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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Marr Nyang Founder, executive director Gambia Participates

Your name is now synonymous with anti-corruption activism but many Gambians do not know who is Marr Nyang. What’s your background.

I was born and happily lived in Brufut and did my education all the way to junior school there. My activism career started there in primary school. We would always get into extracurricular activities with the Peace Ambassadors whose office is now next to ours. Later, I moved to Gambia High School and continued my activism there. I think I took activism quite seriously when I started attending tertiary institutions and served as vice president of National Union of Gambian Students. There, I started doing debates on various topics. From there on, I started to move into professional career development.  

What trajectory did your “professional career development” took?

After graduating from Gambia High School, I got a scholarship to study at the International Business College. From there, I did an internship at GamPetroleum for two months and later worked in a law firm as a part time staff. It was there that I started developing interest in legal matters and governance issues as things were not really adding up in the country. I left the law firm to start Gambia Participates. I left the law firm because I wanted to focus on the citizen mobilisation. I wanted the citizens to be more informed ahead of the 2016 presidential election. I wanted to advocate for voter participation which I felt at the time was more important to me. I remember the former president saying he knows those that would vote for him or not and that if you are in his government the consequences of not voting for him were dire. He was threatening people. I went to markets and communities and put it to potential voters that once you enter the polling booth, no one can know who it is that you vote for and there will be no consequences. I told them if they want the status quo to continue, they should vote for the current government but if they want change, they should vote for someone else. This was the strategy.

You were in the US. What were you doing there? 

I travelled to the US in 2019 but before that I was in Ghana in 2016 at the election tech camp. Through the advocacy that I was doing, I was identified to participate in that programme. And I think that helped established Gambia Participates because it started as a grassroots organisation. The organisation started in January 2016 and in May 2016 I changed the name to Gambia Participates. In 2019, because I am a budget researcher, a budget expert, I was invited by the International Budget Partnership to participate in open budget survey and that’s how I travelled to the US. Representing The Gambia, I reviewed how transparent, participatory and accountable the budget of The Gambia was.

What exactly does Gambia Participates do?

Gambia Participates is a pro bono, youth-led civil society organisation and our work centres more on promoting participatory democracy, participatory budgeting, transparency and accountability but most importantly anti-corruption issues or campaigns. Part of the work that we do is advocating for public policy or public interest. Now we are into conducting government research because advocacy is about evidence. If you don’t have evidence, you cannot actually have a strategic advocacy plan. We also do strategic litigation which we started recently. We are giving pro bono technical support to government institutions to be more transparent in disseminating relevant or key information to the public.

Can you tell us about the structure and membership of Gambia Participates?

We have a secretariat and a board. We have about eight staff members. Seven I believe are now fulltime staff. We also have volunteers across the regions of The Gambia. And now we have what we call Senegal Participates in Senegal. We are working with them. They have done their election observation in the past in Senegal.

Where do you get your funds from?

We get our funds from our donors, like every civil society organisation. We have partners that we have been working with since our establishment. The partnership is growing because we are having more partners who are partnering with us because of our reputation, the integrity of the organisation which we do not compromise and the quality of the work that we do. We get our funds obviously 100 percent from donors and not from government.

Your organisation partnered Transparency International in a project designed to shed light on victims of former President Jammeh’s corruption and submitted video documentaries to the TRRC. Can you talk a little about that?

There are a gazillion of cases against Jammeh; economic crimes, rape, witch hunts, human rights abuses, you name it. The case is Jammeh violated rights. Based on our findings, he displaced 84 households from their settlement and sent them to exile in Senegal. He deprived them from their source of income, deprived them of their properties and businesses. Yes, we have a case against Jammeh.

Gambia Participates has been lobbying for parliamentarians to push for the passing of the Gambia Anti-Corruption Bill. What has been holding it up?

If we have legislators who are well-equipped with anti-corruption tools, then they will be able to legislate laws that will curb public sector corruption and when there are corrupt acts, make sure sanctions are attached to public officials. It is only the legislator that can impeach a public official. It is only the legislator that can impeach a president. I am not saying that’s what they should do. If they just understand the power of the people that is on their shoulders… When the bill was tabled, we brought lawyers, parliamentarians, anti-corruption experts both locally and outside to look at the bill clause by clause and identified the gaps and weaknesses. We sent our recommendations to parliament for consideration when they were reviewing the bill. We are still following it up. My hope is the FPAC [Finance and Public Accounts Committee], is going to present its report after reviewing the bill because they have met different stakeholders. My hope is they are going to present their report to the plenary but I don’t know exactly when that is going to happen. From there parliament is going to debate it and it will go to committee stage and they will do the necessary amendments before they pass it.

The US government said in the recent past that it was concerned by the corruption in the country’s procurement processes and the awarding of state contracts and a recent US fiscal transparency report classified The Gambia government as not transparent. What are your comments on these damning statements?

