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The big debate on West Coast Radio between Minister of Works and UDP’s Lamin Manneh: Facts and key takeaways

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By Anthony Jones

The much-anticipated debate between Gambia’s Minister of Transport, Works and Infrastructure Ebrima Sillah and the opposition UDP’s Lamin Manneh was highly entertaining, informative but also charged. The debate by all standards, brought out the best of the two gentlemen to say the least. The audio recordings of the debate were sent to me by a friend who insisted I should listen to the recorded programme and provide an analysis on some of the key issues including the quoted figures relating to the cost of constructing asphalt roads per kilometre. Let me put a disclaimer here that at 67 years, I am not on any social media platform therefore my opinion is not influenced by what is posted in the social media.

As an engineer of 41 years of experience who has worked on more than 36 different international projects around the world including Europe, South East Asia, the Middle East and several African countries, I have to say that I was deeply impressed with the eloquence of the minister, his mastery of the sector and the ecosystem, and his demonstrable courage. For a politician and a minister who is not a trained engineer for the matter to dare go into a debate on a live radio and answered every single question using engineering jargons with precision and eloquence shows how the dynamics are changing in our dear motherland.

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Mr Manneh on the other hand had his eyes sharply focused on the money and like all Gambians, was concerned more about expenditure versus works being delivered. With the exception of few instances were the two gentlemen were involved in some verbal altercations, the debate itself was generally good and brought out a lot of issues that caught my attention. They include but not limited to the following:

1) US$1million for every kilometre of OIC roads: The minister stated on the radio programme that the estimated budget for every kilometre under the 50km OIC roads construction project is set at US$1million. I have to say that this is standard everywhere and depending on the type of road one is constructing, the cost can be way above US$1million. Remember the OIC roads project contracts were signed four years ago. From that time to now, significant variations in prices have happened including severer inflation of the dalasi. For example, at the time when the contracts were signed, a bag of cement was sold at D280. Today, a bag of cement costs D465 for bulk buying. Twelve milimetres rods in 12 metres dimension was sold at D460. That has almost double today costing D680. A litre of fuel was D52 when the contract was signed. Today, a litre is sold at D79. A trip of basalt was D75,000 at the time of signing the contract. Today a trip of basalt costs D120,000. When the contract was signed, a cubic metre of sand was D280. This essential resource now cost D600 per cubic meter. Haulage for laterite which is now sourced as far away as nearly 100kms….a significant shift from its original envisaged location of not more than 10km radius. In such a situation, efficiency will be severely constrained. For a construction project like the magnitude of the OIC roads projects to be efficiently delivered on time, haulage trucks have to do a minimum of 10 trips a day. However, the minister was quoted explaining that the trucks only manage maximum trip of up to four a day because of traffic congestion and distance. Similarly, the price of bitumen which is transported overland from Dakar has gone up more than 60% from its original price when the OIC road contracts were signed.

Remember that all the materials that are mentioned above, are needed in tens of tonnes to deliver 1km of asphalt road.

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In the light of all these increases, its commendable that the government is able to maintain the same US$1million cost for the construction of every kilometre under the OIC roads project. Not forgetting within the same US$1million budgeted per kilometre, overhead costs of the contractor are charged from that including salaries of both national and international staff, fuel for operations, cost of rent for international staff, consultancy fees, among others.

2) Payment models and verification mechanisms: At some point in the debate, the UDP’s Lamin Manneh contended that by his own estimation, not more than US$400,000 was spent on the roads per kilometre. The minister explained that because the works are ongoing and no proper audit was conducted, it would be premature to go into the specificities although he admitted that payment claims raised by the contractors are assessed and honoured by the government. However, for purpose of clarity, the standard is that in the implementation of road projects, payment claims by contractors come in the form of Interim Payment Certificates (IPCs) and the amounts in those payment certificates can change anytime. Therefore, the minister was right that the cost can only be determined after the project is fully implemented and works audited. Here too, the methodology used in roads projects is completely different from financial auditing.

3) Comparative cost of building roads in Kenya and The Gambia: The UDP’s Mr Manneh in trying to prove his point that the OIC road construction projects in The Gambia are overpriced, made an astounding comparison of price paid per kilometre in Kenya (although according to him this was in early 2000) at US$1.2million for an eight-lane road (Thika Superhighway to be specific) while in The Gambia, cost per kilometre is priced at US$1million. Now as someone who served as one of the three design and quality control engineers of the Thika project for five years, I can confirm that that project costed $7.2million per kilometre. This was a 50km road project with funding provided by the African Development Bank (US$180 million), the Exim Bank of China (US$100 million), and the government of Kenya (US$80 million). More information on the Thika Road Project can be found on the link below: https://www.tuko.co.ke/429411-10-most-expensive-kenyan-roads-construction-costs-regions.html

Similarly, if I heard the minister well, the US$1million per kilometre he dilated on was for the 50km of roads funded by the Saudi Fund. Surely considering the design and engineering works that have gone into the six lane Bertil Herding Road project, anyone who understands anything (even basic) about road construction will not assume that road would cost just US$1milliom per kilometre.

4) The ferry debacle: Here I totally agree with Mr Manneh. The maintenance works should have been well coordinated and better handled. The culture of maintenance in that country leaves a lot to be desired and the ministry should exert more pressure on the ferry services to respect scheduled maintenance program of the ferry fleet.

Overall, the debate was fiery and educative. I however admit that the Hon Minister is very much on top of the issues under his watch. Mr Manneh on the other hand, is a determined soldier with unwavering commitment to put government to account. 

For the records, I started my career as a cadet engineer with the then Public Works Department and rose through the ranks to become senior engineer working under Lamin (Star) Bojang former minister of works. I left The Gambia in February of 1995 to work in Kosovo for two years. Since then, I’ve worked on different projects around the world as a consultant.

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