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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Missteps, missed opportunities and high-voltage politics Vexed issues dominating the public sphere in Barrow’s Gambia and their potential ramifications for the December 4 presidential ballot

Economic hardship

(Hike in food prices, youth unemployment)

Rising food prices may be nothing new in the Gambia but in the past few months or better part of the year, the problem, based on the moanings of the poor – a reflection of the reality on the ground- is appearing to be having a chilling effect on every Gambian. It is commonplace to hear people say that “I would rather not complain about anything else as long as the price of a bag of rice is reduced”.  Curiously, the cost of basic consumables in our country hardly goes down the moment they increase, regardless of what economic factors are at play. The over dependence on imported rice, the nation’s staple, continues to spell economic worries for a lot of households in a society where extended families are the most prevalent. Despite being blessed with large swathes of arable land and fresh water, both the Jammeh and Barrow administrations seem to have run out of ideas when it came to industrializing rice cultivation in the Gambia. The rice production hotbed of Jahally-Pacharr – once the success story of our agricultural sector – appears to be in a moribund state.

Notwithstanding this, there still exists massive potential for the Gambia government to invest in large scale nationalized rice schemes that cater for the consumption needs of the populace at a reasonable rate. In fact, as of 2015, figures from the national agricultural sample survey pegged the total production output/volume of paddy rice in the country at 53,309 metric tons. Also, it would also appear that the Barrow government missed an opportunity by not utilizing the large arable rice field ex-President Jammeh had been putting under cultivation in Pacharr, Central River Region. As it were the case, threshing, bagging and selling of produce from the massive field were all possible and could have been leveraged upon by the new dispensation with a touch of innovation that could compete against imported rice in the country. Additionally, the large volumes of onion that are locally produced by rural women continue to face their fair share of challenges. Chief among these is the lack of a readily available market which often compels the helpless growers to sell their produce at give-away prices to (bana-banas) middlemen. Import substitution which could have helped the cause of women during the peak of the harvest season for whatever reason hasn’t been fully explored by the government.

Of all the economic issues bedeviling Gambia, unemployment accounts for a major source of frustration for the country’s youthful population. According to the Gambia Labor Force Survey of 2018 conducted by Gambia Bureau of Statistics (GBoS), there were 377, 326 youth actively participating in the labor force, of which 54.4 percent were  male and 45.6 percent female.  Youth unemployment rate, as per the same study by GBoS was at 41. 5 percent as of 2018.  The proportion of youth unemployment-to-population ratio in urban Gambia was 54.7 percent while the rural areas constituted 45. 3 percent based on the figures revealed by the Gambia Labor Force Analytical Report 2018.

On the face of it, the government can single out the European Union funded Youth Enterprise Project (YEP) as a success story in creating economic opportunities for Gambia’s youth as a way of stemming the tide of irregular migration. Between 2017 and  2020, YEP reveals that it has created some 2661 jobs and projects the number of young people it trained on technical/vocational training or apprenticeship at 2789. Similarly, young people that benefited from entrepreneurship and business development services, according to the data released by the project, stand at 3698 whilst access to finance(grants) make up 41 percent for women and 59 percent for men within the same period. Despite these efforts in the informal economic sector, there still are gaping holes that need filling, especially if one considers the thousands of students that graduate from the University of The Gambia, Gambia College and other higher institutions of learning every year.

Alarmingly, the not-so-hopeful state of our youth always  manifests  itself in flashpoint situations where they tend to  get turbocharged and fall for mob justice.  Faraba: a few years ago and most recently Sanyang are cases in point. For context purposes, it will be imperative to note that the Covid-19 pandemic as well has had a domino effect even on the biggest economies in the world, and in the case of the Gambia, the tourism sector which is a significant employer of our youth took a nosedive for the worst as it also impacted on remittances that are the lifeblood of hundreds of families/households in the country. In fairness, no one expects a post-Jammeh Gambia to be any cloud cuckoo land, but in all honesty also, there is nothing much to write home about as far as poverty alleviation  is concerned.

Wanton environmental destruction

In a country where plastic bags were deemed environmentally destructive, carcinogenic and therefore eventually banned, what no one did see coming was that in a span of a few years, some of the Gambia’s most beautiful beaches would turn into a wasteland.

Parts of the country’s most alluring coastal belt, which for decades was prime touristic attraction, are now in the sorry state of an eye-sore. Gunjur, Sanyang, Tanji – all in Kombo South- are some of the communities bearing the brunt of industrial fishing plants polluting their waters, marine resources and immediate surroundings.  Despite rallying calls by pro-environmental groups, individual activists and community members who are at the mercy of the chemical emissions from these Chinese-owned plants, the deafening silence and inaction from the government raises head-scratching suspicions for anyone who cares. Whatever the arguments and counter arguments, the government owes the people in that part of the country a duty of care. Lives and livelihoods cannot be traded for anything!

A health sector in need of surgical operation

As per the 2019-2020 Health and Demographic Survey, 84 percent of births in the Gambia are assisted by a skilled medical professional with assistance at delivery by a skilled provider far higher in urban (88%) than (75%) in rural Gambia. Regardless of these figures, incidents of maternal deaths at health facilities in recent times have been sending ripples across the country. Out of concerns for what trended online as a dizzying problem, women from different walks of life in late 2020 staged a peaceful march under the catchphrase Gambian Women’s Lives Matter. It was a headlined event meant to spotlight not just thealarming deaths of young women at healthcare centers, but the not-so-impressive state of affairs of the country’s health infrastructure itself, where patients are often compelled to acquire drugs from private pharmacies or better still part away a king’s ransom if one decides to opt for private clinics. Further choking the populace’s confidence in the health sector were the recent revelations by a certain female nurse that even gloves had to be used multiple times in patient care as she detailed among other things the prevalence of special treatments to supposed VIPs and those in their circles at the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital (EFSTH) – the country’s number one referral center.

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