By Madi Jobarteh
Finally the president laid out his agenda before the parliament six months after taking office! While long overdue, yet it is necessary. However, the State f the Nation address is large on aims and ambitions but limited on targets and specifics. It did not show in any significant way that we are indeed on the path to system change. The speech mainly reported what has happened so far. And apart from the commission of enquiry and the panel to investigate past injustices, the rest of it merely reported on the usual operations of a government.
Usually in such speeches, the Secretary General asks ministries, departments and agencies to submit reports on their activities that go to make up the speech of the president. It is clear that this was what took place again hence one can see how various sectors reported on activities which are actually ongoing such as the 950 pit latrines built or distribution of vegetable seeds to farmers among others. These are actually ongoing activities.
This speech should indeed be more than that. It should have been huge on the specifics and targets in terms of effecting actual system change and progress. In order words, this speech should have focused more on the country’s strategic needs and the policy options to effect system change. Barrow must understand that he has until 2019 to deliver. He has inherited a broken statecraft that must be reconstructed. Hence strategy, specificity and targeting are critical.
For that matter the most significant part of the speech to me came under the section ‘Administration and Civil Service’. The president said he “has tasked the Personnel Management Office to conduct a comprehensive nationwide staff audit for the entire civil service. This began on the 27th of March 2017.” This, to me is when I truly see policy and system change taking place. This is the very kind of strategy we expect in each and every sector if we are to ensure true system change and progress.
But beyond this, the civil service also needs a purely merit and results-based management system to avoid going back to the old attitudes. There must be a performance appraisal system and all civil servants must undergo the process to ensure performance and results and also determine promotions, trainings and other incentives. Without such actions, we cannot determine if indeed the reforming of the government machinery that he mentioned will truly happen.
Under Justice and Judiciary, we saw once again Barrow giving us feedback. But justice delivery is more than releasing prisoners and setting up commissions of enquiry? We need more information on how these criminal proceedings will unfold especially given the challenges with the NIA case. Apart from this case, numerous acts of violations and corruption of the former regime are in waiting to be addressed. How is Barrow going to deal with them? What about the victims that Barrow has not even met yet as a group? Is there any form of compensation for victims?
Not much on institutional reforms has been mentioned under the Information and Communications section. It is indeed welcoming that anti-media laws will be repealed and some media houses re-opened. But our media houses are beset by high taxes and high cost of input. There are no subsidies or subvention provided to them. Thus apart from the political repression of the past, the economic challenges the media face is the reason for the lack of an efficient and vibrant media environment. Incentives within media houses are hopelessly poor. Thus we need the government to bear these in mind and take actions to address to support the media. For that matter the president and his Minister of Information would do well to commission a study on the state of affairs within the media.
The issue of ICT was not mentioned at all, yet this is a major driver of the economy and change in our society. What is Barrow’s government going to do to ensure that there is widespread availability, affordability and use of quality Internet service? It is obvious that ICT promotes efficiency, professionalism and transparency in both the public and private sectors.
On Energy, the president said he signed an agreement for a new 60mw power plant. But he did not say with who and when this plant will be built and start operation. He also mentioned energy coming from Senegal, but the nature of this arrangement is not disclosed. He said it is short term but how long or short is this short-term measure? How will the two countries connect the power lines? Hence there is need for more information here as to the actualization of these initiatives.
But what really is the problem with our energy? We need the government to speak to that. As a new government, what do they know about our electricity problem? Is it about production or distribution or some other capacity issue such as technical competence? Secondly what about renewable energy? The Gambia has enough sunlight and wind to power our homes and industries. What is Barrow’s government thinking in this area?
On Petroleum, the president gave a very good statement that he will be transparent about issues there. He mentioned that there is exploration and research going on currently. But what are these exploration and research about? Where in the country is exploration taking place and by which company? What have they found so far? I think we need more information on this matter than what has been given to us. And since we are talking about petroleum, has Barrow considered that oil can be both a blessing and curse? For that matter, do we have an idea or plan as to how to manage our oil money when it starts flowing?
On the issue of Trade, there was no mention of small-scale businesses while the overall macroeconomic issues for the private sector have not been touched – taxes, interest rates, cheaper inputs. While he spoke about electricity, but he did not exactly speak to the specifics in terms when the power plant will start delivery or the Senegal outlet will start work. Will costs of electricity reduce or not?
On financial matters, the president spoke of the ‘Accelerated National Response Plan’ but did not give the basic details, terms and targets of this plan? It must be noted that taking loans must be done with caution especially if such loans are not directly linked to productivity and income generation. We saw how APRC lived on loans and taxes, which have led to our deplorable situation. Hence the president should speak to the need for setting a ceiling for loans in order not to overly indebt the country. We also need to stop or reduce government borrowing which was beyond control under APRC. Yet these issues have not been addressed by the president.
