Two billion dalasis is not peanuts. Those two billion dalasis were denied sectors such as health, education, and food to reach and save lives in order to make Banjul a livable place only to have it flushed down the drain. No city in this world, even in ancient times, built concrete floors as roads. Much worse, no government on earth builds or rehabilitates a modern city only to have it flooded even before works are complete! The entire works done in Banjul do not reflect in any way that indeed two billion dalasis have gone into those works!
It is typical of dishonest governments that mismanage and plunder lives and resources and opportunities to always find scapegoats or engage in spreading false equivalences, excuses, and distortions of reality just to refuse to take responsibility and ensure accountability. This is what we have seen The Gambia Government do on Thursday, September 1st when the Minister of Works Ebrima Sillah and co-conspirator, the Government Spokesperson Ebrima Sankareh convened a staged-managed press conference to further mislead the public about this Banjul project scam.
After ramping up the volume about a so-called “major press conference”, what has it truly achieved? What new information did they deliver? Are citizens now better informed about the truth of this project or are they even more confused? Indeed, this is the most useless press conference in the history of press conferences on earth! Two billion dalasis flushed down throats and pockets and drains only for Ebrima Sankareh and Ebrima Sillah to assemble a bunch of officials to waste the public’s valuable time with meaningless presentations and incantations!
If Sillah and Sankareh indeed wanted to tell the truth about this project, they would have made the President of the Republic himself preside over it. Why did they leave out the contractor of this project only for Sillah to give the outlandish justification that it is the government that hired the contractor and so it is the government that must speak about the project. But then why did you invite the consultant who was also hired by the government just like the contractor?
The contractor should have been in that so-called press conference to defend his works. The government and the contractor and the consultant cannot substitute each other in this theatrical press conference given the disaster that happened. That press conference should be an accountability forum where all stakeholders answer to their deeds. None can speak for the other. The reason the consultant was invited is the same reason the contractor should also be invited to complete the narrative. They are both private operators engaged by the government hence one cannot be left out and the other involved.
The presentation by the consultant was most irrelevant as he was speaking for someone else’s work. His own work is to ensure quality assurance. Clearly the consultant has travelled around the world and visited and lived in cities. Could he say that he has ever seen any city that has its streets made from concrete floors? There are hundreds of cities around the world with the same or even worse topology than Banjul, yet their streets have been well constructed with the right and proper materials and infrastructure for roads. To justify this kind of work for Banjul streets because of high truck traffic is untenable. If that were the case, then we would have seen similar road construction in port cities around the world that have far higher volumes of traffic.
The huge costs of this project and the scale of its disaster warrants that none but the president himself take the lead in this show if it was going to be called a real press conference. But the fact that the president and the contractor have been left out shows that that theatrical press conference was not meant to deliver the truth and ensure accountability.
What was most shocking from the show was to hear the Minister of Works Ebrima Sillah say that he did not know the lifespan of this project and had not even seen the project document. What could be more irresponsible than that? How can the relevant and responsible government minister not know the lifespan of such a project? Is Sillah saying the Banjul project is therefore an eternal project hence a divine project?
The rationalisations and false excuses given for the exclusion of the mayor of Banjul or Nawec at the right time are nothing but a calculated deliberate attempt to limit participation in order to cover up the corruption and scam involved in this project. Certainly, Sillah and Sankareh cannot tell us that the government did not know about the existence of BCC and the mayor. It cannot be an oversight and certainly it is not ignorance that The Gambia Government could say that they did not know that Banjul city is indeed the primary beneficiary of the project. So why sideline the city authorities if there is no scam?
Another attempt to hoodwink the people is the way and manner they avoided discussing the tax concession given to the contractor which is illegal and unjustified. The contractor is a businessperson just like taxi drivers and market women. The contractor is selling goods and services to the government which buys them on behalf of the people. Hence if the contractor makes his offer and sets his price, the government is duty bound to make him pay tax in full as he is paid in full. It is unethical and illegal therefore to grant a tax offer to a businessman who is charging the people the full extent of his services.
Bringing GRA head Yankuba Darboe was a clear attempt to sanitise and mislead. Yankuba does not have to be at that forum because both Sankareh and Sillah know that the usual tax payment is not the issue. The issue is the question that The Standard journalist Omar Bah raised which is about the tax concession given in the contract. So, it is obvious that there was no need for Yankuba Darboe to be present in this meaningless press conference because what he said is not relevant. Therefore, why did both Sillah and Sankareh dodge the real issue: the tax concession?
The way Yankuba was brought in to pump up the volume of this disinformation forum was the same reason all those ministers were also brought in – to do nothing but to give the gathering some unnecessary and undeserved air of importance. After all, only the two Ebrimas answered questions by dramatically dodging and misleading issues as much as they can. The consultant must have noticed that he was indeed irrelevant as no one asked him any serious questions after his unnecessary presentation. Of course, Minister of Information Lamin Queen Jammeh was even more redundant after his vague statement, while the rest of the ministers only sat there silently and disappointingly like some Grade 9 students put under detention for failing their test. Pathetic.
Finally, Sankareh must be told to show respect and humility when he performs his official functions. He must be told to respect and value journalists and citizens. To be assertive is not the same as being unmannerly. Sankareh knows that in press conferences journalists and officials do have exchanges which can be very heated sometimes. It happens at the White House or at the UN Headquarters or at AU headquarters where journalists face presidents and ambassadors. But none of such exchanges warrant those presidents and ambassadors haranguing journalists with foul labels and demeaning comments.
Therefore, Sankareh cannot and must not be allowed to react to journalists in such an uncouth manner. Let him restrain and contain himself and accept that public officials must be held accountable. The man needs to humble himself and realise that The Gambia Government is not Sankareh Kunda, nor the two billion dalasis belong to him alone. As a public official, he is duty bound to be truthful, transparent, and accountable. Journalists have a constitutional right and duty to question public officials severely in holding them accountable on behalf of the people.
Madi Jobarteh is a former radio journalist who heads the country office of an international NGO working on human rights and democracy.