By Tabora Bojang
Tourism Minister Hamat Bah has appeared before the National Assembly committee probing allegations of corruption at the GTBoard. The allegations were contained in a petition some staff made and sent to the Assembly raising concern about the conduct of senior officials of the GT Board and the minister himself, in the award of contracts for the construction of ecolodges, allocations of lands in TDA and abuse of office among others.
In his testimony, Mr Bah told the public petition committee chaired by Wuli NAM Suwaibou Touray that he did not know the details of the contract for the construction of ecolodges even though he presided over the laying of the foundation stone in Barra.
He also claimed he did not know why the contract was awarded to Lerr Group but said it was a “disastrous” experience since the contractor is found to be “unpredictable.
According to him, when President Barrow was aware that the contract was awarded to Lerr, he called him to warn that the contractor was not trustworthy and would not deliver as promised because government had an unpleasant experience with him.
On allegation of his own interference in land allocations, the minister denied any personal involvement saying allocations were made by a lands committee in consultation with GT-Board while the ministry is only involved when decisions are already taken.
He said he cannot remember the composition of the lands committee and how many investors were allocated.
Waiving of levies
The petitioners alleged that Minister Bah interfered in the waiving of levies supposed to be paid by MOAB Capital and Kaijiang Holding Group which led to a loss of over 450,000 dollars.
Asked if he wrote to the GT-Board DG to waive levies, the minister said it was a cabinet decision which vested him powers to use his discretion to waive for investors based on how much money they have.
“I presented a paper to cabinet for all investors to pay 10 percent before they start work but there was an outcry and we understand their concerns. So cabinet directed that I should be flexible and make it 5 percent but if the investor asks for discount, I can use my discretion”, he said.
Asked if he specifically knows Kaijiang Holding Group, the minister replied: “I may not know who write; if they write and it is genuine, I act.”
Conflict of interest
The petitioners also claimed there was a conflict of interest at the Governing Board of the GTB since the director of finance and permanent secretary at the ministry were husband and wife.
Asked if he was aware of any conflict of interest in the board, Minister Bah said: “The husband is the director of finance and the wife was the PS. It was accidental but these are professionals. They are guided by their professional responsibilities.”
Committee member and NAM for Central Baddibu, Sulayman Saho put to the minister whether he understands that family ties may affect work relationships.
“But that was not happening,” Bah replied.
Dissolution of board
The petitioners alleged that former board chairman Abdoulie Baks Touray was removed following his decision to receive and grant audience to the staff aggrieved by the conduct of awarding the contract for eco lodges.
However, Minister Bah said the board was dissolved because it failed to implement his directive for the GT Board staff to be sent home during Covid-19.
“When Covid came, tourism went zero. No dime was coming. Everybody became destitute. It was important for the GT-Board being the main body whose stakeholders were on ground zero to demonstrate sympathy with stakeholders. So I decided that they must also pay a price to show we care about our stakeholders so I directed that all the staff go home and be paid half salary. When I wrote to the chairman, the level of implementation was not satisfying to me, so I decided to use my powers to dissolve the board and form a new board to implement my decision. I will stand by it until tomorrow. That was my constitutional powers,” Hamat Bah said.
He further claimed that Baks Touray’s removal was done in consultation with the president.
Committee chairman Suwaibou Touray asked the minister to explain where he got power and authority to send the staff home. “It was from me as the minister,” he replied.
The minister was also accused of influencing the employment of some staff at the GT Board.
But he told lawmakers that he did not influence the employment of anybody. “They are citizens who have a right to apply and were qualified and appointed”.
Committee vice-chairman, Fatoumatta Jawara asked: “Do you know one Jackie Josephine Ashante and Fatou Sowe and how long have you known them?”
Minister Bah replied: “I knew them about one year before the election. They were with us during the campaign. They were campaigning for us and then I brought them to my office as protocol and office assistant and we deployed them to the GT-Board. They were employed and paid by GT-Board.”
Asked what portfolios were they appointed at the GT-Board, he said: “I don’t know. I just told them to see whether they are fitting based on their qualifications.”
GT Board funding ministry’s travels
The minister confirmed that GT-Board has a budget line for the ministry and that budget also funds travels if related to tourism.
“That is normal. The ministry gets the least funding from the national budget so that helps us in our engagements”, Hamat said.
“Do they pay per diem,” asked chairman Touray.
“Yes, if it relates to tourism,” Minister Bah submitted.