32.2 C
City of Banjul
Friday, June 21, 2024

Yusupha M Jobe, Director General of PURA

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With Alagie Manneh

Upon the recommendation of Pura, the minister of information suspended the licence of Comium but it was given back after the telco settled its outstanding taxes and spectrum fees. Now it has recently been announced that Monty Mobile, the company that extended Comium a financial lifeline, is demanding the repayment of its money within a short period. How is this going to affect the repositioning of Comium?

The Comium saga started because they were owing a lot of money to the government, and it is a private company. When I saw their debt going to D70, D80 million, and not seeing light at the end of the tunnel because I didn’t see investment in upgrading their services, I knew this was going to be a problem, and something needed to be done before we wake up like Liberia and Sierra Leone and found them gone. So, this bailout issue is between them and the company. We were not a party to it. We were informed of it. And we are happy they ended up paying the money they owed government. The sad fact is some Gambians were criticising Pura. Comium could have wound up and ran away. But at least we managed to get them pay the money owed to government. I think that was a difficult but an honourable thing and Gambians should appreciate it. The money did not go to my pocket or even to PURA but to the national coffers.

Given the situation Comium is in, and the bad rap they have in some African countries they operated in as you just alluded to, what is Pura going to do about Comium in terms of regulation and oversight? 

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Pura’s role is to evaluate and advise the minister in such cases. We are monitoring the situation and looking at their finances etc. The situation now is that we have not heard any official communication from them regarding this issue. We invited them to discuss it and they said what was reported in the papers was not what obtained in reality and that they were re-negotiating terms with that company. Without getting official confirmation we cannot act until we validate the facts. But we are concerned with Comium and we are monitoring the situation. However, it is not only about Comium; we have to monitor all other operators as well even though Africell and QCell have no outstanding arrears of obligations to government or to us. We don’t have an issue with those two companies in terms of their liquidity and following the rules as regards payments. For Gamcel on the other hand, we have issues. Gamtel too has some outstanding obligations with regards to the regulatory fees’ payments. We are negotiating with them to see how we can resolve this. We want to be seen to be fair, not just to be hard on the private sector operators and not dealing with the public sector ones. If the mandate was there for the regulator to act without any reference to any minister, it would have been a different case by now because I do what is right quickly, and I do it without fear or favour. Whatever is going to happen will happen, but if it’s in the interest of the country, I am not afraid of the consequences.

Last year, you granted a licence to a fifth GSM operator, Giraffe Telecoms. Who are the people behind this company and why was a licence given to them?

First of all, Giraffe came in with a document to request for a licence. Some of their partners are Gambians and I think they have partners from Turkey. But the important thing is that their proposal was vetted by the economic regulation, ICT, consumer service, and legal departments of PURA. All the documents were found to be in order, and they recommended that we recommend to the minister to issue them with a licence. We submitted our evaluation to the minister. The ministry did their own due diligence and decided that this operator can operate within the sector and that there is enough spectrum. Initially, we didn’t know all the other parties involved, but we had documentation and had Gambians in there. Subsequently, of late, we understand that the former MD of Africell, Mr Badara Mbye is one of their shareholders and actually the CEO. And one Mr Alpha Barry is also a member of the board or the chairman of their board. So, basically it is a Gambian-run entity and the shareholding aspect – there’s still a part to be allocated that has not even been allocated yet, but the important thing is that the majority of the people in this company are Gambians. And the government is there to ensure that if the operation is possible and it is going to bring funds to the country and employment to Gambians, then there shouldn’t be a question of whether other people are happy or not happy. You will always have those who are not happy.

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We understand that some of the current big operators were very upset with you and former communications infrastructure minister Ebrima Sillah for giving out this licence and you were reported to authorities higher up. What were some of the threats levelled against you and who levelled them?

I think since the threats didn’t materialise so I wouldn’t dwell too much on them. I think every Gambian has a right to try to make life here.

But what exactly were the threats and by whom?

