Yankuba Darboe, 59, the Commissioner General of the Gambia Revenue Authority, has been named Gambian of The Year 2023 by The Standard newspaper. As it is the tradition, the laureate sits down with The Standard for a question-and-answer interview called Bantaba Special. Earlier this week, Omar Bah, The Standard chief reporter whose beat includes covering the Gambia Revenue Authority, sat down with the 2023 laureate for this interview. Excerpts:
THE STANDARD: Let me begin by saying congratulations to you Commissioner General Yankuba Darboe on being named Gambian of The Year 2023 by The Standard newspaper. What is the significance of this recognition to you?
Thank you for disclosing this wonderful news to me. Wonderful in the sense that we have roughly over 2.5 million Gambians, and singling me out as The Gambian of the Year is a big thing. Do I really deserve that? You know better. I am really delighted by the decision your company took. I am just hearing it now, and I feel happy. My institution, friends, relatives, and everybody, even my enemies (smiles), will be happy with the news. This is really good news for the year. You made my day.
CG Yankuba Darboe is a household name in The Gambia, but tell us about your origins and early life.
Originally, both my parents came from Baddibu, and my father, Alhaji Turo Darboe, was a well-known Gambian. Because of my father’s fame, my elder brother is called Turo Darboe instead of his real name, Momodou Lamin Darboe. So, he has taken my father’s name. Even though we have siblings, we are the only two brothers [in our family] who share the same mother and father. My father came to Banjul when we were very young, and we spent most of our lives here. From Banjul, we moved to Faji Kunda. Our father was very strict, to the point that my brother and myself had the impression that he didn’t like us due to his strictness and what he put us through. I remember those days when my father bought a whole street in Faji Kunda and then put a sizable house at one corner where we were staying, and the rest was a garden full of mangoes, oranges, and bananas. Every evening, unless something happened or we travelled out of town, my brother and me would water everything. We were watering over a hundred trees. I remember that even when we went to the field to play football at 6pm, we would leave our friends and rush to the house to water the garden. On a number of occasions, we would go to our mother and tell her that our father didn’t like us, but my mother would laugh and say no, he loves you; he just wants you to be good. Even when I was in my room studying and my friends came to see me, my father would tell them I was sleeping or had gone out. So that is how we grew up, and it has really prepared us well for the world.
As you just intimated, you are the son of the well-known philanthropist Turo Darboe from Baddibu Salikenni and also brother to Modou Turo Darboe, a renowned philanthropist in his own right. People who know you say you give as much as your father did and as your brother is doing, although it is not publicised, why is philanthropy a way of life for the Turo Darboe family?
Like you said, that is how our father was. I think in The Gambia, I am not saying now, but before, there was no village where you will go and talk about our father, and they will say they don’t know him. He was really a man for all, and our house or compound was open to all, and during lunch or breakfast, our friends would eat before they go to school, and even the neighbours would come and eat, and nobody dared to complain. So, my father was very open and willing to give, and this is the kind of environment we grew up in. Our father will always tell us to share with our neighbours and friends, the less privileged. We [Modou and I] are not rich per se, because there are many Gambians who are wealthier than us, but it’s about the heart and the training we received from our father.
How did you come to join Customs & Excise and who were your mates and mentors?
It all started 30 years ago, and it was not something I planned. I never intended to be a tax collector. I have never been to the Customs or port area during my school days, but you know, sometimes destiny takes you where you never imagined. So, when I finished my schooling, there was this advertisement placed in newspapers by Customs saying that they wanted to recruit some officers, and one of our neighbours in Banjul asked me to apply. I applied together with Njobo Baldeh, who is now the valuation manager at GRA, and one Lang Ceesay. We were called for an interview, and luckily, we were shortlisted. I remember this being the time of Daddy Jobe [renowned Customs & Excise head). I can still recall when I went with my papers, he looked at them and said yes, this is the kind of people we are looking for. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. We were sent to the jacking section under the audit unit. The audit section is where all the transactions end up, and there was this young gentleman at the time called Abdoulie Badjie, a son of former minister Alieu Kama Badjie. Abdoulie taught us what to do, and that is how everything started.
You have been working at Customs & Excise/Gambia Revenue Authority for exactly 35 years; take us along memory lane over the years.
