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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Suruwa Jaiteh

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Alhaji Suruwa Wawa Jaiteh was born and bred in Bakau. He attended Bakau primary and Gambia high schools, Yundum College, Njala, University, Sierra Leone and University of Philippines, Los Banos. He also did a six-month attachment at the University of California, Davis.  Worked with the Department of Agriculture as an irrigation agronomist, rice specialist and promoted tidal irrigation as a dependable alternative to lift pump production system. Served as the first director of Agriculture of the Gambia River Basin Develoment Organisation (OMVG (based in Dakar, Senegal.  After retiring from the civil service, provided consultancy service, worked as permanent secretary, Department of State for Agriculture (DoSA( where he pioneered innovative Programmes and projects. In this edition of Bantaba, The Standard editor Sainey Darboe started by asking straight-talking Mr Jaiteh how he started work with the Ministry of Agriculture.

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I went to Yundum College and took up agriculture from where I went to Njala, University College of SierraLeone and I came back home. I did some extension work for about a year or so and went to The Philippines for studies on my own.


With the high expenses involved, how did you raise money for it?

It was expensive but through family support I was able to make it.  I was looking forward to achieve something and I had to make an investment for it. I could have gone to America or UK where most Gambians would go then, but I went to The Philippines specifically for a reason, because I wanted to establish something unique in society. I wanted to be unique when I talk and do agriculture and I have achieved an as aspect of that in The Gambia, at the OMVG and across Africa.


With your brilliance you could have gone into more lucrative fields. Why the choice of agriculture?

I am a type of person who believes that The Gambia being an agrarian society, we can only generate sustainable socio-economic development through an agriculture led-growth. We have to make sure that agriculture attains the requisite productivity growth as a basis for socio-economic take-off. Any agrarian society that wants to generate an all-inclusive socio-economic development must be supported by agriculture-led growth.


Which brings me to the next question. The country has been gripped by the Vision 2016 rice self-sufficiency fever. As a trained agricultural expert do you think the target is realistic?

In the first place, with all due respect to the president’s ambition and his leadership, every Gambian wants more peace with enough food.  No Gambian wants to see their rice store in a foreign land and we don’t want to be buying foreign rice to subsidise foreign farmers. We are better off subsidising our own farmers. If we want to attain self-sufficiency in rice, we have to ask why do we want to attain this? People have to know why and what are the prerequisites. We cannot just jump from nowhere, at only about 15% self-sufficient in rice and say we want to attain food self-sufficiency, as a matter within two years. It must be planned and programmed and there must be a compelling ability to achieve this at an affordable cost.  To achieve self-sufficiency in rice we need to identify guidelines and adopt a methodological approach within the context of an agricultural improvement. That methodological approach with the context of development as a linked process is lacking. It is nowhere. To attain self-sufficiency in any food commodity, certain things have to be put in place first. It is a chain process with different links. You cannot get to the last link without passing through the other links. We should go back to the drawing board design and implementation framework within the context of professionally outlined rice development strategy, that is explicitly cost-conscious. Our intervention cannot be justified, if we produce domestic rice that costs more than imported rice.  It does not make sense. If imported rice is costing D1,500 to D1,600 or D2,000, we should be able to produce rice 15 to 20 % cheaper for effective import substitution, otherwise it is not worth all the effort. We have to promote the marginal productivity of the farmer as our departure point. 


You sound doubtful of the attainability of the vision as though it is blurred?

I doubt very much if Vision 2016 can be achieved by 2016. We are only producing about 15 % of our rice requirements, so jumping from 15 to almost hundred percent is an uphill battle. I cannot imagine us attaining it in two years, even in five years. I am an irrigation agronomist and rice specialist.  I worked on rice in this country for about thirty years or more in different production systems so I know what rice sufficiency means. Currently, we are just concerned with area expansion strategy and, not much concerned with yield revolution, that is, production intensification. We must embark on a focused yield revolution and  intensification approach as the basis for generating productivity growth in rice development.


President Jammeh blamed the failure of agriculture on corrupt officials despite investment of over US$100 million.  Don’t you share a portion of that blame as your services were terminated and you were indicted for corruption along with other agric officials?

I am one citizen who served as a paragon of virtue in agriculture.  I was extremely honest, efficient and productive. I went to jail for 104 days as a detention prisoner, eventually charged for economic crime. I am of the opinion that the people assigned to investigate the matter, recommend charge, do the witness line-up and prosecute did not do their work properly. I was charged with economic crime and went to court for almost five years. The painful part of the whole thing was that anytime I enter the witness box I stand shoulder to shoulder with Badara Loum, who received money from Abdou Touray and distributed the fertiliser unilaterally. Minister Yankuba Touray knew about this and made me write a letter to make sure the Department of Agriculture took over the distribution. So if I think about standing in the dock side by side with Badara Loum for five years my heart boils. It pains me and I can never forgive that.


Tell me what exactly happened?

Badara Loum insisted on distributing the fertiliser. I said, ‘No this is not your area. Technically, you know nothing about fertilisers and administratively you have no experience in fertiliser distribution. Besides, you are a veterinarian and knows nothing about fertilisers, so forget it…If you do it, somebody will go to jail.’ I said this to him at a meeting with two deputy permanent secretaries Ebrima Camara and Dr Amadou Sowe. But he went to Abdou Touray of Ministry of Finance and got the money. He did this without our knowledge. Abdou only called me to tell me about it. Badara claimed it to be his mandate as the permanent secretary and the sole accounting officer. It is unfortunate that people seem not to be committed in fighting corruption.


The court declared you innocent for lack of evidence, but were you actually innocent?

