire class of 2020. That is how I was redeployed from the aviation security department to the department of human resources and admin as assistant human resource officer. Three months later, I was promoted to human resource officer. A couple of months later, I was lucky to be selected for the UK government Chevening Scholarship to pursue an MSc in public policy and administration at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Can you give me a brief overview of your career at the GCAA? What were your roles there?   

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I had plans at the civil aviation. I started off there as a security guard. Later, I was able to establish my potentials knowing that I could be better in another department. I joined the GCAA in 2017 as a security guard. One of the key important responsibilities of an aviation security officer is to ensure that the airport is safeguarded from all kinds of prohibited acts. Primarily, your job is to ensure the safety and security of lives and properties of all airport users, be it employees, or passengers. That was what I was doing until my redeployment to the human resource and admin department.

What was it like working for GCAA?

It is very interesting working at civil aviation. I worked alongside wonderful colleagues who I considered family. Very, very good people. People who are excited to have you around. It was quite an interesting moment, and the memories will last with me forever. It was a good experience. I want to believe my time there has helped me to develop myself professionally.

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You took the road less traveled when you publicly spoke out against the $20 tax imposed on passengers at the airport. Why did you decide to do that?

I decided to do it not because of influence or attention, no. I decided to it because I believe it is the right thing.  I personally don’t want to be part of something that is not in tandem with good principles. I also don’t want to be in support of something that I believe is not in line with the legal requirements of our country. This is one of the reasons why I am not in support of it and that was why I publicly criticised it. My recent posts about it are the ones that went viral, but I first posted about this last year. I wrote explicitly about this. The way these fees are being collected gave me the inspiration to speak out.

What did you mean when you said the process through which the fees are collected at the airport is not in conformity with our legal requirements?

These are very technical things. I would want to excuse myself in terms of dealing with the legal matters of the matter. All what I can say is that morally, it is wrong. This is something they [travelers] have paid for. And this is something that shouldn’t be collected from them. In fact, if it should be collected from them, it should be collected by The Gambia government, and it should go into the coffers of The Gambia government. It should not be collected by an international security firm that is not owned and managed by Gambians. So, it’s ridiculous. I was not in support of it. Especially the way it is being collected. There’s nowhere in the world where you would land or about to depart and would be asked to pay physical cash. And when you pay it, they give you a receipt, just like a supermarket receipt, like one of those receipts at the Alvihag. I believe it’s very, very unfair. Sometimes you see people who come with five children and would have to pay each D2000. Two thousand by five is 10,000. Quite unfair, right? If it was a digital way, perhaps people could have understood and said it’s okay, lets go ahead, but the manner in which it is being collected, it’s absolutely unbelievable.

What was the immediate reaction of your employers and colleagues when you first put out the Facebook post?

There’s no staff at the airport authority that is happy about this. They may not come out to speak out because of the consequences and I understand that. But it’s not fair; you are asking people to pay a security charge when there’s already an aviation security at the airport that is legally responsible and recognised as the only competent body to provide security at the airport. You have the Gambia Police Force there to ensure there’s security at the airport. You have immigration [Gambia Immigration Department] at the airport. You have the SIS at the airport. You have almost all the security forces in the airport. In fact, even the Drug Law Enforcement Agency, you have them at the airport. So, if you are to tell me that these people are providing security but now you should pay money for another international company in the pretext of security charges then you are even unfair to them. So, no one is happy about it. I can tell you for certain nobody is happy about this at the airport. The staff are not happy. Be it administrative staff, be it in fact outsiders. It is a very, very unpopular scheme. But some of these schemes are rare and people are afraid to come out and speak because there are powerful people behind it. They believe if you say anything about it, you end up paying the price just like in my case. That’s it.

By imposing this $20 on travelers at the airport, are you implying that fraud has been committed and continues to be committed at the airport?   

A receipt that you are given at the airport, it is written on it security fee. They are telling you that you are paying this money for the purpose of a security fee.  Already, before you pay it, you have bought your ticket and, on the ticket, if you look at the denomination, you realised that it is also included that you have paid certain amount of money for security fee. So, it’s very simple. How can I buy my ticket in the pretext of security… paid security fee already and come to the airport and pay another security fee? That’s why I said it’s unfair. Even the people that collect it from you will not be able to provide any explanation if you ask them why they are collecting it from you.

It sounds fraudulent, doesn’t it?

Obviously. The analog is clear, and the answer is straightforward. It’s just like you are going to Brikama and you took a bus and they told you if you pay 50 dalasis, in the bus, you would be able to have access to water. Now you want to have access to the water but the guy responsible for the water is saying you should pay another 10 dalasis for the water. Obviously, that water is included in the 50 dalasis. So, even if you are to pay it, you are paying it unwillingly. Therefore, your money is collected in a way that is – robbery.

Who benefits from this so-called airport security tax?