Like I said, I started at the jacking section under the audit section, and I worked there for three years. Because of that, I was able to understand a lot about how Customs operate because that is where we pack all the documents, and then the auditors look at everything. I was later moved to the long room where the transactions were done. When people bring their containers, we look at their documents to make sure that they were in order and the proper rates and values were captured. That is the kind of vetting that we did. At the time, there was no computerization. From there, they moved me to the seaport, where my responsibility was to examine containers, vehicles, and the boarding of vessels. I spent another three to four years there as a young officer, and then they moved me to the airport. At the airport, I worked in both the cargo and bargaining sections for a number of years, and then they moved me again to the head office, but this time to a different section responsible for the bonded warehouses and the factories. So they were moving me to different sections. I didn’t know why they were doing that, but with the discipline instilled in me by my father, I didn’t complain. I was later sent to Giboro as CPO Manager and then to Farafenni, and in Basse,. I was first posited at Nyamanar, Sabi, and then Saré Ngai. I remember the first time they sent me to Saré Ngai, I told my father that I was confused because I had never travelled outside of Banjul [since my childhood]. How was I going to cope in that place? But he looked at me and said: “Just go. You will be fine.” I had never been to Basse until then. I remember a friend called Baba Leigh, who was working in agriculture, taking me on his motorcycle. When I got there, I was lost, but I found some colleagues like Buba Ceesay and Haruna Gassama. I didn’t have much trouble because I was always with my books, which were keeping me company, and I always got myself some newspapers, and that made me comfortable because there wasn’t much to do except during the lumo. When I woke up, I would do what I needed to do and go under one big tree, read my books, and drink attaya. At the end of the month, I will come for a week. This was how I spent my life there. One fine day that I received a call from the main office that I had a letter indicating that I had been transferred back to Banjul. The following morning, I woke up very early and rushed to Banjul. When I got the letter that I was transferred to Banjul, I didn’t even return to Saré Ngai to collect my belongings. I just called Buba Ceesay and asked him to take everything I left there. So, in short, there was no place in this country where I have not worked under Customs, and I have an idea about how they all operate. I remember there was a time when I was among officers sent to a military barrack to be trained ahead of The Gambia’s 25-year [silver jubilee] independence celebration.
Back in the day, Customs & Excise was regarded as a cesspit of corruption to the extent that popular lore had it that when a Custom’s officer died and his body was being interred, a box of match, symbolising damnation in the next world, was placed on his coffin? Has public perception of the authority changed today?
That has absolutely changed. It was just a perception because, as far as revenue collection is concerned, even in Saudi Arabia, which we all consider to be the holiest place as far as Islam is concerned, they have established tax collectors, so if Saudi Arabia has it, why can’t The Gambia have it? That is just a perception, because there is no work that is bad or good. What is important is the individual because every other individual can be a bad person whether you are a lawyer or a doctor. That is to say whatever job you do you can be a good person by serving mankind and your country. So whatever they said about doctors, lawyers or tax collectors is just a perception. What is more important is the individual and how you comport yourself. This is the most important thing in life.
But is corruption still a problem at GRA, and for example, how has introduction of ASYCUDA, a computerised system that handles manifests and Customs declarations, along with accounting, transit and suspense procedures and similar systems, helped in curbing graft in your institution?
Corruption is simply a perception, and people have different perceptions, but in general, nowhere in the world will you find an institution that is perfect. There are none. Whether it is in the West or in developing or developed countries, what is more important is that when you are in an institution, you should think of how to put systems in place so that human involvement and the errors that may happen during your work will be minimised. Yes, people will say there is corruption here and there, but we are doing our utmost to bring in systems so that the efficiency level will increase, and inefficiency will go down, and the human intervention will be lessened. The coming of Asycuda World has ensured efficiency, and it has also made life very easy for businesses and the GRA. It has also eradicated some lapses that could give room for corruption or leakages. So, as far as we are concerned, we are always trying to develop systems that will help us address all these challenges. This is why [institutions] should make efforts to go and look for donor funding. The Asycuda World we are talking about is funded by the African Development Bank. We had the idea and approached the bank to fund it. Also, when we realised that the Gamtaxnet System that we use for domestic taxes is not web-based, we went for donor funding so that we could have a system that is web-based and can accept a lot of payments, including e-payments and e-filing, and the current system cannot do that. We are lucky to have the World Bank fund a project called ITAC, and we have identified a company that will build the system. It is about bringing systems that would work for you and assist you to eliminate leakages and inefficiencies because when you talk about corruption, it is all about leakages, but when you put all these systems in place, the leakages are minimised. I remember there were moments when we have a direct delivery system and then people will come and tell us that they are expecting duty waivers from Ministry of Finance or Special Investment Certificate from GIEPA. We will grant it but the individuals will go and will not complete their processes for over a year and the GRA was running at a loss because some importers and business owners were using it as a cover-up to avoid paying taxes but the current Asycuda system tells everybody very clearly that if you have goods to clear and you keep telling us that you are expecting a duty waiver and then you apply for direct delivery it will give you 30 days and when that deadline elapses, it will block you automatically together with the importer and the agent and once you are blocked you cannot access the system again. When this happens even the commissioner general cannot do anything about it … The only solution is for you to come and pay the full duty or bring the duty waiver or the special investment certificates so the leakages that were happening there are all gone now. That is why it is good to have a system-driven [process] than human beings taking the forefront. This is what we did to address those leakages.
