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Monday, May 17, 2021

Renting and Real Estate: Major hindrances to land acquisition by Gambian civil servants

BY Ismaila Saidybah

It is quite evident that one of the most significant achievements a person can register is when an individual has his own compound (s). It has always been a burning desire for civil servants, non-government officials, almost all sane individuals, to have somewhere to call their own compound, their own house. This is one of the greatest fulfillments for anybody who has worked for many years, whether as a government official or a private sector employee.

Human development is a quintessential aspect for the development of any nation. A government’s ability to ensuring human development will not only increase the life expectancy of its citizens, but will also make them all the more productive and grant them the opportunity to take active part in the development of the country. And one of the major ways to ensure human development is by improving the living standards of people, which includes making sure that the people have comfortable living places.

You would agree with me that nobody in his right mind would want to spend so many years working for the government up to the time of his retirement without being able to buy a compound of his own. Sadly, the number of people in the Gambia who have worked for over forty years in the government without having a compound of their own cannot really be counted. Some reasons attributed to this menace are very subtle and many people do not seem to pay attention to them.

One crucial reason that I can point out is the expensive nature of rentals in the Gambia and all the inconveniences that align themselves with it. We don’t need the Gambia Bureau of Statistics to help us in order to know that a good number of civil servants, especially within the Greater Banjul Area, are renting. Some of these people have spent unimaginable number of years in renting, thus the amount of money they have put into meeting rental commitments could buy and build them a compound.

If that is so, why then haven’t they been able to buy a compound of their own? I can conveniently assert that a major reason is the fact that rentals in this country are very expensive for the Gambian civil servants, majority of whom solely depend on their monthly salaries for survival. We all know that Gambian salaries are never enough to depend on in a month, even if you were to use it for only the provision of food; let alone the countless other commitments that need to be fulfilled like rental fee, electricity bills, water, and the provision of other basic necessities.

Considering the fact that salaries are very small to cater for all these financial commitments, it makes it practically impossible for many civil servants to save sufficient money that could get them a compound of their own, since literally all the salary in a month goes to rental commitment, the provision of food, electricity bill, water and other basic necessities.

I have engaged some tenants to get first-hand information as to how much they pay for their houses on a monthly basis, mainly civil servants. A good number of them pay up to three thousand dalasi for a three-bedroom apartment; while some will pay any amount between one thousand five hundred to two thousand dalasi every month for a two-bedroom apartment, and a few would pay a thousand for a room and parlor.

Most of these people, especially those renting three-bedroom apartments, are family men living with their wives and children, all of whom also depend on the little salary of the man of the house for their own financial problems. You can already imagine how inconvenient this is for such people without having me to tell you. This is the reality that most of our civil servants are living with every single day.

Let’s not make a blatant attempt to be oblivious of the fact that many civil servants do not earn more than five or six thousand dalasis as their monthly salary. I have never been good at math, but let’s try to do some mathematical calculation to put this whole thing into a better perspective.

If your monthly salary is six thousand for example, and you’re renting a house of three thousand dalasi; at the end of every month three thousand from your salary goes into rental commitment, and now you are left with three thousand. Out of this money, you ought to buy a bag of rice for the month, and with the recent surge in prices of commodities, at least one thousand and a few hundred will go into that. This will in no way prevent you from providing the daily housekeeping money, paying for electricity and water. Let’s say you are living with your wife and children (as it is the case with many); the financial issues of these people are also expected to be settled from that same money.

Now, with this reality, will such a person be able to save any money that could afford him a compound? Obviously, no. And honestly, the number of civil servants that are in this kind of situation is beyond count. There’s nothing more pressing for these people than to have compounds of their own so that they’ll at least enjoy the little worth of their monthly salaries. It is indeed very disheartening, despondent, despairing, and disconsolate to spend almost your entire life working for the government without being able to have a compound of your own. That’s not palatable to our helpless civil servants, nor is it palatable to any conscious human being who puts himself in their shoes.

So without a scintilla of doubt, I am beyond convince that renting in The Gambia, especially within the Greater Banjul Area, is a major hindrance to the acquisition of compound by many civil servants. Unattractive salary is another central obstacle but that is too obvious to waste time on. We all know that our governments have never actually motivated our civil servants in the form of attractive salaries. Who would forget the leader of the former government telling civil servants to quit their jobs if they think their salaries are too small?

Moreover, as much as renting is expensive in this country, compounds and lands of real estate companies in The Gambia are even more expensive, thus making it another major factor that contributes immensely to this menace. Quite a good number of civil servants would equally have bought their own compounds if the prices of land were reasonable enough and affordable.