I don’t think I would dwell on the threats much, but I can tell you that there was a petition to say that what we did was not right thing but this petition was thrown away.

Who made the petition?

All the operators, to be frank – QCell, Africell, Gamcel, and Gamtel. They signed a petition to say that they are going to be affected by the fifth operator and that the market is too small. But all the points that they laid out were dealt with by the minister who had the ultimate authority to issue the licence. And since nothing came out of their petition, it means that the government accepted that what the minister did was right because if not, first of all, it would have been revoked, and the minister would have been fired, and I would have been fired too. But thank God until now we didn’t have any complaint about why we issued the licence or a revocation of the licence. It means the authorities believe the version of the minister’s defence. The threats were in various kinds including even to my staff but just to say,  if you are enjoying on your own what you are enjoying and say that nobody else should have that facility except you, I think that’s the height of selfishness.

But essentially, why was it necessary to grant a fifth GSM licence?

It was the minister’s discretion and decision. As you are now, if you apply for a sixth licence, and you show you have the capability, it will be the discretion of the minister to grant you that licence. What Pura will do is to assess whether we have the spectrum available for you to operate. If we believe that your sixth licence will operate without affecting anybody else, we will recommend you. So, it’s not a question of why it was necessary; the question is – is it feasible? Is it valid? Is it workable? And I think if the minister gave the licence, it means he believes it is feasible technically and all otherwise, he wouldn’t give it. Do you know the licence fee for a GSM? Forty million dalasis a year! You think somebody will throw D40 million in the sand? No! Effectively, you know that in this country there are three operators that are effectively operating. I don’t even want to name them, but you know out of the five only three are effectively operating. Why is it that those who are not operating and have entitlement to resources, those resources cannot be used by others? Why should we sit on it when the government can make money and hire Gambians? We have thousands of Gambians dying on the “backway” and struggling for jobs. If an operator comes in who can hire a hundred or 200 people, we cannot deny them that just because operators have riches or money or lobbying power! Do you think that’s what this country is about? I don’t think so, and I don’t think this president is about that.

Many say Pura has failed to regulate the content of radio broadcast given the vitriolic statements and personal attacks and insults daily made on these radios, and yet nobody ever heard of any sanction?

There is some truth in it. You know the country was heated due to political and other things, so, a lot of these things had connotations based on politics. But still, the most important thing is that it’s our role as Pura to regulate and control that. And we have got funds now to buy the broadcasting monitoring equipment. It will be installed this year. If you go there – whether its TV or radio – and you make remarks and its not controlled or censored in the law and you break the law, then we will follow what the law says and deal with you. And we will have the evidence to provide our justification for doing so. Right now, some of the radio stations who do so, they are getting away with it because what they are trying to do is linking their work to politics, so, when you do any action as a regulator, they said oh he’s being sent by the politicians to muscle us, or to close us down. Now, you have to give the person first of all a chance by hearing. If they do something wrong as a regulator – and this is what I see going all over the world wherever I visited – they call you in and say, ‘Your station did this and that, we don’t think it’s right. What do you think’. If you apologise and say I will make sure I control it and avoid it then you get another chance. Sometimes there are problems when you are doing live programmes; people just say things without you being prepared for it, but at the same time it’s your responsibility to quickly shut that down or add a caveat to disown that statement. But some are going way out, mainly because of politics, to attack people, to attack individuals with no justification or even evidence to prove it, and that is an abuse. And the sad part is, when you try to correct that, then you are being seen as the abuser. So, somebody can abuse your rights, and it’s okay. But when I try to control that person, it’s not okay. It’s not fair. 

What is Pura doing to ensure that no further oil spills occur at the petroleum storage depot in Mandinaring?