For me, what I know is that there’s a company called Securiport that signed a contract with the Gambia government to implement a GCA and immigration security system. That is what their letters indicate. So, I know that Securiport is the leading company and are responsible for the implementation. They are the ones whose staff are there, and they are the ones doing the collection and everything. Although I cannot say for certain where the money is going, I know that a company that is not even Gambian is responsible to organise and control everything. The contract is signed between Securiport and the GCAA. I can say that the money is coordinated, controlled, and collected by Securiport, which is not a Gambian company.

Before you went on Facebook to write against the security tax, did it occur to you that by going public you were going to be a whistleblower?

Like I said earlier, for me, I don’t know how this all started, but I haven’t done any of this for the purpose of being identified even as a whistleblower, or for being popular. I am not doing this to seek any form of legitimacy. I did this to have my conscience rest. I did this to free my conscience. You see it as whistleblowing, of course that’s fine. Because I have spoken about something that is wrong and now people are speaking about it. If you call it whistleblowing, that is very correct but initially, that was not my intention. I just thought this is wrong and am going to write about it just to free my conscience. And that’s just what I did.

Didn’t you have any concern that your public comments could create problems for you at your workplace or land you in trouble?

Of course, those are things that concern me, but when compared with conscience, I choose the latter. I will be happy with having people who are not happy with me than have myself not happy with myself. I did not expect this, to be honest with you. I knew very well that this contract is not between the… civil aviation did not even come into context here, Alagie, let me make that clear. This contract is between The Gambia government and Securiport. Civil aviation came into context here just because it’s the regulatory body of the airport and anything that should be implemented in the airport, they should be in the picture, but they are not a signatory to the contract, and they are not a party to the contract. So, it is funny to me, it is mind-blowing that they are going to dismiss one of their staff for talking about a contract that they are not even a party to. That is why I laughed off when I heard the suggestion that I may be breaking some service rules. I know those rules.

Initially, the management tried but failed to terminate your services because of your level. Can you tell me about that?

That’s not the management. It’s important to notice that this entire thing is championed by the director-general [Fansu Bojang]. I’m not going to blame the entire management for it. It was the director-general who puts up a board paper and convinced the board into believing that what I have written is not in tandem with the rules and regulations of the authority, and the board agreed, and I was dismissed. But let me make it clear that in that board meeting, there were key important features of a board meeting that weren’t there. The representative of the justice ministry was not there, otherwise, he would have provided them legal advice as to what they wanted to do. Our line ministry – the works ministry rep was not there. In fact, the chairman of the board was not even present. And the staff representative made it categorically clear to the members present and to the director-general himself who presented the paper that I should be dismissed that he is not in support of it and that I have not done anything to warrant a dismissal. In fact, even before they dismiss me, they should give me an audience. But the staff rep made it very clear and even indicated it in the minutes that he was not in support of it. And he was not hiding it. That is why when I look at the letter and they are saying the ‘board of directors have unanimously’. I don’t know where they get that word unanimous.

 A letter from the GCAA management said that the board of GCAA have decided to terminate your services. How did you feel when you received that letter?

I felt very insulted. The letter is the lowest of standards. There are so many technical errors in that letter. I’m not going to be surprised if I should receive another letter from them. I mean, this is the director-general who is manipulating people to do anything.

So, you saw this coming?

I’m not surprised. I’m telling you; I know the dynamics of our public service. And I know people especially in leadership when you say something about them, they want to make sure that nobody does that again. And the best way to do that is to get rid of you. Coming back to the letter, they said the board ‘unanimously,’ but I want to say here, unequivocally, that that is not true because there’s someone in the board who disagrees.

 According to the dismissal letter, you were fired for violating service rules. In a nutshell, for being a whistleblower. Do you agree that you broke service rules no matter how good your intentions were?

I am 100 percent sure I did not break any rule in the GCAA. I did not break any service rule, and I did not break any laws of The Gambia. I can also tell you, in the same service rule, there is what is called the security code of conduct, in other words, it is a categorical offense for seeing something wrong without reporting it. It’s called the category B offense. You could be punished for seeing something wrong and not reporting it. So, I should even be celebrating. I did not break any service rule. Sometimes, when people are angry, they don’t worry about the consequences of their actions or inactions. If anything, I have strengthened the service rules.

One wonders why you took this route and went this far knowing full well it could cost you your job. Why was it worth it to speak out at the cost of your job?

When I was doing this, I was not thinking that its going to land… I just did it, not for the purpose of being popular or for media attention. I did it because I want to have a clear conscience. And I don’t think a young man or even an old person should have his services terminated because of a Facebook opinion. And even if I had killed somebody, according to the General Orders, even if I had done gross misconduct that warrants a dismissal, I should be given a fair hearing. But I was never informed or even asked why I posted what I posted.

You sound like a radical, are you?

I’m not. I’m not a radical. I don’t think I am. I just think I am a person that speaks my mind. If I was a radical, I would not oversee 7,000 students in the university, I would not sit at aboard for more than one year with seasoned, experienced people, including solicitor generals, permanent secretaries, ex-officio members who have served this country with distinction. And I had a very good relationship with all of them. I’m not a radical. I won’t agree.

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