But, whether it’s because of greed or some reasons, real estate companies in the Gambia have somehow made it impossible, or extremely difficult at least, for many civil servants to buy their own plots of land simply because of the ungodly amount of money being asked for a pretty small plot of land. Is it by mistake that they ask for more than D250, 000 for a plot of land that is barely 20 by 20 in square meter? No, it’s deliberate on their part. They merely want to exploit the average Gambian workers who already have too much on their plates to worry about. This is quite appalling.

The location of a particular plot of land, in my judgement, is not supposed to be a yardstick to impose extreme amounts of money for their purchase. Such would be a blatant attempt to exploiting many average Gambians, or better still denying them the comfort of owning their own compounds. Persistence of this trajectory should not be allowed or tolerated. The government has an important role to play in making sure that this menace is remedied in an effective and efficient manner.

How do real estate companies acquire their lands in the first place? It’s not like they give millions of dalasi to the alkalolu for a vast area of land; nor do they seem to pump such huge amounts of money to any family for an orchard or two. So, what justification could logically be provided for selling small plots of land at such devastating prices?

Listening to the advertisements of their sugar-coated, soft-spoken advertisers would make you believe that these real estate companies would be considerate to the average Gambians opting diligently to acquire compounds of their own. But you would be very wrong to believe so.

Apparently, the Gambia is not the only African country that is facing this menace which largely places a huge burden on the shoulders of the poor people. Zimbabwe is another country faced with this burden, but that country has come up with a remedial measure to mitigate the situation of the poor tenants. They established a movement called the Urban Social Movement that fights and advocates for justice in terms of renting and land acquisition.

The government of Rwanda is reported to have built houses for the poor people free of charge all in a bid to creating comfortable homes for people who cannot afford it. That’s how a government should operate in the interest of its citizens. The likelihood of the Gambia government building houses for the poor free of charge is very slim; but it could equally orchestrate other means of intervention to actually mollify the situation of its civil servants.

If there are no already established institutions in the government whose mandate is to address the inequalities associated with rental services in the country, what would be palatable to a good number of civil servants that are renting is for the government to set up such institutions. I want to believe that it is within the mandate of the Ministry of Lands and local government authorities to develop program schemes that will fight against injustice and inequalities in rental and land acquisition just like the Zimbabwe’s Urban Social Movement.

Social activism could also be a very contingent avenue to revolt against social exploitation by real estate companies and landlords. Human rights activists can be very useful in this regard; to raise awareness about the inconveniences of renting and land acquisition for so many Gambian civil servants, appealing to the government to make effective intervention to improve the living standards of the poor tenants.

Our civil servants no longer have to spend so many years offering selfless services to the nation without being able to buy their own compounds simply because the real estate companies and landlords are trying to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor working class, coupled with the unattractive salaries attached to jobs in the Gambia. By right, a person’s salary is supposed to be enough to take care of all his financial needs in a month.

Otherwise, what would be the significance of going through so many huddles from academic to social in order to get a good job? What’s the definition of a good job in the Gambia? In my judgment, the only good jobs in the Gambia government are the highest offices of every institution such as ministers, directors, general managers etc., since almost all of these people do not seem to know the burden of rentals in the Gambia, at least not when they become occupants of these offices. But, the rest of the downtrodden continue to live in poverty, depending on salaries that cannot salvage them in any way.

The trajectory needs to change now; it has persisted long enough. The civil servants should now retire from work and go back to their own compounds, and not another’s compound. This would make them feel a sense of fulfillment that their jobs have paid off.

Let me end this article with three major recommendations I have for the government, real estate companies, and landlords. To start with, the government should consider increasing the salaries of the civil servants again. I am not oblivious of the increment some time back, which is quite commendable, but even with that salaries are still not enough and I believe our civil servants deserve better. Also, policies should he formulated to regulate rental services in the country, so that our civil servants that are renting would no longer be exploited by their landlords. This is very possible.

Also, real estate companies should consider reducing the prices of their lands. They are well aware of the poverty rate in the Gambia, and as a result, they should attach prices that are affordable and convenient to the working class. But, exploiting the poor for your own enrichment is absolutely nothing to go by.

And to the landlords, they need to also consider reducing their rental fees. Having already recovered the money they put in building their houses, probably after a few years, there can be no logical justification for imposing huge amounts of money in renting a particular house. Let us be considerate towards one another as Gambians.

Having your own compound is everyone’s desire, and the civil servants are not an exception. I am not a civil servant, but the realities of these people are too obvious and appalling to ignore. Therefore, I am with a strong conviction that necessary measures should be taken to remedy this life-threatening menace.

Ismaila Saidybah is an award-winning writer and novelist, currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Language at the University of The Gambia. He is the Founder and Country Coordinator of Writers Space Africa Gambia Chapter.

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