On the issue of the youth, the president talked about returnees from Libya, but exactly what interventions are going on here and where? Again the youth sector is one place where the government needs to conduct an assessment to identify the issues, concerns and challenges confronting this sector. For example, apart from the existing youth programs by the NYC and the issue of the returnees, what concrete activities are directed at youths – such as education, skills, jobs among others? What or how much is government putting into GTTI, PAS, NYSS, NEDI and similar youth institutions? Secondly most youths are involved in small and medium scale enterprises. What is the plan for them in terms of access to credit, protection and other forms of support to make them grow? The president did not mention this.
On Agriculture, the president did not show that there is a shift from the usual approach since independence. Supplying seeds and fertilizer to these poor farmers is not enough. What about facilities such as transportation, storage and processing of agricultural produce? Are we not thinking of creating national farms corporation to engage in large-scale cultivation of all kinds of cereals, fruits, crops and horticulture as well as animal husbandry, poultry and fisheries? We used to have a vibrant Gambia Cooperative Union as well as GPMB and even NTC, which were all wrecked. But these are necessary and useful institutions for our farmers and development. Has Barrow and his government thought of these issues and how to re-activate them?
On Fisheries, Barrow spoke of efforts to review the 2008 fisheries regulations. But specifically what are these amendments about? Are we going to see the setting up of a national fisheries company, or more tools provided to fisherfolks including cold storage facilities, transportation and better equipped fish markets so that fresh fish is available to all throughout the country. Are we going to see processing and packaging of our fish for export? These are the things that will generate employment and increase revenue for both the individual and government. What about the Golden Lead issue in Gunjur and foreign fishing in our waters?
On Water and Sanitation, I am saddened that in 2017 the Gambia is still talking about constructing pit latrines for our people. Pit latrines must be abandoned altogether and the government must introduce flush toilets. Pit latrines are not hygienic at all. We must take steps to introduce our people to modern facilities and more hygienic ways of living.
As usual most of the issues mentioned under Health have been ongoing activities under existing projects. We need to hear of the specific issues and challenges within the health delivery system and how to improve. There is gross shortage of personnel, drugs and equipment in our public health facilities and the entire health delivery system is in shambles. What is the difference that we are going to see from now? There is lot for the president to talk about health yet very limited information was shared.
Under Education, the entire focus is on infrastructural issues. What about the content and methodology of learning and teaching given the abysmal underperformance in our schools. The quality of education is poor and falling in this country and that means the future of the country is bleak. What is this government doing to review the entire education system as well as the health delivery system? Merely receiving loans and grants to build structures is not the solution. The working conditions of teachers and health workers are deplorable while processes and technical competences are major challenges. These are the fundamental issues that have not been addressed by the president.
The president reported that he has appointed five new governors and spoke well about depoliticizing regional administration. But what the president did not speak to is the local governance system itself. That is, we need to implement the Local Government Act in full. The politicizing of the local government system is because the local government law has been disregarded. Hence there is need to bring back the law and then review the local government system itself in order to empower area and city councils to play their role more effectively and efficiently as per the law. Our local government structures have severe capacity challenges because they have always been severely abused and misused by the central government itself. Hence there is need for a major review of the system in order to make them more efficient and responsive to the needs of locals. The Bakoteh dumpsite within the wider poor cleansing services within KMC and BCC alone clearly speak to the need for system change in local governance.
In talking about all of these issues, there is one indispensable and instrumental natural resource that is constantly ignored in Gambia’s policy and development discourse. That is the River Gambia. This river is probably the most instrumental resource ever in the Gambia – for agriculture, education, health, tourism, transportation, food, commerce, entertainment and all sorts of livelihoods. What are we using the river for? For decades, wharfs have been built in villages and towns along the river yet they lie idle. What is Barrow and his government thinking about the River Gambia?
Finally, Barrow said his immediate priority is to fix the energy problem and the economy and all its attendant issues as well as introduce legal, constitutional and institutional reform. Yet he has not told us when we will have a new constitution, which is urgent and necessary. The constitution is the basic law of the land and the current one is just bad. Thus the need for a new constitution must be a top priority. I expected that he would tell us about the composition of a constitutional review commission and a timeline as to when they will finish their work.
Overall the president’s speech was large on projects and activities that are hugely focused on the country’s immediate needs. He did well to highlight noble values of transparency and accountability that seek to ensure that our freedoms and the democratic dispensation continue to flourish. While these are commendable ideals, however the speech was low on policy that is directed at addressing our strategic needs and ensure system change.