The same historic problem with that depot; lack of maintenance, lack of control, lack of inspection, lack of monitoring et cetera. It was like a government of its own. Some of their equipment are archaic. Some of the things that they were using were not being properly maintained, and that is the main cause of the spill. It is now incumbent on not only Pura, but the GMA [Gambia Maritime Administration], the NEA, all other parties to ensure that this facility is environmentally safe to operate in this sector without causing damage to the environment or people’s livelihoods. And now we have a taskforce, a very, very robust taskforce. And this includes state security by the way. They are monitoring everything that’s going on there now. The first time we went to the depot I was shocked. We found a line of truck tankers from Mali, and they were taking from the deport to take them to Mali. And when we ran out of fuel in the country two weeks before the election, Mali was being supplied with fuel, with the same fuel that we don’t have here. These are facts. I saw them with my eyes. And those tankers vanished the next day when we came back. They left. So, there was very minimal control at the depot. This will not be allowed to happen again.

Everywhere people are complaining about erratic power and water supply and nothing seems to be improving and as the regulator Pura seems to be doing nothing about it.

I think if we were publishing how we are dealing with Nawec, people will see what we are doing. They were the first institution I invited to sit and monitor their performance. We’re not leaving them unscathed. It is very important that the public understands that Pura is doing a lot on Nawec. It is a monopoly institution. It is not like for example the ICT Comium issue. When you closed Comium temporarily, there was still Africell and QCell to operate. If I close Nawec, where is the other alternative? You will be the first to come here and demonstrate that you want your power. So, you cannot eat your cake and have it. It is our job to make sure Nawec delivers, and we will make sure of that. They have done a lot to improve, and they are doing a lot more. First, we need to solve the supply issues, and you can see the difference between Nawec then and now, hardly do you have power cuts. The recent power cuts were caused by the fact that there were three supply points coming together… In order to improve their supply, they had to get from the OMVG through Senegal. And the Karpowership is also supplying. These are all coming with different voltages, but once they are together, and the supply issue is solved, The Gambia could be an exporter of electricity in the not-too-distant future, once those OMVG sub-stations are working… In the new dispensation and on what they are doing, they have to upgrade, and they have to upgrade fast. We have timelines. Even on the water, we have given them a deadline, which if they don’t abide by… Together with the new minister of energy, who is a no-nonsense person, he is following everything and is also challenging Pura. You see in this country, they know nice people, but they will not respect nice people. Gambians are used to just being given carrots, carrots and without a stick, nobody obeys. The moment we start enforcing, and those who don’t abide by get hit with fines and fees, you will see things getting right. And that’s where I’m heading this year.

Critics says, as it is now, Pura is unfit for purpose?

They should open Google and go and look at Rura [Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority]. If they look at Rura and what they are achieving in Rwanda, they will know that when Pura is given the right respect and resources, and the administration takes bold steps to revamp its action and clean up its image, it can deliver. And it is an important structure in the country. There’s nothing better than having a regulator. What is the other option; dismantling Pura, taking all we are doing and giving it to the ministries. That will be the saddest day in this country. Not that the ministries cannot deliver it, but the independence and the delivery standards that you require can only come from an independent regulator. The regulator is an integral part of any modern state. If people support this institution, and we do what is right; train our people, get the necessary equipment, take fire to people who are not doing the right thing, this country will change. And that’s where we are heading. We have to deliver to the people or we abdicate our role and let those who can deliver come and do it. Those days are over. We have to turn a new leaf, and start to be showing why we exist. And this is the direction we are going.

The government recently created a new ministry – the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy. In your estimation, how is this going to promote the advancement of the ICT sector, and the digital economy in The Gambia?

The digital economy now is critical in the world, and everybody realises how important it is, and I know that the government studied vividly before they thought it is wise to make this move. So, I have no qualms with the creation of the ministry. I’m sure it is going to be an integral part in delivering to the populace. The focus on delivery on digital economy is critical because that’s where the world is heading. We are behind in a lot of ways, and to have the minister focus on that is critical for our future. We need to fine-tune and find a way to seamlessly ensure that these ministries are integrated into the working modules of the sectors that operate.

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