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Monday, November 30, 2020

The National Assembly deserves better

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The National Assembly should be the body that should keep elected officials to account by exposing any foul play, corrupt practices by any public official, and upholding the cardinal principle of rule of law, transparency and accountability. This can be a far cry as far as the National Assembly of The Gambia is concerned. 

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Take the joint session of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Public Enterprises Committee (PEC), which serves as a check on those running public institutions.  It has gained praises from near and afar. There is a near unanimous agreement that its role in the democratic dispensation of the country is vitally essential. Parliamentarians from Guinea Bissau, not to mention South Africa, were among countries that were interested in its model, and upon being shown how it works when they came here, vowed to replicate it in their countries.     

But this much-trumpeted, much-vaunted reputation is, sadly, in tatters if the National Assembly members don’t rise up to the challenge by keeping public officials to account, do constant research on the areas the institutions facing them are focused on, craft questions in a brilliant way to weddle relevant information from civil servants, and cut the over-bloated size of the committees, which smothers efficiency.

To the eyes of a seasoned observer like me, the sessions can sometimes throw up embarrassing dramas. When reports are given to parliamentarians to read to keep themselves up-to-date on the activity report and financial statements of public institutions, some don’t clearly read their reports at home, judging from the poorly crafted way in which they asks their questions, or worse, referring to clarifications on issues in the text that are clearly set out in the report given to them – most often than not a day before.

This allows public officials facing them to have a smooth ride when they should face intense scrutiny on their decisions. Sometimes parliamentarian’s navel-gazine  on issues that are completely red-herring, or tangential, to the core issues they should ask public officials on. What is keeping them from doing the blindly oblivious? Parliamentarians should not be scrapping the barrel of trivia. It is bollocks to do so, completely tosh talk! 

The tone of the debate is always set by the Majority Leader and Member for Serekunda East constituency, Fabakary Tombong Jatta, who is reputable for pummeling officials with relevant questions, which sometimes leave them jittering. In it crystal clear from his in-depth, searching questions, he does his homework. During his interrogation, when a civil servant want to deviate from his questions, or worst for them, present to the house things that are factually inaccurate and misleading, the tough Majority leader will dispute it, and set the record straight. Never mind when this applies to a member of parliament! 

When the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) appeared before the joint session, he strongly reprimanded the chairman, Mustapha L Carayol, when he insisted, after being repeatedly pressed what his institutions shortfalls are. Seeing no escape route after dancing around the subject when the majority leader weighed in, he conceded that there are problems, like the issues of people not having their names on polling stations they registered from. What is astounding to an observer like me was that he does not shy away from keeping people to task – be they people responsible for organizing the elections that took him to the House or junior officials. During the same session, the member for Kombo North, Pa Landing Jatta, laid bare his misunderstanding of the issue at hand when he put it to the IEC chairman that they should demarcate electoral boundaries.

His question was a very important one, but what was galling was that for someone whose constituency is bigger, and needs fair delineation for proper representation, should have done his research before asking such question. The task of boundary demarcation was wrestled from the clutches of the IEC since the formation of the Electoral Boundary Commission (EBC). The task of keeping him in line fell on the majority leader to, rightly so, bring him to the  line.  That is symptomatic of many such ilk. 

Quite apart from the majority leader, there are people who are doing an exceptionally good job in exposing public officials. The member for Illiassa, Hon Lamin K Jammeh, brings his experience of handling finance to the joint committees. He has been a bulwark against shoddy financial transaction in the financial reports of institutions, and forcing the façade of financial integrity slips from the faces of public officials who parade themselves as such.  

The member for Banjul Central, Hon Abdoulie Saine, is also good at spotting unnecessarily lavish spending by government institutions and giving valuable advice as to how they can live up to their means by balancing the book. He ranks with his fellow Banjulian, Hon Alhagie Sillah, or coach as he is affectionately called. He is a great friend of mine – it does not in anyway cloud my judgment. He brings practical corporate experience in the work of the committees. He asks important questions, and had a good eye for an institution on the throes of crisis. He is the one who spotted the depth of crisis the independent stadium was when it presented its report to PAC/PEC this year. After the session, during which he said the stadium is facing crisis of colossal scale, the speaker of the National Assembly Hon. Abdoulie Bojang, exhorted members to pay a visit there. What was discovered was a complete and utter shambles. 

When the Asset Management and Recovery Corporation appeared, its reports left a lot to be desired. Line after line pointed to an institution in need of help with a ballooning debt and creditors. He came up with a great suggestion that they should set up a commercial bank to lend, and create wealth. Given that we are living in an economic climate which is stratospherically ossifying, his suggestion is all the more crucial. But be that as it may, his suggestion were only noted. Whether they will be realised or not, presumably after my visit to planet mars with my kids. I am only 24! 

Bureaucrats are afraid of taking decisions, why? I hear you say that things are centralised in The Gambia. What a balderdash! This country is one of the most decentralised countries in the whole wide world!  Yes, I know, because I am in a good position to say it, as someone who reads a sheaf of documents on devolution for the country. Tax raising powers, and executive powers, real ones, are given to bureaucrats, governors, mayors, and mayors to come up with policies and programs that suits their areas, and can promote development. Why do they dithers and flails over such issues?

Back to the National Assembly PAC/PEC committee. For public institutions to be strengthened, it is high time we put the kibosh on public officials  parlaying with the people they should be checkmating, which is putting at risk one of our most-treasured democratic emblem as a nation. Media houses should also play a big part by sending their best and brightest reporters to cover the sessions to give more illumination on the off-the-cuff debates parliamentarians have with civil servants to the public, not the ventriloquist’s journalist who can only cover dilettante events! This will help the state and the masses to come up with good decisions. Sometimes important pieces of information are skewed in the press, which can be misleading.   

On the over-bloated size of the 29-member committees, it should be whittled down to 12 for effective interrogation. Parliamentarians who are silent participants, should be ejected, and put in committees where they have expertise on. It was so disappointing that when the monthly payment for committee members was due, it was the attendance-for-cash- silent- parliamentarians who were badgering the accounts for the D12, 000 pay. When the interest of everyday working Gambians, who elected them in the first place, should be the top most issue on their minds, they ditched that for cash. That is a betrayal of trust! 

The consequences of this is to have weak checks, and public officials going scot-free, when they should face withering questions.

Some committees only appear on paper. In practices they are dysfunctional. This is grotesquely appalling, given that they should serve as shadow to public institutions. Where such parliamentary committee exist, in the case of the Agriculture Committee, it is dominated by the chairman who runs it as his personal fiefdom, travelling in the name of the committee.  He is given the overall chairmanship of an international Agriculture Group, and keep his committee members in the dark over this. How much leverage can the Gambia use to boost its agricultural clout for the 2016 food self-sufficient sufficiency year we are heading to?! It wasn’t meant to be a question, because we all know the answer to that: many benefits. 

Committees in the House should take cue from the Select Committee on Education, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Training, led by the 68-year-old indefatigable education grandee Hon. Sulayman Joof. He and his great team – including Hon Ousman Bah, Hon Babucarr Nyang, Hon Bafaye Saidykhan among others – did a great oversight job on the government flagship education policy called School Improvement Grant (SIG) of recent by visiting 10 school clusters for 10 days.  The Local government committee is also doing well. 

There has never been a time in recent times when the clarion call has been louder for state institutions to rise up – especially the National Assembly – to the challenges and what is right. This will set our country on securing the long-term plan to secure the future of our country, as set out in the government’s development blueprints.

 

Amadou Camara is the communication officer at the National Youth Parliament. He is a regular observer of proceedings at the National Assembly.

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