I knew nothing about this fertiliser business. I tried to stop Badara Loum from distributing it, but he went to get money for it and did what he had to do unilaterally. Yankuba Touray sought advice from me. I called Dr Sowe to witness the meeting. I told Yankuba Touray that Badara Loum was distributing the fertiliser much against my will. Yankuba Touray asked me to write to the director of agriculture, Musa Damha to revive the Agricultural Input Office (AIO) which is responsible for the input distribution and put them in charge of fertiliser distribution. I was asked to write this letter which I did. I travelled and upon arrival I was told Badara was still distributing the fertiliser. I told the minister and he said once Badara Loum started it, he should complete it. But in the interim there was a problem.


Could you recall you detention in mile two?

I got a letter of termination on the 13thof December. My good friend, the late Walter Rodney, died on the 13th of August, so when I received this letter I thought there was something fishy. We have this superstitious bent and most of the time we are right. I came home and some guys came from the Office of the President and said I was wanted for questioning. They said I was wanted for questioning at the NIA. They told me I have to wear heavy cloth, because the place could be very cold. I told them there was nobody in my house and my wife was at the shop and the boys went out to play football so they should wait. I called my wife and brother and told them. The boys came in 30 minutes and I told them. Then I was ready to go. That’s how I went to Mile 2. On the whole they had already picked up Badara Loum who was outside waiting for me and they took us all…


Mile 2 has been dubbed by the president as his ‘Five Star Hotel’. Did you receive good hospitality?

Mile Two was horrible. But I went there with a very clear conscience and a strong faith. If I had committed any crime as a civil servant it must be the sin of being an honest symbol and model for generating productivity growth in agriculture as the basis for any meaningful take-off. I never knew being honest can take you to Mile 2. That made me learn a lot more things about the society in which we are. I had mental torture over the question of why I should be in Mile 2.  I had high respect at Mile 2 with everybody calling me ‘dad’ but the fact that you could have honest people there defeats its purpose.That is a cause for concern.


So, it is definitely not a hotel?

Nooo…That is a paradox. Once you enter Mile 2, you are a prisoner – either a convicted prisoner or a detained prisoner without freedom. I was a detained prisoner by mistake.  I spent 104 days there and Badara Loum whom I blame for whatever happened applied for a court order and was let out of Mile 2 after just 70 days. I stayed put without budging until they took me out. When I went to the NIA to write my statement, I met Badara Loum who told me he was charged and will be appearing in court soon. But somehow, may be by magic, his charges were dropped and they gave us a combined charge. What made them charge me I don’t know because no proper investigation would indict me. The investigations and charges were wrong as far as I am concerned, the witness line-up was laughable and the prosecution a joke as well as a suspect. How could they investigate fertiliser distribution without knowing the cost involved in the distribution and who gave the money for the distribution as well as the correct   quantity of fertiliser that was received. In this whole case I was very much disappointed by the prosecutor… He told me that there was nothing against me and he wanted me to serve as a prosecution witness and so requested a witness from me. I gave him a comprehensive witness statement which my lawyer was aware of, only for him to turn around and recommended my conviction. You can see between the lines and figure out the type of kangaroo treatment I went through.  For almost five years of court hearings my name and position were never mentioned as an evidence against me. Try to read the Judgment delivered by Justice Amie Joof, you will be amazed.  


What do you see as the solution for the many perennial problems that hobble the agriculture sector?

In order to do that you must have professionally committed people. We must make sure that things are done correctly. There was no commitment. This fertiliser thing would not have been a problem if Yankuba Touray and the whole was properly investigated. Someone took money and distributed fertiliser alone without involving me as permanent secretary responsible for programmes and projects. And as an agronomist I know more about fertilisers than Badara Loum. Why would he involve himself in fertiliser distribution? Why were  Abdou Touray and the deputy permanent secretaries served as witnesses?  


What have you contributed to the agriculture sector?

As a permanent secretary, most of the things we initiated are what are coming round now. In collaboration with my partner deputy permanent secretaries we came up with a D51 million programme called Provision of Agricultural  Support Services that was funded from the counterpart funds. There was so much money at the Central Bank so I said to the minister, ‘Look, this money is there without any interest. Why not do something about it’? He asked me to see what I could do about it. I spoke to the Japanese Embassy and they said I could make a project proposal for funding out of the money, it but to make sure the fund was audited. So, I wrote a programme brief and it was funded at a cost of about D51 million. We bought vehicles, made tenders for 4,500 tons of fertiliser and equipment just to be able to generate productivity growth and raise incomes and employment. Without that agriculture cannot grow.  There was a second programme for agricultural improvement at a cost of about D9O million.  This catered for six mixed farming centres to be equiped with 24 hour light and water 6,OOO broilers and 6,OOO layers geared to generating cost-effective poultry production programme, designed to give us minimum of 25,OOO eggs daily and 25,OOO dressed chicken every three months.  


What happened to the project?

I would not know.


What are your final words?

In my own case my rights have been seriously abused. I was trying to be honest and it took me to jail. My God, I was disappointed. Where there is accountability and transparency there are not supposed to be much secret things. I wrote two letters to the Office of the President asking for redress but they were not acknowledged.      

Taiwan Chinese gave US$70,000 on bird flu. Badara Loum claimed to have used this to sensitise farmers without the involvement of the Director of Livestock Services and/or his deputy. These are some of the carefree actions that made agriculture miserable looking. We have to investigate things properly to end corruption in this country. There has to be team work within the context of a committed approach. This must be knowledge-based. My final words are that we should be mindful of James Madison’s insight that ‘a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge and experience gives’.


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