By: Alf Soninke, TAT Consulting Editor
Gambia’s Minister of Justice, Dawda Jallow, had his bill thrown out again by the National Assembly on Tuesday, 12 September, at the second reading of the Judicial Officers (Remuneration and Entitlements) Bill 2023.
The first time that happened to him was when NAMs rejected his motion at the first reading introducing the bill for the draft Constitution 2020.
And, with the Justice ministry now working on bringing another bill to the Assembly for adopting a new national constitution, pundits and observers are asking what Tuesday’s vote portends.
Indeed, they wonder what fate awaits any second attempt at introducing another new constitution bill, as promised by the Barrow Administration.
They also ask if Minister Jallow will survive a third rejection of another crucial government bill.
The Justice Minister, after listening to the debate on Tuesday, retook the floor and explained that the Judicial officer’s bill should have been presented to the Legislature since the adoption of the 1997 constitution, which provided for such bills, namely, for the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary.
He told NAMs that the first two since had their bills passed for their entitlements, and it was now the turn of the Judiciary, whose bill he emphasized has been pending since 1997.
According to Justice Minister JALLOW, the Executive branch has the Public Service Commission, and now a new ministry and Minister for the Public Service is in place, which addresses the needs of civil servants such as the police, teachers, and doctors, among others.
There is also the National Assembly Service, which caters to the needs of the Legislature and its staff, and the Judicial Service Commission, chaired by the Chief Justice, which looks into and manages the affairs of the Judicial arm of the government.
The Judicial Officers (Remuneration and Entitlements) Bill 2023 was meant to address the Judiciary’s staff pay and allowances needs.
Minister JALLOW informed NAMs that the number of judges involved is 27, and the retirement age for judges is 75 (60 for civil servants).
It would be noted that all these three branches of the government and their respective commissions are independent and have the power to prepare their budgets.
Minister JALLOW also informed the NAMs that in preparing bills, the relevant sectors or institutions consult with stakeholders, prepare a draft, and send it to his office, which helps finalize the bill.
He pleaded with the NAMs not to kill this bill, but to let the process proceed by sending it to the relevant committee for thorough study and further consultations on the contents.
He said the National Assembly Service now has a good legal draughtsperson, who was previously with his office, who can help NAMs revise and edit the bill, etc., to their satisfaction.
Earlier in winding up the debate, the majority leader pleaded with his colleagues to send it to the relevant select committee to give the bill a chance to go through all the stages for its consideration, as envisioned in their procedures.
He also suggested convening, if need be, a parliamentary inter-party caucus to deliberate on the Justice minister’s bill.
However, it was clear from most of the views expressed during the debate that many NAMs had made up their mind about the bill and its contents.
Thus, the vote’s outcome did not surprise those who listened to the debate and followed the proceedings.
This included the Justice minister himself, who noted that even the NAM who seconded his motion introducing the bill had expressed misgivings about the contents during the debate.
Minister JALLOW pointed out that this was unusual but could appreciate that the MP was just doing his job as a lawmaker.
As for the NAMs, most of those participating in the debate voiced reservations on the bill’s contents.
A noteworthy aspect of the process was that the NAMs were required to focus, during the second reading debate, on the general “merits and principles of the bill”.
This meant not going in-depth into the contents, as made clear by the Speaker, who cautioned that their Standing Orders do not permit such attempts at properly highlighting the contents of the bill.
However, this tended to deprive the general audience listening to the debate from getting the nitty-gritty of the bill being commented on.
Of course, we know that the bill was gazetted, enabling the general public to understand the contents and facilitating public consultations and comments on the bill – by stakeholders and between the electorate and representatives in parliament.
Thus, some NAMs said their position was based on consultations with constituents and after hearing from members of the public through phone calls and so on.
Others said knowing people’s complaints about the hard times – and after hearing recently from the Finance minister himself in parliament about the current state of the Gambian economy – the submission of the bill to them during this period is poor timing.
It was the opinion of one NAM that it was not apt to to do so in September, a time when farmers and others are complaining of financial difficulties. It recommended that the minister go back to further consult with his team on the bill.
“I’m not convinced it is apt,” declared NAM, who recommended that the minister, after hearing their views, go back to further consult with his team and come back with a revamped bill.
However, several NAMs, the majority and minority leaders, recommended referring the bill to the relevant select committee, which will consult extensively with stakeholders.
And, continuing what they said during the debate, participating NAMs were heard describing the bill as “controversial” and calling for the bill to be killed at this stage (second reading);
Also, saying: “we need to throw out this bill; that is my stand,”; The people of…are against this bill, and I’m with them.” and for the bill to be sent to the relevant committee for further consultations.
MPs during the debate asked, among other questions, how much retired civil servants such as police officers, teachers, and doctors, for example, are getting as their pension, when compared to what was being proposed in the bill as wages and pension for judges?
And, coincidentally, in the context of Tuesday night’s shooting of the police officers – when NAMs were winding up their debate on the bill – and related to the bill’s provision for security for judges even when they retire, one MP was heard asking who needs security more, the judge or the police officer serving as the bodyguard?
Most NAMs said that the minister should go back with his bill and could come back to the Assembly with, in their view, a more acceptable bill.
One NAM said there was even the suggestion in some quarters that the contents of the bill were simply lifted from a part of the draft Constitution 2020, which NAMs had rejected.
It was also said that there is a growing public perception that those at the top – the elite in Gambian society – as represented in the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary – are “sharing” the national cake amongst themselves to the detriment of the rest of the population.
Now, related to elite perks, this writer could recall once hearing the argument made (by the Finance minister?) that the Cabinet ministers were the least remunerated among the members of the three arms of the government.
MPs during the debate were heard saying people in government service should be prepared to make sacrifices in their calling to do national duty.
Some NAMs said nothing is stopping a retired judge from farming.
However, in his response, the Justice minister hopes those making this suggestion would think of how a 75-year-old judge emeritus can do farming.