In 2004, the National Assembly passed an Act establishing the Gambia Revenue Authority which merged the Customs & Excise and the Department of Domestic Taxes. What were the challenges of this amalgamation?
Yes, it was in 2004 that the government agreed with the World Bank, IMF, and other development partners to bring Customs and Domestic Taxes together to make it one institution, and I think that was one of the best decisions that the government took. There were challenges because, when it started, people didn’t understand, but revenue Authorities started a long time in East Africa before coming to West Africa and eventually The Gambia, and that is because the World Bank had realised the benefits. All the staff were asked to resign and reapply for new places, so that was very difficult because they attached qualifications for every position. So if you apply for a position that you are not qualified to handle, the panel will reject you. Those who were there working for domestic taxes and customs didn’t have the proper training, and because of that, most of them were dropped, and some of the staff who served for more than 25 years were given the option to retire if they had more than 45 years service. That was a tactic for them to recruit a new crop of people with the desired qualifications. So some were lucky to join GRA while others decided to leave because they didn’t want to take positions lower than the ones they were holding before. It was a difficult period. Luckily for me, I already had my first degree in economics and international studies and my master’s degree in finance, and fresh from the United States. I was asked to apply for a position, and I did, and I was offered the position of deputy director. The first commissioner general was a Kenyan called John Masafari. He personally offered me the position, but I told him I didn’t want to take it. He asked me why. I said because I have been away for three years and I don’t even know what GRA is, so I said it is better for me to start somewhere in the middle as a manager and rise from there so that I will understand what GRA is all about. He looked at me and smiled and said, you are a smart guy. So I was given a manager’s position, but it was very challenging because a lot of people lost their jobs and there was a lot of work to be done. They also invited a lot of experts and created finance and accounting, internal HR, and admin departments, and now we have a fully-fledged legal unit. And now, Customs is only responsible for assessing vehicles and containers and determining what fees should be paid, while another unit is responsible for the rest. We also have a corporate unit that is responsible for communications, and all the other departments have their own responsibilities. Also, it was when the GRA was established that we started collecting over D100 million [annually], and thanks to all the initiatives that were brought about by my leadership, we are now collecting billions [of dalasis].
Indeed, observers noted that under the eight years of your watch as commissioner general, GRA has undergone significant transformation akin to a revolution. Every year you have consistently met the set targets for revenue collection and set new records. We have been informed that over 200 staff members of the authority have been educated to graduate and post-graduate level. Can you expand on these and other major achievements registered by you and your team?
It is a fact that the GRA is a totally different institution in terms of capacity because when we were younger, if you count the number of graduates in Customs, it might not be more than three, if there were any, and the same applied to Domestic Taxes. But because of my orientation and the fact that I had the opportunity to study to the level of a master’s degree and the benefits I have seen in being educated, I always encourage my staff to prioritise education. We make sure that all those who are qualified and can do their bachelor’s degrees in The Gambia are given the opportunity to do so, and when you finish your bachelor’s degree, we allow you to go for your master’s with conditions. We give you a stipend because we know it is only capacity-building that can change this institution. We are also aware of the fact that the current government and future governments will continue to depend on revenue collection because people are sick and tired of this donor funding or taking loans. The idea now is to generate revenue locally to take care of the business of the day, and as such, we can only do that if we develop the capacity of our staff. So this is why we make education accessible. The management is ready and willing to pay for the education of our staff as long as they are willing to learn, and now that we have over 200 graduates serving in different units, we are now looking forward to reforms because, as we speak, taxes cannot be increased because they have reached their maximum. What we do now is broaden the tax base by working with other companies to make sure that they give us tips about what is happening in other places. This is what we do. These reforms will help us increase our revenue. We are doing a lot of new innovation, such as e-tracking, which keeps track of every vehicle that enters this country, and the good thing is that I am able to monitor the movement of these vehicles from a screen stationed in my office.
