The Government of Adama Barrow, through the Government Spokesperson and via a press release, announced on the 31st August, 2022 that a “major press conference” was scheduled for the 1st September, 2022 to address ‘matters pertaining to the controversial Banjul Streets Project’.
The purpose of the press conference, according to the notice, was to highlight the project’s accomplishments, major milestones and “related progress.” Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants were expected not only to grace the occasion but to and field journalists’ questions.
With the exception of a few, the brunt of journalists’ questions was directed at Ebrima Sillah, the Works Minister who heads the ministry responsible for executing the project. He recently changed jobs – from Information to the Works Ministry – which was demonstrably evident in his imprecise answers to the barrage of pointed questions relating to the total cost of the project, the implementation schedule and the quality of the works, the details of which he evidently did not have. The noticeable absence of the lead contractor of the sole-sourced US$37 million project, Hadim Gai, (he has already been paid about $26 million, a significant portion of the Works and Infrastructure budget), raised some eyebrows since the government’s handling of the contract awarded is the center of the controversy of the project.
The recent floods that saw the city of Banjul and many surrounding towns under several feet of water further accentuated and exposed the infrastructural deficiencies of the said project. Furthermore, neither the project consultant whose video presentation was marred by technical glitches, nor the minister’s interventions, provided the answers to the processes that led to the contract awarded to a company with little or no experience in road construction, whose principal and owner and team lack the financial, technical, managerial and environmental capacity to successfully implement the project.
The absence of – or the access to – the Appraisal Report of the project presents a challenge to supporters and critics alike. This makes it impossible to measure progress – assuming, of course, that the project design, as it is being implemented is financially, economically, environmentally and socially a viable proposition. The absence of a reference document (Appraisal Report) that is publicly accessible explains the multitude of interpretations of what the project represents. Agreement cannot even be reached on the total project cost, or whether Gai Construction is enjoying any tax concessions as a result of the project, which is not the same as his overall tax liabilities as a business concern. Government’s own National Audit Office and The Gambia Revenue Authority cannot agree on a set of figures regarding the outstand tax owed by Gai Construction because of the absence of a Project Appraisal Report with a common set of figures that is shared across government entities, including the Banjul City Council.
The hurriedly organized press conference is generally believed to be a direct result of the crescendo of voices from the Gambian public, who raise their dissatisfaction of government’s handling of the flood disaster across the country. President Barrow’s tone-deaf decision to announce, while visiting flood victims and literally submerged in knee-deep of flood waters, that he was going on his annual leave only confirmed, even to his die-hard supporters, that their welfare was being sacrificed at the altar of Barrow’s personal welfare and self-interest.
The hurriedly organized press conference was viewed by many as a public relations stunt designed to appease a disgruntled population that is unhappy with the deteriorating economic and living conditions and intolerable levels of corruption of endemic proportions. If putting a damper on these delicately vexing issues was the reason for organizing the press conference, the government fell short of achieving its goal. In fact it failed spectacularly. The attempt to deploy a public relations team, by way of ministers, who are paid by the public, and whose allegiance to their duty and to putting the interest of the Gambian people first, was obviously to all and sundry, that this was about defending one man, Hadim Gai. It had nothing to do with addressing the plight of the Gambians generally, and those that have been directly affected by the floods, those that are left homeless, destitute, and abandoned. The press conference should have been about remedies for these poor victims, as well as a presentation of a bold strategy to address the Banjul Rehabilitation project. At the very least, Gai Construction should have been hauled before the press to enlighten the public of its role in this contract, and why the city experienced such a disaster after heavy down poor, which the project should have been able to withstand.
Based on the lack of political will to address the real issues around this very contract, poor performance, opaque nature of the contract, low visibility and lack of understanding of the very contract the Gambia government awarded, we are poised to make the following recommendations:
- The National Assembly must take up the Auditor General’s report on the Rehabilitation Project as a priority and trigger a Parliamentary Inquiry forthwith into the matter- they may also well include the flooding disaster in various environs, particularly Banjul into their ToR.
- The media should continue to investigate the matter, to ensure that pressure is brought on the Government to be more transparent in its dealings generally, and more specifically in proactively disclosing accurate and relevant information surrounding the Banjul Rehabilitation project.
- The mayor of Banjul and the Banjul City Council (BCC) must organize a townhall meeting to source and ventilate the views of all stakeholders on the Banjul Rehabilitation Project, particularly the voices of those affected by the floods and the residents of the city.
- If along the way, through any of these processes, evidence of corruption and or abuse and or wasteful expenditure of funds are unearthed, then all culprits must be prosecuted as per the law.
- Press Release by Right 2 Know Group