By D.A Jawo
The Minister of Health Dr Ahmadou Lamin Samateh has recently earned quite a lot of praise and empathy from the general public after he bluntly washed his ministry’s dirty linen in public while addressing the National Assembly on the hot topic of payment of allowances to “frontline” workers, which has been like a poisoned chalice in this country.
Even though Dr Samateh no doubt succeeded in earning a lot of public sympathy for his woes as Minister of Health to prevent the hungry hyenas within the ministry and even other impostors from grabbing the amount of money allocated to fight the Coronavirus pandemic, but in the process, he has also succeeded in exposing the wanton corruption within the government and the rot in his own ministry.
While it was certainly not his intention to expose the wanton corruption in this government, but virtually all that he said was an indictment of the regime. It shows that despite all the so-called reforms, hardly much has changed in this country, which seems to reinforce what Halifa Sallah, National Assembly member for Serekunda was quoted saying; that while there is a change of government, but there is as yet no system change in this country. It is the same hyenas that were in charge during the dark days of the Yahya Jammeh era who still seem to be calling the shots in most of the sectors. Just like the Mandinkas say; “Sila kotoo kataa saatee kotoo leto” (the old road leads to the ancient village). Therefore, if the Adama Barrow government is really serious about effecting positive reforms and not just interested in trying to get himre-elected for a second term, then they have to tackle corruption head-on without regard to whose ox is gored in the process. It is, for instance, hard to understand why there is still no anti-corruption commission in place. One would wonder what has happened to the commitment shown by the government when it convened a stakeholder workshop on an Anti-Corruption Bill in August 2017.
It is quite a well-known fact that the type of scenario painted by Dr Samateh is quite similar to what exists or even worse in virtually all the ministries and other sectors of the government. Maybe he was just so frustrated, no doubt as a result of the intense pressure he had been undergoing since it was announced that a huge amount of money was allocated for his ministry to fight the pandemic, that he could no longer keep quiet. Therefore, we expect President Barrow and his government to come to his assistance to deal with the situation. He is right that as minister, it is not his role to be dealing with payment of allowances, but from his speech, it appears that those whose role it is to deal with it are themselves part of the problem and he had to get involved in order to bring some sanity within the system.
However, it was not everyone that he managed to convince of his own innocence about the situation in the ministry as not only was he in the sector for quite a while prior to becoming minister, but he was occupying a very senior position. “I see nothing but a clear show of incompetence from the Honourable Minister. He failed to effectively handle the crisis at the level of the ministry and now seeks empathy from the National Assembly. The main cause of the allowance crisis is simply a failure by his ministry to clearly and adequately define who a frontliner is,” said a former staff of the ministry.
Of course, we are all quite aware of the poor facilities in our health sector; including the acute shortage of basic essential drugs, the deteriorating state of the physical infrastructure of our health facilities and the obvious lack of motivation for most of the staff.However, all this did not just come with the pandemic but it had been there all along with hardly anyone doing much to address the situation. Of course, with the mention of money, it is not surprising that everyone would play all sorts of tricks in order to try and have their share of the cake with hardly anyone caring about what impact it would have on the fight against the pandemic. It is a Gambian attitude that money and personal gains count before anything else.
Like every situation, the COVID-19 pandemic, bad as it may be, also comes along with its own opportunities which we should capitalize on to have positive results. In the case of the ministry of health, for instance, there is a big opportunity to judiciously utilize the huge amount allocated to them to rehabilitate their dilapidated facilities as well as acquire some essential drugs and modern equipment rather than just thinking of sharing the money for their personal gains. A visit to any of our health facilities, including the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, one would not fail to see the bad state they are all in. Those who have been watching TV during the recent random testing conducted in Bakau, for example, must have seen the run-down state of the Bakau Health Centre as if no one cares. It was indeed a shame that it was projected to the whole world to see the filthy environment, the peeled off paint on the walls as well as the broken doors and windows. If such a major health centre right within the Greater Banjul Area is in such a dilapidated state, anyone can guess how the health facilities up-country would look like. In fact, we were also recently shown a video by a civil pressure group Gambia Participates showing conditions of the so-called Isolation Ward at the Basse District Hospital with the only toilet in a horrible state and the beds not fit for human habitation. All this tells quite a lot about the system in place and the apparent lack of commitment on the part of those in charge.
Therefore, while we should sympathise with Dr Samateh over his frustration, but we also expect him to do much more to bring our health facilities to the minimum acceptable standard. It is obviously not an easy undertaking because I was there and I know how frustrating it sometimes could be to get something done by the technical staff, but with the opportunities created by COVID-19, he stands a much better chance to access funding for such development.
As I mentioned earlier, while it is Dr Samateh who has vented his frustration in public, but virtually all the other sector heads are experiencing similar ordeals. It is unfortunate however that none of the other ministries and sectors seems to be taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the new situation we find ourselves in. Just like the health facilities for instance, many of our schools and other educational institutions are also in very bad shape, infrastructure-wise. Therefore, with the indefinite closure of schools due to the pandemic, it was an opportunity for the two ministries responsible for education to tackle the problem. They could try to access some of the funding allocated for COVID-19 to carry out some minor repairs and painting of the schools in readiness for their re-opening whenever it becomes feasible. It would also make a lot of sense, as part of the fight against the pandemic, to fumigate all the schools, repair toilet facilities as well as install some necessary sanitary facilities in readiness for the re-opening of schools rather than wait until when the children are in before thinking about that. Obviously, considering the over-crowding state of most of the schools and the type of environment that they operate in, it would be a nightmare for anyone to think about practicing ‘social distancing’ in any form. Therefore, this is the very time that the authorities responsible for education should think about how to address it rather than wait until schools re-open when it would have been too late to do anything about it.
This is indeed the second opportunity that this government seems to have had to make a difference and we expect them not to waste it like they seem to have done with the one they had after the change of regime in 2017 when there was a lot of goodwill from the international community but which was very badly handled, apparently as a result of inexperience and poor planning.
D.A Jawo is a veteran journalist and former minister of information.