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Saturday, May 25, 2024
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The ferry disaster

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By Dr Ousman Gajigo

The recent ferry malfunction that stranded hundreds of passengers for hours and took them kilometers away from their destination is a national embarrassment. It is also economically debilitating. The lost opportunities due to the effective severing of the western portion of North Bank Region from the economic heart of the country is difficult to overestimate. Thousands of workers, business people and students now face huge costs in crossing just a five-mile stretch. For the next several weeks, hundreds of patients who are too sick to use canoes will either have to face their fate with limited facilities on the north bank or endure an arduous journey through the Senegambia Bridge – a detour of over 300km.

As bad as the debacle was, it could have been much worse. If the wind had blown the ferry towards the open ocean, there is no telling where the passengers would have ended up, or how long they would have suffered before rescue arrives or what damage the waves could have done to the ferry and lead to some calamity for passengers. The fact that the passengers were stranded on the ferry for hours meant that, over all these years, there had been no system in place to ensure that ferries could quickly be towed to port in the event of a breakdown. This level of oversight would be appropriately treated as criminal by any serious government.

It will likely take months before any of the ferries are seaworthy again. Even then, we have no idea how long they will run before they encounter another major breakdown again. There is no telling how many people will now avoid the ferries even when they resume operation because of the terrible experience of the passengers during the last breakdown. In fact, the vehicles that had been aboard the broken-down ferry remained stuck there for 7 days, with untold cost to their owners.

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This ferry debacle is not some natural phenomenon that could not have been be avoided. It is a problem that was foreseeable and preventable, and its occurrence is a simple issue of gross negligence and incompetence at various levels. The first level of incompetence is at the management of the parastatal that oversees the ferry services, which is the Gambia Ports Authority (GPA), which is headed by the Managing Director (MD), Ousman Jobarteh. In a government that cares about quality service delivery and is interested in accountability, Mr. Jobarteh would have been asked to resign or sacked immediately given the severity of the problem.

Mr. Jobarteh’s position is no longer tenable. A few months ago, there were three ferries operating. A competent management would have planned to have at least one of them in maintenance to ensure that the public would not face a situation where ferries service is disrupted for such a critical transit route. Maintenance is an important element for the effective utilization of any piece of machinery and no management team needed to be remind of this basic point. The fact that a disruption occurred that could have resulted in a tragedy and not through some uncontrollable natural disaster but due to a breakdown from an old machine is inexcusable.

Another person whose should be fired for incompetence is Ebrima Sillah, the Minister of Transport, Works and Infrastructure. The ferry service is under his Ministry and MD Jobarteh reports to him. Mr. Sillah should have been on top of his duties by holding the management of the ferry service accountable. But this is not the only example of Ebrima Sillah falling short of the standard expected of someone in his position. Take for instance the Senegambia Bridge, which has not undergone any maintenance since it was completed. Despite the bridge generating millions of dalasi per month in toll revenue, there has not been any repairs since its opening in 2019. The railings on the bridge have been seriously dented and deformed by several vehicles. I am aware of the fact that Mr. Sillah has not been the only Minister of Transport, Works and Infrastructure but he has not done what needs to be done since he assumed the portfolio.

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If both Mr Jobarteh and Mr. Sillah did not have the sense of duty and responsibility to resign on their own after such a gross failure, President Barrow should have ordered them to do so or fire them outright. That has not happened and it is also highly unlikely to happen. And the fact that it has not happened means that not only is Adama Barrow part of the problem but he is the ultimate source of it. It is obvious by now that Adama Barrow is not a serious leader who holds subordinates accountable, either due to inability or limited awareness of the responsibility he holds.

To understand why the incompetence and failure leading to this ferry disaster emanates from President Barrow, let’s recall some events from a few years ago. Ousman Jobarteh ensured that his position as MD was secured about five years ago when he took funds from the GPA to finance the construction of a police station in Mankamang Kunda, President Barrow’s home village. It was a purely naked and corruption inducing act for GPA to be financing something that is under the Minister of Interior, which at the same time made a laughing stock of the notion that there is a functioning public finance management system in the country. But by carrying out that shady activity, instead of focusing on core responsibilities such as efficient operation of the Banjul port and proper ferry maintenance, Mr. Jobarteh demonstrated that it was not competence that secures one’s position in the Adama Barrow regime, but rather naked distasteful ingratiating acts, no matter how unethical and counter-productive.

And what about the future of ferry services in the country? Well, there is no good news, unfortunately. The newly appointed head of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) is Njogu Bah. Mr. Bah has an interesting history with ferry operations in The Gambia. In fact, Njogu Bah was the head of a team that spent about EUR 7 million to buy the Kansala and Aljmadou ferries during the Jammeh administration. At the time those ferries were bought, they were already over 30 years old and decrepit. It was a huge waste of money for a poor country. To make matters worse, the docking ports of the ferries were not compatible with docks at the ferry terminals in Banjul and Barra. As a result, the ferries never saw any service and they can still be found rusting at ferry terminal in Banjul. In addition to this utter incompetence, Njogu has been found by the Janneh Commission to have enthusiastically participated in the embezzlement of public funds. In any serious government, Mr. Njogu Bah should be sitting in prison today reflecting on his past crimes.

But President Barrow has decided to appoint Mr. Njogu Bah as the head of PURA, an entity which should have the responsibility of regulating many public services. Do you believe that such an individual would prioritize public interest in an important position such as PURA? Does anyone believe that Njogu Bah’s incompetence, spinelessness and utter lack of integrity has changed? Furthermore, Adama Barrow is well aware of all these characteristics of this sorry excuse of a public official, and yet he has chosen to appoint him to such an important position. What does that tell you about how much Adama Barrow prioritizes public interest over political expedience?

The recent news that the government has signed a contract to order new ferries with financing from the African Development Bank would normally be a welcome development but one should be cautious about it under the Barrow regime. The same management that oversaw the incompetent handling of the current ferry services would still be in charge. If those ferries ended up under the management of GPA, one should not expect any different outcome.

One possible hope for us would be to have the ferry services being be operated by a private party. But one must hesitate in hoping for this course of action given the track record of the Adama Barrow regime with regards to signing contracts with companies. A competent and a serious government would choose reputable partners and negotiate with the objective of getting the best value for money for the country. They would not select companies known for bribing corrupt officials to get contracts who will end up negotiating with the goal of filling their own pockets. But based on Adama Barrow’s track record with the likes of Semlex, Securiport and SICPA, do we expect the next contract with a private party to be any different?

The ferry disaster was an inevitable outcome of the actions of an incompetent government run by senior officials who do not prioritize the nation’s interest. It was a predictable disaster that could have been avoided, and therefore this was gross negligence. There is no hope that similar events can be avoided in the future because all the contributing factors remain in place.   

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