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City of Banjul
Friday, November 27, 2020

Silent echoes of President Barrow’s address to the National Assembly

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Remo R Jones

The National Assembly is in recess, but the Executive continues with its day-to-day business of public administration. Constantly unfolding events momentarily capture public attention and fade from memory to the effect that we often lose track of major issues.

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Three weeks ago, President Barrow delivered a formal address (on the state of the Nation) to National Assembly Members, for which he received a largely congratulatory response. But, his address also attracted criticism for specific omissions and lack of detail. Personally, I congratulate President Barrow on his punctuality and the conciseness of his speech. Unlike the student taking a math test, an orator will always find it challenging to get a perfect score for his or her efforts. The challenge now is for government ministers to fill in the gaps (content and details) apparently sacrificed for the sake of brevity.

Meanwhile, I write to share my observations and thoughts on specific parts of the President’s address. First, plans to set up an infantry centre and school, and military academy to train commissioned and non-commissioned officers should be put in context of security needs and budget priorities. Before firm decisions are taken, the administration needs a robust evaluation of threats to our territorial and maritime integrity and defense capabilities, in order to carry out a viable restructuring and resizing of our armed forces. From a layman’s perspective, demobilisation of some security personnel is an inevitable consequence of recruitment patterns in recent years. But demobilisation, which lies at the heart of restructuring and resizing the Gambia Armed Forces, must be done sensibly.

I foresee the need for re-training of servicemen to facilitate their successful social integration on demobilisation. Going forward, army chiefs could do everyone a favour by taking a closer look at the Swiss armed forces model; built on a small professional army with reservists initially made up of demobilised troops, and endeavour to build a stronger Gambian navy capable of protecting our maritime domain (and its economic resources). Defense and security spending is important but not always paramount, except in a police state or under a military government. Indeed, military spending, driven by size and quality parameters, should be based on national security threat levels, societal vulnerability, state of our diplomacy, and competing spending priorities within the context of public debt sustainability. In relation to recent incidents of armed robbery in Essau and other places, I digress a little to recommend resource pooling and strong(er) coordination between the Gambia Police Force and Customs and Excise to combat organised cross-border crimes.

 

Second, President Barrow spoke about plans to overturn oppressive media laws and his administration fostering regular communication and engagement with the public. Doubtless, changes in the legislative framework that currently governs the Gambian media industry are in line with citizens’ aspirations. Constructive engagement with the public, already in the process of being institutionalised, is also highly welcome, by virtue of its contribution to greater civic awareness and responsibility. Yet, more needs to be done particularly in the area of improving access to public radio and television broadcasts in large swathes of the country. In protecting consumer rights, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) should also look into GSM network connectivity black spots in urban and rural areas and advise operators on service improvement accordingly. When customers decry the absence of or inadequate service, it makes business sense for service providers to look into the matter. On legislative reforms, I agree that freedom of the press needs to be cherished and protected, but individuals who expose crime and injustice equally deserve protection from harassment and reprisals under a Whistleblower’s Act.

 

Third, President Barrow highlighted improvements in the reliability of electricity supply, and plans to sustain the progress made thus far by importing electricity from the sister republic of Senegal. My issue is with the latter strategic approach to achieving long-term energy security. As a nation, I believe we should explore avenues for making up our deficit through renewable energy sources, in tandem with arrangements to acquire electricity from Senegal. For readers who are unaware, the Gambian public and private sectors have more than 30 years of experience in solar power generation, albeit on a small scale. The challenge now, is to identify and overcome barriers to the deployment of utility-scale solar plants, the way Senegal has been going about it over the past year. Still on energy needs, plans and activities to restore natural forest cover is laudable, but until household use of fuelwood for heating and cooking is eliminated from our national energy need calculus, some reflection is needed on how to factor this demand sector into forestry policy.

 

Fourth, the Ministry of Youth and Sports (MOYS) is tasked with creating employment initiatives for young people. That is all well and good, except that we need to make the distinction between short-term palliative measures and long-term solutions of unemployment. On a deeper level of analysis, the task of providing long-term solutions is outside of MOYS ambit and certainly beyond its capacities. As a follow up to diagnostic studies of youth, education, industrial policy intersections and imperatives, policymakers; educators; results and reporting analysts; human resources and other specialists are collectively expected to be in a position to cooperatively drive forward a new skills and intellectual development agenda to transform the economy and improve livelihoods. If the government is really serious about employment, it is equally important, without delay, to reinforce the lackluster Employment Division of the Ministry of Trade, Regional Integration and Employment (MOTRIE).

 

Fifth, we learnt from President Barrow’s address that the government is upgrading upper basic and secondary schools, and building on existing programmes to enhance access to quality education and early childhood development. Political observers will understand the pragmatism that underlies this position, but it cannot be sustained for long. There is an urgent need for a revision of education policy, strategies and investments in order to improve success rates in tests conducted at Grades 6, 9, and 12 levels of basic and secondary education. Increasingly, young graduates are securing stable jobs, whilst the ranks of unemployed youth are filled with people with lowest educational attainment. If therefore we want to build a more equitable society, a pupil or student’s intellectual development should depend on where he or she lives or his or her parents’ ability to pay for private tuition or remedial classes. In brief, education sector leaders should strive to provide a motivational school environment and fulfilling learning experience to the 90%.

 

Sixth, whilst I remain optimistic about initiatives taken by the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) to support farmers and businesses enhance their productivity and revenues, I strongly feel once again that the longer-term, big picture is occluded by challenges related to the 2017 rainy season. Based on several national reports publicly available, I have come to believe over the years that the future of Gambian farming lies in irrigation, not rain-fed agriculture. It might be important therefore for the public to know where the government stands on this issue, keeping in mind that advanced plans for dam construction on the River Gambia offers significant opportunities for expanding irrigated agriculture in strategic places within the country. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to reach the conclusion that self-sufficiency in cereals cannot be achieved through rain-fed agriculture.

 

Finally, some brief observations on the fisheries sector. In addition to its contribution to food security, fisheries is also a key productive sector of the Gambian economy. In President Barrow’s address, taken at its face value, regulatory amendments accompanying the re-launch of activities are expected to contribute to sustainable (conservation and) management of the fisheries sector. For people familiar with the sector however, it will take more than regulations to achieve sustainable management objectives. Currently, human capacity, technological assets and research are all below par. It is therefore important for authorities to take a keener interest in accelerated training of marine scientists (ichthyology, marine ecology, oceanography, navigation, etc.) and foster strategic partnerships with regional centres of excellence in these fields. Linking back to the advisability of building a stronger Gambian navy, it might make sense to establish a school of marine sciences where naval officers, marine scientists, pilots and other professionals are trained in their respective disciplines.

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