In 2021 you met The Gambia Government target of D12.7 billion; in 2022 because of the fuel subsidy, you collected D12.7 billion instead of the D13.5 billion target. In 2023, you met your collection target of D15.2 billion. The government has tasked you to increase your collection by D3.8 billion to D19 billion in 2024. What determinants are used to set these annual collection targets and what will you do to meet the new high target?
As the head of GRA, I am always ready and determined to work towards meeting any revenue target the government gives us. Even in 2022, we met our target because about D1.6 billion went into fuel subsidies that year, and that money should have been collected by the GRA, but because the government wanted to help the citizens, they used it as subsidies, and also over D2 billion went to duty waivers.
Is government giving the authority the requisite wherewithal to do its job?
The moment we agree with them on our target, they allow us to work towards that target, but that doesn’t mean they will sit and fold their hands, especially the Ministry of Finance, which is closely working with us. They recently created a Directorate of Tax Policy and Revenue, and they are doing a lot of other things behind the scenes to support the GRA and make sure that extra revenue is collected. For example, there are companies out there assuming that they are not supposed to pay tax because they have tax exemption somewhere, but because we are now working with the ministry, we are able to reach out to those businesses to compel them to pay because every tax exemption should be based on law. So that is an effort from the government to help us. But there is limited interference from the government in our work because if the government were interfering, we would not have been able to collect what we are collecting. Yes, the 2024 target of D19 billion is big, but with determination and perseverance, we will meet it by making sure that those who are not paying the right taxes are compelled to pay. So, I am not worried at all.
Businesses and other taxpayers complain that taxes in The Gambia are too high, too much and too complicated. Why don’t you simplify the tax code?
Paying tax is the most difficult thing human beings go through… Taking millions from your pocket to pay tax is something that nobody desires to do, so there will always be complaints, but we have to do it because if we don’t, this country cannot be developed. Even in developed countries like America and in Europe, every sector you touch, you pay tax; from importation to international trade, shops, and supermarkets. In fact, those who say that, if they travel, they realise that they are paying less because most of them are not paying the correct taxes because if they do their filings [here], they don’t file correctly. We know from experience. Still, there is room for improvement, especially when it comes to declarations. In the system, we have allowed businesses, companies, or individuals to assess themselves and declare their taxes, but the law also gives us the power to go after people even a year after they have declared their taxes when we suspect they didn’t declare them in full.
Some taxpayers complain that they are not unwilling to pay taxes but that they are not encouraged by the government spending the tax dalasis on frivolous things like expensive vehicles, travels and per diem payments instead of ploughing them into the productive sectors of the economy to germinate growth. What do you say to these disinclined taxpayers?
There will always be people complaining in life, no matter what you do. Even if you put diamonds on the roads and gold everywhere, people will still complain. Notwithstanding, the GRA is responsible for collecting taxes, and when we collect all the money, we take it to the Central Bank. When and how the government spends that money is the central government’s decision. However, we have all seen the amount of development going on in this country.
Given the trajectory of the ongoing development in your institution, how do you see the future of the authority?
I think we are on the right track, especially when it comes to reforms. We are now focusing on digitalising all our systems so I am seeing a very bright future for the GRA and the country.
Observers say there is a gradual changing of the old guard; a kind of generational change at the GRA? What is the significance of this?
That is a fact because our style of management is such that we try to look for young and smart people around, and I like to encourage them to focus on their careers. I also give them the opportunity to specialise so that they can be the future leaders, as most of those who were born before computers are now retiring because their way of doing things is completely different from the realities on the ground.
When you hang your boots what would you want your legacy to be?
I want to leave this institution fully digitalised and with staff who are professional and well-equipped to be able to continue our legacy of collecting the right taxes for the government.
Thank you CG Darboe.
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