If you look at our national budget, between 60-80 percent of our budget goes through procurement and we have a very weak procurement system. Our government almost always single sources procurement contracts, and they do RFQs [request for quotes]. But the issue is, procurement officers have now turned out to become suppliers, having their own vendors but without their names on it. We have also seen how they actually come up with some strategy saying we going to give this contract worth about US$35  million to an individual company with the agreement that they are going to prefinance it. That is another strategy to just give contract to someone close to whoever is making the decision. And then you have the IEC and GPPA issue when the voter registration was supposed to start in January but because of procurement issues, they could not come to terms. The procurement authority was saying you must follow this, IEC was saying that. In a country where there is lack of transparency, corruption is actually always going to thrive.

Why do you think The Gambia has become more corrupt under President Barrow?

I think The Gambia was more corrupt under Yahya Jammeh than Adama Barrow. But the corruption happening under Jammeh is continuing under Barrow. If you are to make comparative analyses, the Jammeh administration was far more corrupt than that of the Barrow administration. The Barrow administration is corrupt because there are evidences of corruption, and this is public knowledge. We have seen the fisheries scandal implicating the permanent secretary. We have seen the Semlex scandal, and we have seen the timber rose wood illicit transportation scandal as well. So, it is actually continuation of the corrupt acts that started in the Jammeh government that the Barrow administration is embracing.

Since there was corruption galore in The Gambia during the Jammeh administration, why was wasn’t Gambia Participates set up or more active then?

I was born a year before Jammeh came to power, so we actually grew under autocracy, authoritarian rule, kleptocracy, dictatorship you name it. As teenagers, growing up, we have seen how Senegal was doing well with their democracy. Someone should have done this while we were young. We realised, growing up, there is no organised institution doing it and that’s why we stood up as young people.

Your critics said you drive an expensive SUV. The optics are that an anti-corruption czar, even a self-appointed one like yourself, should display a perceptible degree of frugality. Do you agree?

Yes, I drive an SUV but the SUV I drive… what is the definition of expensive? If they are saying half of a million, my car did not cost half a million. I bought a second-hand car that has already been used.

They say it’s a new Chevrolet SUV.

No. That’s a big lie. Even if I have a… let me put it this way, if I have an SUV, it’s bought with clean money. Yes, we complained that government should mininmise spending, the government buys cars for two million dalasis… my car didn’t cost me even half of a million dalasis. Even if government wants to buy a car for two million dalasis, I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is, you cannot continuously buy cars for millions of dalasis and even when they are in good shape you start bringing in new ones. My first car cost about US$2,000, but I didn’t see no one talked about that. So, people are always going to talk about… I am criticised for the way I dress. Some even say the things I wear might be expensive. They said my clothes cost D1,500. I am laughing but it’s serious. It’s serious because people are going to come up with their critiques and you have to accept that but one mistake that people make is that an advocate should be poor and be struggling in the streets like the people. That is one of the biggest mistakes! And because of that belief, you see activists and advocates that have the resources in a clean way live a fake [humble] life – living a life that you don’t want because you want to impress people. I don’t impress people. I do it for me. If I have more money today, I will buy a better car…

Now, to a more serious issue, and without attempting to commit contempt, don’t you think that if your suit at the high court succeeds, a lot of people who got voter’s cards through mayoral attestations in Banjul could be disenfranchised since the IEC has categorically stated they are not going to extend the voter registration?

There are two fundamental things that we need to look at here. One is the rule of law. A country is governed by a law. The IEC’s procedure is also governed by a law, which is the Elections Act. Now, the Elections Act is clearly codified regarding the eligibility of an individual to register and get a voter’s card. There’s this saying, “democracy is not for lazy people”. In 2016 we had an election. You have an ID, you have a passport, so, if you beat your chest to be a Gambian and cannot prove that you are a Gambian, discriminate tribes… A Gambian at the age of 18, no one should actually tell that person that you need to have an ID, talk less of a birth certificate. You have four years, I am coming to answer your question. You have four years to get a birth certificate that costs D10. Now, coming to your question about disenfranchising the voters, we are not disenfranchising the voters. You know, you have activists and advocates. When things get out of hand, activists go out in the streets and protest. As advocates, we see the longer term, and we prevent problems from arising. We target the root causes. Right now, the citizens will be complaining that we are disenfranchising them but we are actually protecting the security of the citizens. In 2016, when Jammeh rejected the election results, what happened, there was an impasse. Now, in 2021, we have an electoral issue or a registration malpractice that has violated… none of the political parties are talking as of now because they think it is in their favour for the mayor to issue attestations. But come December 5th when the results are out, the losing party would start rejecting results because the mayor does not have a legal mandate to give attestations. And when they start rejecting the results, their followers will also start protesting the results of the election. And that will lead to unrest. For us, we are not disenfranchising anyone, and that is why when we were filing this case, we filed with a certificate of urgency so that when we have the decision from the court, those that have been given attestations can go and get their birth certificates from Banjul or from their residence and go back and register. The court is moving smoothly and we are hopeful that we… so this is not about disenfranchising anyone; this is about doing what is right. 

Thank you Mr Nyang.

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