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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The difference between role-playing and real governing

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By Dr Ousman Gajigo

Observing the Adama Barrow administration in action is like observing a Model United Nations. A Model UN is a club at many high schools and universities around the world where students would play the role of diplomats and public officials and engage in mock policy discussion, debates, elaborate speeches and other trappings of what many imagine how public institutions are run. It is an educative tool for teaching young people how affairs in particular institutions are conducted. But it is only a mere simulation where the focus is mostly on procedure, not on the substance, and where no real consequences are at stake.

One cannot help but be reminded of the Model UN when observing the Adama Barrow government, particularly over the past couple of weeks. Consider the recent spectacles of various ministers making trips to the State House to report on deliveries under their various ministries. What should be standard everyday process for ministers being held accountable for their sectors is turned into a mere theatre with no results to show for it.

The country is instead subjected to a role-playing among adults. We have ministers elaborately marching to the State House to tell the president what he either knows or does not care about. The president in turn responds in a bland way to project a majestic image of ruler concerned about the state of affairs. Missing in the whole choreographed spectacle is any semblance of substance or serious discussion of issues facing everyday Gambians. Instead, failures are presented as successes, and what should be aggravating factors are portrayed as mitigation circumstances. 

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Bakary Badjie

The first exhibit I would like to highlight is Bakary Badjie, the Minister of Youth and Sports, who went to the State House to supposedly apprise the president on the progress of activities in his sector. Minister Badjie is a working embodiment of the mistaken notion that mere fact of being relatively young makes an individual fit for addressing issues facing the youths. After all, Minister Badjie has no track record of achievements aside of being hailed as a “youth leader” – a phrase that is fast losing any meaning in The Gambia.

The fact that there is a history in this country where “youths” and “sport” are considered natural sectors to be grouped under the same ministry shows why we have not made any real progress so far. It is true that sport is primarily played by the youths but to reduce government’s focus on them to mainly playing sports means that one has not thought carefully about the future of the youths. The promise of the youths is what they can achieve in the future for themselves and the nation. The youths today are future leaders, future captains of industry, future artists, future government officials or whatever else they may aspire to be. At this critical moment of their lives, what youths need most are investments in human and physical capital so that they can realise their potential. 

But what did the minister overseeing the youths portfolio focus on when he called on the president last week? In Bakary Badjie’s presentation, according to press reports, he focused almost exclusively on stadiums being built as if the only thing that matters to the “Ministry of Youth   and Sports” is only sports. Of course, this is not surprising. Minister Badjie is an unserious minister working under an unserious president because neither of them can appreciate the abject failures they are for the important positions they occupy. A serious and competent minister overseeing the youth portfolio would have something meaningful to say about youth unemployment, youth skill upgrading, youth health, youth entrepreneurship, or why thousands of Gambian youths are risking their lives to go to Europe. A competent minister in Mr Badjie’s position would understand that issues facing the youths cut across all sectors or ministries. And to the extent that there is a ministry focused on youths, it should play a coordinating role, just as a gender ministry should be given how cross cutting it is.

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Even if we just focused on the limited set of deliverables that Bakary Badjie busied himself with last week, the man should have been on his knees the whole time begging for forgiveness given this utter failure. After all, his ministry is responsible for the major debacle of the country spending D100 million on the Independence Stadium and failing to meet the Caf standard. The country was forced to play home games away as a result. What consequences did the ministry face in their failure to select a qualified contractor to carry out the job? None. And yet, there was neither a mention of this major failure as Bakary Badjie spoke about stadiums, nor was the issue raised by President Barrow. Do you think they were serious during this occasion apart from displaying pointless pageantry?

We have to cut Bakary Badjie some slack, however. He is more of a manifestation of the failure of the government to address challenges facing the youths rather than an underlying cause since he did not appoint himself. The cause is ultimately the inadequacies of President Adama Barrow who not only cannot or refuse to hold the minister accountable but also is incapable of thinking of a better way of organising the executive branch other than the way he found it.

Let’s turn to Hamat Bah, the former minister of tourism, who held a press conference a few weeks ago to regale us about what he considered as his “achievements”. It says a lot about Hamat Bah’s unsuitability for high public service that, even after having a whole stage to himself, the famously verbose man can only reference the increasing number of tourist visitors as his main achievement. The number of visitors to the country is a secular rising trend that preceded Hamat Bah, and barring any shocks, will continue after his departure. Minister Bah did not mention any of the financial irregularities that plagued his ministry, particularly with regard to eco-lodge financial disasters that transpired under his watch. And predictably, President Barrow did not care to ask about those. Hamat Bah’s ministry was so poorly run that they could not do the simple job of following up a lawsuit they filed against a failing contractor, which led to the suit being dismissed. As far as we know, President Barrow is fine with the way things are because he has now moved Hamat Bah to an arguably more important ministry.

A recurring theme in the presentations by many ministries is the complaint that contractors are behind schedule and they have supposedly not delivered. A minister that is complaining to the president about a poorly performing contractor is a minister that should be handing in his resignation in any functioning government. After all, these very ministries created the selection process to handpicked those handpicked and connected contractors. But what did the president say in response to Minister Badjie’s complaints about contractors? Nothing meaningful whatsoever. There is a complete absence of consequences because achievement of results does not matter to this government. What matters in the Adama Barrow administration is role-playing.

Conspicuously missing so far in the parade of ministers to the State House about their sectors are agriculture and finance. What supposed achievements is the minister of agriculture going to talk about when there are still farmers that haven’t received payments for their groundnut harvests from last year? What achievements is the ministry going to report with regard to yield achievements for major crops? What achievements is the ministry going to report when there are thousands of women growing vegetables without any government assistance in terms of irrigation or proper market places?

The biggest issue facing most Gambians today is the cost of basic commodities such as rice, sugar and bread. It is instructive that key ministers who should have the responsibility of addressing why the basic cost of living is so high are not only missing in action but would be reduced to making only bland statements even when they do appear. Which is why none of us would be seeing the minister of finance explaining how fiscal profligacy and budget mismanagement lead to under investments in critical areas, excessive expenditures in unproductive activities, late salary payments, late compensation for farmers, continued importations of commodities that can be produced locally and high inflation.

But one thing you can definitely count on is a daily spectacle of role playing by Adama Barrow and his handpicked cabinet and advisers. A continued focus on process over substance. A government that is, in almost all appearances, a Model UN. It would be comical if only the consequences for millions of Gambians were not real.

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